A CHRISTIANITY FOR THE FUTURE: POINTERS TO RENEWAL
At frequent intervals the church stands in need of renewal and reformation. The last 50 years have seen a marked decline in participation in the mainline denominations, at least in Europe and the USA, but there has been a remarkable revival of evangelical Christianity. That poses a tantalizing question. Is evangelical Christianity the only kind that can attract strong support at the present time, or are there other forms of Christianity that could also strike a chord with people in the contemporary world? I have become increasingly hopeful, indeed confident, that other forms of Christianity could also thrive in the way that evangelicalism has done, and that Christians do not face a stark choice between evangelicalism or decline.
I respect what evangelical Christians have achieved in recent years, but I would like to see a thriving alternative to it within the Christian fold. There are some people who are never going to connect with evangelicalism, but who might respond to other kinds of Christianity. There is also the problem of people leaving evangelical churches almost as fast as others join them, some of those who leave are looking for another kind of Christianity for the long haul. I don’t believe that evangelicalism is the only kind of Christianity through which God is prepared to work at the present time, though the really encouraging thing about the evangelical revival is that it shows that Christianity can still thrive in the contemporary world.
I can discern a new configuration of Christianity that would both be more faithful to Jesus, and more in tune with contemporary culture, than most of what is going in either the mainline denominations or in evangelicalism. Sometimes God seems to use what is happening in contemporary culture to remind us of the example that Jesus set. I believe that this reconfiguration of Christianity might really take off in the way that evangelicalism has done in recent decades. What would be the main features of this reconfigured Christianity? I suggest there would be five key hallmarks.
First, the church is widely seen as preoccupied with its own affairs. In contrast, people expect the church to be focused on service to those in need, as Jesus was. If it is not, they get impatient with the church, and rightly so. Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury are making progress in re-focusing the church on service to the poor. However, on the ground, the church still often seems to those outside it to be insular and self-preoccupied. Even when it is ‘going for growth’ it can seem like a religious club having a membership drive. Though church members actually give a good deal of time to projects that help people in need, such effort can look rather tangential to what they think the church is really about, and there is often no big prophetic vision of how such small projects can come together to change the face of society.
The world has many urgent problems, most of which I believe are basically spiritual problems. The world needs us to become less preoccupied and give a better spiritual lead to ‘secular’ society. We need more prophetic, world-orientated leadership. The best example I know, first-hand, of a church with such a focus, was the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral under the leadership of Bill Williams. He was totally committed to building a more reconciled world. He wanted a church that would give hope to humanity and said, in his trenchant way, that if the church gave up even trying to do that "it will die and it will deserve to die". The church seems to have lost that big vision. For example the recent report in world mission is just about inter-church networking, and says nothing about how the global body of Christians might respond to humanity’s global problems. Too often the church lacks any coherent theology of society, and is not primarily focused on setting forward God's purposes in the wider world, The reconfigured church I hope for would have the transformation of society as a central objective, and would think big about that task.
Secondly, it is widely known that there is currently a revival of spiritual practices and values among many who are distrustful of religion. The church often either ignores this, or reacts to it critically and defensively. This turn to spirituality is actually in tune with the example of Jesus, for whom times of solitary communion with his heavenly father were clearly of central importance, but who was severely critical of the religion of his day. I see this upsurge of interest in spirituality in wider society as the work of the Holy Spirit. If we focused more on spirituality and less on religion we would be better in step both with Jesus and with contemporary culture. We might, for example, make more time for silence in our services, and gave more emphasis to mystical theology in our pulpits.
There is increasing evidence that people really are changed by regular and serious spiritual practice, involving half an hour a day of systematic work on their inner life. Evangelicalism is right to emphasise the importance of personal prayer, but it may have too stereotyped view of how it should be done. Inner spiritual work can take many forms, and it looks as though it may not make too much difference how people go about it. All routes can lead to the same destination, and any serious way of praying can be used to God to good effect. The reconfigured Christianity I long for would give a much more central place to spiritual practice than the mainline denominations currently do. Sadly, hardly anyone who wanted to learn to meditate would think of going to their local church to learn how to do it.
Thirdly, I long for churches to actually became places of healing, as healing was central to the ministry of Jesus. The report, 'A Time to Heal' wanted to see healing ministry become standard practice in our churches. However, rather curiously, it also seemed to want to play down any expectation that people would actually benefit from it. In our society many people urgently need help with personal and emotional problems. If we blended prayer and healing ministry with the more practical approaches that secular society has developed, our churches might become known as places where people could get help. Then they might flock to them, as they flocked round Jesus.
The church has been ambivalent about secular methods of working with personal problems, and has tended either to ignore them, or to go over to them entirely. I believe that integrating them with prayer and healing ministry is much the most effective way forward. A church that did so, and did it skillfully, could really help many people with personal problems. The key elements are good listening, praying with people (and sometimes using sacramental ministry), and giving sound practical advice (much of which can be derived from the basics of CBT). A church community in which these things were standard practice would become increasingly able to support and transform its members.
Fourth, we need to find a better way to proclaim the Christian faith. Much Christian teaching is either lacking in passion and conviction, as is often the case in the mainline denominations, or is simplistic, as in evangelicalism. Jesus was neither. He spoke with authority, but did so evocatively and with subtlety, using stories. He never tried to give a programme of doctrinal instruction along the lines of the Alpha course. This is one of the points at which evangelicalism is most conspicuously unfaithful to the example of Jesus.
We need to develop a style of Christian preaching that steers a path between the rather uninspiring style of the mainline denominations, or the over-simplifications of evangelicalism. It would be a new style of Christian proclamation, strong and confident, and rooted in the Bible and tradition, but which engaged intelligently with various strands of contemporary culture.
Note that this is not a call for theological revisionism. That has limited appeal, and tends to be attractive only to those on their way out of the church. But it would attend in some detail to how God is revealing himself in contemporary culture, and so avoid talking the encapsulated, jargon-ridden language that disfigures so much Christian proclamation. It would also allow people time and space to find their own way within the Christian faith, to engage with doubt, and to discover how God was already present in their own lives
Finally, we do urgently need to solve the problems about women and gays. Many people will not take us seriously until we have done that. The last 12 months have been disastrous for the public standing of the Church of England. The defeat of the legislation for women Bishops, and the unsuccessful campaign against gay marriage, have hit us hard. I suspect that a significant proportion of those in the first half of life have now written us off. The damage that has been done will not be easily reversed. I applaud Justin Welby's open-minded recognition, after the House of Lord's debate on ay marriage, that there has been a massive change in social attitudes on a scale that he had not previously recognised. The tragedy is that this was only recognised after so much damage had been done to the moral reputation of the church.
You don't need to know much about Jesus to realise that he was remarkably inclusive. The church has shown itself not to be an inclusive institution on the touchstone issues of women and gays. Many people conclude that the church is just not faithful to Jesus, for all it talks about him, and they want nothing to do with it. A new kind of moral condemnation of the church is building up. On women Bishops, a friendlier tone is not enough, we must actually get legislation passed. On gays, it would help to bless same-sex relationships. In the debate about gay marriage, several Bishops spoke very positively about civil partnerships. Let us follow up in that by blessing them, else those positive remarks risk being seen as hypocritical. If we are constrained by the Anglican Communion, let us sit more lightly on that, and focus on the needs of England.
Is there any real chance of a revival of this kind of Christianity? I believe there is. It is what many Christians long for, but can’t see how to bring about. There are also large numbers of people outside the Church for whom this is the only kind of Christianity they could possibly take seriously. We seem to have lost hope that it might come about, but hope can be recovered. If we have lost hope ourselves how we can give hope to the world? To turn this kind of vision into a reality, it will take passion, confidence and hope.
We will also need to raise our heads above the church’s many institutional problems, and rediscover the bigger picture. Indeed, we will probably need to sit light on institutional structures. The renewal movement for which I long, like evangelicalism, would probably be a strand in several different denominations, and partly be in no existing denomination at all. We live in a rather anti-institutional age, and forms of Christianity that are too wedded to religious institutions are unlikely to thrive.
Above all, if we want the church to thrive we must, as Jesus told us long ago, ‘first seek the kingdom of God’. If we Christians could raise our sights and focus on that goal, we might have a church worth belonging to, and one that others would want to join. I believe that there are enough of us who want to make this a reality that together we could bring it about.
SPIRITUALITY AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF SOCIETY
I want to begin this morning with a simple question. What did Jesus set out to achieve in his work and ministry? If you read the gospels, it is hard to conclude that he set out to establish a set of religious beliefs, or to found a church, or even to get people to believe in himself. What he focuses on is building what he calls his ‘kingdom’. He doesn’t just talk the kingdom; he lives it too, and invites us to join him in living it.
What is the kingdom? It is a new way of living and being that affects our life at all levels, a new way of being ourselves, a new way of relating to others, a new way of ordering society, a new way of being religious, a new way of connecting with God. If we are faithful to Jesus, we will want to continue his project of building the kingdom, in our different time and circumstances.
That comes hard to the church. We fall in love with the church. We want other people to fall in love with it too; we want the church to grow and flourish. All that is understandable. But if we are faithful to Jesus, we have to recognize that the church is here to build the kingdom. It is not an end in itself; it has work to do, continuing Jesus’ kingdom project.
So, the church can’t settle for doing its own thing, and leaving secular society to get on with its own affairs. Neither should it try to take secular society over, and control it. Whenever any religion does that, the results are disastrous. But the church can be a catalyst for a new kind of society, giving a lead and a steer, finding people in society who will collaborate with it in building the kingdom, working at every possible level, top-down and bottom-up, to bring the kingdom into being.
We live in a very individualistic culture, and it is easy to settle for the idea that if we change enough individuals, then society will change. I don’t think we can rely on that. Society sometimes brings out the worst in people. As well as changing individuals, we need to build the kind of society that will bring out the best in them. Nazi Germany brought out the worst in people, and I think it justified extreme action to change the direction German society was taking under Hitler. Equally, when we have a financial system that encourages people to make short-term profits in ways that destroy wider prosperity we need to change the system, not just individuals.
Our society is very different from that of Jesus, but there are ways in which we can rebuild society now that are in clear continuity with Jesus’ project of building his ‘kingdom’. I want to mention three, which build step-wise on each other.
First, let me take you back to the 19th century, to the time when many people had moved from rural England into the new industrial conurbations, often to grinding poverty and urban slums. Far-sighted Christian leaders, like our own F D Maurice, responded by wanting to build a more just society that distributed wealth more fairly. Jesus was always on the side of the poor and marginalized, and people like Maurice wanted a society that would do that too. In the 1870s, Maurice and his curate Edward Carpenter preached Christian Socialism in this church, and preached it powerfully.
That task took on a new urgency in the depression between the wars, and Archbishop William Temple, Archbishop first of York and then of Canterbury, through the thirties and WWII, took up the challenge. His book, Christianity and the Social Order, sold 140,000 copies, and made a huge impact. After the war, Britain built one of the best welfare systems in the world, and that is partly Temple’s legacy. It is an example of a Christian leader working to build Jesus’ kingdom in modern times.
Another important kingdom project has been to build reconciliation wherever there are divisions in society. In Christ there are no divisions, between back and white, between rich and poor, between nations, or anything else. In the kingdom, all find unity in Christ. God was at work, in Christ, overcoming the division between God and creation; and that task of overcoming divisions is our task too.
One fine example is Desmond Tutu’s work, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to build reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. Another is the work of Bill Williams, from his base in the rebuilt Cathedral in Coventry to build reconciliation between Britain and Germany in post-war Europe. There are still many divisions, both in Britain and in global society, and much reconciliation work left to be done by Christians.
What now? I think there is a third wave in this project of continuing to build the kingdom in modern times that is coming into focus, one that needs to be added to the other two. You hardly need me to remind you of our current problems:
threats to our global ecology that could make the planet almost uninhabitable. We need a new set of values that will enable us to live more simply, and to be better stewards of the planet and its resources,
threats to global security, many of which arise from suspicions of the prosperous, secular West, and hostility to it. We need to build a moral framework in our fractured global community,
threats to our prosperity and wellbeing by an unregulated financial system in which short-term acquisitiveness sweeps all other considerations aside. We need to rebuild a moral consensus that gives higher priority to trustworthiness, and puts economic activity back into human context.
All these problems, and other like them, can only be solved by a change of heart, a change of attitudes. We badly need a return to moral values and spiritual principles. We have been trying to run society on secular lines, and it doesn’t work. God didn’t create us to be secular, and it doesn’t work to try to buck the realities of how he created us. We need to rebuild a moral compass, build new spiritual values.
What is really encouraging is that there is an upsurge of spirituality in our society, just when we so badly need this spiritual turn in our public affairs. We now need to find ways to connect this instinctive return to spirituality (which is largely a private, individual matter) with the need for a new moral and spiritual foundation in our public life, which is so essential if we are to solve our urgent problems.
The fact that we so evidently need these new moral spiritual foundations is encouraging. Necessity is the mother of invention. The fact that we have no choice but to take this spiritual turn, as many people can see, means that we are more likely to get round to it. Responding to this challenge is what building the kingdom means now. I believe that people want the church to respond to this challenge, as the public interest in the ‘Occupy’ camp at St Paul’s showed.
It won’t be simply a matter of going backwards, ‘back to basics’. We will need to do morality in a new way. I believe that the new moral framework in our society will be more spiritually aware than anything we have known previously; it will be the work of the Spirit. It will arise from people realizing the need for a new outlook, and embracing it more freely and willingly than in the past.
What can we do here at St Edward’s? It is partly just a matter of giving this aspect of Christian work higher priority, making it a more central part of our identity as a Christian community. We need to see our church as the servant of Jesus’ project of building a new kingdom on spiritual foundations and principles. Not everyone will be involved in a practical way; that is fine. But I hope everyone will be able to give this project their blessing, and support it in their prayers.
Part of the work is grass-roots work, and much of that we are doing already, reaching out in Jesus’ name to people on the margins of society. Different people in our church are working with different groups. I would like us all to get to know more about what we are already doing, so we can identify with it, bless it, pray for it. ‘On The Edge’ is helping us to connect with a wider range of people, unemployed, recovering addicts etc, many of whom turn out to be looking for a spiritual life.
Another part of the work is top-down, contributing to the spiritual leadership that churches ought to be giving society at this time. That involves some background research, careful thinking, and effective dissemination. I am hopeful that over the next year or two some of us can really develop that aspect of our work at St Edward’s, so it connects up with the grass-roots work that we are also doing here, and connects up with the spiritual leadership other Christians are trying to give.
Rebuilding society on spiritual principles is a huge task, but let us now be daunted. Let us take heart. There are several things that can encourage us. When in the past Christians have stepped up to the task of rebuilding society, they have often had a far-reaching impact. Also, we are not acting alone. As Christians we are part of a huge global network. We can find partners in this work, and find resources to help us do it. We are a small church, but set in the middle of Cambridge, and with many assets. So, I think we can punch above our weight in contributing to this big task.
The main thing that should encourage us is that this is God’s work, work that He is already doing. He needs more foot-soldiers to carry it forward. Sadly, the church that is supposed to be serving him is so far giving him precious little help. We need to wake up, see what God is doing outside Church walls, and pitch in to help. We need to really be his body on earth.
But because we are working for God, we will find that what we do has an impact that a merely human project would not have. It is like a few small loaves feeding thousands. As St Paul told his fellow Christians, under God we have immense resources. So let us take courage, and play as big a part as we can in continuing to build Jesus’ kingdom, a kingdom built on moral values and spiritual principles.
Father we pray, as Jesus taught us, that your kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven.