What with the appointment of Justin Welby as the new ABC and the shambles of the vote on women bishops, the Church of England has made a number of headlines recently. Most of these have been somewhat predictable commentary and I’m not wanting to throw out another opinion on women in ministry right now. I have actually been struck by something quite different. Something that I feel I should have known, but has hit me afresh like a slap in the face, namely, that people not only see the Anglican church as marginal and harmless, but that is precisely what they like it for. Anything that rocks the boat is an issue.
A few months ago I began reading The Week magazine (I’d thoroughly recommend it) and a couple of articles grabbed my attention. In the light of Justin Welby’s appointment a whole page was given over to assessing Holy Trinity Brompton, the church where Welby came to faith. The general tone of the article was highly critical of HTB and the Alpha course. Critical because, on Alpha, “people at a low point in their lives” find themselves “love-bombed” by “friendly, smiley, tactile Christians”. The problem is that HTB flies in the face of the Church of England’s “national character”. How? Because, where the CofE is prized for its “reassuring – if marginal – presence in every community”, “HTB’s evangelical charismatic approach, with its declarations of beliefs and encouragement of regular Bible study, is at odds with all that.” In other words, a church that actively loves people who are in difficult situations, has a clear sense of belief, and encourages study of the Bible, is at odds with what is valued about the Church of England!
Just last night I gained another insight from the same magazine in reference to an interview with Ian Hislop. He described being ‘born again’ whilst at school in a time when “The evangelical message spread like wildfire through the school. Membership of the Christian Union swelled from 12 to 300.” The number of boys having prayer meetings in dormitories and talking about having found faith left the staff “terribly worried. You know, being sort of Church of England, people want a very quiet and moderate faith.” The article ends by describing how, today, “Hislop’s faith is of a more traditional Anglican hue. ‘I go through periods of lack of enthusiasm and increasing doubt’.”
I am in no way wanting to criticise the church or to judge someone’s faith – Ian Hislop shared what is personal to him. However, perhaps because I grew up in a lively and growing Anglican church, I have never really viewed the CofE in these terms. These articles in a sense put in writing the attitude that I have noticed and suspected is held by many people in towns and communities across the nation (if they even think about the church at all). My reaction has been multi-faceted….
– On the one hand it is fairly depressing! That we have a reputation for being marginal, quiet, unenthusiastic and doubting is not the greatest commendation for a people originally accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
– Yet, there is also an encouragement. Colours show far brighter against a grey background; words are heard more clearly in a quiet room. I’m encouraged because the truth of the gospel of God’s love is seen in the way we love one another and faith is seen in the way we step out trusting God to move. When so little is expected from us, it doesn’t take much for people to take notice. I’ve seen the power of simple actions even over the last couple of weeks at St Mary’s in Loughton. We held a Christmas Fayre where everything was given away for free: quality items; services like nail painting, family photos and face painting; food and drinks; and prayer. A number of people were deeply impacted because they simply don’t experience this kind of love or generosity in many other places. The next day several people came to church for the first time and one even came to faith.
Simple acts become more powerful and simple words more audible against the background of the ‘national character’ of the Church of England. What excites me, however, is that this popular perception of the CofE is quickly becoming out of date. As I look at the members of my local church family, my other clergy colleagues, the leaders in each diocese of which I’ve been a part, I see a multitude of people with strong faith, deep love and a desire to demonstrate and show the truth of the gospel. The reality is we will cause offence for some who simply don’t want the church to make a sound, but for many who are seeking love, truth and God they will more than want to listen.