Shining like very English stars…

ShineMy posts so far have been fairly theological, today I’ve got something a bit more personal on my mind.  Well, personal for the Anglicans amongst us.

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).

St Mary's Church– 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.

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3 thoughts on “Shining like very English stars…

  1. Hey Sam

    Nice post, and I agree with the overall message of what you’re saying here: we shouldn’t shy away from causing offence if what we have to say or do is the truth. Just a quick probably-not-well-thought-out knee jerk reaction for you.

    Being the introvert that I am, I rail a bit at the tags of marginal, quiet and doubting being bad things (I’ll concede unenthusiastic for now…). I think that many Christians, churches, communities are doing these simple acts you talk about, but are doing them quietly and very much in the margins. Taking some food to the elderly, or sitting with the bereaved for a while, or whatever, and not shouting about it, because after all, that’s what Jesus asked us to do. It doesn’t make the press and it doesn’t lead to growth, but it may turn the world upside down for the people it affects. There are rotting churches, there are poor ministers, there are selfish congregations. There are churches that are little more than clubs that meet on a Sunday morning (and are all of us all of these things to some degree?). Popular perception may get some things right, but it shouldn’t be equated with truth.

    Popular perception? Really that’s about bad, or non-existent, marketing and PR. Something most churches (thankfully?) have always been rubbish at. Of course there’s a place for everyone, and the loud, in your face, over the top* brand of Christianity has many fans and wins many adherents. Not for me though; I’ll stick to the quiet margins. I guess, as so often, truth may revolve around ‘both/and’ or ‘somewhere in the middle’.

    *See what I did there?

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment. It strikes me as a pretty good knee-jerk reaction! Tags and labels always cause a problem. Certainly we can see how Jesus could be described as ‘marginal’ (in that he spent most [though, importantly, no all] of his time among those on the outskirts, not in corridors of power) and perhaps ‘quiet’ (in that he kept ordering people not to tell who he was, he did numerous miracles in private situations, and he shared most of his clearest teachings with a few close followers). And we can certainly be sympathetic towards doubting when we think of those to whom Jesus acknowledged their fear, yet called them to faith, not to mention the character of the human heart revealed in the psalms. Yet, I think we can err too far on either side of these things and paint the Jesus we are most comfortable with, as there is also the Jesus who cleared out the temple, riled against the religious and civil leaders of the day, and gathered huge crowds of people. At the end of the day the focus has to be not so much on tags and labels, but on however God is leading at whichever moment. I see this as a primary value of the gift of the Holy Spirit – that through this counsellor and with this intimate relationship with God Himself, we are able to imitate Jesus in doing whatever the Father does, and saying whatever the Father says.

      In that light I wholeheartedly agree that there are many Christians and churches doing the simple acts I was talking about and that you mention – and it is so good. A quote I’ve overused and love is from John Howard Yoder: “The logic of the Kingdom of God is not that of cause and effect, but of cross and resurrection”. Hauerwas mentions this and goes on to talk about how it is our simple, sometimes seemingly futile, acts of faithfulness and love that God uses to bring His kingdom. Just as the greatest victory was won when Jesus hung dying on the cross, so it is that God often uses our simple and sacrificial acts to work His will. The life of a disciples is neither necessarily marginal nor in the limelight, neither quiet nor loud, but (I would suggest) is one of self-sacrificial faithful obedience to God out of love for Him and trust that He will move in that obedience. That’s why I’ve called this blog ‘being faithful’.

      Preach over! (I do that, apologies!)

      • “Yet, I think we can err too far on either side of these things and paint the Jesus we are most comfortable with”

        That’s nice though isn’t it? Not in a twee way, but in a, y’know, it’s nice. Jesus makes himself available to the strong and the meek (those idiots who shall inherit the earth) and the forceful and the gentle, and the quiet and the loud and the rich (camels not withstanding) and the poor… and the…. well, to, everyone. He’s all those things because he’s ace. Paul wanted to be all things to all men. He was ace too, maybe not quite as much. I pray you can be too, as it may help you in the day job.

        And of course we should all be open to where the Spirit moves us and what he asks us to do, but often it’s enough of a struggle just to be who we are. I’d like to be more outgoing, be more comfortable around people I don’t know well, etc, etc, but I know some things are a struggle for me. Some things which are very much Good Things. Knowing Jesus meets me where I am in that is nice. And that he can still use me is nice. And knowing there are others in the Body of Christ who don’t have the same issues as me is nice. They’ll probably be the one’s turning over tables. And I agree that, despite all that stuff, I should try and be faithful, even if that means flying in the face of my own sensibilities from time to time.

        “The life of a disciples is neither necessarily marginal nor in the limelight, neither quiet nor loud, but […] is one of self-sacrificial faithful obedience to God out of love for Him and trust that He will move in that obedience.”

        Yep.

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