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There are lots of new initiatives in the Church of England – and they seem to be coming thick and fast at this point. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these new ideas. Undoubtedly some of the ideas feel divisive to some people, and with the Church of England having a broad theology and practice, they will not be pleasing to all. The creation of a new category, or a ‘new’ way of doing things comes with an inherent criticism of some of the ‘old’ ways of doing things – and there will always be some who want to hold on to the old ways.
Before considering these new initiatives, it is worth spending a little time reflecting on the old way of doing things. The Church of England used to be a church at the centre of Christendom society. The overwhelming majority of the population would identify themselves as, not only ‘Christian’, but also as ‘Church of England’: even if church attendance for them was irregular. Although not turning up on a Sunday morning, they made use of the resources of the church by sending children off to Sunday school (often whilst staying at home to have a nice relaxing morning of reading the paper); their children also sang hymns in daily acts of worship at school; the vast majority of the population used the church for the key life events of christenings, weddings and funerals; to give but a few examples. In short, the church was at the centre of society: dependable, reliable, influential, and part of our national identity.
This is no longer true, and, even if church attendance doubled overnight, it would still not be true. Society is now post-Christendom, post-modern, pluralistic, and multi-cultural. The Church of England has moved from the centre to the margins, from institutional power to weakness, from being a vital part of life for the majority of the population to being easy to ignore should you want to. This may not be a terrible thing. Firstly, the Church universal has found itself in various places and at various times in a similar position: in this situation church attendance may go down but levels of discipleship may go up (even if that is a hard thing to measure). Furthermore, there is much to suggest that in ‘the good old days’ church attendance was never as high as rose-tinted glasses often suggest, and there is much to suggest that faith was more nominal (perhaps an indicator that when the church models itself after Christ, the head, then it is a church not of authority and power, but of authenticity and service).
The recent Church Times article by Revd. David Ford (www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2021/13-august/comment/opinion/in-defence-of-ordinary-faithful-churchgoers) on the defence of ordinary church goers, suggests that this state of affairs was and is fine: Ford seems happy with church attenders coming along whose faith is very nominal. He describes a typical rural parish church that sounded familiar to me, as it accurately reflected my own two rural parishes that I am rector of on a House for Duty basis. Like Ford, I am also very happy for nominal Christians, those who aren’t sure at all about faith, and those who are sure they aren’t Christians, to come along to Sunday worship or at any other time that the church does something.
Nonetheless, my vocation is to teach and pass on the faith of Christ, this comes with the unavoidable challenge to, ‘consider the cost of being a disciple’. Christ asks us if we want to build our house on shifting sands, or on solid rock; we are invited to choose the narrow path, and we are urged to ‘follow me’ and lay aside our old ways of living, and follow Christ as the first believers did. From what I read of the Gospels, Christ didn’t mind people hanging around the edges of the crowds that followed him around, but he gently challenged people to ‘move to the centre’, to be drawn by the ‘bread of life’, to be compelled by love to become Christ-like…even if there is a cost to following Christ.
Perhaps that is enough about the ‘good old days’: we can’t go back there even if we wanted to, and I am not convinced they were as good as everyone recalls. What then of the call to be ‘missionary disciples’ and to grow a ‘mixed ecology of church’?
I am sympathetic to the motivations of such initiatives: Christ calls us to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If it helps to give this command of Christ a new designation and to re-package it – then fine. However, if this will cause divisions, then perhaps this is best avoided.
It is easy to avoid it as, ‘missionary disciples’ is not a new idea. In one sense there is no such thing as a ‘missionary disciple’: you are either a disciple of Christ or you aren’t. As the missionary Corrie Ten-Boom once said, ‘You are either a missionary or you are a mission field’, implying that if you are not sharing your faith, then you need someone to share the true faith with you. If you are a follower of Christ, get ready to ‘go’ to places where there is a need to share the hope of the Good News that we have been given in Christ: the Good News of the kingdom of God. That is where Christ is.
Equally, there is probably no such thing as a ‘mixed ecology of church’. Church, as has been well documented by much better theologians and thinkers than I am (perhaps beginning with the Apostle Paul) exists in part (a large part) to make a difference in the lives of those who are not yet members. It is a place where members are fed and then go out and invite others to come to the place where they have been - to gather around the table of the Lord so that they need never hunger or thirst again. I find Newbigin the most helpful here, you may well have your own favourite: ‘The church is a sign, a symbol and an agent of the kingdom’ (my paraphrase).
If church stops being a place for outsiders then we stop being church. If we purposefully, or otherwise, become exclusive then we are no longer the messengers of the Gospel for all people. If we don’t pray, think and plan ways to reach out to the equivalents of ‘Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth’ in our own time and place, then we are not answering the call of Christ. This is what it means to be church: there should be no need to call it ‘mixed ecology of church’ – just call it church. Of course, that doesn’t mean there is no room in the pews for those who simply want the beautiful, historic building to be open, preserved for future generations, and clean; or those who come for the Food Bank, or the toddler group, or just to sit for 15 minutes on a Tuesday morning before they catch their bus to the shops. Or for those who aren’t sure about anything but have hope in something outside themselves.
There is the ongoing discussion about what will rescue the Church of England, and about what is causing its ‘downfall’. There is a danger that there isn’t much consideration about the fact that we have every good gift, and that Christ’s power is made perfect in our weaknesses.
I am sure that if we share the hope we have in Christ (that’s evangelism: sharing the good news. Evangelism is not as hard or as horrid as we often act as if it is), if we go out and invite in, if we make those who come welcome and comfortable, if we are proactive in helping them explore faith if they want to, then the church – the local church, the parish church – will grow.
In the words of Kris Kristofferson, ‘And you still can hear me singing, to the people who don't listen…‘Cause I don't believe that no one wants to know.’
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