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Called to be Christ-like: contemplative, compassionate and courageous

I am writing to invite every church, chaplaincy, small group and school in the diocese to do something very simple but life changing over the next year.

Advent reflections on a strange season

It’s been a strange season for the Church of England as most people reading this will know.  I think I have to go back around 20 years or so to find a similar time.  We’ve been rocked by the women bishops debate, unable to respond effectively to the government proposals on marriage and reflecting quietly, I guess, on the first census results.

For many people, all of this is very disorientating.  Here are some reflections as we find try and re-orientate ourselves in Advent and prepare for Christmas.  I am writing to myself as much as to anyone else.

Lift up your hearts!

In the midst of all of these storms, the line from the liturgy which has meant most to me over the last few weeks is the call at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer to the whole people of God:  Lift up your hearts.

The call is present in the earliest prayers of the Church.  It has deep biblical roots in Psalm 25.1 (“To you O Lord, I lift up my soul”).  It has roots as well in the final verses of Psalm 24 which we read in Advent: “Lift up your heads, O gates and be lifted up O ancient doors”.

It is a call for narrow hearts to be made wider and deeper as we receive God’s love. It’s a call for bruised and broken hearts to be lifted up to God’s tender mercy.  It’s a call for hearts which are too fixed and mired in earthly things to be raised to heaven.

It is a call to me and I think to all of us in one of the most demanding Advent seasons I can remember, whatever our views on the issues of the day, to lift up our hearts to God’s greatness, to God’s mercy, to God’s glory revealed in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ.  It is only as we make Psalm 25.1 our own (“To you O Lord, I lift up my soul”) that we ourselves are prepared to say to God’s own people and to the world around us: “Lift up your hearts!”

The failure narrative and the change narrative

The census results continue to show a significant shift taking place in society, though not as rapidly as some predicted.  The proportion of people identifying themselves as Christian is now around six in ten, down from seven in ten in 2001.  The number claiming no religion has doubled.

The figures reveal a deep shift which has been unfolding for a century or more.  A few years ago I tried to describe the two most common responses to that shift in the life of the church as the failure narrative and the change narrative[1].

The failure narrative argues that this fundamental shift is primarily caused by our own failures as a church.  If only we believed more deeply, prayed with more faith, changed in this way or that (depending on who is speaking) then we wouldn’t be seeing this fundamental shift in Christian allegiance.

There has been evidence of the failure narrative all around us in the press over the last few weeks as the story is framed as “Church of England loses touch with the nation”.

The failure narrative is an artificial construct often used to argue for particular changes in the life of the Church.  I’ve heard it used to argue for greater use of the Prayer Book, changes to our understanding of marriage or more (or less) emphasis on fresh expressions of church.  It produces poor fruit in the life of God’s people: a sense of depression rather than hope; a blaming of others or ourselves; division; and a debilitating loss of morale. It’s a seductive argument in difficult times but it is medicine which makes the patient more poorly still.

The failure narrative only deepens cynicism and despair.  It blinds us to the many good things happening in the life of local churches and the church nationally.  It is dependent on the idea of a mythical golden age when Britain was a Christian country and church life was straightforward. If you read the accounts of the time it was no easier to be a Christian in 1840, 1912 or 1950.

But the failure narrative fails most of all because it is simply too church-centred. It ignores the reality that the Church exists within a larger global and national culture which is changing in fundamental ways.  It is those larger changes, beyond the control of any single church, which set the climate in which we operate as Christians.  As we look back over the last century those changes have been enormous – the deep shifting of the tectonic plates of our society.  It is not surprising that the relationship between our culture and Christian faith is changing in very significant ways.  But we are simply starting in the wrong place if we begin from the belief that it is all our fault.

Our world is changing rapidly.  Yes, we need to debate how to respond to those changes.  Sometimes individual churches get that right and sometimes wrong and sometimes we just don’t know.  But the fundamental changes are much bigger than any single church.

The biggest piece of learning for me from the Synod of Bishops in Rome was that the Church all over the world is having the same conversation.  The context for that conversation is the difficulty of passing on the Christian faith in the present global, secularizing culture.  We do need to learn new skills, focus our energies in different ways and constantly make decisions about the gospel’s relationship to new and evolving realities. But we need to begin from the common starting place that the whole Church, all across the world, is facing similar challenges and they are caused primarily by fundamental changes beyond our control.

Hope is a virtue   Advent is the season to remember that the most vital virtue to cultivate as the foundation for that ongoing conversation is hope.  Every Christian should repeat to themselves every morning for a year that hope is not a mood but a virtue.  It is not something we feel but something we practise.

In our wider culture, hope has lost all currency as a virtue.  Hope has become a mood: a vaguely positive feeling which fluctuates with the evidence around us, with the weather, with our temperament.

In the Christian tradition, hope is not a mood at all.  “Meanwhile these three remain” writes St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, “Faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love”.

We hold onto a sense that love is not a feeling but a virtue.  We just about hold onto a sense that faith can be a virtue – something to be nurtured and exercised as trust and confidence.  But we are losing hope (literally) as a virtue, a strength of character, to inhabit and live in as a quality in the leadership we exercise and the example we set.  Christians are called to be people of hope not because of the evidence but because of the truth revealed in Christ which is deeper and stronger than the evidence around us.

Finding the compass

I also argued in Jesus People that in a time of uncertainty we often find ourselves as a Church lost and without a map in strange territory. In those moments, we need a compass.   The compass for the church in navigating through questions of great uncertainty must be striving to reflect the character of Christ, as individuals and as a Church.  And, yes, of course, we will fail to do that over and over again.  That’s why we need to hold onto hope, not only for the world but for ourselves.

The character of Christ is reflected in many places in the scriptures but most clearly and concisely for me in the beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel.  We are called as a church, local and national, to be poor in spirit, mourning for the suffering in the world, meek, hungry and thirsty for justice, merciful, pure in heart, peace makers, and willing to suffer for what is right.  That is what it means to be a Christ-like church.  Just to write that list (or to read it) is to recognize how far we are from where we are meant to be – but that is the kind of wholesome repentance which can lead to renewal and to real change together.

Moving to the front foot

But the conversations in Rome revealed and confirmed that there is another primary reponse the Church needs to make to the changing global situation.  That is to steadily shift our resources to the process of forming and shaping disciples.  The churches which are learning how to make headway and to thrive in the present climate are the churches which are making this shift. Again this is true of local churches, of dioceses and provinces and of denominations.

This means recovering, encouraging and in some case discovering afresh the great classical intellectual disciplines and pastoral practices which the Church has always needed in such moments of cultural change.

These include:

  • Apologetics: defending and commending the faith through philosophy, the sciences, the arts and popular culture
  • Contextual mission: the ability to go beyond the church in loving service and careful listening, to pioneer new ecclesial communities as part of the wider church
  • Initial proclamation: the loving and careful communication of the gospel to those who have not heard it before
  • Catechetics: the intentional nurture and formation of disciples who are well grounded in faith and able to live counterculturally

These disciplines will be the engine room of the Church in the next generation.  Any church which wants to move forwards (and by church I mean local church or diocese or denomination) must steadily shift resources and creativity and energy towards these four great disciplines. They need to be at the heart of ministerial training and ministerial practice and at the core of our theological endeavour.  After striving to form the character of Christ, this is the fundamental direction of change we need and which we have been engaging in for a generation.

And finally

So I say to every Christian reading this and to myself: Lift up your hearts! Remember we are living through a time of massive change.  Our vocation is to be a people of hope, whatever is happening around us; a people in whom the character of Christ is being formed, be it ever so slowly; a people shifting our resources steadily to the engine room of mission.

Thanks for reading and I pray you discover the reality of Christ afresh in the Advent and Christmas season.

[1] See Jesus People: what next for the church? CHP, 2004

Four minutes to address the Synod

Six of the fraternal delegates had the opportunity to speak this afternoon.  I was in good company with Metropolitan Hilarion from Moscow, Father Massis Zobouian from the Armenian Church, Bishop Sarah Davis of the World Methodist Council, the Revd. Dr. Timothy George of the Baptist World Alliance and Bishop Siluan from the Romanian Orthodox Church.  His Holiness, Pope Benedict was present in the Synod which was an honour for all the delegates who spoke.

The text of my own intervention is below.  It’s very much based on what I heard and what I thought could usefully be reflected back to the Synod rather than being a full and balanced approach to the subject.  There is a fuller version which will eventually appear in the documents of the Synod, with footnotes!

Holy Father, dear sisters and brothers,
thank you for the opportunity to take part in the Synod and reflect with you on
the vital theme of the new evangelization.
Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke last week
on contemplation as the root of evangelization. I address the fruits of
evangelization in the life of the Church as the Church reflects the character
of Christ, in mature disciples, in new ecclesial communities and in new
ministries.
First when the Church is renewed in
contemplation of Christ and the word of God, we are transformed into his
likeness and become bearers of the character of Christ, becoming more clearly
the Church of the Beatitudes.
Second, the new evangelization calls for a clear
vision of what it means to be a discipleThe new evangelization is a call to whole
life discipleship: an invitation to follow Christ for the whole length of our
lives, with every part of our lives, and into wholeness and abundance of that
life. In catechesis it is vital to have a clear
goal before us: the formation of mature disciples able to live in the rhythm of
worship, community and mission.  We are
called to be with Jesus together and to be sent out.
Third, I would encourage the Synod to reflect
further on the formation of new ecclesial communities for the transmission of
the faith to those who are no longer part of any church. For the last ten years, the Church of
England has actively encouraged a new movement of mission aimed at beginning new
ecclesiola in ecclesia, fresh
expressions of the church, as a natural part of the ministry of parishes or
groups of parishes or dioceses.  These ecclesiola aim to connect with the
sections of society the parishes are no longer reaching. They are formed by a process of careful
double listening to the culture of a particular group and to the Holy
Spirit.  Contemplation is at the heart of
the methodology. The listening is followed by discerning paths of loving
service.  The fruit of the service is
often a new community of young people or families or the elderly. Within the
new community the seed of the gospel is sown and evangelism takes place.  Only then can the new group of Christians
begin to offer prayers and worship and continue their journey to the full
sacramental life of the Church. Finally, who will be the new
evangelisers?  I commend further
reflection on diakonia and the
ministry of deacons.
This process of going and listening and serving
and forming new communities requires particular gifts.  In the Church of England we have named this
cluster of gifts “pioneer ministry”. We have recognized pioneer ministry as a
focus of both lay and ordained ministry in our Church.
Pioneer ministry is rooted theologically in
diakonia and the ministry of deacons:
listening, loving service, and being sent on behalf of the Church.  Recent New Testament scholarship has
emphasized the role of the deacons in the New Testament, women as well as men,
as those who carried the message of the gospel to those who were beyond the
churches.  In the Church of England
ordinal deacons are described as heralds of Christ’s kingdom and as agents of
God’s purposes of love. The diaconate and diakonia are closely connected with
God’s mission and the service of the kingdom.
May Almighty God continue to bless and
guide this Synod as we reflect together on the ways in which our understanding
of Christ shapes our understanding of God’s mission and the ways in which our
understanding of God’s mission continues to reshape Christ’s Church.

Note: ecclesiola means “little churches” and diakonia means service in mission.

New Evangelisation: humility, respect and silence

This morning the Synod began to listen to the contributions of the Synod Fathers.  Each speaks for five minutes only on any aspect of the topic or agenda and each is allowed only one contribution during the main plenary sessions.

The contribution which spoke most powerfully to me this morning began with a question which the Bishop speaking had been asked by a young person: are the youth lost or has the Church lost us?  The Bishop went on to make an appeal for the Church to cultivate three qualities above all others which will create the conditions for the new evangelisation.

The Church must learn humility and learn humility from Jesus Christ who came not to serve but to be served.  We must become a humble church not pre-occupied with itself.

Second, the Church must learn respect for every human person as Christ was a respecter of persons.

Third the Church must discover again the power of silence: that there are no easy solutions in the face of the great suffering in the world.

There were many other contributions but this is the one which I will reflect on most from today in the coming days.  It speaks of a Church which is learning to be Christ-like again: a church of the beatitudes.

As I tune into the Synod I am beginning to hear two different kinds of contributions from the Synod Fathers.  There are contributions which argue that to go forward the Church must return to fundamentals and do them better (enliven the liturgy; preach the word better; deepen observance of the sacrament of reconciliation).  And there are contributions which argue that to go forward the Church must listen more deeply to the culture, understand it better and be prepared to communicate the gospel in new ways.

Just occasionally there is the glimpse of a contribution which suggests that both are essential and it will be interesting to see which of these voices predominates as we move through the different contributions.

But humility, respect and silence are the themes of the day for me.

Postscript
It was very good to make my first visit to the Anglican Centre in Rome today and preach at the Tuesday Eucharist there.  Excellent also to see Ken Howcroft again (now Methodist minister in Rome) and to learn that there is a fresh expression of church attached to All Saints Anglican Church here led by a newly ordained deacon.