Bishop Steven preached at the patronal for St Andrews Headington on 29 November. His sermon focused on the Census 2021 findings and how the Church should respond…
Congratulations on your 900th birthday and all that’s been achieved through the marking of that. It’s good to join the celebrations this St. Andrew’s day for your patronal festival.
St. Andrew is the patron saint of mission and evangelism and today seems a very good day to remember Andrew, who brings his brother Peter to Jesus. The banner headline in the i newspaper shouts out for our attention today following the release of the Census 2021 information yesterday: UK Christians in minority for first time since the Dark Ages. According to the census, less that half the UK population identify as Christian for the first time in 1,500 years – certainly for the first time since there has been a Church in Headington. The Express leads with the same story: less than half of population is Christian. The broadsheets carry the story and question the Church’s role. In case you think it’s everywhere, the Mail leads with Xmas Turkey Shortage Fear. The Mirror stays with the football with the headline BISH, RASH, BOSH, which I thought at first was an episcopal story but is actually about England’s victory over Wales in the world cup.
I wonder how we should respond to the census news on this St. Andrew’s Day. We’ll all have a mix of feelings:
Resignation and helplessness the decline in nominal Christianity is nothing new, though the milestone is significant.
Excuses: this has been a slow decline for many years, after all. Blame the church: if only the Church of England would… [insert your favourite simple solution or prejudice].
Or blame the culture: people are consumers, thinking only of themselves and faith can’t flourish in such a climate.
St. Andrew and St. Andrew’s day points me to a different response. We need to mark this moment as one of challenge and rise to it. I think this is a watershed moment for us as a Church though it’s been coming for many years. How we respond should affect the life of every local church, every diocese, and every part of the life of the Church of England. My prescription is in essence very, very simple. It is that, following Andrew, we place telling other people about Jesus at the heart of our common life and at the head of our priorities.
The church has a beautiful word for the business of telling people about Jesus: it is the word evangelism, telling the good news of Gods love in a wounded world.
From Isaiah 52:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news, who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
From Romans 10 and quoting Isaiah 52:
‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?
And most simply of all from our gospel reading in Matthew, words spoken to Andrew and Simon and to all of us: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
How should the Church respond to becoming a minority again for the first time since the Dark Ages? Only by resetting the life of the Church around the disciplines of evangelism and setting the disciplines of evangelism again at the core of the life of the church. It’s a journey we’ve been on for a generation but it’s not yet complete.
Evangelism has suffered as a word in recent years. It is easily dismissed and caricatured and mocked. But only a church which recovers these deep disciplines will flourish in the coming years.
Evangelism or evangelisation is not a single thing. The Church cannot flourish with a thin, emaciated concept of what it means to tell the Good News.
There are at least seven disciplines of evangelism, as I see them. Evangelism is rooted first in contemplation, in prayer and worship, in catching a fresh vision of Christ in word and sacrament and stillness. It is only as our own lives are transformed by the love of God that we will want to share Jesus with others. Evangelism is second rooted in our actions and our lives: in living out the gospel, in incarnational mission. Local churches are centres of service and support to their local communities because we want to love our neighbours as ourselves and this is the beginning of our witness to Jesus.
Evangelism is third rooted in apologetics, defending and commending the Christian faith through reason, argument and persuasion, through identifying and removing objections to belief. Is there a conflict between faith and science? How can we understand a God of love in a world of suffering?
The fourth discipline is personal witness and initial proclamation: finding ways to tell the Christian story to our neighbours, as will happen in powerful ways this Christmas time, and also finding ways to let people know what that story means. It has been wisely said that her late majesty, the Queen, was one of the very best evangelists in the Church. In her Christmas message year by year the Queen told the story for faith but also said what it meant to her. How will those around us encounter the love of God which so transforms our lives in this coming season.
The fifth discipline is teaching the faith to enquirers and new believers, those preparing for baptism and confirmation – a traditional discipline in the season of Lent. The Church calls this discipline catechesis: helping new believers discover and live in Jesus through community and love and scripture and prayer.
The sixth is building those new believers into the community of the Church so that they grow and mature in their discipleship and find their own calling before God. The seventh is to go out beyond our existing congregations to those unable to connect with the life of the Church and begin new Christian communities, new congregations for those who may be out of reach of our traditional church and to do all of this in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I thank God for the ministry of St Andrews across this 900 years and especially in the years I have known it. The census information yesterday was indeed a significant moment – but one we can see as a challenge: to deepen our practices in these seven disciplines and set the telling of the good news more and more at the heart of our common life.
Follow me, says Jesus, and I will make you fish for people.
29 November 2022
- On Census Day, the size of the usual resident population in England and Wales was 59,597,300 (the population of England was 56,489,800). This was the largest the population has ever been.
- The percentage of people identifying as Christians stood at 71.7 per cent in 2001. This fell to 59.3 per cent in 2011. The figure now stands at 46.2 per cent, or 27.5 million people. There has been a significant rise in people identifying as of no particular faith at all.
- See Religion, England and Wales: Census 2021
- There has also been a key demographic change: over-65s outnumber under-15s for the first time.
- Interactive maps showing how the population has changed in local authority areas: Bracknell Forest, Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes, Oxford, Reading, Vale of White Horse, West Berkshire, West Oxfordshire, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Wokingham.