Last month I was asked to write an article for a Christian publication about why people in our churches aren't interested in mission. There does seem to be something of a crisis today and there are times when I wonder whether the General Synod should be doing something - or whether the General Synod is impotent and does nothing because there is nothing it can do.
Times have certainly changed. In 1922 when the Bible Churchmen's' Missionary Society (BCMS) was formed, it took only a few weeks to grow a membership and bring literally hundreds of link churches on board. Such exponential growth was sustainable for only a short time - but today such enthusiasm for mission has been largely replaced by a limited interest in individuals we know who are working overseas. A passion for mission is absent across large tracts of the Church of England.
It could be something to do with a crisis of confidence in the Gospel. The liberal ascendancy, a yoke under which the western churches have laboured for most of the last century, basically holds that the gospel message as found in the pages of scripture is far far less than the authoritative word of God. Rather it is a mish mash of legend and myth which needs to be recast and remoulded to make it credible to today's scientifically educated men and women.
Do you remember the jokes about Skoda cars in times past? Question: Why do all Skodas have rear screen heaters? Answer: To keep your hands warm.
Being a salesman for Skoda cars in the 1980s can't have been a bundle of laughs. Sadly many of today's Christians cast themselves in exactly that mould. They like what they have but cannot bring themselves to believe that what Jesus has to offer is remotely attractive to anyone else - except at a knock down price.
We talk about the good news of Jesus Christ, but deep down we don't believe the news is particularly good. We present Jesus like a consumer package and we offer the potential believer "benefits" like peace of mind, security, acceptance, a purpose in life and so on. That's all very well, but we forget that Jesus actually is King. He is not king merely to the extent that we are prepared to concede that he is.
We do not treat his commands (like going into all the world to make disciples ...) as commands, rather we treat them as options for those who feel drawn to that sort of thing - suggestions that can safely be put on one side and ultimately ignored.
And where does that leave us? It leaves us with the comfortable status quo. Whoever it was who quipped that the motto of the Church of England must be "as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be" had a point, didn't he?
The recent machinations in the House of Lords with the Bishop of Blackburn trying to scupper Baroness Young's brave attempt to protect young people in schools from those advocating unbiblical lifestyles are just part of the piece. The Bishop's lame attempts to win support for his stance by 'urging his brother bishops to realise that the "war is lost" over Section 28 and to help "to win the battle" over sex education.' fortunately fell on deaf ears. In the event, the repeal of Section 28 was defeated and it looks like the Government will take no for an answer, at least until some more on-message clones are appointed to the Lords.
Thank goodness the laity, in the form of their Lordships, were prepared to pay more attention to the aptly named Cardinal Winning and have no truck with the siren words of the Chairman of the Church of England's Board of Education. How sad that, as usual, there will be no resignations.
Others of the Lords Spiritual, the Bishop of Winchester for instance, were reported by Victoria Combe in The Daily Telegraph as taking a far more robust line. Bishop Scott-Joynt said he failed to see how the Learning and Skills Bill could replace Section 28. He said: "Section 28 continues to stand for something. And I support it."
I can remember one of my bosses in industry advising me 'not to fight battles you can't win'. The Bishop of Blackburn went much further than that and seemed determined to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. It all reminds me of J B Phillips' pithy comment, "Your God is too small."
So where does all that leave traditional believers? Are we doing any better than the rest? Peter Brierley's recently published research suggests we are keeping our heads above water while the liberals are going down the tubes, but is this only a temporary respite?
You may have heard the well known definition of the difference between 'tradition' and 'traditionalism'. 'Tradition' is the living voice of the dead, and 'traditionalism' is the dead voice of the living.
Traditionalism becomes an enemy of the Gospel when it imprisons us in the past. And those who live there are often locked into its conflicts, bitternesses and emotions. However, those who live with thankfulness to God's mercies in the past and who seek to translate those truths in the present are bound in a living stream (tradition) with the rock from which we were hewn. And, of course, it is a living stream, not only of history and doctrine, but also infused with the love of God and devotion to his will.
Credit where credit is due. The last two paragraphs are not my own. They were in fact spoken by the Archbishop of Canterbury as part of a homily in Armagh Cathedral on St Patrick's Day this year.
Gerry O'Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.
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