THE PASSING OF RICHARD ROE
A Talk to Start You Talking by Francis Gardom
I make no special claim about this talk other than the fact that whenever I have given it, it has been followed by a lot of discussion, lasting sometimes for hours!
This suggests to me that its subject, which might be loosely described as "Personal Evangelism in a late 20th Century Urban Parish", is seen to be of as much importance as ever.
No doubt there are Christians who are complacent, inward- looking, smug, self-satisfied, lukewarm and all the hundred-and- one other things which are supposed to be typical of today's churchgoers.
But the response to this talk has shown that there is another side to the local Church which is deeply committed to sharing the faith in the neighbourhood, bringing people to Christ, proclaiming the Good News. Such people are, however, deeply puzzled at the conflicting evidence and advice which is on offer to them.
I have given this talk to Anglicans, Methodists, Quakers, Roman Catholics and people of many other denominations. Their reactions have been predictably different but invariably strong. So with this experience behind me I offer this for use by a wider public on Compuserve.
The talk is divided into two parts. Part One purports to be factual, giving an outline of the wholly fictitious character, Richard Roe and his various encounters with the Christian faith.
My suggestion is that if you are going to use this as an actual exercise with people there should be a pause after you have read _.1_._ ŠPart One in order that any FACTUAL questions may be asked about Richard Roe.
Of course the Leader will have to make up the answers on the spot, but the idea is to describe someone who might be met in your neighbourhood. So if it is important to know the colour of Richard's skin, what kind of education he had, which part of town he lived in, what his interests are, or if it seems important to know, for instance, how often the Hospital Chaplain visited the ward then it is up to the Leader to supply an answer, e.g. "Richard is white, he lives in Hammersmith, and the Hospital Chaplain works part-time and manages to visit each ward about once a fortnight."
In this way any discrepancies between the person whom I have portrayed in Part 1, and the sort of experiences he would have had in your neighbourhood will be removed.
So now, if you're ready we'll begin with PART ONE.
THE PASSING OF RICHARD ROE - Part One
This evening I am going to do something really dangerous.
Something which our Lord specifically forbade his followers to do.
I am going to judge someone.
"Judge not, that you be not judged!"
The reason why I think such a course of action is permissible is that the person in question is TOTALLY FICTITIOUS.
Let me dwell on this point for a moment. Richard Roe, as I have called him, does not exist, has not existed. When I called him into being for the purpose of this exercise I didn't have anyone particular in mind. _.\_._ ŠSo if the person I describe happens to resemble someone you know, then it is a complete coincidence. The stronger the resemblance the more careful should you be. Any conclusions which you or I draw about Richard Roe will be entirely conjectural, not least because I shall be trying to see him through God's eyes and be asking questions such as: "What does God intend his Church to do for Richard?"; "What is the Church in fact doing?"; and "What else should we be doing immediately?"
If we try and equate Richard with someone known to us there are at least three mistakes which we shall be in danger of making:
1 My imaginary Richard Roe may be an impossibility. Nobody like him has, or could ever have, existed.
2 My view of how God sees Richard may be fundamentally mistaken.
3 If we equate Richard with someone known to us we shall be in danger of judging that particular person.
So let's keep the whole matter in the realms of imagination...
I buried Richard Roe at the local Cemetery last week. He had died of lung cancer at the comparatively early age of 42.
As they lowered his coffin into the ground and threw earth upon it I read the words of committal: "Forasmuch as it hath pleased almighty god of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed we therefore commit his body to the ground . . . in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ."
It was those last words which brought me up with a jolt: what earthly reason was there for supposing that the "sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life" applied to Richard?
Of course there's nothing in the burial service which says that _.†_._ Šthey did apply to him. Christians believe that the "resurrection to eternal life" is all bound up with believing in our Lord Jesus Christ. But what about those who don't, can't or won't believe?
Wisely in my opinion the service is so worded that it can be used for most people. There even exist modern burial services which have been so worded that they can be used of anyone at all - believer, unbeliever, suicide, murderer, penitent or impenitent. Such services are confined to saying nothing specific about the deceased beyond expressing the pious hope that he or she will be saved and rise to life eternal.
But to get back to the question about Richard. What happens to the likes of him?
The first question I asked myself was whether he had been baptized or not. And what if he hadn't? Jesus said quite plainly that only those born of water and the Spirit can enter the Kingdom of God. Christians differ sincerely as to what the exact meaning of those words is; but whatever they mean it is difficult to conclude from them that "Baptism doesn't matter".
Well it so happened that because he had died comparatively young I was able to trace quite a number of his contemporaries, his mother was still alive, and I was able to visit the priest, now retired, who was vicar of the parish and had actually baptized Richard as an infant.
It was in fact that vicar's insistence that baptism is something really important that was nearly the cause of Richard not being baptized at all. For under that vicar the parish had a policy that all those parents bringing their children for baptism should be obliged to attend just one instruction on the meaning of their child's baptism and the duties it would lay upon them.
This so annoyed his parents, Mr Roe senior in particular, that they nearly refused to bring him along for baptism at all.
"I think it's disgusting", said Mr Roe senior to his friend in the local saloon bar, "paying taxes like good citizens to find that the vicar won't "do" our Richard unless WE go for some sort of talk or instruction. Anyone would think WE were the ones being baptized! Mind you, the Vicar was quite nice about it - he _.˛_._ Šsaid he'd make it any day to suit us - but what right has he to dictate terms to people like us? I've a mind to write to the Echo about it".
And Mrs Roe was no less indignant than her husband.
"I call it a shame," she said. "They never used to make all that fuss. We'd have called the whole thing off if I hadn't already made the cake and bought the booze for the party".
So Richard Roe WAS baptized; but only because the cake had been made and the drink purchased. And in the course of the baptism service Mr & Mrs Roe senior solemnly promised that they would bring up Richard as a practising Christian.
In the end, as we shall see, they did almost nothing about it.
When Richard Roe was 5 years old, a number of his friends started to go to various Sunday Schools. It so happened that Richard chose to go to the local Church Sunday School because there were no roads to cross. Mrs Roe was glad to have him out of the house.
He came to Sunday School on and off for a couple of years. Then he got wind of the fact that at another Sunday School in the neighbourhood they gave their pupils free packets of candies for regular attendance. So, not unsurprisingly, in company with a number of his little friends, he transferred his allegiance.
Mrs Roe wasn't worried. She was still feeling sore about the baptism incident. So when the Sunday School superintendent from the Church called to find out the reasons for little Richard's absence she just said, "Oh, didn't you realize, Richard now goes to the Golden Bells Mission - it's all more or less the same, isn't it?" And before the Superintendent could open her mouth to say that it wasn't quite the same, Mrs Roe added "anyway, it's in the afternoon now and that fives Dad a chance for a kip."
So the Superintendent had to withdraw empty-handed.
Well Richard went from time to time to the Golden Bells Hall. Indeed, when I visited him many years' later he proudly showed me a little certificate which he had been awarded there which _.Û_._ Šread "This it to certify that Richard Roe is now a Little Golden Bell."
But then, like a great many of his friends he got tired of it. And from the age of ten he never went any more.
He grew up. He joined a gang. Like most of his contemporaries he had a succession of girl friends, and with most of these he had sexual intercourse on a number of occasions. From one of them he picked up V.D. and passed it onto her two successors before he was successfully treated for it. Finally he met up with a girl who conceived a child by him and it was generally agreed that it would be well if they got married. So that was the occasion of Richard Roe's next appearance at the Parish Church.
Not, mind you, that the Church had been entirely idle in the meanwhile. At one stage Richard had joined the Church Youth Club and found a firm friend in one of the young curates. But to him "Religion" and "Church" seemed to be whole lot of people from a different social background from his, talking posh and singing posher.
He might indeed have come to terms with this; but before long it became obvious that he was faced with a choice between Christ and crumpet. And, not surprisingly, he chose the latter.
I first met Richard Roe in the course of a systematic visit to the block of apartments where he lived. I introduced myself. He was quite friendly and asked me in. He must have been about 50 at the time. His marriage had evidently been a success. He had 3 grown-up children, all married, and several grandchildren.
I asked him if he'd ever had any connection with the local Church. He made the same reply which I had already heard at least six times already that evening. "Oh yes, we always went regular to Sunday School" followed by "And all my kids have been christened."
After a few more remarks about the weather, the flat, the younger generation, it became clear to me that I was not going to get very much further than that. I took my leave. _.___._ ŠA year or so later I visited that apartment block again. This time I got no further than the doorstep. He was still polite but a shade more offhand and less forthcoming. Yes, thank you, he was well. Yes, the wife/children/grandchildren were well. And now if I didn't mind excusing he had to get ready for night shift.
My last encounter with Richard was in the local hospital on what was, though he didn't realist it, his deathbed. In fact he had lung cancer. His breathing was a bit laboured but he was quite cheerful. Quite well thanks. Yes, he remembered my calling on him. Yes the wife/children/grandchildren were well. No, he didn't think there was anything I could do for him, thank you.
By the next week he was dead. The other day I buried him in the local cemetery.
Which brings me back to where I started.
How does God regard Richard Roe?
What did God intend his Church in the area to do for him which they had neglected?
What does God intend us to do for the likes of Richard Roe who are still alive?
THE PASSING OF RICHARD ROE - Part Two
I would be the last person to claim that the ministry of the local Church to Richard Roe during his lifetime was in any sense satisfactory. It wasn't.
Nevertheless it simply would not be true to say that the Church had contentedly sat back and done nothing for him in his lifetime. Or that we simply hadn't cared. Every Church Council meeting, every Parish conference and Weekend, it was sure to be pointed out by someone, quite correctly, that in the parish at _.7__._ Šlarge some 95% of the people including whole streets and blocks of apartments were apparently entirely unaffected by the Christian Faith.
So although Parish drains and parish boilers and parish liturgy and parish magazines were often discussed and sometimes modified in the light of that discussion, the visible effect of the local Church on Richard Roe was nil, or even negative.
Consider, for example the matter of the Sunday Schools. A great deal of time and a fair amount of money had been spent in the course of years in trying to see that at least some children had a minimal grounding in the Christian faith.
That seemed an admirable objective until one considered the following:
1. Only a very few of the total Sunday School intake become regular adult practising Christians and remain so all their lives.
2. Of the few who do remain faithful, the vast majority of them come from a totally different social background from Richard Roe, and very often have parents who are practising Christians anyway.
3. In the case of those like Richard Roe who fall away, Sunday School is just sufficient to persuade them that "Religion is kids stuff", a conclusion which is reinforced by the fact that their parents and adult brothers and sisters will have nothing whatever to do with it.
Or take the case of house-to-house visiting. Was that slight off-handedness which I noticed on my second visit (an experience which could be paralleled many times over) only my imagination? Did I say the wrong things or fail to say the right ones? Granted all the insufficiencies and shortcomings which together make up a parish priest, how should he best use them on behalf of those whom he is appointed to serve?
Or take the case of Richard's baptism. Was the vicar of the day so wrong in stipulating that his parents should at least hear once what baptism really means? And yet that was nearly the _.b__._ Šcause of Richard not being baptised at all!
Or what about the stumbling block of chastity and continence? Is it really the case that God wishes us to tell Richard that to continue to indulge his sexual appetites is compatible with turning to Christ?
I earnestly hope and pray the Richard Roe may be raised to life immortal, to glorify god and enjoy him for ever. But I can see nor reason whatever for supposing that he will be.
I hope that I am wrong. I may be. That is why we mustn't judge others. That is why we must certainly never treat anyone as if they were beyond redemption (even though they may in fact be so). For all I know Richard Roe and a hundred others like him whom I have buried may now be infinitely more acceptable in God's eyes than you who are reading this or I who am writing it.
But I must insist that my observation and reason, defective though both no doubt are, give me no grounds whatever for supposing that this is the case. But even more to the point I believe that many of the suggested remedies for bringing the Richard Roes of this world to Christ, new services, more clergy, more visiting, however right in themselves such policies may be, are likely to be useless if we undertake them for the benefit of Richard Roe and his colleagues.
Take for example the services of the Church, its liturgy or however we describe it. There are good reasons why such things should be lengthened, shortened, brightened, solemnified, modernised, simplified or left as they are. But the good reasons for taking such action are not related in any way directly to the spiritual needs of Richard Roe. Ring every change in the book and you won't get Richard one inch nearer committing himself to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. There are reasons for change, there are reasons for stability. But Richard is unaffected by to either of them.
Or consider what happened when I visited him in hospital. I knew he was dying. Probably he did too. Then what should I have said to him? Should I have said "Look Richard, you don't have much longer to live. Why not make your peace with God?" Or should I have done what I did: offer my services in a general way, pass _.Ś__._ Šthe time of day and move on to the next patient?
Bringing men and women to Christ is a great deal more tricky and complex than most people realise. Christians must be evangelists, messengers of the Good News; but they must bear in mind at the same time that ineffective evangelism, whatever its shortcomings may spring from, appears to be worse than no evangelism at all. How many people I know have been alienated from the faith by experiencing it in an unacceptable, muddled form!
This is a hard conclusion to accept. Every parish Church is aware that there are large areas of that parish, often though not always council flats and apartments, where the message of the Church appears to be totally disregarded and ineffective. Imagine what it must be like to be the Vicar of a parish where the entire population is made up of Richard Roes!
How tempting it must be in such a place to try to start up this group and that association and this club and that fellowship in the hope that some people may join and it will then be possible to influence them into accepting Christ by the back door, so to speak.
But is this really honest? There may be good reasons for starting up a club or a fellowship or an association in a given neighbourhood. But having started it up, the Church's next job is to make such an organism self-running and self-supporting. Otherwise we are creating a dependency-culture in precisely those places where people need to accept responsibility for themselves; or, more probably, the Vicar and his wife will end up running a dozen or more clubs, not because they want to but because the clubs have not become independent of them.
The truth is that we have been brought up on a gigantic half- truth: that the Christian faith will and should always be attractive.
It is attractive, surely, to the person who is weighed down by their circumstances, whose life has been dogged with a sense of sin or failure. It is attractive to the cultured, sensitive person who has a taste for the dramatic and a modicum of imagination. It is attractive to the wise man who is wise enough to know that he doesn't know everything. It is attractive to the simple man who knows that he knows nothing and is willing to learn. It is attractive to a certain sort of hearty extrovert.
But what possible attraction can it have for the uncultured, secular minded, self-centred Philistine like Richard? Or for the envious, the slothful, the dishonest or the lustful?
It's not so much that we are in the business of condemning people; we take as much trouble as possible to win people's confidence and to begin by accusing them is not to get off to a good start. But then what have we got to offer Richard and his friends? Friendship - well I hope so, but I don't think he will have much in common with us; Fellowship - yes, but he can get that in the local saloon; Love? Yes, but the kind of love he's interested in at the moment tends to take place in the dark between the bedclothes. So what do we have to offer him, or rather, what has God to give him? Forgiveness; Reconciliation; Sanctification: all the things he needs most but wants least.
How do we come to terms with Richard Roe and his needs? I think that "coming to terms" is the wrong expression to begin with. We are not in the business of evangelism to strike a bargain with a sinful world in the hope that people like Richard Roe will be grateful to us. They won't. And there is not the slightest hint in our Lord's teaching that he intended us to trim our moral sails to the prevailing secular wind.
So what do we do for him?
In the first place we follow St Paul's precept and offer prayers for him and his fellow men on a systematic basis, street by street, apartment block by apartment block, trade by trade, profession by profession, school by school, college by college. In so doing we lift Richard and his colleagues up to God in admission that we have very little idea as to what he wants us to do for them.
Secondly we listen very carefully to any suggestions which may be made about how we should proceed. Sooner or later a suggestion will be made which will have come direct from God.
Thirdly we make the fullest possible use of what sociologists and others have to tell us about the personalities we are dealing with.
Fourthly from time to time we need to have an information- gathering assault on the parish. This might well take the form of a Census, followed perhaps by a mission or teaching week. _.è__._ ŠParishes change rapidly over a short space of time, and things which were true only a few years ago are no longer true now and vice versa. One often hears people say to any suggestion "We've tried that and it didn't work". Quite true, it didn't. But things have changed so dramatically that now it stands a much better chance of working. It was an idea whose time had not yet come. Now is the acceptable hour for it to work.
Lastly, and most important of all, we need to be constantly reminded of the fact that we who are regular worshippers of God through his Son Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit are in fact representing all those who are not, including Richard Roe. How we worship, well, badly, carefully, carelessly, and the way we express our love towards our fellow Christians will inevitably have some effect on Richard whom we are representing. The effect may be good or bad. One pagan at the time of the persecutions was astonished by the fact that Christians were prepared to die for one another. But if we are backbiting or talebearers about our fellow Christians, Richard is sure to draw his own (unfavourable) conclusions.
In the end, what goes on in Church, and, most importantly what goes on after Church is bound to be of ultimate importance. Careless worship by choir, congregation, servers, preacher or officiant is bound to produce care-less Christians. Christians who could not care less about Richard Roe, for example. If we avoid knowing and being known by our fellow-Christians, what chance does a complete stranger like Richard stand of feeling at home should he ever stray into our midst? He may come expecting to find a society at least as cordial as the club or the saloon where everyone knows everyone else. What if he finds a handful of people who don't even know each other's names?
So there the case rests, as they say. I have tried to explain why Richard Roe doesn't come to Church; why so many of the suggestions for prevailing upon him to do so are misguided. I have tried to show that a waiting game, waiting that is for God's direction in this matter is often the only thing possible.
But so far from suggesting that we do nothing whilst we are waiting to discern what the will of the Lord is I have tried to show that we should use this necessary waiting period to set our own house in order so that when God's will comes to be known we may be found an acceptable people in his sight, those who have been ordained to bring about the sanctification of the many by the few.
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