May all in the Bath Deanery hear these words from Justin Welby
Joy and delight in the love of God is at the heart of Christian witness, but the experience of many of us – I dare say most of us – is that, instead of joy and delight, evangelism and witness bring nervousness, uncertainty and guilt.
The strategic response to this is clearly for a long-term, iterative and interactive, metric-based, evidence generated development of competencies across the widest possible range of stakeholders in order to achieve maximum acceleration of disciple input with the highest possible return on effort and capital employed. [Laughter].
That last paragraph is, of course, complete rubbish. To be honest, I just put it in in order to reassure you, as it is well known that I am in fact a businessman who put on the wrong clothes this morning. [Laughter].
Back to the subject. Witness and evangelism are expressions of the overflow of the love and joy of the grace of God into our lives, and the life of His whole church and His whole world. They are inescapably tied up with the kingdom of God, with lives lived incarnationally full of the hospitality and generosity of Christ. They are as much a part of the life of the church as worship, as the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, commented to me about a year ago, and should be about as guilt-inducing as breathing.
Evangelism and witness are not strategies, let alone strategies for church survival. A church that looks for strategies to survive has lost the plot. We need strategies so that we may be more clearly those who are able to take up our cross and follow Christ, as we heard earlier from the Archbishop [of the Chaldean Diocese of Erbil, Iraq], willing to die for Him so that all may live through Him.
As Paul says when speaking to the church in Corinth, the most dysfunctional of the churches he planted: “for the love of Christ urges us on …” (2 Corinthians 5:14) or, in the King James version, “the love of Christ constrains me”.
Yet when we look back at the Church of England, we do not see in general an overwhelming sense everywhere – I’m being quite tentative here – that the love of Christ urges us on in evangelism and witness, although it clearly does in many places and throughout the church in many other areas of ministry. This is nothing new. If we go back to the Bishop of Rochester’s report in 1944, set up by Archbishop Temple, ‘Towards the Conversion of England’, we find there a constant theme that unless the whole church, lay and ordained, become in a new sense witnesses, then there can be no progress in spreading the good news of Jesus.
People have today, and in other places and other times over the last few months, rightly expressed concern and comment about task groups, and certain task groups. Listening today, it’s something on which we clearly need to reflect further. But task groups are not the end: they are a means to the end. The subjects they’re looking at are absolutely essential and are crucial to our future, and we owe those who work on them much thanks as well as many comments. No doubt the output of the task groups will change as time goes by. That is among the proper and right roles of a Synod: to ask questions, to push and review, to look afresh and to ensure we’re thinking carefully through the implications of what is being done. And, Synod, you don’t hesitate to do that, in my limited experience.
But they are means to an end. Training, issues of management, the allocation of resources: however good they are – and they must be very good – are not the final aim of the church. We are finally called to be those who worship and adore God in Christ, overflowing with the good news that we’ve received, making Christ known to all so that the good news is proclaimed effectively throughout the church.
And it is good news. It is the most compelling of announcements. It comes as a gift to us, not of our own creation. It is news because it tells us of what we do not already know. We have not deduced it ourselves or worked it out by our own power of reason: the good news is the power of God.
And what a power! We know through Christ that God Himself is turned towards His world: He has chosen to be for and with us. That is the message which urges us on. We are not rejected, but accepted; we are not condemned but saved; we are not lost, but found; we are not dead, but alive – all because of the work of Jesus Christ.
In our good news we speak of Him who really does not sweep our human needs, concerns, cares, desires and problems under the carpet, but takes them up and makes them His own.
And if we allow ourselves to be gripped by this gospel, this good news of Jesus Christ, it will overwhelm us, for it seems too good to be true. As Pope Francis said in Evangelii Gaudium: “the Gospel constantly invites us to rejoice”.
More than that, evangelism and witness are of the very nature of God who goes out and sows in order that the good news may, in some cases, bring out a harvest of righteousness and joy and hope, transforming the world in which we live, transforming the sorrow and brokenness of which we have heard this afternoon, and bringing hope and renewal.
For these reasons, because the good news is of the nature of God who is for us and with us, the good news of Jesus Christ is the hope of the world – the hope, and yet too often we forget that. About a year ago, I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with my wife. We went to an IDP camp, and saw scenes of the utmost suffering and terrible deprivation, extreme even by the standard of such places. A Christian NGO, with UK government funding, linked to Tearfund, was doing extraordinary work. Towards the end of the visit a crowd had gathered, and the local bishop said: “Say something to encourage them”. I could think of nothing, and playing for time, with immense lack of faith, said, in French (it was a French-speaking area): “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever”. I was drawing breath for some banal statements about actions I could take to support them, pompously and ignorantly, when, as it was translated into real French [laughter], they began to cheer. They knew Jesus Christ was the same yesterday, today and forever, and being reminded of it brought hope and light. I felt deeply, deeply ashamed of my lack of confidence in the gospel. The gospel is good news for all people at all times everywhere.
We share the good news with humility, even shame at times at our own failure to be those whose lives or whose church or whose history reveals the good news as it truly is. We must share the good news without manipulation, technique that is intended to be other than they really are, or any other unethical or underhand method. We must bring the good news with hospitality, and without a trace of coercion, with love and grace making a defence for the hope that is within us. But we must bear witness and bring the good news of Jesus Christ.
The sharing is by action, by word, by campaign, by culture, by attitude. To defend those attacked by anti-Semitism, to share food in a food bank, to support a credit union because of the solidarity with which the Holy Spirit calls us to be with those on the edge; all this is one side of a coin, the other side of which is to proclaim, announce and declare the good news.
And we share the good news together; it is the calling of the whole church. The bishop of Worcester, Bishop John Inge, wrote to me recently, and I’ll quote at length from what he wrote. He said:
“Evangelism is, of course, about making new disciples, introducing people to a living and personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. However, it must be about a great deal more than this, since God’s mission is much bigger than making individual disciples. It is to reconcile the whole creation to himself in Christ and, in so doing, inaugurate his Kingdom. When that mission is accomplished every knee shall bow to God’s rule, whether in heaven or in earth or under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The Church is his chosen instrument for that mission in the world, and the effective sign of the inauguration of his Kingdom here on earth, that Kingdom for whose coming we pray in the words that Jesus taught us. Through evangelism God makes disciples who then play their part in God’s great plan. That part must be played together as members of the Body of Christ, not as individuals. . . As Alison Morgan has put it in the title of a book which will shortly be published: The Plural of Disciple is Church.”
Yet in so many places, the reality is different. To quote Pope Francis again, “no-one should ever think that this invitation is not meant for him or her”. We lose confidence in the good news when it stops being good news for us. And that is such a danger when we’re enmeshed in so many of the arguments and divisions with which we struggle. They may be necessary, but their danger is we lose sight of good news for us. When it has become stale news or old news, when it has become bad news or sad news, then every day I must open myself to the love of Christ, so this love is continually making me new. That too is collective. Our guided conversations, our praying and thinking together, our discussions of task groups, must also open afresh together, all of us, to the love of Christ, so that the good news is ours, not just mine.
To return to Archbishop William Temple, we find a vision that is as yet unfulfilled. It is that, for the effective and fruitful proclamation of the good news to be made in this country, every person who is a disciple of Jesus Christ plays an essential role as a witness of Jesus Christ.
There is nothing better than bearing witness to Christ so that others themselves may become His witnesses. But my fear is that many of us have lost all confidence in the Gospel. We have thought that you need to be an expert or a professional to be a witness. But we do not. We simply need to be able to tell of the love that has grasped hold of us and the difference it has made in our own lives.
The Evangelism Task Group is one report we have not yet seen. I hope that, if the Business Committee thinks it appropriate, they may be able to allow it to report in July or later, responding to a motion that this Synod passed some time ago. The Evangelism Task Group seeks to support the church to be an effective signpost of the Gospel at every point, in Cathedrals, in local churches, in chaplaincies at universities, schools, hospitals, prisons, the armed services and so many other points, in all of which so much of the really tough work is done. At the moment that effective signpost is not always and everywhere inescapably visible, if I may be so un-tentative.
It is essential that we give time and effort into shaping church structures which enable and reflect witness to the compelling love of Christ. That change will not just happen, we can’t just hope for something magical to occur.
But the biggest hill to climb is that at every point in the church we might be so urged on by the love of Christ, the good news of salvation, that we break the historic pattern, which in many parts of our church goes back centuries, and become those who with all our faults, all our failings, all our divisions and sins and misunderstanding – because, let us be clear, if we wait until we’re fit to witness, we will wait forever – we become those who, with all those drawbacks, are nevertheless humble, gentle, transparent, hospitable witnesses to Jesus Christ, so that the world may know.
That is a challenge which takes us straight back to the life of the local church or chaplaincy, to the cathedral, to every point at which there is a Christian, because at every point at which there is a Christian there is a witness. And it takes us back here to be those who serve and love the witnesses, so that they are liberated to a joyful ministry of witness. All that we are doing here must be held in that context of the worship of God and the sharing of the good news.