A couple of weeks ago, Angela Tilby (retired Canon of Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford) unleashed a peculiar diatribe against the upcoming prayer initiative Thy Kingdom Come, complaining that it was tantamount to an ‘evangelical takeover’ of the Church of England. The movement itself is interesting, in that I understand it to have been the personal initiative of Justin Welby, rather than something arising from any committee or strategy meeting, it is clearly rooted not just in broad Anglican understanding but in an idea from the Lord’s Prayer that would appeal to any orthodox Christian, and it appears to have been communicated and executed very well. A broad, interesting, appealing initiative done well by the Church of England—who would have thought?!
Tilby’s criticism has some obvious oddities to it. On the one hand, she notes that ‘the communication gap between the Church and the rest of society grows ever wider’—but her remedy for that is to communicate less. She criticises the breadth of the appeal—and then criticises it for being too narrow in its appeal. And she will be joining in prayer that God will save her from evangelicals, instead of praying for the stated aim of the initiative: ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is inviting Christians around the world to pray as one for people to know Jesus Christ.’ If Tilby really does ‘understand all too well why people take their souls to the surgery’, why not join in that simple prayer?
There was a wonderful response in a joint letter from parish clergy, led by my friend Alasdair Kay from Derby:
We do not see this project as a takeover by Evangelicals (of any network) of the Church of England. Instead, we applaud it as the product of an earnest desire to make the Church of England fit for its purpose by bringing us back to our raison d’être: to be witnesses of Jesus Christ. The tone of Canon Tilby’s column was, we feel, cynical, patronising, and, frankly, very discouraging.
We as parish priests, many other clergy, and thousands of our parishioners will between us fast, donate time, sacrifice sleep, and give ourselves to praying for their friends and loved ones, both during Thy Kingdom Come and beyond; Canon Tilby has reduced these heartfelt acts of love and compassion to coffee, crafts, and semantics.
Others resented the ‘victim language’ of Tilby and rejected what they saw as the caricaturing of other traditions, not just evangelicals, as though no-one else is interested in seeing people come to know Jesus Christ in living faith.
The truth is that the Evangelical churches have confidence in their message and are competent in the delivery. This is why their churches and initiatives like Thy Kingdom Come are flourishing – it’s got little, if anything to do with churchmanship.
So, regardless of what flavour of Church of England you are, say whatever it is you want to say with confidence – pitch the vision and pitch it like you mean it. Whatever you do, do it with competence– process with dignity, elevate the blessed sacrament with profundity, choose your hymns sensitively, produce your booklets beautifully, project your images tastefully and, if necessary, do less, but do it better.
Still others pointed out the irony of Tilby claiming she held on to the unchanging tradition of the C of E whilst evangelicals were trying to hijack it.
I point all this out because Angela Tilby is a result of multiple radical shifts in the CofE from the last five hundred years. She is the result of multiple ‘takeovers’ of the English Church: the Reformers in the 16th Century, the Laudians in the early 17th and Latitudinarians in the later 17th Century, the Erastians in the 18th Century, the Tractarians (via the Liberal Catholic movement) in the early 20thCentury, and the radical liberals in the 60s and 70s. Each of these radical – and often hostile – takeovers have gradually settled into becoming part of the Church of England’s ‘traditional’ religion. Each ‘takeover’ has alienated as many ‘traditional’ worshippers as it has gained them. And yet now, because the ‘takeover’ is from a group of which she is not a part – the Open Evangelical movement – she is praising the wonders of traditional religion. This tradition she talks of is often but a husk of what previous generations would consider ‘traditional’. At which point she may claim the notion of ‘development’ – but anyone who is in any way versed in critical theory would know that traditions do not have an inevitable direction.
Following on from this came another critique of current approaches from the Christchurch, Oxford stable, in the form of a more theological assessment of evangelism by Martyn Percy, Dean of Christchurch. Like Tilby’s piece, it contains a fair share of caricature and cynicism—but I wanted to read it in the most positive light that I could. The closing observations about the importance of listening in the context of sharing faith, rather than thinking evangelism is about using a megaphone, are always worth noting, regardless of where such points are made—but of course that observation has been made by others. The difficulty with hearing the point in this piece is that it is surrounded by so many errors of observation and fact.
Contrary to Percy’s claim, there are fresh expressions of church for those a long way outside mainstream society—and of course the reason for there not being a fresh expression for the LGBTI community is that they are so well-represented in the C of E, as well as having their own denomination in the Metropolitan Community Church. I don’t think that the Decade of Evangelism was the ‘vehicle’ for evangelical ascendancy, and its failure was due to the focus on liturgical revision and the church not be ready for the kinds of initiatives (like Thy Kingdom Come) which many now recognise are essential. And the notion that the national Church is ‘stuck in broadcast mode’ [note: the sower in the parable is in fact ‘broad casting’ the seed in Mark 4 and parallels] is really laughable in light of the facts on the ground—that the vast majority of Anglicans admit that they know someone whom they could invite to church, but simply have no intention of doing so. For most Anglicans, the megaphone has been switched off and put away in a cupboard in the vestry, left to gather dust.
But there are two theological claims Percy makes that caught my eye and deserve a response. The first is his (slightly flippant) comment that ‘Jesus did not advocate ‘Fresh Expressions’ of synagogue’.
We must also remember that Jesus did not plant synagogues. Jesus did not grow synagogue congregations. Jesus did not advocate ‘Fresh Expressions’ of synagogue. But Jesus did spend time with the marginalised and disenfranchised. Jesus did challenge prevailing religious structures and outlooks. Jesus did admit people to the Kingdom of God who were not Jewish – often, unconditionally. None were Christian at that point, or became so, needless to say.
The talk of whether people ‘became Christians’ is oddly anachronistic. And it is very strange to suggest that Jesus ‘admitted’ anyone to the kingdom of God ‘unconditionally’, since his repeated challenge was that entering the kingdom (or becoming a follower of Jesus—he appeared to have treated the two things as almost synonymous) demanded a cutting of family ties, a willingness to leave behind past commitments, and a radical commitment to let go of life (‘take up one’s cross’). As has been explored extensively in recent discussion, Jesus’ invitation might have been unconditioned (in that it was not limited to a particular group) but it was hardly unconditional. Did Jesus ‘grow synagogue congregations’? The gospel writers record much of Jesus’ ministry occurring ‘on the way’, on the roadside, by the lake, in fields and on hills, so it was certainly not confined to buildings. But Jesus appeared also to be in the habit of attending synagogue, like any good first century Jew, and when he was there, the crowds came. If you do a quick word search for ‘crowds’ in any of the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) you will see that it is the hallmark of Jesus’ ministry—that it drew the crowds. Perhaps there is a theological lesson for the Church today.
But was Jesus hoping for something like a ‘fresh expression’? The serious question underlying this asks whether current missiology has any connection with Jesus ministry as recorded in the gospels. The first place to look is Jesus’ selection of twelve men to be appointed as his ‘apostles’, that is, his ambassadors who are trained in his presence to hear and understand his message and his person, so that they can be sent out to make it known. The choice of twelve has such an obvious symbolism that it is easy to overlook: in his ministry and message, Jesus was hoping for the renewal of Israel as the faithful son of God. More than the other gospels, Matthew emphasises Jesus’ ministry ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 15.24), but even he cannot help himself from giving glimpses of what he knows will follow—the good news reaching gentiles as well—for example in recording Jesus’ saying about those coming ‘from the east and west to feast at the table in the kingdom of God’ (Matt 8.11) in the context of healing the centurion’s servant. And the episodes in Luke 9 and Luke 10 of Jesus sending out the 12 and then the 72 on a mission of teaching, healing and proclamation look very much as though they anticipate what Luke will go on to record happening throughout Acts—not surprisingly. Luke sees a very clear connection between the teaching and ministry of Jesus, and what his followers then continued to do in establishing culturally engaged worshipping communities well beyond the boundaries of ethnic Israel. Percy is right in noting that, in mission we take ‘nothing’ with us. But the ‘nothing’ in Luke 9 and 10 appears to comprise ‘nothing but the message of the kingdom, and the power to heal the sick and drive out demons’, which feels like a very different kind of nothing from the nothing that Percy is advocating.
The second theological issue Percy raises is our understanding of church and Spirit.
What is strange about this situation is that the drivers of the agenda are deeply concerned about mission and evangelism. So, they act out of the best of intentions. But the problem is that the underlying theology of mission and of the Holy Spirit – missiology and pneumatology – is deeply deficient.
Percy’s conviction is that ‘The Holy Spirit is omnipresent, and at work ahead of the Church, and outside it’, and he supports this with reference to the gentile mission, in which ‘the Jewish disciples, for example, ‘discovering’ that God is at work amongst the gentiles’. Having just preached on the Cornelius episode in Acts 10, I am pretty confident that this is a misreading. God wants to do something amongst the gentiles, so he actually stirs Peter up through visions and visitations to go and explain to Cornelius all about Jesus and the gospel—and that is the moment when the Spirit comes. Yes, God is sovereign, and can do the most surprising things, like ‘anointing’ the pagan king Cyrus in order to effect his purpose of leading his people home. But the New Testament—and all of Scripture—is emphatic that the Spirit makes real the presence and power of God amongst his people. For Paul, the work of the Spirit is tied quite firmly to the testimony of Christ as Lord (1 Cor 12.3), which it would have to be if our understanding of God is properly Trinitarian. For Luke, Jesus can only minister in the power of the Spirit, not just following the testing in the desert (Luke 4.14) but even after his resurrection (Acts 1.2). There is no question that Christians can learn from the world around them, not least because the ‘world’ is often much more savvy than believers are (Luke 16.8). But this needs to be rooted in a theology of creation and grace, not a misshaped theology of the Spirit.
There are, no doubt, questions to be asked about all of the C of E’s current initiatives—and I have just spent two days in York at Archbishops’ Council, where we have been asking some serious questions of all of these, as critical friends. But if people like Angela Tilby and Martyn Percy are going to ask questions, they will need to do so from a better understanding of the facts, and with a much better grasp of New Testament theology. In the meantime, I will be joining 1,200 others for our Thy Kingdom Come event in Nottingham on Friday evening.
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