Philip North, the suffragan bishop of Burnley, offers this response to my comments in the previous post:
I am very grateful to Ian Paul for such a thoughtful and reflective response to my Church Times article, and indeed for this opportunity to respond. Those who are part of the Estates Theology Project are very keen to start exactly this sort of conversation. (And indeed it’s worth pointing out that there are theologians in that group who would take a view different from my own).
Ian’s response is based on our fundamentally different understandings of the Incarnation. That may sound a bit technical. However, the way we understand Christ to be present in his world has a huge impact on how we go about the work of evangelism.
The heart of the difference is the way we read Matthew 25.31–46 (the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats) and more specifically who we consider the recipients of compassion to be in that parable. According to Ian, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger and the imprisoned are followers of Jesus rather than any human being in need. In other words, those who show mercy to others are serving Christ only if those they serve are consciously his followers.
The effect of this is to restrict the incarnate presence of Christ to the Church and thereby leave a big gulf between that which is sacred and that which is secular. The saving work of Christ is about a God who (for a while) steps into a dark world in order to pluck out human souls with the rest of creation left fundamentally untouched.
This understanding of the impact of the Incarnation has a number of implications. First, as Ian demonstrates himself, it makes for a one-sided relationship between the evangelist and the community to which they are sent. The evangelist can accept material support from the community (in accordance with a rather literal understanding of the Sending of the 72), but because they have exclusive access to the Christian truth of the Incarnation, any mutual relationship ends there. The message for estates residents could be an uncomfortable one. We’re going to eat your food, spend your universal credit and pinch your council house but don’t worry, because at the end we will tell you all about Jesus!
And second there are knock-on implications for the environment. The extreme separation of the sacred and the secular implicit in this reading of incarnational theology has been a vehicle for an understanding of creation that sees it as an inherently dark and godless place. It is an easy step from there to see creation as ripe for plunder.
But what if the hungry and the imprisoned in Matthew 25 are not Christians but anyone in need of compassion? That reading seems to me to be much more in tune with the rest of Matthew which is repeatedly clear that the fruits of faith are works of mercy shown to all (Matthew 7.20, 12.7, 16.27). It also makes it consistent with the great parables from the other Gospels, such as the Good Samaritan, which call the Christian to acts of mercy precisely for those who are different from us.
Such a reading means that the Incarnation is no longer limited to life of the Church. The birth of the Saviour has not just ecclesiastical but cosmic significance. There is no place where Jesus isn’t, no life untouched by his presence. We can go to the estate, the prison cell, the cancer ward, the hospice, the factory, the army barracks and so on and find Christ incarnate and present. His being goes way beyond our capacity to measure, understand or comprehend.
There is therefore no distinction between that which is secular and that which is sacred because by taking on creation, Jesus has sanctified it. The world is charged with the presence of the Word made Flesh which gives us a responsibility to care for it and nurture it as stewards. That is surely consistent with Romans 8.20 where Paul talks about all being subject to futility ‘until now,’ (Rom 8.22) that ‘now’ being the advent of Christ.
The Incarnation is not about a God who steps in for a while to rescue a few souls from a godless world. It is a cosmic work of God in history that impacts the whole of creation for all time. Its particularity has consequences that are universal and eternal.
There is of course a lazy, universalist way of reading this understanding of the Incarnation. If Jesus is present in everything, why bother? Why do we need the church, its worship or a call to conversion? But that would be wholly wrong. Just because Jesus imbues creation and is present in the poor and the hungry that doesn’t in any way forego the need for conversion, repentance and new life. Of course we need to acknowledge Christ as Lord and bend the knee before him. Of course we need faith to know salvation. And of course we need evangelists to bring people to that point of conversion. What it effects is the why and the how of our evangelism.
So why do we evangelise? When the church ministers to an estate, we are not carrying Jesus there—because he is there already. Rather our purpose is to help people to see the Christ who made them, who is present in their lives and who longs for their salvation. To become a Christian is to wake up to something that we know fundamentally to be true, perhaps that we knew all along, but couldn’t find the language or the rituals to articulate. We don’t import good news. We point it out.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote these remarkable lines in his poem ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland.’
I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it;
Hopkins had a profound sense of the incarnate presence of God charging all creation and of the poet’s task to ‘waft out’ that presence in order that others might worship him. Perhaps the work of the evangelist is the same, wafting out the presence of the Saviour in unlikely people and places so that those who seek life’s purpose might find that purpose in His eternal starlight.
And how do we evangelise? To turn up with a large gang of people who believe they have a monopoly on the truth and who import a culturally alien message using language and concepts local people do not understand is not evangelism. It is colonialism. Our approach needs to echo the incarnational principle.
First we need evangelists who will listen and help people find the Christ in their midst. We need to go expecting to find Jesus in the most unlikely places and rejoice together when we do find him. That means (for example) that the most successful estates church plants tend to have very small leadership teams who move into an area and for many months pray, live the life and become part of the community. They model the incarnation themselves and in so doing gather together communities of disciples.
Second we need evangelists who have the humility to be evangelised themselves. In Matthew 25 Jesus is present in the hungry and the prisoner. If that is the case, then it is the hungry and the prisoner who minister Christ to us. As Vincent de Paul wrote, the poor are our evangelists. Those who long to convert others must be open to being more deeply converted themselves.
And third, any evangelism on estates needs to be passionate about raising up local leaders. The best voices are local voices who can find good news in the people they know and point it out in a language that local people can understand. The attempts being made in many parts of the church to call and form local leaders from urban communities are vital.
I read Ian’s post on the same day as a I watched a powerfully moving edition of DIY–SOS in which the team, funded by Children in Need, gathered a vast crowd of tradesmen to renovate an old school building owned by a parish in our Diocese. In less than two weeks they transformed the building into the most wonderful, safe space for six homeless teenagers who have now been rescued from the streets and are learning skills that will set them up for life.
Where is Jesus in that scenario? Is his presence really restricted to those who happen to attend that small church? Or is he present in the incredible love and compassion of those, Christian or not, who gave so freely of their times and gifts to transform the lives of some of the nation’s most vulnerable people? Surely it is when we find Christ in the latter and then, when we find him, name him and worship him, that his glory shines forth.
+Philip Burnley, November 15th 2019
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