Friday 17 August 2012

An Inconvenient truth

When I was asked to give a title for a talk I chose ‘an inconvenient truth’, which incidentally had nothing to do with weather or climate change, I appropriated the title used by an American politician, and I hope my use of the term will be more factual than his use.

When I was first asked many years ago to speak publicly I realized I was being asked because I was the Vicar of a local Church. I felt that that being the case I should restrict myself to speaking about ‘the Church’ in general. I have kept to that formula and it is about the Church I speak now.

Two years ago a theological storm occurred after the then Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, wrote an article in the new political magazine ‘Standpoint’. The article was picked up by the national press and was reviewed by most papers and presented according to the newspaper’s own stance,varying from hostility in the Guardian and Independent, to fulsome praise in the Daily Mail. The full article was well written and contained 3653 words, far more than those commented upon.

There were essentially two focal points in the article. Firstly, that having owed much to Christian influence, which brought and kept this nation as one, Christianity is being wrecked and the ensuing collapse of Christian values has led to an unstable society in which family life is being destroyed, and a moral and spiritual vacuum has been created. Secondly, Church leaders have capitulated to a liberal agenda, leaving radical Islam to fill the vacuum. Was he right?

Whilst there were some abusive and slightly hysterical comments on the websites of the Guardian and Independent, the main body of opinion thought the Bishop was stating the right thing. I am sure the majority of people generally will think the same. They think he is speaking the truth, however inconvenient to others.

I say that based on the fact that I had spoken at a Veterans Day service in Chester on the verse ‘when the foundations are destroyed what then shall the righteous do’ in which I said virtually the same things as Bishop Michael wrote, and judge from the response I then got.

After the service I received a letter from a lady who wrote, ‘I grew up in the 20s and 30s in a free country with principles. We joined the forces because we thought we were fighting to preserve a way of life which other countries envied. We grew up in God fearing families. For a long time I have felt like a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. The only answer I have had is we have moved on. I feel as though I am losing my faith.’ I don’t believe she is a lone voice crying in the wilderness. I think there are many people in sympathy with her. I am sure there are many who would agree with her and such sentiments.

There are those who dismiss the article out of hand of course, without even looking at it, simply because they don’t like Nazir-Ali. Whatever your personal opinion maybe, I think it is worth considering by those of us who profess to call ourselves committed Christians, and especially those of us engaged in Christian ministry. (I declare a statement of interest in that I am a fan of the Bishop and think he would have been the best thing that could have happened for the Church if he had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury)

If we consider the state of things in this country, I suggest one would really have to be living in a fools paradise not to recognize there is a general breakdown in society. The moral boundaries have been swept away to such an extent that there are now no absolutes, all is relative and you just do your own thing and make up your own standards. This is being taught in our schools and universities, and in intellectual circles the Bible is seen as some form of hate literature. People believe they can do without God. Lying is endemic even to the highest public offices in the land.

If you should be brave, or foolhardy enough, to walk the towns and cities you will notice a complete breakdown of law and order. Soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime is the order of the day, with the police either unable, or indeed unwilling, to act. Every kind of vice is open to view and reveled in. Now even both sexes are involved.

There has been a systematic attack on the Christian faith by ideologues in political circles, and by civil servants, to eradicate Christianity from public life; people who betray and dislike the culture which nurtured them, seeking to make it disappear, with national and local governmental bodies bullying it out of existence. This sustained attack is not made on other faiths however.

One woman wrote to her MP to complain about something which offended her Christian beliefs and was told in reply her opinion did not count as Christianity was now a minor factor.

Marriage and family life, the bedrock of society, is according to senior members of government, of no more worth than any other form of relationship and a father is not considered necessary in the family. The word ‘marriage’ has been barred from official use lest it offends non married people, and now we have same sex marriage proposed.

What concerns us particularly as Christians from the Bishop’s article is the reference to the Church’s role in the breakdown of society. I think it fair to say that whilst this might be appropriate to all denominations, I imagine he had in mind particularly the Church of England.

The ongoing debate regarding the appointment of women as bishops is a public relations nightmare, together with the tiresome issue of homosexuality, which is not going to go away as each side is entrenched to its own standpoint. What an image for the Church.

On the one side there is the traditional side of Africa, South America and the Eastern Churches, claiming Scriptural integrity, against Western Churches who want to follow society’s changing attitude.

It is as far as the Church of England is concerned, surely better to bring an end to all this continuing debate, which is doing inestimable damage to the Church’s image in general, (for people don’t stop to differentiate, they just class all the Churches as one). Surely it would be better to divide into their conservative and liberal parts to follow their own way.

Once, and not so long ago, it was generally assumed that marriage was for life, divorce was just not done. As the saying went, ‘divorce never. Murder possibly’. Then, people began to feel that it was better to divorce than live unhappily and marriages fell apart.

When Churches lose the beliefs that have held them together, they begin to fall apart and disintegrate. It is fatuous and irrational to suppose biblical injunctions which do not conform to modern attitudes can be reinterpreted to suit requirements. Division is destructive and can only lead to falling attendances. The continual myth that provided we go on talking all will work out is only going to exacerbate the problem.

In 1966, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the celebrated evangelist preacher called on all evangelicals to leave their separate denominations and unite under one statement of faith. John Stott, the celebrated Anglican teacher, opposed it fearing it would break the Church of England. Failure to do so has nearly achieved that prediction, and not assisted other denominations.

Referring to the social and sexual revolution of the 1960s the Church, it was suggested, rather than resisting this phenomenon, liberal theologians and Church leaders all but capitulated to the intellectual and cultural forces of the time. This caused a moral and spiritual vacuum in which we now find ourselves, leaving nothing but self indulgence. If people are not given a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian, and to have a Christian based society, then something else will take its place, and that could be something far worse.

Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadan Fellowship agreed with the Bishop that there was a moral vacuum, which was not caused by Islam so much, as the failure of the Church to transmit Christian values to people, and referred to fringes of Islam not being representative of the faith as a whole

Islamic leaders indeed are shocked in fact at the way we fail to promote our religion and criticize us for not recognizing our faith in this country. No Muslin would ever think of criticizing their holy book, the Koran, and look in amazement that even within the Church there are those who dispute much of our Holy Book. Such is the superior discipline..

Can anyone however imagine the outcry if a Christian minister appeared on television and referred to women as second class citizens and suggesting homosexuals should be thrown off mountains, as some Muslim preachers were shown so stating.

Mr Shafiq is right. The Church has failed to transmit Christian values. We have ailed miserably in allowing the government to have such an easy ride on their legislation. We should have been far more vocal regarding adoption, in which same sex couples are to be allowed to adopt, yet prejudice is shown to white middle class married couples, and where any expression of religious (Christian) faith is a bar for consideration.

There are issues on which the Church has a voice which should be heard, such as abortion, adoption, and the right of Christians to act according to their faith and beliefs. We will not always win our case, but we can be an awful nuisance. And to be fair, there are a lot of people who will take note of the Church for which the have respect even though they want no part of it.

What we have in the Church is a cultural war between the conservative wing and the liberal faction so that people don’t know what the Church believes. For many years the Labour party was deemed to be unelectable because of the party warfare, until Tony Blair arrived to sort them out. Similarly, the Conservatives were seen as unworthy to be elected because no one was quite sure what they believed.

Until the Church gets its act together we will continue to see congregations falling for people cannot be expected to attend Church and be convinced to believe when they find the Church itself cannot make its own mind up on what to believe. Children who have grown up post 1960 have been encouraged to develop an air of scepticism regarding all establishment institutions, know little of Scripture and treat the Church with no respect, even an arrogant dislike.

When a man, or woman, is ordained into the Church of England, they are required to take a vow which reads, ‘I so affirm and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness’. I imagine the other Churches have a similar requirement. How then some people can reconcile their doubts and consciences when they say the Creed yet do not believe its declarations, I cannot understand.

The Church is beginning to look more influenced by the world rather than the other way around. Nothing is more irrelevant than a Church which tries to be relevant. It surrenders to which ever way the wind of public opinion is blowing and eagerly follows prevailing popularity so as to be blown in the same direction as everybody else. When a Church does this and adopts the world’s agenda it so often ends up going further, so rendering it useless to God and itself and everybody else.

Much of our food today has a preservative in to avoid it going rotten and perishing. Britain needs the Christian Church to act as a preservative to prevent the moral and spiritual situation perishing, as the nation drifts further away from Biblical Christianity.

Some of our Churches have become little more than social service centres, and whilst it is right and commendable to meet the needs of society, it should not be at the expense of what the Church is really there for as happens in some places. Our Lord always concerned Himself with people’s material needs, but never allowed that to supersede the spiritual need, and resisted calls to conform to society’s opinions.

It may be thought there is at times the temptation to be spectacular and have services which are said to be ‘with it’. I am all for modern worship, but sometimes it seems as if Ministers are little more than presenters at a religious show.

So, what for the future of the Church in general? There is hope and confidence if all members, and particularly the clergy, realize there is no hope if they are content to sit back and say ethereally, ‘God will provide’. Christ did say ‘I will build my Church’, but He expects a little help from His friends.

The Church has an image at times of unworldliness. Let me give you a piece Malcolm Muggeridge wrote years ago.
‘In an average English village today, worship has become little more than a dying bourgeois cult. A small cluster of motor cars may be seen outside the parish church when the service is in progress; the bells still ring joyously across the fields and meadows on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings, but fewer and fewer heed them, and those who do are predominantly middle-class, female and elderly. It must be desperately disheartening, and the Vicar often gives the impression of being dispirited and forlorn. Whatever zeal he may have had as an ordinand soon gets dissipated in an atmosphere of domestic care and indifference on the part of his flock. Small wonder, then, that in the pulpit he has little to say except to repeat the same old clerical banalities. He doubtless feels himself to be redundant. The villagers stoically die without his ministrations; they would resent any interruption to their evening telly if he ventured to make a call...In large cities the situation is not dissimilar.’

The situation has, of course got even worse, with the major denominations losing members on a weekly basis, and with the average congregation size often of as low as 20 with 50/60 being considered good. I took a service a few weeks ago where there were six in the main morning service. The poor image which the church has in the minds of many is often a sad reflection of the reality.

We have to have faith and optimism. In every walk of life hard times come and require new energy, new initiative.. One danger is that prominence is often given to the utterances of Bishops, who in turn make the most unfortunate of statements. The more they get involved in talking of climate change the more ridiculous they become. I don’t think it necessary to have Archbishops dropping out of aeroplanes on the back of someone, or tearing their collar in some dramatic gesture which has no effect at all.

Each individual, (that is local) Church has to try and be true to the gospel, as written in Scripture, and when it finds statements being made, which it finds unacceptable, to say so and dissociate itself from them.

We urgently need to promote ourselves vigorously, advertise our presence. Why would major companies spend millions on advertisements if they didn’t produce results?

When I retired from full time ministry,--when I retired from fulltime PAID ministry, my son persuaded me to get satellite television. I have been able to watch Churches in America, which really know how to promote themselves and how to present their services. We could learn so much from them. How I wish I had had that facility before retiring.

So then, above all, let us get back to proclaiming the truth, however inconvenient. Truth is eternal, institutions temporal.

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