Friday 9 November 2012

And a (Blindfolded) Child shall lead them?

Everybody knows the name of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and today could be the day they can stop pretending they don’t. If Dr Justin Welby succeeds in leading the Church beyond stale navel-gazing, an appearance on Question Time might be thought a suitable, even compelling, way for the next but one Archbishop to introduce themselves to the nation, rather than an embarrassing distraction from vital ecclesiastical business.

Justin comes to the role with high hopes and fears riding on the decision of the committee that selected him. Have they done better than a blindfolded child? Many feel that more of the same is unsustainable, and long for clarity and hope. Beyond ecclesiastical office politics, it’s time for an outward facing holy pragmatism that has the guts to align itself with its own values.

It is may well have been wise to have gone for more than a caretaker candidate, and one who represents some very interesting firsts. Justin will be the first archbishop to have come to living faith on an Alpha Course, the first to have had a substantial career doing something else before ordination, the first in a very long time to have been a Cathedral Dean, and the first Old Etonian ABC since 1862. He could be the last who had to be male.

Three immense challenges to get real face the Church of England

  • Jesus taught his followers to study the signs of the times, to be alert and watchful, to remember that the last would be first and the first last — It’s time for the dear old C of E to get real. English society has changed, and those who minister to it cannot assume the kind of effortless superiority in posessing the moral high ground our parents and grandparents could. Everyone is a volunteer now. The Church can only give a lead if it is willing to try understand the moral instincts of the people it seeks to serve. Like St Paul, it can appeal openly to the conscience of all, but not if all the energy is wasted kicking and screaming about the impossibility of change.
  • The Church needs to get real about its own mission and recover the kind of “red letter” Christianity most often found in the local Church. Its priority has to enacting the things Jesus actually commanded. Notably these did not include keeping gays in the closet, or money safe in one's best hanky, or ensuring males only rule the roost. Jesus’ commands are not discussion starters. They are meant to be a way of life, including, to take some glaringly obvious examples, 
    • Love God wholeheartedly and your neighbour as yourself.
    • Do unto others what you would have them do to you. 
    • Judge not that ye be not judged. 
    • Examine the plank in your own eye before you remove the speck from someone else’s. 
    • Do not compete for the best places at parties.
    • Pray in secret not for show
    • Openness — let your light so shine before people... as a city on a hill, a lamp on a stand
    • Watch for the signs of the times
    • Let your yes be yes and your no no — anything else comes from the evil one.
    • Do not treat people with partiality, for God is no respected of persons
    • Equality— you have one Father and you are all sisters and brothers
  • Karl Barth preached with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. In 1963 he said this advice dated back 40 years. Now, sadly you may say, we are simply not living in 1923 any more. Newspapers are a small niche in a complex media scene. More significantly, social media are bringing in a new assumptions about democracy, personal connectedness, openness and availability. In this new world, as Forrest Gump used to say, stupid is as stupid does. The only way not to look silly is not to do silly things. Saying nothing makes you invisible. Living in such a world should not be an impossible challenge to people who say they hold themselves accountable to a God unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid. Many of them have embraced the reality of such a world, but far too many are still wedded to the old rules about privacy, privilege, deference and social hypocrisy.
As Justin takes on this challenge, to which nobody could imagine themselves equal, let’s pray he remembers God made him the person he is by grace, and he cannot achieve whatever the Lord was thinking of in bringing him here by losing his identity in the role. He’s got to find a way to be himself in his new post. His lack of experience of conventional “cake or death” Anglicanism may be his greatest asset. Who knows? We could be in for renewal and hope after all, God willing.


Laura Sykes said...

God willing, DV...all manner of thing shall be well. Thank-you for this post.

Old and cynical though I am, I have been rather taken aback by the amount of vitriol already spewing around cyberspace, and the poor man hasn't even been appointed yet!

It is customary in politics to let the incomer have 100 days. Will you join me in proposing we allow (for the moment only Bishop) Justin his 100 days before we all weigh in with the criticism?

Dave Faulkner said...

As an outsider to the C of E (I'm a Methodist minister) I noted the problems about the 'Bible and newspaper' analogy on Wednesday in a post where I suggested that the new ABC would need a rapid response social media unit. Reading your comments near the end about the Barth quote, I'm glad to see I'm not alone. I also note that Peter Ould is today querying the C of E's inability at 'official' (rather than individual) level to come to terms with a social media world in the way the CNC processes have been handled with the press.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Laura — let's by all means give Justin time into the job — but I hope not entirely switch off so as to leave him in a vacuum. I know the problem, Dave. I don't mind the technical aspect of it, but I'm sorry if any church is breeding inward looking leaders who are closed, anxious and up-tight. I think NT Christianity did best in open communications environments like Corinth, and suspect this is still the case.

Father Ron Smith said...

Thanks, Bishop Alan, for this timely article. Having been profoundly affected. myself, by the charismatic movement in 1960s New Zealand, i am aware of +Justin's renewal through his association with HTB. This could have equipped him to understand the need of God's grace in his ministry - to the extent that he is willing to listen to the heart-beat of ordinary people in the church and the world around us.

He appears to have realised that "God so loved the world..." - to the degree that he is willing and able to listen, rather than pontifically pronounce. May God keep him in that mode!

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