As 2013 starts I am uncomfortably aware that my retirement date beckons in 18 months time. It concentrates my mind – even more – on why the liberating and life-giving message of Jesus and the empowering experience of being (re)connected to our Creator continues to have so little resonance with ordinary people in our culture. And why so many people continue to identify as ‘Christian’ in some sense or another (still a majority of British adults, despite the recent census figures which partly reflect changing demographics and partly atheist campaigning), and yet identification with the Church (enough to turn up at church at least once a month) remains pitifully low.
People often say it is because the church is so divided, and that we must pursue Christian unity as the key to a missional breakthrough. I just don’t see it. I’m convinced that the Church will be divided until the end of time (Christian unity irretrievably broken down), and the only thing that matters from now on is whether we can express our divisions in missionally-significant ways. The problem with our present divisions/denominations is that they are about theology or worship-style or patterns of leadership/ministry – not about how best to work out the mission of God in the world. Paul and Barnabas had to go their separate ways, but it didn’t matter because they both just got on and spread the gospel in their different styles. Paul wasn’t doomed to missional failure because of this fall-out. It was the same with the missions of Paul and Peter. The problem with our present denominations is that they are stuck in the issues of the past, issues that are no longer missionally significant. The recent Church of England debacle over women bishops shows that this (my) denomination is dysfunctionally diverse in terms of its mission. Christian people need to regroup themselves around particular visions of mission – none of which will be perfect, but at least the diverse emerging entities will be about how we sense ourselves called to enact Christ’s mission in today’s world.
I believe in the established church in this country, but what we have at the moment is too tied up with its own problems to fulfil this particular mission. We are frightened to let the Church of England break up, but in the long run it would be the best thing. We need a narrower Church of England with a shared missional vision in relation to a broad spectrum of people in this country. That probably means liberal Catholic through to liberal evangelical, and shedding the Anglo-Catholic and conservative evangelical wings (they also have a mission, in partnership with others, reaching the kinds of people that ‘establishment’ will never reach, but their style doesn’t sit comfortably with being established church). Our biggest problem is that within the Church of England we are deeply fractured, and this is disabling us from working together to enact our particular calling better. Such a narrowing of the Church of England would open up new partnerships in the mission of being the established church, not least with the Methodists as previous talks over unity with them have been dogged by the present ‘wings’ of the Church of England.
If we did this great ‘regathering’ around visions for mission, we might end up with less ‘denominations’ than we have at present – i.e. more unified! In the recent debates, Christian unity was held as a gun to the head; we must stop falling for this one.
Of course, the renewal of the Christian mission is not all about structures. We need to recapture the spirit of the gospel in our shared life as believers. But there will be structures (and we have got them), and they can either facilitate things or get in the way. Our dysfunctional based-on-the-past structures are getting in the way, including the calling to be the established church (and that structure even at its best has its weaknesses as well as its opportunities). Simply getting people within the present structures to focus more deeply on Jesus is not enough; the structures they are in keep pulling them away. The call/appeal of these long-standing structures is just too strong. We need the structures to break down and be re-formed in meaningful missional ways. It’s time to live more dangerously. And I hope the new Archbishop of Canterbury is up for it.