New directions for the church 1: whose kingdom come?

Woman praying

You may or may not have noticed, but we are now in the middle of a ‘global wave of prayer’ initiated by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, under the name ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

This is the first of a series of posts reflecting on the Church, primarily here the Church of England. I ask how it is perceived by its leaders, and how we might perceive it differently. I believe their idea of the Church isn’t working. The aim of these posts is to offer positive alternatives. Thy Kingdom Come illustrates what’s wrong.

Its website tells us that Thy Kingdom Come

is a global prayer movement that invites Christians around the world to pray for more people to come to know Jesus.

When I first read it I had two immediate responses.

It is busy

It is designed to give you plenty to do:

Prayer events of all shapes and sizes are taking place from 10th- 20th May 2018, including 24-7 prayer rooms, prayer days, prayer walks and half nights of prayer.

There is even Thy Kingdom Come merchandise to buy.

40 years ago I was a young curate. I expected bishops and archbishops to remind us clergy that we had a duty to pray, and encourage others to pray – regularly, as part of daily life. But not to organise one-off prayer campaigns. Any such activity would be more appropriate at a local level. Haven’t local churches got enough to do, without having national initiatives thrust upon them?

It is superficial

I couldn’t find on the Thy Kingdom Come website any account of why we should pray more between 10th and 20th May than at any other time, or even what is the purpose of praying at all.

Again I see a huge contrast with my past. 60 years ago, as a child, I was being given prayer booklets describing the purposes of the different forms of prayer – adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication: why to do it, how to do it, what to expect from it. If that was possible then, why doesn’t that website at least tell us what praying is for?

Putting the two together, the Archbishops seem to be generating a flurry of activity without explaining its purpose.

It feels to me as though Thy Kingdom Come has been designed by the kinds of ecclesiastics I tried to avoid when I was a vicar. These are the ones who feel sure Christianity ought to make a difference in people’s lives but don’t have much idea what sort of difference it should make. So they generate activities and campaigns that use up the time and energy of the already-committed. They don’t know how to answer the hard questions, so they make everyone too busy to ask them. Within the church bubble, the activities earn approval. Outside it, they look like one more reason to have nothing to do with religion.

What’s wrong?

I see today’s church discourse, at least in England, as dominated by a particular kind of Evangelicalism. Roughly speaking – and I have to speak roughly, because every person is unique – I am thinking of the popular movement that characterises the Evangelical revival since the 1970s. It is quite different from the Evangelicalism of the nineteenth century, let alone the Anglo-Catholicism dominant until the 1960s or the liberal Christianity of Modern Church. It varies within itself, but also has distinctive features. Even today it doesn’t represent all Evangelicals; but it does represent those who produce national church initiatives. It is the driving force behind the Decade of Evangelism, Mission-Shaped Church and Thy Kingdom Come. It would never have produced Faith in the City, any more than Forward in Faith would have produced the Decade of Evangelism.

How can we put it right?

These are the main weaknesses as I see them, together with the alternatives I would prefer. Subsequent posts will elaborate on them.

  • The Jesus cult. There is an emphasis on the individual acquiring a sense of identity by being part of a club, and therefore different from outsiders. Instead we could engage fully with society and world affairs, treating non-Christians as equals and contributing our own Christian insights.
  • Prioritising the institutional Church. I am old enough to remember the once common Evangelical mantra that, just because you went to Church, it didn’t mean you were a Christian. Now, the Evangelical emphasis on conversion has come to be identified with ‘church growth’ – in other words, persuading more people to attend services. Instead we could be offering resources to help people with their spiritual lives regardless of whether they attend services.
  • Short-term initiatives and target-setting. In these days of declining numbers there is a longing for observable signs of church growth. Instead we could accept that the inherited model is too top-heavy and expensive, and work towards a leaner system with fewer stipendiary posts and smaller financial demands on parishes.
  • An exclusive model of church membership. Gone are the days when every baby baptised in the Church of England counted as a church member. Those who do not regularly attend services are not consulted in church decision-making. Instead we could recognise that real life does not produce hard and fast dividing lines. Nobody should be treated as an outsider if they don’t want to be.
  • The suppression of disagreement. 50 years ago it was common for bishops to publicly disagree with each other. Now it is frowned on. The dominant narrative about what Christians believe is that we should all believe the same things. Instead we could be open about the fact that we don’t. Church life would be healthier and more interesting if we felt free to disagree with each other openly and respectfully.

Maybe the Church would be more effective if it was less busy and more reflective, less enthusiastic about short-term campaigns and more patient with long-term tasks, less concerned with itself and more willing to offer its resources to whoever wants them.

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10 Responses to New directions for the church 1: whose kingdom come?

  1. Andrew (Andy) Crow says:

    Aye, well… Brexit we’ll ‘appen have to get used to these newfangled American ways.

    Every centimetre further from Europe is an inch closer to the US.

    Some (but not all) of the Gospel music is OK, but apart from that US religion seems to be an abomination.

    Hey Ho. You must do what you think God is telling you to do and hope you are hearing right.

    The principle function of the House of Bishops is to run the National Railway networks and services. (Bring back steam !)

    If the government would let them get on with that maybe they’d stop annoying everybody with their marketing-speak initiatives.

  2. Jane Thomas says:

    Is it just – just – possible that (what seems like) a horribly naive and over-hyped recruitment drive for the Evangelical branches of CofE plc has got enough people praying that signs of the kingdom are emerging against all odds – and certainly against the attempts of the archbishops to manage the outcome. It started in Lichfield, and now a door has been opened that cannot be closed.

  3. Philip Almond says:

    Whether initiatives like ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ are heading in the right direction depends on a prior question: whether Article 9 of the 39 Articles is right in its assertion that we all deserve from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God, and whether that wrath and condemnation includes retribution on and after the Day of Judgment for all those whom God has not delivered from wrath and condemnation by his great salvation. If Article 9 is right, then such deliverance must be the paramount need of us all; relatively infinitely more important than all other human needs, harrowing and important as many of those needs are. The disagreement about what is the right answer to this prior question is the most fundamental disagreement among those who believe that Christianity is in some sense true.
    Phil Almond

    • Indeed, for those who are still asking that question, you are right. The prospect of spending eternity being tortured after death would completely overshadow every this-worldly consideration. For a few centuries, countless millions spent their lives in absolute terror of what was to come after they died. Whenever this matter is raised, my response is that it is the cruellest, most oppressive, most barbaric theory ever produced by the human mind. If you can think of a worse one, please let me know.
      One is left musing on God’s ‘great salvation’, as you put it. So God decides, in a mood of ‘wrath and condemnation’, to impose this ‘retribution’, and then decides to exempt some of us. If there is truth in this, we have one thing to pray for: the conversion of God.

  4. Philip Almond says:

    You make my point. In the sentiments you express here you have in effect thrown the whole Bible into the bin, or you have just selected the bits you like and ignored the bits you don’t like.
    Phil Almond

    • So then, Philip, you’ve moved on. We’re now talking about the Bible, not the 39 Articles. Different issue. That’s okay by me, so long as we’re clear this is a different issue.
      Yes, I believe some biblical texts are true but not others. I have come across lots of people who claim to believe the whole Bible is true, but I have never come across anyone who actually does. When I ask them about tricky texts they get stuck.

  5. James Lintower says:

    Such a “god” would be infinitely more evil than Hitler. We find “salvation” or as it is put in S.Luke’s Gospel story, “eternal life” and “live”, here and now, if we care for “God” by caring for our neighbour even if it is not always easy to know what that demands in particular situations, and even though we always need for that the grace of God. Or to put it in another way (Micah’s), what does God require, only this, that we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God”, words that come from centuries before the birth of Jesus, as, for example in the Psalms, do words of forgiveness and reconciliation.

  6. To look no further than some of the words of Christ reported in the New Testament: the following make clear that there will be a final judgment and separation of all people: Matthew 13:36-43; Luke 13:1-5; John 5:25-29; Luke 19:12-27; Matthew 25:31-46; Matthew 25:1-13; Matthew 25:14-30; Matthew 5:13-14; Luke 13:23-30. Retribution is stated or implied in some of these sayings. Did Jesus say all, some or none of these words?
    Article 9 and the Bible are not different issues. Rather, those like me who believe that Article 9 is right do so not because we like what it says but because our conscience is convicted to believe that it truly summarises what the Bible teaches.
    The God and Christ that the Bible sets before us are terrible and wonderful: terrible in their holiness, righteousness, justice, wrath against sinners and honesty; wonderful in their love, compassion, mercy, patience, grace and pity. A terrible truth is that we all must be born again to enter into the kingdom of God. A wonderful truth is that God and Christ give a sincere and genuine invitation to all to submit to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection – submit in repentance, faith, love and obedience, and thus to be delivered from the wrath to come.
    The quote from Micah ends with ‘…and walk humbly with our God’. We are all called throughout the Bible to humble ourselves before God. For instance, ‘These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word’.
    Phil Almond

    • Philip, I don’t know you personally but it looks to me as if you are full of angst. And so you would be if God is as you describe.
      You seem to be committed to the view that everything in the Bible is literally true. I don’t believe that. Indeed, if it was all literally true, why did it take 1400 years before people interpreted it that way? So to answer your question about whether Jesus said the things you quote, I wasn’t there at the time. I depend on biblical scholars to judge which are the most reliable texts, because they spend their time trying to find out and most of the rest of us don’t.
      When you say of Article 9 that ‘our conscience is convicted to believe that it truly summarises what the Bible teaches’, you open a window onto your interpretative process. Of course we all interpret. Your interpretation seems to me to be so destructive, that as long as there are people like you describing Christianity like that, there will also be atheists.

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