Rethinking decline

A couple of weeks ago I was at a Christian-Jewish study day during which a rabbi suggested that when God promises land, that promise may be conditional on moral behaviour and right relationship with God.

At first I didn’t think much about this. As a Christian I don’t feel as if I have been promised any particular part of the earth.  Our scriptures remind us that we are citizens of heaven or called to seek the reign of God that doesn’t have a geographical location.

Over the last few days  this idea has been swirling around my mind as I have started to think what it might mean to me as a Christian. While theoretically the Church is not associated with any part of land it has, for much of its history, had territory. Since the alignment with the Roman Empire the church has gained and lost ground. Since the days of Henry VIII this little island has been considered a Christian country.

But research being quoted this week shows that certainly in this corner of creation the Church is losing territory.  Far fewer people than ever identify as Christians – in the UK the percentage of people describing themselves as non-religious rose to 48.5% in 2014 whereas the number of people describing themselves as Anglican plunged from 44.5% in 1983 to 19% in 2014.

Church leaders, statisticians and strategists have been aware of decline for decades now. We have theorised and blamed – blamed the culture, the fragmentation of society, rampant consumerism, the media, new moral codes and changing family patterns. We have blamed our worship, our clergy, our buildings and our leaders. But have we looked at our behaviour and our fundamental relationship with God?

I remember the writer Elaine Storkey saying about 20 years ago that the Church cannot recruit unless we have the moral high ground and I have been mulling that over ever since. Do we think God has anything to do with either our growth or decline or do we look simply to modernisation and mission initiatives?

This week we have been told it’s mission or extinction for the church. But might it be repentance or lose ground? I love the Church of England deeply – it has nurtured me from birth and I have seen its kindness, its beauty, its humanity and its love. But I know it well enough to know it is flawed. So flawed that according to recent research published in the Invisible Church study there are thousands of people, possibly millions, who love God, want to follow Jesus, read their Bible and pray but can’t or won’t go to church.

I don’t think God is punishing the Church with decline but I think it is possible that there is a judgement happening.  Judgement calls us to examine ourselves, to change, to look honestly beyond the gloss and spin and to try and see truthfully.

Nor do I believe that God is abandoning the Church. If the Church, as I know it, does decline, I believe that there will be new shoots of faith emerging. In fact there are already shoots of growth both inside and outside the established Churches and denominations.

One of those shoots of growth that is blossoming across denominations is in the astonishing rise in Christian social action. Might there be a church emerging that sides with the poor, that is in solidarity with the oppressed, that risks the work of reconciliation and stands defiantly against greed and exploitation.

Most mission initiatives try to make it easier for people to join the church but I think if we made it harder, perhaps really hard, we might see growth that is far deeper and more transformative than we could imagine, as, really believing in our calling to follow Jesus, we begin again the ground of the Kingdom of God .

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Who is your enemy? A note to the posh among us….

At different times of my life, different parts of the Lord’s Prayer have been extremely important to me. (At the moment it is: ‘On earth as it is on heaven’ but that is for another time. About five years ago it was ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’  It struck me that if we did not have people to forgive we were probably not doing the Christian thing right. We weren’t trusting people enough, letting people close enough to us, risking enough or being generous enough.

I was reminded of this again today at a meeting of Christian leaders in Birmingham who had gathered to discuss the subject of ‘reconciliation.’ We got on to talking about enemies,  in particular loving our enemies,  and many of us around the room (but not all of us) concurred that we didn’t have many, if any, enemies.

This might seem like a good thing. It might even seem like an admirable, Christian thing, but it is worth remembering that Jesus did have plenty of enemies and we were challenged about whether we are doing enough truth-telling in our churches and in our neighbourhoods.

What also emerged out of the conversation was that we might not think we have enemies but we might be regarded as enemies by certain people.  This was bought home to me recently by a meme circulating on Facebook about Jeremy Hunt at the time of the doctors’ strike.

Frankie Boyle

While I am not as posh as Jeremy Hunt and I failed my Oxbridge interview, my background is not that dissimilar to his. (A good friend recently described me as ‘salt of the earth posh’) Many of my school-friends are from this background and many of them (not all) are wonderfully compassionate people who have plenty of empathy. But this meme was liked and shared by people I like and I realised that my friends from teenage days and I are regarded by many as an enemy.

In journalism you can commit a group libel if you say something that incriminates a small cluster of people meaning individuals can be identified. I guess this kind of enemy-creation is a group thing. And it’s entirely understandable. But what it means to me is that I have enemies – I can be judged for things outside my control. Things like my Government’s foreign policy, the actions of my ancestors, my accent or my skin colour. Some groups of people have known that for ever.

Jesus calls us to love our enemies. Writing as someone from a privileged and central position in society, this now offers me a new challenge. Who are the people who might have reason to be angry with me beacuse of my privilege? Who are people who have suffered at the hands of people like me? Who are the people who have been excluded where I have been included? These are the people I am called to love. I have been spending the last 5 years of my life banging on about making friends with people but now I think I will go out and look for my enemies – and when I recognise them, I hope I will be compelled by the love of God among us to seek justice with them with a renewed vigour and urgency.