Sermon preached as part of the 'What I want to say now' series (4 May 2014) by the Right Reverend John Gladwin, former Bishop of Chelmsford

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Sermon preached as part of the 'What I want to say now' series (4 May 2014) by the Right Reverend John Gladwin, former Bishop of Chelmsford

The Right Reverend John Gladwin (Bishop of Chelmsford, 2004-2009) looks at the position of the Church in society and says "the Church has a rich and unrivalled resource in its faith and history for making a vital and critical contribution."

This sermon is part of a series of four, at which retired bishops are asked to preach on the subject 'What I want to say now'.

No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ

We are in serious danger. I can think of an increasing number of friends and people we have met who have a deep faith in Jesus Christ and who have given up on the church. As a recently retired person in Holy Orders said to me, ‘I am not missing church, John’.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is right. We are a Christian nation – the faith of Jesus Christ is deep in the soil of our history. We are also a nation that is increasingly unchurched.

A survey, conducted in the USA about 8 years ago by a group of radical evangelical Christians, published under the title ‘Unchristian’, pointed to the deep shift in cultural attitudes among those under 40 and then even more so those under 25. Many of them might be attending their churches but they do not share the social and moral outlook of the leadership of their denominations.

When I tell you that there are just over 20 women clergy in senior office in the C of E in Bishop’s staff teams which number around 300 people you will see how much the church has to do to get back in touch with the changes that have happened in our society in the last 2 decades. In the words of Winston Churchill following the victory at El Alamein, the decision to open up the episcopate to women in the Church will be ‘the end of the beginning’. There is a huge task still be to be faced.

I chair the Board of Citizens Advice. Our rules require us, after considering people’s gifts and qualification to be a Trustee, to balance gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age and culture. Charities that do not have procedures and cultures committed to such outcomes compromise their duty to those they are called to serve.

Why are we surprised when a Statement issued by the House of Bishops – an all male and almost exclusively all white body of the over 50’s and 60’s – on Same Sex Marriage is either dismissed or ignored. These are the leaders of the national church. Least we think this is just the secular media attacking Christian faith there are increasing numbers of clergy and of people in the pews of the church who either dismiss or ignore the position taken by the church’s leadership on these matters.

Behind all this are people’s loss of confidence and connection with the language we use to convey the message of hope and of life in Jesus Christ. There is a crisis of faith. The outcome of our failing to address the medium and language through which we offer the faith of Jesus Christ today will be that people will connect orthodox Christian faith with outmoded ways of thinking and being. The impression is being given that if you are a scientist you cannot with intellectual integrity be a Christian. I suspect that feeling is especially strong among younger students. If you believe in human diversity and the fundamental equality of all human beings whatever their human experience and character you cannot be a Christian. If you are gay or lesbian and entering into a marriage partnership the church is not for you. It is no good blaming the strident voices of secular humanism and scientific atheism for this outcome. We Christians have vacated the field still wielding intellectual weapons that are distinctly rusty and decaying.

It is deeply serious that increasing numbers of people of real principle and integrity of life feel that their own integrity and conscience would be compromised if they came anywhere near the church. We are speaking here of the Church of England which has a duty to all the people of our country. The Archbishop is right. We are a Christian country. The formal relationship of the church to our society gives the church a duty, in partnership with everyone of good will towards it, to serve the people of this nation with the good news of Jesus Christ. That is the foundation on which our history has been built. A failure to understand the importance of this in relation to how we offer the faith and seek to enable the diverse and changing needs of our people to connect with the gospel opens the door for the voices of secularism to eat away at our historic culture.

In 1933 Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to this country to pastor the German church. His opening sermon in the Sydenham congregation was a response to the question on his mind, ‘why does the church seem so dull, preoccupied with trivia?’ This is what he said:-

It is because we like too much to talk and think about a cosy, comfortable God instead of letting ourselves be disturbed and disquieted by the presence of God – because in the end we do not want to believe that God is right here among us, right now, demanding that we hand ourselves over, in life and death, in heart and body and soul and mind. (Bonhoeffer and Britain by Keith Clements. CTBI)

What personally prophetic words from a man who was eventually hanged by the Nazis for seeking to get rid of Hitler! These are not the words of a man who thinks the task is to protect the church and hold the line!

Our task is to risk the journey of faith following Jesus Christ as we engage with people and communities today. If we really believe that the mystery of the love and power of God is at work for the protection of the vulnerable, the defence of the humanity and rights of minorities, the care of the excluded, and the struggle for justice – as we see in the face of Jesus Christ – then that surely defines the mission and priorities of the church in any age and culture. 

Every time we seek to reform ourselves and reshape our mission in accordance with these Gospel priorities we move from the dying role of defending the past into one of sharing in the unseen work of the Kingdom of God shaping the future. If so we will not see the deep shifts in our culture primarily as threat but as opportunity.

Think of the issues that are of profound concern to the people of this nation. They are personal – how can we human beings make and sustain strong and mutually enriching relationships, how we can ensure that children experience wholesome and loving parenting? There was a lovely ITV programme on Thursday about the adoption of children. It portrayed a gay couple – the first such couple in Stoke on Trent to adopt children. They had two small boys and the programme was about their decision and that of the public authorities for them tp add a brother and sister who would otherwise be separated by the care system to their family. How can the local church be seen to be supportive and encouraging of their commitment to offer loving family life to these children if we spend our time nationally criticising such action?

They are social. How can we respond to the growing inequalities of our society? Thomas Piketty’s latest book demonstrating that the wealth gap between the rich and the poor will grow remorselessly in the next decades unless action is taken – that book – 700 pages of dense economic argument – is a best seller in the States. People are really concerned.

And they are cultural. How can we sustain a community whose life is enriched by its great diversity of history and belief and expectation? The London Borough of Newham, in my last diocese, is probably the most multi-cultural in Europe and one of the youngest. 120 languages they say are spoken there. Is the church, with its marvellous international fellowship, going to resist xenophobic narrow nationalism of some of our politics?

The church has a rich and unrivalled resource in its faith and history for making a vital and critical contribution to these concerns and debates.

Think of that ground breaking report to the 1958 Lambeth Conference, ‘The Family in Contemporary Society’. It moved Anglicanism out of its grudging negativities about how families were planning their size and development. The title itself tells its story. Remember the courage and foresight of Michael Ramsey in supporting the beginning of the legal process of decriminalisation of homosexual acts. Think of the work of R.H.Tawney in the central years of the 20thcentury. His great books on ‘Equality’ and ‘Religion and the Rise of Capitalism’ were right at the heart of the social crisis of his age. In all of this he was supported by William Temple as they sought to give a Christian foundation to the establishment of a new social order post the Second World War. These Anglican thinkers and leaders helped shape the future not remain stuck in the past.

Where has all that gone? Just at the moment of social and cultural change when we might make a constructive and positive contribution to our society’s self understanding and public life, we seem stuck with the negativities and the trivia.

Such times as these and crisis facing the church are also moments of opportunity and of the work of the Holy Spirit stirring us all to new journeys of faith and hope. We know that out of death comes new life – the church knows that experience – dying to the old and seeking God to raise us to the life that is to come. We serve a risen Lord who is in front of us calling us to follow and offering us the life of the Spirit of God to encourage us on the journey. So what do I want to say? Be positive about the changes and challenges of our time and be open to move on in the great journey of faith and hope.

Let us pray for our leaders and the Archbishop especially that they will have their eyes fixed on Jesus and on the Kingdom of God whose life surprises us with its freshness and contemporary life.