Some time ago a Methodist colleague half-jokingly referred to what he called the Church of England`s “effortless superiority”. I think he was talking about the way in which the perhaps questionable privileges of being the established church have inclined us towards at least giving the impression of looking down on the free churches. If true then perhaps we need to repent of such smugness but I noticed with interest that change may be afoot because one of the main Political Parties has recently announced that its next manifesto will actually include a proposal for the disestablishment of the Church of England.
We`ll see how this develops and I don`t propose to go into the pros and cons of this just now, except to say that firstly, it`s intriguing that they believe that the idea will garner votes and secondly, just raising the issue reminds us of how we in the Church of England have become used to being, as it were, at the top table. Let`s be honest, for good or ill over a good many generations, the name of the game has been `influence`. The Church of England has prided itself on being a major player in our national life –we even modelled our main decision making body on Parliament- and if as seems the case, we are slowly pushed further to the margins of our national life there will doubtless be a lot of grieving going on among those of us who at least saw `some` benefits in being the nation`s church.
If this huge change were to come about, of course it would only serve to encourage those whose picture of the church is rather like that storm tossed boat we heard of this evening. It`s the kind of change that will serve to feed that `victim` mentality where we feel beleaguered and again, tossed to and fro. What troubles me however, is that I can`t help feeling that we`re being sucked into playing the world`s game. Far too much of our sense of dis-ease these days rests I believe on the assumption that we`re losing something which has been our proper role in the life of this country and I`m not convinced by this. Just think for a moment of how `significance` in our day is measured. It has everything to do with numbers, power, influence and status doesn`t it? Now, measured in these terms- as an `institution` we face severe challenges – and if we buy into this analysis then we`re clearly on the way to a depression.
But firstly if you want to play that game then, for instance it`s also worth noting how the very same politicians who seek to pour scorn on us and sound our death knell are singularly unwilling to reflect in public on the catastrophic decline in their own party membership in recent years and the fact that they are so uninspiring that barely 35% of people could be bothered to vote a fortnight ago. And secondly, and perhaps more importantly it does seem that our anxiety betrays a sense of where we feel our real security lies. So, for example, over generations our buildings have been a prominent and much treasured feature of the English landscape.
As places of prayer and worship they have been a huge blessing but let`s not deny that they have also been symbols of prestige and the miss-use of power. All too often church interiors have served to uphold and reinforce the prevailing social order –and often grinding injustice. And people with my own calling have colluded with this. I mean, if we`re seeing these things come to an end then maybe there`s something good going on?
But the more worrying thing, for me has been the way in which this all-pervading concern for where the church is going has coloured our attitudes and our understanding of the faith. So, over the past thirty years we have seen a huge growth in creative and innovative ways of introducing people to Christ. This sea-change in which we are becoming intentional in joining in Christ`s mission can only be applauded. The problem is that the message we bear only faintly conceals a more deep seated desire to preserve the institution and keep the numbers up. And when this is our real motivation, evangelism easily becomes an exercise in sales and persuasion. And this completely misses the point.
Because the Gospel is not sales or persuasion. The Gospel is a `proclamation`. We`re announcing that something has changed: “Our God Reigns”. “God Rules OK”. “Jesus Christ is Lord”. ”The Kingdom of God is upon us”. Choose which ever slogan you wish. The problem is that the objective truth of the Gospel has too often been turned into a matter of opinion and dressed up as a `religious lifestyle choice`. But the facts of the life, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit are not ideas that we seek to persuade people of but truth we bear witness to.
Backed into a corner because we too readily buy into the world`s measure of significance we easily feel beleaguered and all at sea. But our Gospel offers us this picture of Christ astride the waves. The disciples cry out in fear and Jesus replies; “Take heart it is I; do not be afraid”. And what our English translation hides is that those words “It is I” are the name of God. The one whom Moses heard call himself “I AM”.
What we`re given I this passage is yes, a picture of a storm-tossed boat: a storm tossed Church led by Peter into a world that yes, is a bit scary. But as Jesus says in John`s Gospel, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’” John 16.33 In other words despite the noise and bluster and seeming chaos of their surroundings Jesus is Lord of it all. So, here is the source of our confidence. Jesus, who is Lord of all things. As the Prophet Isaiah says: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. (Isaiah 40.28)
What concerns me is that so much of what passes for evangelism is filled with grasping and anxiety and crude efforts at persuasion and even manipulation. This is evangelism from a place of fear. Fear of decline. Fear of losing power and influence. And it rests, as I say, on buying into the world`s assumptions and definitions of power and influence. In contrast, evangelism from a place of faith is based on a quite proper and yes, “effortless superiority”. Not smugness by any means but a confidence in a God who knows what he is about. This is the faith that walks on water. It`s no coincidence that Jesus appears to his disciples in this way having spent the night in prayer. For it`s in prayer that we gain our sight. It`s in prayer that we are reminded of who we are before our God. It`s in prayer that we regain our perspective and reject the ways of domination, control and fear which the Church has too easily adopted.
Just look again at those words from Isaiah- our first reading this evening: “For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. But you refused”. It`s this refusal to wait and draw on the will, resources and perspective of God that bring us to such a place of panic and fear. But it`s in quietness and in trust that we shall find our real strength. Thanks be to God.