In the last few weeks prior to Christmas the Church of England was headline news on several occasions. Just one was a good news story, the choice of a new Archbishop of Canterbury who, as a former oil executive with experience in Africa, certainly breaks the mould for the type of person traditionally in the frame for this job. He will need all his diplomatic skills, for the other stories all came into the bad news bracket – no women bishops, no gay marriages, and falling numbers of Christians.
The reduction in the number of UK residents who claim a Christian affiliation affects the CofE particularly, for some Christian churches are holding steady (like the Roman Catholics) and some (such as those supported by immigrant communities) may be even be growing. Most of the loss is down to a sharp fall in Anglican worshippers and adherents. One knee jerk reaction to the conjunction of three issues – fewer believers, no women, and no gays – is to say that the decline is because the church is completely out of touch with modern society. And unless and until it gets up to speed with social change, it will never attract the mass of the population. This is silly. Gay marriage, in particular, is an issue that has become important only very recently, whilst churches have been in losing worshippers since 1945. There is no link whatsoever between the two.
In any case, the church is not here to slavishly follow society's mores. Indeed, some would say that you judge a Christian by how closely he or she adheres to 'the truth once revealed in scripture'. You don't change, you simply proclaim what is and always has been right.
As it happens, I don't agree. Yes, the church should stand up for what is right. But no human being can fully understand the mind of Christ. What would he say about an issue which (in the modern form) he cannot have come across during his earthly life? I am pretty confident that he would see the sexes as different but equal – and not different enough to rule out women becoming church leaders. Gay marriage is a more difficult one. But it is at least worth thinking about a challenging statement by Tim Montgomerie in an article he wrote in The Times entitled 'Conservatives should embrace gay marriage'. Here is part of what he said.
“The defining moment in my own journey away from a traditionalist view of homosexuality happened about ten years ago. I was part of my church's prayer ministry team, which offered a listening ear to anyone who had something they wanted to share. That night, after evensong, a man in his fifties came and sat with me. After a long, anxious pause tears began running down his face. His whole soul seemed to moan in pain.
A man with whom he been in a long relationship had just died and he was devastated. He had never felt able to publicly celebrate his love during his lover's life and now that he was gone, he had no one to help him to cope with the grief that flooded over him. He had stood at the back of his soul mate’s funeral as a distant mourner. He told me that he had never felt lonelier. My eyes were now full of tears too.
I cannot believe that Jesus Christ wouldn't have embraced and consoled that man. There is one biblical story, from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, that makes me hope and think that he would have done. It is the story of the centurion who begged Jesus to heal his sick servant. Was this Roman solider anxious about his servant for entirely selfless reasons or was there something more intimate about the two men's relationship?
The word used to describe this servant was pais – which can be translated as 'beloved boy'. Many Roman soldiers of the time were not allowed to marry and homosexual relationships of different kinds were not uncommon. Jesus would have known this and yet his response was immediate and compassionate. He commanded that the servant be healed, and he was. The story does not end with an instruction to the Roman to stop sinning. On the contrary, Jesus praised the man's faith.”
This is not an issue to be swept under the carpet, as unfortunately it has been by the government diktat that the CofE is not allowed to conduct such marriages. It is one that ought to be honestly confronted. Like any other moral issue, it is not enough to appeal to what we think we know the bible says; we have, as best we can, to try to discover what Christ might have done and thought (or, more properly, does do and think, for “Christ is not dead, but liveth”).
Going back, though, to where this train of thought began, to the matter of church decline, I would not deny that a smaller proportion of British people today think of themselves as Christian. But nor am I am convinced that this inevitably translates into smaller congregations in every case. Two or three straws in the wind from the run-up to Christmas in our churches bear this out. Granted, there were one or two less at Harley Carol Service, but that is easily explicable by one large family having left the church; and on the contrary, some entirely fresh faces were there. There were definitely more people at Holy Trinity's Christingle Service this year. And we are not just recycling old ideas either. A group prepared and ran something called Messy Church in Wentworth School. This is for children, who must have a parent or carer with them, and the format is deliberately aimed at attracting kids and carers who don't normally attend church. Which is exactly what it did, with a couple of dozen children there and slightly less adults – a total of at least 35 people. They experienced Christmas-related craft activities and a short and informal act of worship. Nearly all of them aren't in church on Sunday, but neither are they entirely outside the Christian community.
Why do these signs of hope exist? One essential is to provide enjoyable, meaningful and accessible ways of experiencing God's presence. People won't come if we don't do this and, clearly, we are getting some things right. Second, it's down to a lot of hard work by many people. Sheila, as always, at Harley; Wendy, who does so much for Christingle, and who goes into school to involve them; and a big team who planned for and worked hard at our new venture, Messy Church. People make the church – people who come, and people who work at making the church meaningful when they get there. We ain't dead yet!
With best wishes,