The task of the Church of England is to proclaim the Gospel, now and always.
Christians are blessed. We have been made happy, and we are glad to share this happiness. It would be strange if we did not do so. We simply pass on what we ourselves have received, from the Lord. We have been searched for, found, rescued and forgiven; now we may also go searching for, and offer forgiveness to, anyone we encounter. The Lord has commanded us to do so.
God loves us. We are loved and empowered to love and to enable one another to flourish in God’s love. The Christian community is the communion of love, sourced and refreshed by God’s love for us. This love enables all our relationships with friends and opponents, and enables our love to endure through all difficulties.
The Historical Context
The British were not always Christian, but when the Gospel came to Britain, enough of us became Christians to start a profound and gracious change, that created a political culture in which each individual is supremely significant. God has been gracious to this nation and intends to remain so; we may receive his grace again, now, and he will bless us as he blessed the generations before us.
Before the gospel, the British were pagan and fearful of the forces of nature and other divinities. Then the British received the gospel, and receiving the witness of Christians through many centuries, absorbed it to form our political culture. Even kings and governments adopted the language and conceptuality of the gospel, and we became an explicitly ‘Christian’ country. But always determined by our biology, and so driven by fear and greed, the British remain pagan under the skin. Just as the sanctification of an individual is not completed in a lifetime, so no nation is thoroughly sanctified even by centuries of Christian witness. Each generation is free, to be faithful or faithless, and the cohesion and morale of the nation grows or recedes accordingly.
Many have believed that we are progressing away from religion into secularism. Religion is only for the uneducated and fearful, and we are increasingly able to leave it behind. This ‘secularisation thesis’ has been the background against which Christians have proclaimed the gospel; more recently, this complacency has been shattered by the emergence of a rival religion in the West, that does not support the West’s ‘secular’ view of itself.
To the secularisation thesis, Christians can respond with an alternative view. To the question ‘Is there are a God’, we reply with the question, ‘Which God do you mean?’ There are many ‘gods’ and rival sources of authority which compete for our acknowledgement and worship. (1 Corinthians 8.5&6) But none of them is God. All of them are merely creatures, and they are either obedient to God, or they are out of control, tyrannous and threatening. The God of our Lord Jesus Christ is good and faithful, and makes himself available to us if we pray to him. We confess that he, and not any of the other claimants is the true God and humanity’s true friend. When we do so we are released from captivity and start on a long process of being made holy.
As a result British people have been free to adopt whatever moral-and-civil aspects of Christian discipleship they like. And they can do so without necessarily becoming Christians. The virtues and practices of Christian life make any society gentler, fairer and more peaceful. Christianity creates the open society, the distinction between matters of law and matters of morality and individual conscience, and so between church and state. What is set out in law and administered through politics and government, is binding on us all. What is moral is not binding, but voluntary. It is not the place of government to change our morality or our political culture. We may adopt any form of moral training we like, including Christian discipleship. Without those virtues and practices of Christian life, our society is becoming less gentle, fair and peaceful. Those who do not worship God, ‘worship’ the default gods of the age. Those who do not believe Christ, believe anything. Pointing this out is an essential part of our proclamation.
Without Christianity there would be no Western civilization, little security, private initiative, risk-taking, meritocracy, public responsibility or economic development. Without Christianity there would be legitimate curiosity, no development of science, technology and medicine, and no consequent rise in living standards or sustained (and sustainable) growth of global populations. The success of the Western economy, science and civilization are entirely dependent on the personal and public characteristics fostered by Christian discipleship. Anyone who believes we become more civilised and peaceful by moving away from Christianity is taking a huge gamble.
Finally, the secularisation thesis has evolved into the question of the relationship of the churches of the West to the churches of the Third World. Dare we tell third world Christians how to be Christian, or has the relationship been too abusive to expect them to hear us? And then the shock is that third world churches are more conservative, in favour of the Christian virtues given up in the West, and opposed to the new Western sex-and-gender redefinitions. Third World Christians don’t suffer our demographic decline or our crisis of confidence. With growing numbers and no Western guilt, are Third World churches becoming the senior partners?
The Contemporary British Context for the Gospel
We proclaim to our contemporaries the same gospel with the same judgement, promise of forgiveness and hope that our forebears heard and received. And we Christians accuse ourselves first of the fault, and bear the shame that has spread across secular Britain. We not only proclaim, but also bear bodily the judgement of, the gospel. We stand before Britain as Christ shamed, scorned, and rejected, and we stand before God as Britain broken and abandoned, in public penitence and intercession. This is our priestly office.
Christian discipleship has created the culture in which people are able to say ‘Thanks’, ‘Sorry’ and ‘Please’. We are the thankful, repentant and intercessory community. Christians lead the repentance on Britain’s behalf, so that we, and our political leaders, have the confidence to admit mistakes and change policies. To admit fault and ask for forgiveness is how we may find a new way, or recover the old way, to live together, and it prevents us from getting trapped in antagonism. Only Christianity has made us civil; we will not remain civil without it.
We are facing a cowed population. Among the consequences of this loss of cultural confidence are fewer and later marriages, fewer marriages that last, loss of male earnings so two incomes are required to support a family, increased levels of debt, particularly to afford housing, increased promotion of same-sex relationships, increased abortion. Britain is undergoing demographic decline. In one generation the birth rate has dropped from 2.4 children to 1.4 children, from above replacement level to below it. Some fear that the British are being downgraded and replaced. Will new populations continue the secular but Christian culture of the British, or will they introduce a new political culture, with a very different view of humanity?
The command of the Lord is to pass on what we have received, and so the basic mandate to us and all societies is continuity. We don’t intend to disappear or to deny our own grandchildren the freedom, security or standard of living that we have enjoyed. The (Christian) culture we have inherited is good. It is not the job of governments to change our political cultural or make their own cultural meltdown mandatory on us.
The Gospel is the same yesterday, today and forever. The society that hears and obeys it may recover, for the gospel gives back to men and women the confidence to marry, have children, to bring those children up, passing on to them the same opportunities. The gospel tells us about the complementarity of man and woman, the goodness of sexual continence, the uniqueness of marriage of man and woman, and the uniqueness of the family as the means by which each generation serves the next.
What is the origin of the mission task?
The worship of God is the first task of the Church. Mission, witness and evangelism derive from this worship. We worship (the true) God and we ask all others what gods, powers and authorities they give their worship to. Everyone has a god. When their god is the true God, they flourish, and over the long term society flourishes too.
What particular forms of Church life support this mission?
The worship and witness of the Christian community has been honed over many centuries into the public life of the parish. The parish is brought together in daily public prayer and weekly celebration of the Eucharist, in which all people, of all sorts, gather around the Lord. This is the public, visible, reconciliation of all humanity (man & woman, rich & poor, old & young in equality and mutual service), and to receive the gifts by which they can serve neighbours and world.
Morning and Evening prayer may be sung or read daily in every Church, and churches kept open through the day. Between the hours of prayer, petition can continue in the form of encouragement, by letter-writing to our fellow Christians, nationally and internationally, and to our public servants and leaders, encouraging and interceding.
We may develop versions of mothers unions, scouts, boys’ brigades and young farmers. Old congregations can take the initiative to host groups of young, and mentor & foster young individuals. We could learn the Scriptures together, with prizes for those who can recite passages. We must practise our gospel together in groups so that each of us becomes better at giving an account of our faith to our neighbours, and confident enough to invite them to come and see for themselves. There should be adequate catechism for confirmation classes and marriage preparation with good teaching material and videos. Preaching should follow the Church’s pilgrim progress around the Church year as it is set out in the Lectionary, so that the continuity of the gospel narrative can be learned, and so that the formation of the mind of the congregation is not solely depend on the highs and lows of individual sermons.
Saturday night is the high point of the week for anyone aged 15 to 30. We can hold informal worship sessions, discussion groups, music, dances, cinema club, all with pizzas or summertime open-air eating, all leading into Evensong or Compline. So we may recover the sense that Saturday night is the commencement of Sunday morning, the day of resurrection.
The Church takes its worship out into town centres through open-air, in particular at Christmas, Eastertide and Pentecost. Rogation Sunday processions around the parish can develop into travel around whichever farms and businesses will welcome us and our prayers, and develop into pilgrimages to distant churches and cathedrals. They can expand into overnight camps, with fireside singing and worship. Much of Christian witness takes place outside the building of the Church, but it always starts from the altar and leads us back to it. We follow simultaneously the way of glory and the way of the cross, and so we are clear to one another, and to everyone to whom we bear witness, that we are under the cross of Christ, that we may expect to be deliberately misunderstood, derided, hated and even punished. It is our privilege, for Britain’s sake, to undergo the passion of our Lord. As in worship and every other aspect of our life, witness is a function of the whole people of God, that is, of the whole congregation, understood as Christ’s singing, praying and serving body, visible and audible in each town in contemporary Britain.