IN THE MONTHS leading up to the Millennium Celebration ‘Christ Our Future’ at the London Arena, Docklands on June 10, 2000, the Editor has asked bishops and others to reflect on the themes chosen for each of those months of preparation.
Paul Richardson, formerly Bishop of Aipo Rongo in the province of Papua New Guinea and now an assistant bishop in the diocese of Newcastle begins the series:
AND THE LORDSHIP OF CHRIST
IN 1841 George Augustus Selwyn was appointed first bishop of New Zealand. He started his episcopate with a formal protest against a clause in the civil Letters Patent professing to ‘give him power to ordain’. As far as Selwyn was concerned, he was a bishop of the Catholic Church subject to the Lordship of Christ but not, in matters spiritual, to any civil state. He did not require the authorisation of a secular power to carry out his ministry.
Selwyn went on to summon the first synods in the Anglican Church outside the US, despite objections that in doing so he infringed the royal supremacy, and he launched the Melanesian Mission to evangelise the peoples of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and the Solomon Islands. In order to justify this move, he took advantage of an error in his letters of appointment that defined the northern boundary of his diocese as 34′ 3O” north, instead of south. As a result, Selwyn made the cheeky claim the Melanesian islands were in his diocese, a legal argument that convinced no one!
In theological terms, Selwyn was no extremist but his story reminds us that time and again in the history of the church growth has only taken place when Christians have rejected the conventional beliefs and attitudes that imprisoned the church of their day in a straight-jacket from which it was difficult to escape. Evangelisation is a process that requires Christians to learn to put their loyalty to Christ first and see it is as their duty above all else to preach his gospel rather than to kow-tow to secular prejudices or fashionable opinions.
The story of St Patrick gives us another example of this important truth. In his magnificent study The Conversion of Europe, Professor Richard Fletcher tells how the church in the Roman Empire showed little interest in sending missionaries beyond its bounds into pagan regions to convert the people regarded as barbarians who lived there. It was Patrick who first realised the need to journey into wild and forbidding places to offer the message of salvation to heathen people.
In his confessions, he tells how in a dream he was called to go back to the Irish, among whom he had once lived as a slave, to preach the gospel to them. The person who urged him to do this identified himself as ‘He who gave his life for you, He it is who speaks within you.
Outbursts of missionary activity in the church have coincided with the renewal of faith and a growth in theological understanding. If a church is not growing it is often a sign that it is in bondage to a secular culture and that worldly idols have taken the place of commitment to Christ. In our time, the church too often echoes conventional opinions and politically correct views. It fails to excite or challenge men and women with the unconventional message of the gospel.
Towards the end of his life, Lesslie Newbigin attended a gathering organised by the World Council of Churches. He wrote that while he was glad many oppressed groups were given a chance to draw attention to their plight, he missed the sense that the church does have a gospel to proclaim, a message that calls us to repent and change our lives, but also offers us hope and the promise of grace.