The beginning of another year is an opportune moment to review the previous one, and to plan a strategy for the next. In the course of 1995 a number of events have been a considerable source of optimism to all of us in the traditional Catholic and Evangelical wings of the Church of England. I and many others have derived great encouragement from the great Catholic festivals particularly at Aylesford and St Paul’s Cathedral which have witnessed to the enormous strength of the traditionalist wing of the Church of England. The second source of hope has been in the area of appointments. The preferments to the Sees of York and London have shown that bishops who subscribe to traditional Catholic teaching have been considered the most suitable occupants for two of the three most prominent posts in our church. Likewise the appointment of Edwin Barnes to be Bishop of Richborough has also testified to the strength of the traditionalist constituency, and dispelled any suggestion that the Provincial Episcopal Visitors were a temporary phenomenon to cope with a dying situation. Finally the appointment of Dr Jeremy Sheehy as Principal of St Stephen’s House has ensured that Catholics can continue to have confidence in that theological college together with the college at Meld, as a seminary for its ordinands. All these events of 1995 should give us confidence to look forward.
When I was first appointed as Episcopal Visitor I sought to encourage traditionalist Catholic and Evangelical parishes to bear witness and become within our Church centres of excellence. That task still remains. However, coupled with this, I believe that we need to see ourselves, both in our Church and in the world in a missionary situation If we are confident that it is God’s will that His truth will prevail, then I would like to suggest some of the areas where we need to proclaim that truth with confidence.
At the heart of our position is the belief that God has objectively revealed Himself to the world in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. We live in a world which for the past 200 years has assumed that religious belief is purely a matter of personal opinion, and may or may not be based upon reality. This individualist view of religious faith is totally opposed to a faith that God in his infinite love has chosen to reveal Himself to mankind, and provide us with a clear knowledge of Himself: If we consider our Lord’s claim that `he who has seen me has seen the Father’, and that I am the way, the truth and the life’, then implicit in these statements is the view that our Lord Jesus Christ provides us with an objective view of God. We are not called upon to subscribe to an unthinking
fundamentalism, but to a belief in critical orthodoxy. One of the most significant refrains in the Synoptic Gospels is the statement that our Lord spoke with authority and the ordinary people heard him gladly. We need to immerse ourselves in the truth of the New Testament, and contemplate the glory o1 God revealed to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. The world cries out for some kind o1 assurance, and we need to proclaim that the only ultimate real assurance given to mankind is by God in the revelation of Himself in the person of His Son.
Once one has this confidence in the revelation of God in His Son, then a number of consequences follow. We live in a world where, because religious belief is seen as purely a personal and private option, inevitably the foundations of morality are undermined. It was one of the biggest illusions of the great nineteenth century agnostics, such as Thomas Huxley, that you could dispense with the Christian revelation and yet retain Christian morality. If we use the terms ‘right’ and `wrong’ we imply that, built into the universe, is a system of moral law which is objective and does not depend upon the opinions of any particular generation. It was very significant that, a few hours before the tragic murder of the headmaster Philip Lawrence just before Christmas, he was explaining to a press reporter that at his church school the pupils were taught that right and wrong were to be observed, and he had no time for moral relativism to which sadly, our own church only too easily gives the impression of having succumbed. At all times we are expected to affirm our fellow human beings as the children of God, but this does not mean we are to justify their or our own sinfulness. The message of repentance seems to be rarely heard. Part of our missionary strategy should be that we, as penitent people, should seek to draw others to repentance, and to light rather than darkness.
The second consequence of a total belief in the incarnation is that Christian worship and devotion should also have an objective character, and its fundamental purpose be seen to be devotion Jo the glory of God. So much of contemporary worship and so called spirituality tends to be man-centred, rather than promoting the glory of God. Our churches have a duty to provide worship that is intelligent and intelligible, which is centred upon God and focused upon the sacramental life. This our Lord Jesus Christ has enjoined upon us as the means by which we can experience his grace.
The third area where we have a missionary task relates to the nature of Christian priesthood and church order. We have very properly witnessed in the last twenty years an awakening of the sense of the part to be played by the laity in the Body of Christ. Unhappily, this rediscovery of the full nature of the body of Christ has been too often accompanied by a de-valuation of ministerial priesthood. Priests themselves have a particular responsibility to remind the church of the importance of priests being men of God disciplined in their devotions, theologically lively, and pastorally zealous. Good priests, by the quality of their own lives, produce ordinands, and as part of out missionary task the encouragement of new vocations must be a top priority.
Traditionalists may not accept the priesthood of women, but they should be seen to places the highest value on the ministry of women in all its various manifestations. Part of the challenge that confronts us is to be seen to honour the position of women in the Church. It is no use disguising from ourselves that, in certain Catholic circles in particular, there has been an element of misogyny. In the majority of Catholic churches women play a vital and honoured part in their life and it is very important that this is recognised, valued and developed. Whether as permanent deacons and lay workers in professional ministry, or as churchwardens and holders of other offices in the Church, women have a part to play in the life of the Church which is uniquely theirs. Pastoral zeal, as I have already suggested, should be one of the hallmarks of the clergy but it should also be the mark of all Christian people. If our churches are to be geared to mission, then there is no place for the pettiness, jealousy or any sense of depression all of which undermine the church’s missionary drive. I have-d$ been in many churches in the last eighteen~
months where there has been a wonderful sense of warmth, care and devotion, and such churches by their very nature will draw others to our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray that these characteristics may be found in all our churches, and that in our contacts with the world outside we are at all times seeming to be sensitive to any opportunities for evangelism.
There is no place for negative thinking or self pity in our lives as Christian people, or in the churches which we seek to serve. Let us determine in 1996 to have a renewed sense of confidence in the faith that God by His grace has given to us. Let us live and proclaim that faith with conviction, and let us make our voice heard in every area of the Church that we are called upon to serve. Let us remind ourselves that the Church of England is the Church of God in this land, and we have a vital part to play within it.
John Richards is Bishop of Ebbsfleet