Robbie Low on mission, McCulloch and the ministry of all believers

The day after the last issue of New Directions went to press my phone rang. Had I seen the story in the papers about priests handing out sweeties in a bid to lure the innocent and unsuspecting into their churches? Presumably our ‘stringer’ only came to me because the compiler of 30 Days was on holiday. I need not have feared the worst. It was not a paedophile scandal but simply the latest gimmick in the Church of England’s desperate attempt to boost its flagging numbers. The chocolate bars (Co-op Fair Trade of course) were part of a ‘goody bag’ which was to be given out to visitors on ‘Back to Church Sunday’ (September 26th) in the Diocese of Manchester. Part of a mission initiative, it was to encourage the ‘backslidden’ back into the pews via invitations, welcomes, gifts and ‘accessible’ worship. Whether a free copy of the diocesan magazine, a specially written ‘traditional’ liturgy (whatever that means) and ‘something completely different eg showing a comedy video during the service’ will do the trick remains to be seen.

By the time you read this we will have gone to press without knowing the result of the campaign. It is fair to say, I think, that the media as a whole, insofar as they have considered the initiative at all, regard it as a piece of amiable buffoonery by an institution that has utterly lost its way and is, at best, peripheral to the life of the nation.

I would like to give it a bit more attention than that because it seems to me to contain many of the key starting points for a serious and overdue discussion about mission. First of all, it is the initiative of Bishop Nigel McCulloch. McCulloch is not a fool. He is a decent man with a record of honest endeavour for the Gospel and a reasonable performance in difficult circumstances in his self-styled ‘Missionary Diocese of Wakefield’, his previous post. He is a believer and one who has dealt honourably with those who cannot agree with him on the priestess issue. McCulloch was the widely touted great white hope of the evangelical lobby when Nazir-Ali was still Bob Runcie’s bag carrier. More significantly than all that McCulloch is one of the few bishops who has publicly faced up to the truth. He is on record as warning that the CofE could disappear in a generation or two, if it doesn’t change direction. Perhaps the Editor should offer him a column in this magazine. We can assume, therefore, that McCulloch is utterly serious about this enterprise and highly experienced in the field of evangelism. He is not a new bishop convening a committee of the inexperienced to come up with some novel wheeze which is a substitute for considered diocesan policy.

McCulloch and Manchester’s difficulty in constructing a coherent missionary strategy is no different from that facing the rest of us or, indeed, much of Western Europe. The context is inherently indifferent to hostile. We live in a culture that is overpaid, overfed, economically complacent and spiritually moribund. Our national security, a constant preoccupation of every generation of our forbears, has been contracted out at unrealistically low cost to the benevolent hegemony of our much maligned ally, America. Our economy has been integrated into a near federation of neighbouring states and our laws received en bloc from the unelected bodies of the Eurozone. Parliament is reduced to a rubber stamp for the peculiarities and peccadilloes of the governing party. The education system weltering in an incredible glut of As and A*s ( though who can blame the children for jumping through the hoops to collect them) is little more than thirty years of social engineering which leaves all but the most diligent deprived of any long view of our history, culture and faith. Alien philosophies are frequently preferred to the majority faith as the secularizers seek to strip out the last remaining influence of cultural imperialism (or Christianity as we know it) in our schools.

Morally, the nation tops the league for divorce, fornication, adultery and sexually transmitted disease. Its alcoholism, drug abuse and related crime rates do not make for a happy and secure community. Its abortion rate long ago outstripped the best efforts of Europe’s supreme eugenicist. There are now probably two generations that have grown up in this land with no knowledge of Christ and who couldn’t say the Lord’s Prayer if their lives depended on it. We are talking tabula rasa here. Not wholly different from the situation confronting the first disciples, you may say, but a church fired with the zeal of the Holy Spirit is rather different from one made complacent by centuries of comfort and collaboration with establishment.

Why then, in the light of all this, has McCulloch targeted the over-50s (with or without a chocolate bar)? It is, I would argue, not as crazy as it looks. His research shows that people of my generation were the last to have any significant experience of church, who were taught scripture at school and grew up assuming this was a Christian country. The next lot were robbed by Roy Jenkins and the other stinkers of the cultural elite who gloried in their creation of the permissive society and dined at high table while the poor paid the real price of the ensuing decadence. The over-50s are increasingly a generation who feel alienated in their own land and culture, robbed of their birthright. They have brought up their children in a time of moral chaos, with which they have frequently cooperated, and are unhappy with the results and even more alarmed for their grandchildren. They have experience, if not wisdom, a little more time to reflect on the deeper things and enough energy for one last big challenge before the long run downhill. As good a target as you will get. Nor does targeting the 50+ brigade neglect the children. As we discovered in mission services in our old parish, children were far more likely to be brought to church by their grandparents leaving exhausted grateful parents in bed to be won later by other encounters.

Targeting is strategic sense but the critical target, which no bishop in the modern feminized CofE can bring themselves to acknowledge, has to be MEN and especially men under 50. They are leaving faster than anyone else except children, and, as research shows, on the attendance of fathers depends the future attendance of their children. Perhaps if every ordinand had to do a mission with the ‘Walk of 1,000 Men’ team, we might be in with more of a shout.

McCulloch is also aware of the value of publicity. You can have the best product in the world, but if no-one hears about it you are talking to yourself. The trouble with the Church’s publicity is twofold: (1) it is usually embarrassing, and (2) the press are not interested. One of my friends on a national daily always asks, ‘Will it pass the “So what” test?’. His news editor, presented with a church story, always says, ‘So what?’ or ‘Who cares?’. Unless it is wacky, scandalous, downright barking or seriously pungent, it won’t run. The CofE doesn’t do pungent. It is staffed by too many careful people who have got where they are by being careful. People, on the whole, who couldn’t field serious questions in a public arena. This leaves the ‘wacky’ option and the prospect of derision. In my experience the rabbi, the imam and the Catholic priest can all make serious statements and be taken at face value. Why so many Anglican clergy, at all levels, think that they will only be noticed if they advertise ‘fun, fun, fun’ and present themselves as lovable eccentrics is a mystery to me. The fact that people are too kind to articulate the word ‘prat’ should not deceive us. We can get publicity for being strong for the Gospel and unapologetic. The real publicity that counts is not the Daily Smut but the local coverage, press, posters, school visits, and invitations – personal invitations!

Here again McCulloch demonstrates his experience. The priest can preach and exhort until he is blue in the face. Few will come to church as a result, however much people like or admire him personally. They are more likely to come if an ordinary layperson, a friend or acquaintance prays for them and invites them personally. To have someone accompany you into the strange world of church and explain the intricacies of service and custom is all that will get most folk over the threshold. The old patterns remain. Disciples brought people to Christ. They still do.

The welcome that people receive is also critical. They must be neither ignored nor swamped. Welcome, hospitality, a listening ear and the opportunity to meet a few nice ‘ordinary’ people like themselves is the most reassuring of all. Time and again research demonstrates that people do not, on the whole, come for Jesus but for their friend. If they make friends at church and feel at home, they will come again. The quality of our worship and witness should soon introduce them to the Lord. When people come to our churches, do they see us filled with praise and overflowing with devotion in the presence of the King? Or, as a friend of mine crudely put it of a congregation he visited recently, are we found staring into space, scratching our arse and waiting to put a penny in the plate?

Another feature of the Manchester initiative is the inclusion of food, albeit chocolate. It comes across as a ‘kiddy-friendly’ gimmick in this case. But again it is a sign of a deeper truth. Alpha courses rediscovered for us the importance of table fellowship, of dining together and being able to talk deeply of the faith in a context of trust and relaxation. Hospitality whether over coffee or dinner invites or house groups for enquirers all make the way in more possible. Jesus spent a lot of time dining with sinners. Perhaps a few more at our tables would not go amiss. It is not an accident that our faith emerges from the eve of Sabbath gathering in the Jewish household and climaxes in the foretaste of the heavenly banquet in the mass.

No doubt other scribblers and church commentators will have good fun at McCulloch’s expense in the days ahead, and that is all par for the course. But with all its apparent gimmicks and danger of trivialization, I hope people will notice two things. At least McCulloch knows there is a monumental crisis and at least he is exhorting his people to do something.

The fact is that the national background to his (and our) evangelistic work is bleak. Apart from the sterling work of organizations like ‘New Wine’, ‘Walk of a 1,000 Men’ and ‘Alpha’ the institutional church’s initiative is at an all time low. Dr John Edmondson’s splendid articles in this magazine recently show, from extensive research, that evangelism is scarcely part of the training process of most ordinands today. Where it is, it is often redefined in a way which makes it unrecognizable. ‘Affirming where God is in society’ is fine and dandy but scarcely equates to the challenge of Jesus and the need for lives committed to Christ. The crisis in the courses and the colleges is nothing new and has been eating away at the heart of things for, in many cases, 30 years or more. Priests who have no serious training in mission and evangelism are unlikely to be able to lead their parishes in this difficult and demanding and quintessential Christian enterprise.

Behind much of this default lies a more sinister and debilitating weakness. The crisis of evangelism in the CofE is essentially christological. That is to say, one of our belief about and in Jesus. Do we really believe he is the only Son of God ? Do we believe he truly rose from the dead? Do we believe his salvation claims? Wherever people encounter those convictions in priest and people, there is an opening for conversion. Niceness is never enough. Authenticity and conviction are the key.

But as the ground-breaking research (Mind of Anglicans 2002) demonstrated incontrovertibly, at the highest levels and in the most institutionally influential groupings the person of Christ nowadays is more of a question than an answer. The groups representing the liberal hegemony were unconvinced of the uniqueness of Jesus, uncertain of his resurrection and dismissive of the central credal claim of his incarnation. Such ‘trickle down’ theological agnosticism has left its mark on every institution and parish in the Church of England.

It was against this background that the ill-fated ‘Decade of Evangelism’ took place. Whatever small chance that had of making an impact was not helped by the Archbishop’s bizarre choice of personnel to front his initiative and utterly blown away by his obsession with imposing unscriptural disorder at the heart of the ministry… his cheerful and regular appointment of bishops whose views on other matters, he now spends his retirement attacking. My own former diocese’s singular and eloquent contribution to the Decade was to close down the post of Canon Missioner as a cost-cutting exercise. For far too many in authority the task has switched decisively from mission to management to maintenance. In a hostile culture the primary task is no longer the Great Commission but rather the management of decline and the maintenance of the institution. This is, as you will readily appreciate, ‘good news’ for the very few.

The Decade of Evangelism saw a decline of almost 20% in attendance and membership of the Cof E. The great efforts to make the Church relevant by pandering to the sirens of modernity, rationalism and feminism have spectacularly backfired. The recruit numbers are insubstantial and the core vote is departing rapidly. It is one thing to attempt to inculturate the faith (in other words, make it comprehensible in the society in which it is preached), it is quite another to abdicate and simply bless the culture. There are substantial and growing numbers of people who recognize a civilization in crisis. They are not impressed by a Johnny-come-lately ‘me too’ approach of the Church of England. The heart of mission is the call to ‘Repent and believe the Gospel’. A church that has lost the courage to say this has ceased to function in its defining task. A church that is itself impenitent and unbelieving cannot begin to address the wounds of the people. The Church has to proclaim the prophetic message, the word of the Lord, in every situation, comfortable or uncomfortable, to the healing of the soul of the penitent sinner and the transformation, re-Christianization, of society. For much of my time in ministry the drift of the institution has been to conform the Word of God to the prejudices of society rather than the other way round. For all the heroic efforts of ministers of the Gospel, ordained and lay, up and down the ordinary parishes of the land, and the successes of individual churches, the fact remains that an unconverted church has no power to convert.