Past evangelistic successes often came about through social institutions rather than evangelists, but, as Digby Anderson points out, the destruction of these institutions has made future attempts at evangelism more difficult
New Directions has recently carried calls for Anglican Catholics to evangelize. Who could dissent? We all know the dominical command to go and baptize all, etc. There are, of course, problems in obeying the command with much success in this pagan society.
But I am not sure the nature of the problems has been thought about enough. Most discussions of evangelistic problems fail to mention the ghost. They talk as if evangelism consisted of two parties, the evangelist and the person to be evangelized. But often, in the past, at successful attempts to bring individuals to Christ, there has been a third person. We might call him the ghost precisely because today he is not noticed. There are in fact several ghosts.
Passing on the faith
The most succinct biblical instance of an evangelistic ghost is found in St Johns Gospel [4.53]. A certain nobleman had a sick son. Our Lord tells him his son lives and when the nobleman learns of his son’s recovery and that it occurred when Our Lord said ‘thy son liveth’, the nobleman believed, ‘and his whole house’. The whole house, we might assume, consisted of his wife, parents, other children, perhaps in-laws and, certainly, servants. They believed, they were evangelized and the evangelist was Our Lord himself. The third party was the nobleman. They believed because he did. A similar sort of ghost is found in histories such as Bede’s, when evangelists convert kings and as a result of the king’s conversion, all his subjects convert.
Yet another can be found in a charming picture of bishops sailing around a Russian lake in little boats baptizing the dripping masses after successful conversion of a local figure of authority. Authority is the key word in this sort of evangelism. The father in John’s Gospel was a nobleman.
Related to the authority ghost is the family as ghost. We tend to assume today that in more successful evangelistic eras it was the Church, either priest or church laity, who did evangelistic work. But once adults were themselves Christians, it was they who did this work, as parents who brought their children to baptism and subsequently taught them their prayers and brought them to Mass.
The faith was passed from generation to generation not by the Church but by the family. And there is a biblical version of this in the disciples bringing their brothers and cousins to Our Lord.
Collusion with the State
The third ghost is the friend. We all know people – some of us are people – who have come to the faith through a friend who was of the faith. Perhaps the friend explained something of the faith to his friend. More often, someone outside the church came into it because of his respect for someone already in it. ‘Anything that means so much to my friend must have something good in it.’ It is impossible to read the lives of nineteenth-century figures such as Newman and not be aware of the role of friendship in bringing men to faith. A fourth sort of evangelistic ghost is the profession.
A Christian doctor, schoolmaster or lawyer, by example or explanation, influences the patient, pupil, student or client
evangelism is now reduced to one stranger trying to cajole another towards the Church. There are other ghosts too.
All these ghosts are people, but they are people who are members of social institutions, the political structure, the particular cultural form of the family, the way friendship or a profession is practised in this or that society. In the past the Church could rely on these social institutions.
It can no longer do so. The most prominent power, the State, is, understandably, eager to be free of the Church. The Church, unforgivably, has colluded with it. The modern church all too often does not want England to be a Christian society in which laws, customs and privileges reflect Christian values but a society in which Christianity is one of many faiths.
It has colluded also by omission and tepidity
in the disestablishment of Christian marriage, the de-stigmatization of illegitimacy and extramarital sex and the growth of divorce. How can there be trans-generational transmission of faith if the main institution that promoted it is itself broken?
The church has not actually subverted friendship and the professions but shows little interest in them. In short, the political-social stance of the church over the last half-century has lost it its crucial partners in evangelization and the maintenance of Christian society.
Destroying its allies
It sometimes seems the church is actually embarrassed by the ghosts. It has so bought into rationalist reductionism that it believes the only true way to faith is for each individual rationally to assess the whole of Christianity’s claims and practices for himself.
Wiser ages knew there was nothing wrong in doing something good because of mild coercion, example, family or peer pressure or through that currently misunderstood and maligned social force, prejudice. What a silly society it is that wants everyone to discover the value of everything for himself ‘for another first time’.
Having helped destroy its allies in evangelism, the church is left isolated and estranged. Its liberal sectarianism leaves the poor parish priest and his people with the almost impossible task of banging on the doors of total strangers, people who know nothing about Christianity and are not inclined towards it by the pressure or example of those close to them or whose authority they respect or fear.
One might sum it up by saying that the old evangelism was a social process involving many social institutions. It is now reduced to one stranger trying to cajole another. How ironic that the Church which is so caustic about ‘mere’ individualism and those who do not respect ‘society’ should itself be content to individualize evangelism.
It is surely true that those who do not follow the dominical call to evangelize will have to answer for their disobedience. But the disobedient Christians are not the parish priest standing in the rain outside a front door which remains firmly shut, but those in the church hierarchy who have destroyed the institutions that might have persuaded the householder to open the door and welcome him in.