After reading Rowan William’s Silence and Honey Cakes, Paul Griffin considers the role of evangelism in the life of a Christian and disagrees with the apparent consensus
‘The first duty of a Christian,’ said our eminent Father in God, ‘is to pass the good news on to others.’ His superior nodded agreement. No, sorry, Fathers: not true. We all hear at every Eucharist what Jesus said when he was asked for the first duty of a Christian. Priests talk like that because they want to charge us with energy, to encourage us to make more impact locally, and because our Lord later vigorously told us to spread the message.
Even so, the words Mission, Outreach, and Fellowship have come to set the teeth of many on edge. Why? Because guests are welcome only if they do not turn up too often. Probably also because we are lazy. But it is important that every minister speaks the absolute truth, and does not drift into the wordy overstatement that pours out from every pulpit, journal, and article such as this one. What I tell you three times may or may not be true; but what I tell you thirty times begins to raise instinctive doubts.
There are of course numerous duties of a Christian that follow from the two great commandments, and evangelism is a pre-eminent one. Only some consolation for those Fathers in God.
Search for truth
I raise this topic because I have been reading the book by Rowan Williams entitled Silence and Honey Cakes, recommended by our suffragan. It is a defence of the Desert Fathers, and, like most of the Archbishop’s writings, it is not easy to follow. On page 51, I came across a sentence that seemed at first glance to be making this same remark: ‘…we can think of what the church would be like if it were a community not only where each saw his or her vocation as primarily to put the neighbour in touch with God, but where it was possible to engage each other in this kind of quest for the truth of oneself, without fear, without the expectation of being despised or condemned for not having a standard or acceptable spiritual life.’
As so often, we have the feeling that we are eavesdropping on the Archbishop’s colloquy with himself, without having the mental equipment quite to follow it. In conversation he can speak with the utmost simplicity and clarity on difficult topics. The truth, I suppose, is that the majority of speeches and sermons inevitably contain broad generalizations that Rowan knows he lets slip orally, but which on paper he cannot allow to pass without qualification; or without seeing that the qualification needs qualification. We end up with something that may be comprehensible to theologians, but leaves us longing for the warm fire and hot toddy of our home truths.
Here I suspect the Archbishop catches himself writing something not completely true, and then admitting that the spiritual life really has prior claims over evangelism. He is defending the Desert Fathers against accusations of ratting on society – accusations familiar to the monastic orders. He defends what he calls ‘fleeing’, saying that there are times when our search for truth must take us away from current people and fashions. In the process we may act as better evangelists than if we were desperately trotting along with the world.
Need for expert guidance
This sounds just an excuse for lazy people like me. Yes, but we are in a very different world. The congregations we know may be very good Christian people, but they are not like those fiery creatures who preferred lions to disloyalty. When we suggest to lay people that they should try to persuade their neighbours to come to church, Mrs Snooks will say to them something like ‘It’s good fun really’ or ‘You don’t have to believe in all that stuff about the Resurrection’. You may say that if that brings newcomers to church, the details can be sorted out in time; but I feel that our Snookses should know more about their faith before they start. I would really rather see them being a practical help for their neighbours than misleading them.
Their neighbours show their mistrust of them by persisting in the old preference for giving questions or doubts to a priest. At a time when expert guidance is increasingly necessary in a Church so varied in belief (or ‘inclusive’, as we are taught to call it), Screwtape and his friends seem to have reduced the Church’s ability to provide it. At the same time, the media stir interest in our disagreements, so that we have to face questions more complicated than ever before. Any minority view, such as ours, is subjected to currently fashionable axioms, and devalued even within the Church, so that we are generally condemned for letting the side down. I suspect most other members of our deanery regard our Forward in Faith parishes as dominated by a divisive sexist hostility, and it is hard publicly to explain the falsity of this view without causing more public dissension.
The real priority
What Rowan Williams in his great honesty shows is that the way of goodness is more important than any of this; that public relations, meeting targets, and treating the Church as a product to be sold all have their place, but that they are not ‘the first duty of the Christian’: they are secondary to our search for truth, and to the process of becoming, as Rowan puts it, naturally rather than unnaturally good.
Those who find this too easy prefer the constant pressure for more and more evangelism. Ignorant marketing may be conspicuously successful, as with some of the common medical remedies of my youth, since revealed to be virtually useless. Our product is, or should be after two thousand years, fully developed, but it needs understanding by its marketers if it is to be trusted. The search for sanctity truly is their number one priority, and comes before evangelism.
This is not to undervalue a Parish Mission, or any other special effort (except perhaps a ten-year one!) but for us ordinary workhorses, the daily task is less spectacular: to become holy and to seize our evangelism opportunities when they come. Also, perhaps, to trust colleagues to deal with situations they know better than we do. \ND\