David Chislett recalls an interesting evangelical opportunity on a Sydney train
One night in 1989 two friends and I were on a Sydney train, travelling back to where we were staying for a meeting of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia. As happens on such occasions, there was a sprinkling of clergy and lay representatives from around the country in the same carriage. Across the aisle from us were two young lay representatives from the Diocese of Sydney (noted for its robust Reformed Evangelicalism). In the seat behind us was a bishop of the extreme liberal-Catholic variety, travelling with a layman from his diocese.
Near the Sydney representatives was a group of ordinary young people, clearly puzzled at the deluge of clergy who had boarded the train all at once, and they were discussing this with some amusement. One of the Sydney men looked up and said, “I can tell you what this is all about, if you’re really interested,” and he went on to say that it was a national conference of Anglican Church leaders – not just clergy, but “lay people like us, too.”
Soon there was a lull in the conversation, and the Sydney man said, “I know what you’re thinking: how can otherwise quite sensible people believe all that stuff about God?” The young people smiled at each other, and the Sydney man continued, “That’s O.K. I used to think that, too, until I looked into it for myself. Eventually I came to the point where I couldn’t avoid saying that Jesus is God: that he died on the cross, rose from the dead, that he loves me, and that if I wanted real life here and now, as well as in eternity, then I should join the community of his followers.” The gospel in about twenty seconds! A few of the young people asked questions. Then the train reached the destination of the Sydney Synod reps. The one that had done all the talking quickly reached into his pocket, pulled out a handful of business cards, handed them around the group, and said, “I don’t want you to think I’m being pushy, but I get off at this station. Here is a card with my phone number. If any of you decide you want to talk about these things, I’d be happy to meet in a café somewhere . . . or you could check out your nearest Anglican Church.” And off his friend and he went!
I was moved by this spontaneous witness to the Lord, and thought how wonderful it would be if lots of laity and clergy from the Catholic tradition learned to use opportunities like that to share the gospel. The terrible thing is that just as the train left the station, the bishop in the seat behind us complained to the layman sitting next to him, “How embarrassing! You can tell we’re in Sydney!”
Now I know that there are many ways of evangelizing. The Church as a community evangelizes just by “being” in the wider society – a kind of priestly ministry of presence, praying, worshipping, living and loving, daring to believe that in a wonderful way all this somehow unleashes waves of blessing on those who live and work around us. As individuals we have a ministry of presence all the time in our relationships with others. And of course, we evangelize by serving one another and those around us in times of heartbreak and tragedy, as we have seen recently in this country.
Unfortunately, while actions of love and service prepare the ground for gospel proclamation and response, quite often suave liberals and certain kinds of snooty Anglo-Catholics criticize those who verbally share the gospel, often falling back on the idea that St Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
Several scholars have pointed out lately (much to my embarrassment, because I myself have occasionally attributed those words to St Francis!) that St Francis said no such thing. After all, he was the evangelist with a heart truly on fire for God, who preached at length up to five times each day! (The closest the scholars say we get to those words is Francis’ Rule 1221, which is actually about preaching friars ensuring that their deeds match their words.)
The new evangelization is about the sacramental reality of the Church’s ministry of presence, and our need to persevere lovingly with hurt, wounded and suspicious people who are nowhere near an awakening of faith. It is about a new recognition of the specially gifted evangelist in the Church’s life. But it is mostly about run of the mill Christians learning to share the gospel with others in actions as well as words.
Not far from where I grew up was a drive-in cinema. As teenagers, my friends and I could rarely afford the entry ticket. We would join the line of old cars outside the wire fence, from where we could just see the screen, but, unfortunately, not hear the sound. We spent our time putting scurrilous dialogue into the mouths of the actors. We discovered that while it was possible some of the time to figure out the film based mostly on the visuals, without the dialogue we completely misunderstood it.
That’s why the new evangelization entails clergy and laity alike being able to “make a defence to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us]; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” 1 Pet. 3:15.
Or, to put it another way, why shouldn’t Anglo-Catholics be able to lead others to Christ?
David Chislett is the Assistant Priest at St Luke’s Kingston