Christianity at the CROSSroads – reflections on the Theos Debate

Considering this debate was  titled, “Christianity at the Crossroads”, there wasn’t nearly enough about the cross.  Apologies if I ramble, or don’t give due credit to different statements or full arguments – as a listener, this is what struck me about the debate and what was (and wasn’t) said.cross roads

I borrowed the next two paragraphs from the Theos website to save me writing it all out myself:

With the election of the new Pope and the enthronement of Archbishop Justin Welby coming within a week of one another, the church stands in a significant (and historically unique) position. On the one hand, there have been child sex abuse scandals, ecclesiastical cover-ups, and falling congregations, each posing an enormous challenge in its own way. On the other, there has been a severe breakdown in public trust in public institutions – banks, Parliament, police, media, even the NHS – all of which present an opportunity for the church to speak into society. Is Christianity at a crossroads?

This was the theme upon which four panellists – Catholic theologian, Dr. Anna Rowlands; Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Revd Canon Samuel Wells; former Conservative MP, Matthew Parris; and author Sarah Dunant – debated on Monday evening in front of an invited audience at Methodist Central Hall in a Theos/ BBC Radio 4 debate chaired by John Humphrys, entitled ‘Christianity at the Crossroads’ Christianity at the crossroads / Or Christianity in crisis . . .

OK, so having set up a debate about where Christianity is at, immediately the question discussed seemed to be about the Church.  Christianity and the Church are not the same thing.  Variously, the panel seemed to talk about “Church” or “Religion” not so much about Christianity . . . so we kick off:

Does Christianity have a role?  Was not really asked (at least, it wasn’t answered – as we then had various views about the Church).  Sam talked about Goliath and David, referring I guess to David being full of faith and agile, whilst Goliath perhaps represented the institution.  What was missing from Sam’s comments was the fact that David was completely reliant upon God, had absolute trust in Him; it was not his five stones, nor his agility that brought victory – but that He trusted God.  The Church needs to re-discover its faith in God; we need to re-discover our saviour and we need to be confident in talking about Jesus Christ.  David found that God’s people were cowering, scared and had either lost faith, or just could not get over the size of Goliath – Goliath did not represent the “church” (and it doesn’t today), Goliath is all that stands against God – and maybe in our own lives the “Goliaths” that would enslave us in our own lives that we have to tackle and face, with God’s help each day.  Agility did not win it – it was God what won it!

Anna talked about the church at the crossroads, (changing the title of the debate).  What does it mean to be human, secular and religious accounts of what it means to be human and also the role of religion in secular life, a “shared space”, not a space devoid of religion?  Anna made a good point here, shared space is vital for mutual understanding.  We all share that space, nobody should be excluded from being part of dialogue or a conversation.  Sarah’s contributions I found fascinating.  Seeing this time as a moment of opportunity – whilst also recognising the need for the church to get its house in order though.  We cannot be white washed tombs, proclaiming the good news, whilst decrying things that are not good news (at least, our interpretations of what is “good news”, which can unfortunately sometimes be incredibly narrow) IF, within we stink and are rotten – with a hypocrisy of pointing 1 finger whilst ignoring the 3 fingers pointing back at us (go on, point your finger, you know what I mean).

John Humphreys asked if the church had lost its moral authority, and – I have say at this point the Christian representation on the panel suddenly talked about general things like the nature of being a human being, and – to be frank – stopped talking about Christianity and started talking about our shared humanity.  Anna talked about the nature of the church and people called to recognise the goodness of our own nature – how do we learn about ourselves and how we fail to be a community of learning sometimes.  There was in this conversation the painful recognition that people had made mistakes, got things wrong in the church – much like the rest of the world etc.

To some extent, Mattew P, attempted to ride to the rescue amidst this doom and gloom – bad people don’t make the Christian message wrong, he said.  Sarah talked about the nature of confession being a powerful thing, with a genuine wish to change . . . wow, the best comments coming from these two!  Matthew P talked about our obsession with sin, and how the church seems to have lost a strong abiding sense of the divine.  The sin and the fuss about the sin being, in his view, a symptom of losing faith in the divine presence and the belief that this being can make a difference to our lives.

Sam spoke about the issue of the Church not approving legislation that would lead to the appointment of women bishops, saying it was a sad blow for the church, God has given the church an incredible blessing through the leadership of women.  We then had a comment from the floor regarding the need to respect the “conscience” of those who cannot agree.  Matthew Paris again waded in on this comment, suggesting that the gospel trumps personal conscience . . .

Anna admitted that there remain massive questions, functional questions about “adding women” and then deeper theological questions about “what it means to be a woman”.  Sarah said we need to blow it open, the power and the authority “sacramental” and “theology” – we need an open discussion about what some of these things mean.  

Still revolving around John Humphreys question about “moral authority”, we hit – for me – possibly the most interesting reflections in the debate as a whole.  Matthew Paris asked, “What would Jesus think of us?  Are there not more important things to consider.  definitions of virtue, right and wrong, our own moral development – about what is right and wrong . . about our changing times and changing understanding about what constitutes moral authority.  In response we had some confusing comments from Sam, A list of moral truth, a kind of ethic.  Tablets of stone, ethics out of a particular tradition, all other ethics is bunk.  Christian morality?  We are in a fourth act of a five part play . . . ?  Christians want it be right, but if we faithfully fail, or fail to receive all the gifts, the horror of what we have done.  The kind of things that have put Christ on the cross.  The factors that put him on the cross.  Yes, we finally get to the crux of Christianity, literally.  To which Paris replies, “I haven’t put Christ on the cross”.  (There was not a long pause after this, but I was hoping someone would have the guts just to say, “yes you have – and so have I!”)

There was much more banging on about morality and behaviour, Then monks were mentioned by Sam, as he spoke about their tradition of hospitality and, unfortunately focused in on the fact that they might be entertaining Jesus and not know it – which he was suggesting was their primary motivation.  A kind of holy hedging your bets, we better feed the poor – that might be Jesus.  This might have been part of it, but surely the law and the prophets being summed up “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself” is sufficient?  No suggestion that my neighbour might be Jesus!  It is just what we should be doing!  

Matthew homed in on the “it might be Jesus” and said, I think it is the right thing to do – not because some plain clothes policeman maybe there . . . or holy invigilator.  Absolutely!  Anna then said, Christ is present to us in the person, what a faith tradition gives us is part of the means of raising ourselves to high standards.  Christ is present to us in the Eucharist and in each other.  A faith tradition gives us the means of raising ourselves to high standards?  Then why haven’t we consistently done that?

As the debate drew to a close, and I am sorry that the above comments are an inadequate representation of the whole thing. . The panel were asked to comment on the biblical injunction from Paul, in Be ready to give an answer for the “hope you have”.  1 Peter 3 verse 15.  This was then the most depressing bit of the debate . . . Sam said A hope for the future focused largely inter-personally, the human crisis is not so much mortality as isolation – the gift of the gospel is to overcome our isolation.  Anna – General hope for the church to talk about hope.  A sense in which, with great humility – we can find a language around hope.  Sarah D.  I am not very hopeful; I think we are in bad shape.  Break down of moral authority in church and state is pretty desperate.  The energy of young people and their appetite for social justice and, as she grows older, charity and kindness . . . Matthew Paris, said there was too much about charity and togetherness, the energy and drive of individuals, that is his hope for the future – in people (individuals) . . .

Well, the hope we have then, is not in Jesus Christ.  Maybe it is nobody’s fault we didn’t get to this, even Bill Hybels (Willowcreek Church dude), has said, “I believe the hope of the world is the local church.”  (that was not all he said, but that phrase is often repeated, the local church has the potential to bring hope but only is right at the centre of that community is Christ.  Christ being loved and worshiped and proclaimed.  It’s like saying the box your Easter egg is in is more exciting than the egg inside it.  Talking about what we hope “the church” does, because of Jesus is not nearly the same as talking about Jesus himself, surely!   Throughout this debate it felt, at times, that there was a reluctance to talk about Jesus except in some abstract ways.  Throughout the discussion about morality, the emphasis was on what we need to do to sort ourselves out – Christianity has given us a framework or tools or whatever, but the emphasis still seemed to be about what we must do.

The essence of Christianity is that we cannot do anything to help ourselves.  We are lost, we are like sheep without a shepherd.  From a spiritual perspective, the whole discussion about morality felt like a nonsense.  Jesus Christ did not come to earth, live a holy life and then die on a cross and then rise again – simply so that we might “found a faith”, or “have a framework for understanding our humanity” or so that we might use his teaching to give us a “moral framework” – no, we were (and ARE if we have not confessed Jesus Christ as Lord) dead.  Spiritually dead.  Jesus died to bring us to life.  He exchanged his life four ours, he bore it ALL for us.  Everything.  Not to make us good, but to make us holy.

The bond that all humanity share is the desperate need each one of us has for Christ.  The book of Romans unpacks the whole thing, eight great chapters of what God has done for us and enabled through the work of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, and then another eight chapters about how to live out this NEW life.

We have passed from death to life.  Jesus has conquered death; we have been bought by his precious blood!  Paul sums it up in terms of what life in Christ looks like, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  Galatians 2 verse 20.  We can do nothing, except die to self and allow Christ to fully live, fully reign, fully live in us and through us – not just “individually”, our faith is not all about our personal response, it is not “Christ in me” that is the hope of glory . . But, “Christ in us” (Colossians 1 verse 27).  It is a mystery, as Paul also says – but any debate about Christianity is a one dimensional and lacklustre attempt at justification – when our only justification comes through faith in this Jesus Christ, who – as we celebrate this weekend, changed everything we know and turned the world upside down and inside out 2000 years ago.

What a hope, what a saviour, what a Lord!

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