Christian Research is saying that UK Christianity has 'bottomed out' after years of decline in church attendance, report.
Let me offer six comments:
1. Much of the change is down to the vision, energy and expansion of black majority churches. It's well summed up by a comment from a friend with wide connections in these churches. "There came a time when they decided they should no longer be singing 'Nobody knows the trouble I've seen', but songs looking positively to the future."
2. A mood of corporate depression has lifted. When I came here to UK 30 years ago, if I said, "Do you know they do such and such in church in Australia?" the predictable, weary, reply would be, "That would never work here!" There is a different positive mood about, despite so many critics.
3. UK churches are more confident in themselves. For years churches here lauded third-rate ranters from elsewhere, giving the impression that only the exotic was worthwhile, not sufficiently valuing home grown preachers and teachers. In Alpha UK has a significant export of its own.
4. The penny has dropped that people are in church because they want to be there, not because it's the expected thing.
5. British Christianity has creatively adjusted to changes in the culture in ways that are studied and imitated all over the globe.
6. The tenor of research is more helpful. For years though it did not intend it, major reports by Christian Research seemed to take a perverse delight in saying how according to their projections UK Christianity was "a generation from extinction." It gave every cynic and every poison pen ammunition to bash the churches over the head.
People have been asking me what I would do if someone in the UK annouced plans to burn copies of The Qu'ran.
I didn't disagree with Hillary Clinton when she said it was "disrespectful" but there is more to be said. The people most likely to suffer repercussions are Christians living in places where their position is precarious: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Malaysia - just to name a few. I'd want to add that the idea of burning books is a sign of a bankrupt mind.
Legal action: If this were a UK issue I would take legal advice and perhaps gather Christian support to seek an injunction to prevent the burning going ahead. My sense is it would violate UK law.
Media: The guy is an attention seeker with a tiny congregation. I would be contacting journalists and TV people to dissuade them from giving him the oxygen of publicity. His loud pronoucements have already prompted investigative journalists to enquire into his previous activities and he hasn't come out smelling of roses.
Neighbourhood Action: I doubt there is a lot of value in rocking up to the local Mosque in ambassadorial mode. I had a Quaker friend who tried this after 9/11 and found himself being directed to a group for enquirers into Islam - the Mosque's version of Alpha! But if I had Muslim neighbours I would take the opportunity to tell them I would repudiate such an action.
All this is a very interesting window into the American scene. John Chane the bishop of Washington said this week that America is a nation boiling with anger having been unable to properly mourn 9/11.
America is a very insular place. Middle America has very little idea of the impact it has on people and places it doesn't know or understand.
American Christians have no idea that there are Christians elsewhere who assign to the US the status of the imperial power. Some even apply biblical references referring originally to Babylon and Rome to the US.
When American Christians hear this sort of thing they are hurt and bewildered because they see their nation as a guardian of freedom, whereas many outside the US would say the opposite.
An African told me recently that one of the few ways open to people from his continent to express their pain and anger with the US is to 'rough up' a soft target - like the Episcopal Church.
An African Christian leader gave this testimony. “One day, when I had just finished taking a service in the church, I came home to find my little son had been speared. He was dying in his Mother’s arms while she was vainly trying to push back the intestines which were protruding from the gash in his abdomen. Two things were uppermost in mind: distress at the loss of my only son, and fury against the perpetrator of the deed.
“’I must get away from myself and think this thing through before I do anything ’, I thought, so I went right away and knelt down to pray. At once I saw the Cross afresh, and my Savior dying there for me, and then suddenly I realized something else: the anguish of God the Father at the death of his Son, of whom I was the guilty murderer. I saw the spear that wounded his side, and then I heard his voice saying, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. I was quite broken down at the thought of what God had done for me, and all the feelings of hate and bitterness for the man who killed my son melted away.
“Meanwhile, the man who had speared the child had been caught. He was being held by a host of men all shouting at once, and holding spears, axes and knives, waiting for me, as the father of the child to give the word to dispatch. I walked up to them and told them to put their weapons down, then I said to the man, ‘As God has forgiven me, so I forgive you.’” Grace in the wilderness.
Love is a dimension of depth. We plumb the depth at very different levels. Only God has ever reached rock-bottom. One level which many have explored is that of just being a friend. A Muslim laborer working on the compound of the theological college in Nigeria was won for Christ simply by one of the students going out of his way to be a friend, first by 'showing an interest in his affairs', then by meeting his needs in sickness, then by inviting him into his own home. One day in conversation the labourer started talking about religion. “He repeatedly mentioned the word ‘love’ in connection with Christianity.” “Now,” reports that student, “the way was open for the gospel ... After careful reasoning together, my friend understood Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
There is nothing but that is not quite commonplace in the story, any more than there is in the story of a young man in Iran who when asked what first made him want to become a Christian replied: “Because I saw love in the life of another Christian. I watched him and I saw all he did was activated by one motive, love – I too wanted to find the source of true love.”
Rather devastating that – “I watched him.” That thought ought to bring us to our knees.
JVT reflects here on the Church as a healing community and how the Jesus story forms so much of its inspiration. (December 1964)
Throughout the centuries [the] Church has learnt to recognize Jesus in the guise of a fellow human, more than not identifying him by his wounds.; His sacred body has always been with us for our discernment of the poor, the wretched and the outcast. Jesus is the leper whom the saint kissed, and the child the monk carried over the stream, and the sick man who the widow nursed back to health. This still remains one of the mainsprings of Christian Mission.
A deeply moving instance of this way of thinking is quited by Cecil Day Lewis in his introduction to the collected poems of Wilfred Owen. In the summer of 1918, after a year and a half on the Western Front, Owen was training troops in England and preparing himself to return to the trenches, four months before he was killed.
"For fourteen hours yesterday I was at work," he wrote to a friend, "teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine his thirst till after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha."
From Change of Address (Hodders, 1968)
This extract from a JVT CMS Newsletter from March 1964 offers still-valid insights on lifestyle and lay witness.
"It is very doubtful," says [Mark Gibbs in] God's Frozen People, "whether we shall ever learn our duty as laity in the world, or show our neighbours anything of the love of God for them, without a great deal more hard work, late night travelling, dull social visiting, and even duller committees - and also more self-denial when it comes to status cars, expensive homes, wealthy holidays and so on."
We shall need to cling very firmly to "the ultimate meaning which shapes the penultimate sacrifice".
If we no longer notice that we are soiled and blunted by our involvement in the world, if we no longer thirst, inwardly and directly, for the living God, then, I suspect, we have ceased to live 'in Christ,' however much we may talk about 'holy worldliness'. But withdrawal is not the answer.
"To take a man out of the world will not make him unworldly," said Sir Kenneth Grubb recently in his presidential charge to missionaries of CMS. "Worldliness is a spirit, a temperament, an attitude of the soul. It is a life without the high calling, devoid of the end and the consumation of all things in Christ."Its motto for progress is 'forward', never 'upward'. Its goal is success, not holiness... Unworldliness is also an attitude of the soul, but, by contrast,with all this, it sets God always before the eyes, and fearlessly seeks to carry out his judgement in personal, social and practical life."
From Change of Address (Hodders, 1968)
There has always been a lively debate about conversion within the missionary movement: what it means and whether it should be an expected outcome of sharing the good news of Jesus. Here is a snapshot from the writings of John V Taylor dating from 1968.... ,
A missionary asked me in South India some time ago how I would have advised a Hindu women who came confessing that she worshipped only Jesus and daily read the New Testament which she had secreted in the house. "But," she asked, "must I be baptised? If I tell my husband even that I have such a desire, he will turn me out. Our marriage would be broken, my children bereft of a mother, our family destroyed. Must I do that to them?"
My every instinct demanded that I should say: "No! This is not required." Yet I knew if I had answered so, I should be saying something different from my Lord's clear and exacting demand. When Jesus speaks of baptism he means the Cross: Are you able to be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?
"Oh Lord," cried the great Saint Theresa once, no wonder you have so few friends when you treat them so hard." The marvel is that in spite of all he extracts, Christ still compels the allegiance of people from other households of faith....
From Change of Address (page 42, Hodders, 1968)
WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF JOHN TAYLOR'S ADVICE. WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE ADVISED?
A purple passage from Canon Max Warren in Tell in the Wilderness (Highway Press, 1959)
It falls to my lot very frequently to travel by road from Blackheath to Blackfriars. I am quite familiar with that bit of the wilderness of South London! In the course of various journeys I have travelled by road from Freetown to Port Loko, from Kano to Lagos, from Onitsha to Port Harcourt, from Dar-es-Salaam to Morogoro and Dodoma. I know the road from Nairobi to Kisumu over the Rift Valley. I have driven from Kampala to Gulu, from Juba to Yambio,. I know the road from Cairo to Menouf, the road from Kowloon to the border of China, and even some of the roads round Shanghai and Hangchow and Nanjing, to say nothing of the American 'throughways and the German autobahns.
I can only testify from my own experience that the people who live beside the road from Blackheath to Blackfriars are very like the people who frequent other roads. To begin with I've found them all likable, all about equally suspicious of strangers, all equally ready to join in a joke and to share a smile, all of them children of God. But I've not gone about with my eyes shut. I've seen where they lived, studied something of their problems, seen a little below the surface of their lives, and found there, in every case, the same common needs.
When we really get down below our superficial differences we know with St Paul that the truth about us is that "there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23). We are all in the wilderness without exception. But that isn't the last word. St Paul goes on to say that "they (that is all of us) are justified by his grace through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ" (v.24). In the wilderness is the sign of the cross.