Talking of God to the church and in the public square

Archbishop Justin had a hard time in some sections of the press last weekend.

In the Sunday Times Rod Liddle and Dominic Lawson could barely contain themselves. Liddle, who seems to believe solely in the privatization of salvation and that Christianity is above all a faith that seeks to promote individual, rather that corporate or communal, responsibility commented that ‘there is touch of the Frank Spencer about Welby, the Archbishop of Cant.’  

Both Liddle and Lawson expressed the opinion that given that the Church of England is an imperfect institution Archbishop Justin should put a sock in it. They could hardly disguise their glee that the Church of England, through its investment bodies, holds shares in Amazon whilst also offering workers zero hours contracts. Liddle commented that ‘Justin looks really, really stupid, as well as hypocritical. He is his own satire.’ Lawson was slightly more restrained accusing Justin of the ‘banal hypocrisy we expect from politicians.’

Are these comments fair? Well, to an extent, but, in my view to only an extent. Of course the church must always look to clean up its act, and I suspect that this is very high on Justin’s agenda. Justin seems to be committed to shining light into the dark areas of the church. I suspect that by the end of his tenure the church will be healthier in many respects. O that all institutions would commit to becoming healthier. The Church of England, despite Liddle and Lawson’s critique, is making strides towards becoming healthier.

I welcome the Church of England’s commitment to model what it might mean to be a socially responsible investor in relation to fossil fuels (something neither Liddle or Lawson mentioned) and the moral leadership the bishops have given on fixed odds betting (again something neither commentator mentioned). I hope the Church of England might play a compassionate and creative part in the provision of financial services to the poor. And, yes, as an orthodox-progressive I hope, and pray, that under Archbishop Justin’s tenure a far greater proportion of women will occupy ‘senior’ positions than in the average board-room. I also hope that significant progress is made in all matters sexual. I hope that the Church of England will truly become a place and a body where all may flourish and none need fear.

Criticism and critique is never, of course, purely objective. I don’t know what’s behind Dominic Lawson’s attempts to smear Justin’s very character, but in Rod Liddle’s case its pretty clear: he wants a church whose theology is directly aligned with his own essentially conservative social and political views. He wants, like many of us, to be appeased by the church and told that he is right.

The trouble is that it doesn’t work like that. The Church, through its bishops, should speak truth to power; The Church should unsettle, challenge and disturb; The Church should, whilst always proclaiming Jesus Christ, seek to let light shine out of darkness’ (1 Corinthians 4, 6); The Church, through the office of her bishops, should always exercise  special care for the poor,’ (Ordinal of Bishops).

Whatever else Justin is he isn’t stupid. He knows that in many areas the Church needs to get her act together, but he also knows that he is called, mandated, obligated to exercise a very public theology. He knows he has two audiences to challenge: the church herself and the ‘principalities and powers,’  (Ephesians 6, 12).

Renewing and reforming the Church whilst continuing to speak truth to power is the ‘ministry of the Spirit,’ Justin is called to. All who worship in the Church of England should pray that he ‘does not lose heart,’ (2 Corinthians 4,1). If Justin carries on with his dual agenda he is sure to face ongoing criticism from those who would prefer him to proclaim a softer, less disturbing, more domesticated gospel. These critics will carry on accusing him of hypocrisy, always pointing to the state of the church militant, however, the Church, whilst always seeking to become a better, healthier, and more righteous communion of the faithful, should continue seeking to help ‘transform the unjust structures of society’ (Five Marks of Mission).

This week I came across these words of wisdom from Yves Congar: ‘I have long thought that the most favorable moments for sowing and planting are times of storm and trouble.’  Maybe these can be real words of encouragement for all who desire both a healthier church and a more just society?



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