I suspect that many or perhaps most of us have been to meetings where an awful lot of time is spent discussing ‘stuff’ before, eventually, the time comes to discuss the interesting (perhaps even contentious) items on the agenda. General Synod was a bit like this! We seemed to spend hours discussing the timetable for future meetings; hours that we will never get back!
Eventually we did get round to discussing homelessness, progress on Living in Love and Faith, the appalling consequences of addiction to gambling, the Crown Nomination Committee’s internal processes, the state of the nation, (oh yes, and, deanery synod length of service!) and, the synod’s focal topic, Mission and Evangelism.
Synod agreed that evangelism is a priority and that mission and evangelism on estates must be a particular priority (thank you Bishop Philip North). Synod also affirmed the absolute importance of youth evangelism. So far so good, mission and evangelism amongst the young and on the estates is indeed very good, but………
But, the overall tenor of debate felt a bit thin. It felt as though we all know and understand what we mean when we speak of mission and evangelism and that we are all working off a common template. From this ‘catholic’ participant-observer’s perspective the substance of the materials provided require an awful lot of ‘thickening out.’
I was privileged to be called to give my maiden speech in the evangelism debate. Mission and evangelism are close to my heart. I teach mission and evangelism to ordinands and readers in training and I passionately believe that the world needs ‘more and better Christians’ (++Temple) or ‘a bigger church making a bigger difference,’ (+ Paul Bayes). Our benefice collect includes the plea that ‘we may grow in number and in holiness.’
I believe in conversion and desire to play my role in bringing people to a place of conversion. I am happy to accept that conversion may be an event or the fruit of a process, but would want to argue, in Benedictine terms, that ‘conversion of life,’ is the real witness to the work of the Spirit within individuals and crucially communities. I also argued in my speech that although conversion is central to mission and evangelism, mission and evangelism are not reducible to conversion: ‘The Church’s approach needs to include conversion at its core, but not to be reducible to conversion.’
The road we seem to be going down is a little thin – theologically and ecclesiologically – because it feels a little individualistic, a little too protestant for a church which self-defines as ‘reformed catholic.’ In my speech I suggested that the Church as the Body of Christ, is an observable phenomena. The quality of the Church is therefore of uppermost importance. Ecclesiology in some ways precedes mission and evangelism. And yes, although it isn’t trendy to say so, we really should be speaking to and amongst ourselves as a vital part of the ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ Any claims to be an authentically evangelical church must start with self-reflection guided by the Spirit.
Evangelism isn’t a thing, or a technique, but the outworking of the Spirit. Evangelism must be rooted in prayer, not just informal prayer but also the formal prayers of the Church (hence the relationship between liturgy and evangelism) and, routed from prayer. What we pray day-by-day is as important in evangelical terms as what we do day-by-day. Prayer is the activity that shapes both who we are and what we do. Prayer is in some ways God focused self-talk.
Our internal questions are important questions, they are the qualitative questions. They are also prophetic questions. As Anglicans the choices that we make, the attitudes we hold, and the liturgies we offer must, necessarily, underpin any missional and evangelistic strategies. Ecclesiology, liturgy and sacraments are our living proofs and validators. Ecclesiology speaks to the quality of our welcome and hospitality, our ‘tone and culture,’ whilst liturgy and sacraments are the living, real and textually enacted animators of doctrine.
In my speech I asked what mission and evangelism might mean ‘in multicultural and multi-faith contexts, or to people who might be “scared and wary” of the Church’s mission.’ I specifically asked “what does it (mission and evangelism) say to the poor, disabled, gay, not sure, imprisoned, wealthy?’ Put another way ‘what is the vision glorious?’ What is the ‘vision glorious’ for the God-fearing Jew, Hindu, Sikh – for those who are unlikely to succumb to conversion? What is the ‘vision glorious’ for others of good-will? What is the ‘vision glorious’ for those who believe that the Church is just another institution or community likely to reject their very identity? For me these are the ‘thick’ missional and evangelistic questions.
I concluded my speech by saying that the primary goal of mission and evangelism should be the erosion of antipathy, for we need to be clear: most people couldn’t really care less about the church or the message we proclaim. That’s the stark and unbearable reality. The fruit of real and holistic evangelism should be the offer of affirmation, the brokering of rejection (for Jesus was rejected, frequently) and the erosion of antipathy and apathy. Mission and evangelism cannot be separated away from doctrine, ecclesiology and liturgy. My worry is that we – in the Church of England – are seeking to do so, leaving a residue that is just a little to thin.
Our understanding of Mission and Evangelism needs thickening out because ‘the world needs more and better Christians’, or ‘a bigger church making a bigger difference.’