There was a subtitle fail in the Zoom service from Guildford Cathedral on Advent Sunday. It caused a bit of amusement on Twitter, but it presents an opportunity to explore a more serious missiological point in the wake of Tim Stanley’s recent assertion in the Telegraph that Anglican theology “is now impossible to decipher”:
Every concession to what it thinks the world wants of it is instantly met by a new demand; the internal debate, one suspects, is what some Anglicans live for. There is no terminus except institutional death – the point at which the Church has accompanied society so far without question that, rather than trying to change us, it has become just as confused, materialistic, secular and scared as the general population.
How the Church relates to the contemporary world is a test – the test – of its faithfulness, for a church that is not involved in mission is not a church: a church that is not doing mission lacks self-understanding and is devoid if Christian identity. When Jesus gave the instruction: ‘Go, and do thou likewise‘ (Lk 10:37), what does this actually mean in a such strange time and a far away land?
We may disagree about the meaning of ‘mission’, and dispute God’s purposes and mode of liberation, or how the logic of love leads to the kingdom of God, and yet the very language of the missio dei may be spinach to modern ears. Kingdom? Masculine? Warlike? Dominating? Hierarchical? Constraining?
Who or what is God? For the purposes of God to be understood, God has to be explained. And who or what is this God without justice, peace and joy? But what are justice, peace and joy as the world knows and understands? And how do they relate to the Church’s spinach joy which ‘passeth all understanding‘ (Phil 4:7)?
And what does ‘passeth’ mean? Why can’t you just say ‘surpasses’ or ‘transcends’ like normal people?
In Guildford’s celebration of the Eucharist, Christians may hear ‘In the power of the Spirit’, though they read ‘spinach’, but the world hears ‘Blah blah spinach’. What is this power? Where may it be seen or experienced? What or who is this spirit? Why is this spirit any better than any other spirits that floats around from time to time?
What do non-believers think of a church which is mired in abuse scandals and keeps going on (and on) about gender and sexuality? It goes on about so much more, of course, but it’s only sex and sexuality which attracts the media trumpets (indeed, the entire brass section), and so the world hears a gospel of phobic prudery shrouded by a sepulchre which reeks of hypocrisy. It isn’t so much Anglican spinach as catholic vomit fruit.
And ‘catholic’ is important here, because Anglican spinach is not only a problem for the Church of England and the Worldwide Anglican Communion: it is a missiological challenge for the global catholic Church; for all Christians in all church denominations everywhere. When those who are being lost speak nothing but Greek; when those who are seeking Jesus ask: ‘τίς δέ ἐστιν οὗτος περὶ οὗ ἀκούω τοιαῦτα;‘, it is unhelpful (to say the least) to respond: ‘מֶלֶךְ הַיְּהוּדִים’.
It’s spinach – unless you’re a Hebraist.
And yet much of the Church is preaching the Good News in Hebrew, as though they were guardians of a messianic secret code. It is seemingly mired in interminable internal debates of tradition and law while many of those who are being lost genuinely want to know about this Jesus who meets people, eats with them, listens to them, touches them, heals them, forgives them, and whispers in their ear that they will enter the kingdom of God before thousands of politicians, bishops, popes and self-enthroned mini-popes.
If Christ’s sacrifice was for the benefit of all human beings, why is the Church no longer announcing this in language which is intelligible? What is the meaning of ‘truth’ in a world where every personal belief is true? What constitutes ‘sin’ in a world where morality is guided by feeling and fulfilment? What is ‘salvation’ in a world where the sources of knowledge are increasingly material, and the culture predominantly secular and humanist?
What are the limits of the accommodation of the gospel to culture? If there is no tolerance of autonomy and self-determination, there is no perception of love. If the cry is for conformity and uniformity, there is no experience of acceptance.
If there is no accommodation of moral diversity, all that remains is spinach: the essential elements of the Christian faith cease to resonate because in their institutional distinguishing they are perfectly aloof, and so irrelevant. You may think you are preserving what is sacred writ and holy doctrine, but the consciousness of the age demands the Jesus who told parables of signs and symbols. This is how he made God known, and how he made his message challenging and relevant: he eschewed the fancy dress of religious office and the dense verbiage of liturgical authority, preferring instead a process of reformation and reinterpretation of divine revelation. He made religion every-day and experiential. He didn’t fear pluralism, or, indeed, allegations of heterodoxy: he spoke of exclusivism without being narrow-minded, principally because he reified inclusivism without a care in the world for what the world considered unclean and unworthy.
If the Christian faith is not contextual, it ceases to be incarnational. If theology is not ‘applied’, it ceases to have meaning. Some may balk at the idea that eternal truths should be ‘contextualised’, for that way surely lies the syncretised religiosity and postmodern relativism of Anglican theology and ecclesiology. But it is worth asking what exactly is the point of a church which does not participate in the political or enjoin with the social and celebrate the anthropological in all its diversity and chaos? What is the mission of a church which does not struggle with the ‘mess’ of humanity and forge expressions of theology which insiders might find incoherent or “impossible to decipher”?
If the gospel is not related to culture, the Spirit is nothing but spinach. That might satisfy Popeye, but it says nothing at all in most people’s situations of social injustice, political alienation or abuses of human rights.