Church of England

Pentecost evangelism? What is the gospel in an age of religious relativism?


The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written to every clergyman and woman in England (all 11,300 of them, which is a lot of stamps), urging them to pray this Pentecost for the evangelisation of the nation. And not only to pray, but to share the gospel with those who are being lost, in order to win more souls for Christ. Yes, the Church of England is seeking converts: it is actively proselytising. Justin Welby and John Sentamu are trying to make new followers and disciples for Jesus. There will be round-the-clock prayer marathons, evangelistic meetings and other events, all dedicated to the evangelism effort. ‘Thy Kingdom Come‘ is the initiative (stemming from the Synod Report from the Archbishops’ Evangelism Task Group). Winning souls is serious stuff: it is spiritual warfare.

But it all rather depends on what gospel is preached. “Sharing the news of the beautiful shepherd is itself beautiful, a delicate, gentle and rich privilege,” writes the Bishop of Liverpool in that Synod Report. And, of course, it is. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York expound:

The moment of evangelism is the specific proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ to another person or people. It is undertake for God and with God, with news from God about God. There is no greater honour than bearing this Good News to another, no greater privilege than seeing others respond to the Good News, and no greater challenge than to be captivated by the urgency of this vocation.

..Evangelism is the proclamation of God’s transforming love made known to us in Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It can only be undertaken because God is alive and actively working by the Holy Spirit in families, parishes, places of work and everyday lives. The first movement is never from us to God, but always from God to us. In the strength of the One who has already called us, we seek to hold forth Christ to all, so that they will turn around and believe the good news.

This must be done in ways that are authentic to Jesus Christ and also ring true for those we are called to meet..

Evangelism in “ways that are authentic” demands the repudiation of the gospel of religious relativism. It necessitates the proclamation that all ways do not lead to salvation, and that unless you convert and give your life to Jesus, you are surely on your way to.. er.. hell.

Gosh. Is that a bit too authentic? Too harsh a truth? Too unloving and offensive a reality?

In a postmodern, pluralist world, there is a plurality of ways of understanding reality and truth, and in the pervasive diversity of religious expression are found numerous claims to truth. This challenges the nature and status of revelation. If we believe that God manifests Himself in different cultures at different times, then the words of the Bible can constitute neither an immutable ‘truth’ nor the definitive ‘word of God’. Scripture must be consciously relativised in order to liberate the text, the belief being that present and future generations must not be held hostage by dogmas and dogmatists who were themselves captives of their own parochial world. Thus are the prophets of other lands and cultures regarded as equal to the prophets of Israel, and so we get Moses juxtaposed with Mohammed; Gautama Buddha with St Paul, and so on. This approach is pervasive in our schools: RE is the epitome of salvific universalism. The revelation of God must be sought in all religious shrines and traditions in order that this rich heritage may broaden our understanding of God’s activity in human history. It is a kind of ‘Third Testament’ revelation.

The Church of England is the Established Church: it exists for all of its parishioners – of all faiths and none. How can it seek converts without repudiating false prophets and offending the sensibilities of those who are going to hell? Of course, Christ must be at the centre of things, and it may be observed that postmodernity is more open to religious accounts than was doctrinaire modernity. But the price of such openness is to demand that all accounts relinquish their claim to transcendent, unique truth. If a religion results in a life of love and concern for others, the claims of the Buddhist, the Muslim, the Christian, and the atheist must be accepted as equally true. Lesslie Newbigin observes:

If religious belief is a matter of personal inward experience rather than an account of what is objectively the case, then there are no grounds for thinking that Christians have any right – much less any duty – to seek the conversion of these neighbours to the Christian faith. To try to do so is arrogance (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p25)

He also notes that the inter-religious is usually compounded by the inter-racial issue, and in order to avoid accusations of racism, the tendency is to accept religious pluralism: “The Christian faith may be true for us; it is not necessarily true for everyone,” he writes. But the Incarnation, when taken literally, leads to the uncomfortable assertion that Christ is the ‘norm’ for all other religions. Belief in the Incarnation cannot be done away with: it is not myth, but serious and literal.

How postmodernist Christians reconcile seriously the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism with the Five Pillars of Islam, or release from Samsara in Theravada Buddhism with justification by faith alone in Protestant Evangelicalism, is fraught with difficulty. The belief that all religions are expressions of the same transcendent reality is illusory (at best). As Newbigin cogently attests:

(T)here is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, but if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth it is in fact an arrogant claim to a kind of knowledge which is superior to the knowledge which is available to fallible human beings (ibid., p170).

The dispute boils down to competing truth claims on salvation: my gospel is mine; yours is yours. With ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are shifting the Church of England away from a fuzzy relativist gospel of ‘anything goes’ to one of salvific fact: the person and work of Jesus Christ. There will be objections from those who repudiate the self-interested claims of the dominant voices, but this, too, must be sensitively challenged in the mission of the Church. We either engage with this, or we die. The greatest irony would be for Christians uncritically to join the assault on a dying modernity only to find ourselves as but one story among many, unintentionally reinforcing the irrationalism of postmodernity.