Advent, the Church of England, and Mission
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Mission through the local church.
At our local village church we are preparing for an evangelistic mission which will take place next year. We don’t call it that, because some of the more traditional members who attend the 9am Communion service, and many of our friends and neighbours in the village who we are seeking to reach with the Gospel, might find talk of ‘mission’ a bit threatening. So it’s going to feature a familiar week of social activities, events with talks, and worship, but it will be called a ‘Festival’.
As part of the preparation we have had a sermon series about prayer, and we’ve been trying to get more people involved in consciously drawing close to God and praying for the community during the week. Christmas gives us an opportunity to intentionally remind churchgoers – regular and occasional – of the message about Christ and how to share it, which will continue into the New Year. A number of prayer meetings have started up.
Occasionally on a Sunday evening we have an informal time of praise and prayer – an opportunity to worship using some new songs which haven’t yet made it into the repertoire of the morning services, and to spend some unhurried time with the Lord and interceding for world, village, church and one another. Last Sunday, the first of Advent, we spent some time reflecting on Simeon and Anna who waited on the Lord and for the revelation of his Messiah. He comes in a way that is not expected; those who miss his coming are the comfortable, the powerful, even the religious leaders; those who receive him are the patient, the humble, the outsiders.
To me it’s a great strength of the Church of England that a small village church can host a service of Holy Communion with sung responses in the morning, and then an informal time of worship and intercession in the evening (even followed by a short prayer walk!) attended by many of the same people, with the exposition of Scripture pointing to Christ at the centre of both.
Rural congregations, as we all know, are under threat; there are debates about whether to rationalise and reorganise, reducing numbers of clergy and services, or whether resources should be taken from central Diocesan funds to subsidise the ministry because of the heritage value and community symbolism of the old buildings, even though services are increasingly poorly attended. But are all rural parishes the same? My experience is that a few are thriving, others, like mine, are small in numbers but with prayer, planning and basic Gospel ministry are seeking to grow and reach out, despite the competition of larger, better resourced urban churches within ten miles. Sadly, we all know that many are struggling.
Rural Church of England ministry will continue as long as people turn up for services and are able to contribute some funds towards the building and the parish share. While that is the brutal economic truth, I would want to argue for a more positive, evangelical vision for local church: people who gather to pray and worship and study the Bible in their locality, with a vision for the Kingdom of God where they live, and a longing for their neighbours to come to Christ. At present, as my church is demonstrating, it’s still possible to carry out this vision in an Anglican village church.
Mission in other parts of the global church
At this time of year when the frantic purchasing of goods obscures the real meaning of the Advent season, many churches want to consciously set aside time, thought and resources for the less fortunate in other parts of the world, and have an appeal for a special project which they support. Readers might like to consider making a contribution towards an excellent scheme which Anglican Mainstream has been assisting over the past 18 months. The Youth Drop-In Centre in Athi River, Kenya, is a ministry of the Anglican Diocese of Machakos. Over £10,000 has been raised so far, and used to purchase equipment for the centre and contribute to the salary and expenses of a full-time youth worker. In one aspect of the ministry, young men suffering from serious trauma resulting from extreme poverty, sexual abuse and drug use receive shelter and counselling, and in conjunction with local churches have the opportunity to rebuild their lives. If you would like to know more, please read this information leaflet here: machakos-youth-centre
A divided Church. Come, Lord Jesus.
We began this piece with an example of how it is still possible to carry out orthodox Christian ministry in the Church of England. But for how long will this be the case?
If the Church continues to embrace or condone doctrinal innovations at odds with the historic understanding of the faith, at what point will it no longer be faithful to ‘the apostolic deposit’ of the unchanging Gospel? When will it have ‘crossed the Rubicon’, putting itself out of fellowship with the majority of Christians worldwide? A paper commissioned by the Officers of the Church of England Evangelical Council and published in October argued that a ‘mixed economy’ church, in which the official doctrines remain orthodox but in practice other views and practices are tolerated and encouraged, would no longer be faithful, and a negotiated schism may be necessary (see also here).
GAFCON UK has gone further, listing several well-publicised instances where the agreed teaching of the church on sex and marriage has been transgressed and not sanctioned, as evidence of the revisionist trajectory. A huge furore ensued; an official response from a Church of England spokesman played down the importance of the Lambeth I:10 resolution and appeared to open the door to a very liberal interpretation of ‘pastoral prayers’ for same sex couples in church. Others have responded to this in turn. A (regularly updated) compendium of the most important articles on this issue can be found here.
In my village church it sometimes feels as if we are far away from these global theological controversies. But then a conversation with a church member who can’t accept the doctrine of sin or the uniqueness of Christ reminds me that every human heart is a microcosm of the clash of views being played out in Dioceses, theological colleges and the Christian i-space: a war between what I want and think is best, and what God requires.