Witness which omits the inconvenient truth

Oct 22, 2019 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Religion is increasingly irrelevant for many people, but the Church still has opportunities to engage with large audiences outside its walls. Are those who speak for it making the best use of these openings?

Sociologists of religion tell us that ‘secularisation’ does not tell the whole story as far as the decline of organised religion in Western culture is concerned. Yes there is a downturn in churchgoing and belief in the Christian God, but a rise in adherence to other faiths, and in alternative religious beliefs such as new age spiritualities, angels and neo-pagan superstitions.

It’s also true that despite society’s move away from traditional Christianity, the Church of England still retains a favoured place. Bishops sit in the House of Lords and speak on Thought for the Day; church schools continue in theory to offer an opportunity for children to learn about Christian faith. Vicars still have access to thousands, perhaps millions of homes through the parish system, occasional offices and the concept of the cure of souls.

In the past couple of weeks, the presence of church groups of different denominations at the Extinction Rebellion protests, and the guidance given by Bishops over Brexit and the need for national reconciliation, have been reported by secular media. More ‘negative’ stories, such as cases of abuse and inadequate safeguarding, and divisions over different understandings of sexuality and marriage, have also been given coverage in the national press.

So despite secularisation, a significant number of people in the nation still care about what the church as a whole, and the Church of England in particular, believes and does. What an opportunity for witness!

A witness, whether in a law court, the family, the workplace or a pulpit, is more effective if known as truthful, reliable and stable. Devotees of John Grisham novels know that the first tactic of those trying to stop the truth coming out is to discredit the character of the witness. Many church leaders who get the opportunity to speak in the public square prioritise the need first to gain a respectful hearing by coming across as balanced, wise, concerned for the common good and caring for the needy.

That is part of the ‘method’ of being a good witness. But then, the main task of the witness is not to establish credentials as an end in itself, but to recount the truth, when given the opportunity. If the witness only includes aspects of the truth which are inoffensive and unremarkable, such as the need for mutual civility and to care for the disadvantaged and the planet, there is a danger of missing the controversial but unique spiritual elements of the message which lead to salvation. In short, the purpose of Christian testimony is not just to let people know that the messenger is a respectable and caring person, but to deliver the message about Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

Time and again, opportunities for speaking this message are given to church leaders in the public square because of the continued interest in what the church thinks, despite secularism. There are still open doors in the public media for relating the benefits of faith in Christ to issues of serious concern. This needs to be evangelistic: publicly commending the truth and authority of the Scriptures, the goodness and reasonableness of the Christian worldview with its benefits for mental and spiritual health; the necessity of responding to the invitation to repent and believe.

And the church’s message also needs to be ‘prophetic’: warning for example about consequences of abandoning belief in God and exalting human autonomy; the inability to gather around shared values; the failure to properly address social care of the elderly; the need to protect the unborn from being killed because of being seen as an inconvenience; the need to protect young children from inappropriate sexualisation and indoctrination with experimental and confusing views on sex, gender and family.

When church leaders do this it brings tremendous encouragement across the world. Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney has publicly spoken up against the liberalisation of abortion laws, and has challenged liberal church leaders who want to change the message of the church to appease secular culture. In another example of how the media is still interested in what the church thinks, particularly Anglicans, his recent address to his Diocesan Synod was widely reported. See our collection of articles hereOf course he and the Diocese of Sydney have been deliberately misinterpreted and vilified, but many ordinary people have celebrated a church leader who is not afraid of saying that the church should believe and act according to the Christian faith.

But sadly, in the UK, senior church leaders so often fluff their lines and omit the key message of Christ and his Lordship. Other commentators have pointed this out recently. David Baker, normally supportive of the bishops, writing in Christian Today, feels “let down and disappointed” by a Bishop’s performance on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, which contained “no mention of Jesus”. Martin Davie in his own blog reviewed the recent statement on Brexit, and says “the Bishops have failed to address the most fundamental issue facing our nation at the moment”, which is not economics or politics or community cohesion, important as these are, but “our relationship with God”.

Despite the increasing influence of the sexual revolution, the contradiction of its godless values with Christian morality and worldview, the effect of secularism on church decline, despite the development of ‘thought coercion’ and threats to basic freedoms, we almost never hear our Church of England Bishops warning about these things, or promoting the better story of biblical teaching on sex and marriage (with notable exceptions). Instead, they prefer to speak of food banks, global warming and reconciliation across the Brexit divide, without even bringing a distinctive Christian prophetic and evangelistic edge to these important concerns.

Instead, they have backed the consultancy role of LGBT advocacy groups Stonewall and Mermaids in primary schools, voted for a ban on counselling for people wanting to move away from homosexual desire and practice, and supported the use of baptism liturgies to celebrate gender transitionThey have missed the opportunity to speak against the undemocratic imposition of new abortion laws on Northern Ireland by absenting themselves from the debate.

Perhaps they feel that to speak against secular sexual ethics, and be too up front about the gospel would be ‘preachy’, come across as too religious, even ‘extreme’, and so damage their credibility as respectable guides, mediators between different viewpoints, influencers for peace. If the gospel is no more than a secular vision of harmony, of which Christ is a mere symbol, this is understandable. But the heart of the Christian message is a transcendent God who rescues us from rebellion, selfishness and wrong thinking, and calls us to radical inclusion in his Son. If church leaders feel unable to witness to this truth outside the believing community as they are commissioned, either because they no longer believe it, or because of fear of rejection, how valuable is their respectability?

Related Posts


Share This