Thursday, 1 October 2009

Is the Diocese of Chelmsford Christian?

I have just been having a quick read through the Dioceses’s Statement of Needs, which has been prepared as part of the process of looking for a new bishop. This process is something in which I’ve already taken a serious interest, following the failure to give sufficient notification to clergy and church members to encourage their contributions. A ‘public consultation’ at which just one person turns up has clearly failed to hit the right publicity buttons.

Nevertheless, we have been assured that everyone’s views, including those of more conservative and evangelical groupings, have been heard and represented. Reading through the Statement of Needs, however, far from being reassured I find myself convinced that something is seriously adrift, which even the extended consultation period could not rectify.

Some of the statistical material is bad enough. We are now in a situation where fewer than 2% of the population of East London and Essex attends an Anglican church (p8 —interestingly about the same percentage of the population as are Hindus). Perhaps not surprisingly, Chelmsford also has one of the smallest levels of church attendance per stipendiary minister —just 116 (p8). Furthermore, between 2004 and 2008, the Normal Sunday Attendance in the Diocese fell from 28,180 to 27,236 —over 3%. Just as seriously, the electoral roll figures declined by almost 10% in the same period.
Such problems, however, are not new. Neither need they be insuperable, provided the church applies itself to mission. The real difficulty I had, however, was discerning in this Statement a truly Christian understanding of that mission.
Take, as a starting point, this from the ‘vision statement’, reproduced on the front of the document:
Our Passion: Our Passion is Jesus — Proclaiming and living out God’s love for all people.
Our Aspiration: To be a Transforming Presence in every Community, Open and Welcoming to all, and Serving all.
The idea that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love is, of course, entirely biblical: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this,” wrote the Apostle Paul: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). But it is hard to be sure that this is what the Statement of Needs has in mind when it talks about ‘proclaiming and living out God’s love’.
In particular, we may ask what precisely is understood by the notion of ‘transformation’ behind the ‘Aspiration’ to be “a Transforming Presence in every Community”. Who, or what is being transformed, in what way, and how, if at all, does this come back to God saving us from his wrath and reconciling his enemies to himself through the death of his son (Rom 5:9-10)? One may search through the entire document and find no mention of the words ‘salvation’, ‘saved’ or ‘saving’. Indeed, there is seemingly no mention of the cross or Christ’s death at all. (Nor, incidentally, is there any mention of ‘Bible’, and there are only two mentions of ‘Scripture’.)
There is, admittedly, a great deal about mission. But it is couched in terms which, whilst making much of ‘God’s mission in the world’, make it hard to see what is precisely the nature of that mission in relation to what Christ has done. Thus at one point we read,
The Scriptural record reveals to us that God’s mission in Christ creates a new human community as witness to God’s redeeming purpose for all creation. That new community — the church born and nurtured in the risen life of Jesus Christ — is called to be the servant of the mission of God. (p 22, ‘Deanery Vision’ template)
But what, exactly, is the ‘mission of God’ and what, precisely, are we supposed to be doing about it? That, it seems, is open to interpretation.
I am reminded of the diocesan gathering at which the words of Stuart Townend and Keith Getty’s In Christ Alone were arbitrarily (and illegally, in violation of copyright) altered from saying that on the cross “the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the word of God was satisfied”. The explanation offered when this was queried was that many clergy in the diocese would be unable to go along with the first version. Quite so.
Thus when it comes to mission, the diocesan Statement of Needs seems to have little to say about God’s work in reconciling the world to himself through the death of his son in the light of coming judgement (indeed, words like ‘reconcile’, ‘reconciling’, ‘reconciliation’, ‘judge’, ‘judging’, ‘judgement’ are also entirely absent), and focuses instead on the church joining, as it were, with God in transforming the world in which we now live, so that it will express in the present what its final state will be in the future. In expressing their own commitment, the Bishops of the diocese thus state,
Jesus ministry was centred on the now and not yet of the Kingdom of God. This included attention to the seemingly least important in the present age, eg children and the poor. A Kingdom focus will expand our horizons beyond the church to embrace all the institutions and people of our communities as the focus of God’s mission.
But what is that mission? They continue,
In keeping with the example of Jesus, our mission and ministry needs to be contextually relevant and self-giving as we seek to demonstrate what it means to be fully human and whole. We are called to serve our communities as they live through enormous cultural and social change. This applies on the grand scale of community regeneration as well as the pastoral care of individuals. We are called to find ways to live a holistic lifestyle in a complex mix of cultural expectations.
The tragedy is not only that this is unclear but that it is scarcely discernibly Christian. Somewhere in it there may be buried St Paul’s affirmation to the Corinthian Christians,
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures ...
Perhaps —but one cannot help feeling it is buried very deeply indeed. Of course, a biblical gloss can be put on what is contained in the Statement of Needs. It would be an even more remarkable document if one could not. Yet it is precisely a gloss —it is not what the Statement itself sets out to declare with clarity and conviction. And here is the worry, for if the next Bishop is chosen to match the understanding set out in the Statement, then he himself will hardly need to be a man of clarity and conviction.
Revd John P Richardson
1 October 2009
 Bible quotations ©The Holy Bible New International Version 1996, c1984 Grand Rapids: Zondervan
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  1. "...the words of Stuart Townend and Keith Getty’s In Christ Alone were arbitrarily (and illegally, in violation of copyright) altered from saying that on the cross “the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the word of God was satisfied”."

    What can it possibly mean to say 'the word of God was satisfied'? Only persons or debts can be satisfied.

    Mark B.

  2. Mark, I think the theological justification was that it was 'God's word against sin'. Still doesn't make it right, of course.

  3. Alistair McHaffie1 October 2009 at 22:51

    I have just completed session 1 of a year-long "Mission Shaped Ministry" Course, and there the participants are hard-pressed to come to any consensus about what mission is. It is depressing that a course full of people with a commitment to mission can't come to a common agreement about what God's mission is!

    Like the diocese of Chelmsford, issues like God's wrath, judgement, personal salvation, etc. didn't feature in our 1st session - I'm not convinced they will feature in future sessions, but I'll keep you informed!

  4. Rev. Richardson:

    The old Reformation Confessions keep coming back. Plus, singing the Psalms.

    Philip Veitch
    Camp Lejeune, NC

  5. So-called liberal Christians are often accused of making God in their own image, while so-called conservatives believe in the God of the Bible and the historic church. As I look at your blog I see so much anger. Even this reasonably-worded item above is full of rage, pent-up, dressed-up, carefully -controlled, yet recognisably rage.
    There is a wrathful God in the Bible. There's certaintly a wrathful God in the history of the Church, but that's only part of the picture. There is plentiful testimony in the Bible and the Church to a God who is not consumed by wrath and unable to work out salvation unless (s)he is appeased. Testimony to a God who forgives and welcomes, even the seemingly unpenitent, who reach out for help. I for one am glad that the wrath of God is not at the forefront of the mission of the Diocese of Chelmsford, and I think that the Diocese is more, not less Christian because of it.
    Frank. Merseyside.

  6. One gets the impression that the vaguely worded Mission Statements that attempt to describe 'Mission' are predicated on the assumption that becoming a Christian is 'a jolly good thing to do' other than being a urgent necessity.

    Rather like having holiday insurance if you are going abroad. Not strictly necessary, but desirable.

    In order to come to a definition of 'mission' the formulators of the Chelmsford Diocese mission statement(s) might wish to consider the consequences of not becoming a Christian if indeed they believe there are any.

    Chris Bishop

  7. "One gets the impression that the vaguely worded Mission Statements that attempt to describe 'Mission' are predicated on the assumption that becoming a Christian is 'a jolly good thing to do' other than being a urgent necessity."

    Exactly so. I reacall reading an Australian bishop lamenting that so few Aussies were practicing Christians because this would make their lives 'a lot happier'. It's purely this-worldly perspective and not a very persuasive (or comprehensible) one. 'If it is only for this life that we have believed ...'

    Mark B.