Like many of my generation, I was converted at university through the efforts of the Christian Union. The way this came about was simple but typical. I got to know some Christian friends, I got to hear about their faith. I was invited along to some meetings, including during the biannual mission. Eventually, the penny dropped and after much wrestling, I took the step of asking Christ to be my Saviour and Lord in August 1971.
One other thing was important in getting me where I am today. On my return to Keele in the autumn of 1971, I got involved in the Christian Union myself, as the Publicity Officer. I became involved in missions and having found that to be exciting and rewarding, thought that it might be good to do this full-time and get paid for it. That led eventually to ordination, and here I am today.
Of course, as many Anglican clergy will testify, it is the mission bit that didn’t quite work out. Ministry in the Church of England seems to involve an incredible amount of work, but evangelism rarely gets the attention it should.
I have often thought about this, and wonder at the relative effectiveness of the Christian Union, compared with the relative ineffectiveness of the Anglican parish.
In the CU we were all young, and therefore all young Christians (in my case, very young!). We had no full-time clergy. Our officers were all elected from the membership, and though we had older ‘advisors’ they left the work to us. Yet we managed to evangelize our friends and neighbours — there was a constant trickle of converts coming in to the CU. We ran our own meetings and set our own agenda. We had our own support network, including Bible study groups.
At the same time, we managed to avoid too much wackiness. There was some. This was the early days of the Charismatic Movement, and I read and believed some things at the time which I now look back on as fairly daft. But on the whole, we weren’t blown about too much by the various winds of doctrine.
All this we did as students, yet such effectiveness is rarely, if ever, matched by ‘adult’ churches. On the contrary, despite decades of talking about the need to do away with ‘one man ministry’, we have made very little progress, except to introduce the ‘one woman ministry’. (I know two women clergy locally looking after eleven parishes between them, and once met one running thirteen.)
In fact adult church often seems to be ‘infantilized’, compared with the student Christian Union. Adult Christians look to the clergy, and the clergy very often play along with this by treating the adults as children, not quite to be trusted.
And there is some justification for this. For when the adults have been allowed more of a free rein, in my experience wackiness is sometimes not very far behind. Moreover, and sometimes in company with this, we often find the community is taken over or dominated by the powerful personalities, who can be guilty of domination and even bullying.
Much safer, in my experience, to have the clergy in charge!
But then with the clergy in charge we are back to the earlier problem — churches which are passive and ineffective, dominated by ‘passengers’ rather than ‘crew’. We avoid the problems of personalities and cults, but we fail to reach our neighbours in evangelistic mission.
This, I think, is a genuine dilemma. But there are, I suggest, a number of clues from the Christian Union world that we would do well to think about and perhaps apply.
The first is the principle of emergent local leadership. We find this in Christian Unions, where members are elected to leadership posts, and we find it in the New Testament, where elders are appointed from the local population.
In the Church of England, and actually in most denominations, we have, by contrast, a professional elite of ‘church leaders’ — outsiders who are parachuted in and imposed on the local community. Inevitably the ‘led’ tend to be people who don’t mind that sort of thing and indeed are fairly happy to leave things to these professionals. When there is a problem, people take it to the ‘professional’. When there is a need, for example when someone is sick and needs a visit, it is not really addressed unless the ‘professional’ has addressed it.
Secondly, Christian Unions have a clear agenda, focussed on evangelism. Now of course the local church in the outside world has a broader agenda. But there is no reason why it should have a different focus. Indeed, the agenda for the Christian community set by the Apostle Peter is essentially evangelistic: to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light (1 Pet 2:9).
As I have frequently argued, the Church of England will not discover its true calling until it returns to the agenda it set itself in 1945: the conversion of England. Over against this, the consecration of women bishops is of little consequence. And incidentally, I have seen no sign of the church becoming more evangelistic as a result of the ordination of women than it was before — which is to say, not very.
Every member of our Christian Union knew they belonged to an evangelistic body. Every member of our churches should know the same.
Thirdly, people were allowed and encouraged to get on with things on their own initiative. There were controls, exercised by the local leadership, but people were expected to be active.
Fourthly, the discipline of the CU was supported by an external body. And here the Church of England is actually quite well placed in comparison. We are not a congregational denomination, and the Christian Unions similarly are not ‘congregationalist’, even whilst they exercise a good deal of autonomy.
Fifthly and finally, there were doctrinal standards which were maintained amongst the members. To be a member of the Christian Union (as I recall), you just had to sign a declaration of faith. To be on the committee, you had to sign the doctrinal basis.
How many members of our PCCs have made any formal declaration of what they believe? (Apart from at their baptism, when it was probably said by someone else.) We’ve stopped doing the catechism by and large. Is a particular ‘belief’ even seen as a necessary part of the qualifications for membership of, let alone leadership in, the church? We have the Declaration of Assent for clergy, but I have seen it emphatically argued that this doesn’t really mean that clergy have to believe the particular things expressed in the ‘formularies’. So if that is how the clergy see things, how much less will the laity be expected to have a grasp of, and commitment to, ‘right doctrine’.
Yet I would argue that it was the doctrinal basis, coupled with the principle of local elections (and the inevitable effect of people being ‘stood down’ from committee membership by finishing their courses) that kept the CU from too much wackiness and domination by powerful personalities (the bane of adult churches).
One of the reasons I would like to see a resolution to the women bishops debate in the Church of England is so that we can move on to addressing the issue that really matters — the conversion of England. And incidentally, when are we going to have a motion before General Synod promoting that agenda? I think we have had attempts, but they haven’t had support or excited much interest, which might say something about our Synod membership.
But if England is going to be evangelized, it is not going to be done by our clergy with the laity in a support role. The model of Christian Unions has much to say about mission and lessons for us to learn, and it is high time we learned them.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: