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Radio debate hears language of hope

22 March 2013

DURING a debate on the "crises" facing the worldwide Church, broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday, which covered dwindling congregations, arguments over the ordination of women, and the cover-up of sexual abuse, Christian speakers expressed hope for the future.

Co-ordinated by the think tank Theos, Christianity at a Crossroads? was chaired by the presenter John Humphrys at Methodist Central Hall on Monday evening

The Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Revd Dr Sam Wells, argued that "to wake up one morning and discover that people in the church sin isn't news. It's very, very sad, and certainly to be repented of, and the level of the issues that [the panel] has been talking about call for international and widespread demonstrations of repentance; but . . . it's in the nature of the Christian faith to understand the past through the lens of the forgiveness of sins."

He had "a hope for the future. . . I believe that the human crisis is not so much mortality or human limitation: I think it's isolation; and I think the gift of the gospel is to overcome our profound human isolation with God, with one another, and with the creation."

He suggested that the Church had an opportunity to "rediscover what it means to be David", who had "just the five smooth stones to play with", as opposed to "the David who became Goliath - this hulking, overweight bloated figure that had lost its soul and lost its identity". Matthew Parris, the Times colomnist and former MP, who was on the panel as an "unbeliever", said: "I don't think the sins of some of those who promulgate it are an argument against the Christian message."

The novelist Sarah Dunant, also an "unbeliever", said that the Churches could have "a real role to play if we are going to redefine the debate of what it is like to be human", but that, "until they put their own houses in order in terms of basic human rights, they are just not eligible to lead by example".

Speaking of attitudes towards women, homosexuality, and celibacy, she said that, "even though we may have the most inspired, engaged, and humble new leaders for the Church, they will not be able to do their jobs unless they take action in order to address those things."

Dr Anna Rowlands, a Roman Catholic lecturer in theology and ministry at King's College, London, said: "One of the earliest Christian heresies is the idea that the Church is called only to be a community of the absolutely pure. . . We will continue to be a community of sin. . . We do need, however, to learn very deep lessons from the abuse crisis."

There was, she said, "genuine hope for a Church which can reclaim a sense of being able to talk about hope at all. I think at times we are quite a depressive society, and we find it easier to give up than to cast something at a real hope. I want from both the Pope and the new Archbishop of Canterbury a sense in which we can, with great humility . . . find a language around hope."

The Church had its crises, Ms Dunant said, but "we have a bigger crisis in the outside world, where your sense and my sense of morality has gone way astray."

Mr Parris said: "If the Church in Europe in the 21st century was inhabited by a strong abiding sense of the divine presence of the truth of the Gospels, of the immaculate conception, the death, the resurrection of Christ; then all these things would be relatively unimportant. . . The sin, and the fuss about the sin, is in some way a symptom of the loss of that underlying sense of the divine presence, and that unquestioning belief in Christian truth."

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