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Evangelism: Canon Chris Russell and his critics

by
27 June 2014

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From the Ven. Norman Russell
Sir, - About 30 years ago, Eric Wild, Bishop of Reading, stunned Oxford diocesan synod with the words "Not since, as a young man, when I was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, have I been so angry. . ." The outburst was in response to an uncalled-for and intemperate attack on the clergy.

I cannot emulate Bishop Wild's way with words, but I was very saddened and even a little angry to read some of your correspondents' comments on Canon Chris Russell's article (Comment, 6 June) about evangelism, inter alia suggesting a lack of awareness of context and the need for listening.

Canon Russell (no relation) does in fact mention both in his article, and they have always been important features of his outstanding work on the ground in Reading.

From the beginning of his work at St Laurence's, Reading, until my retirement a year ago, I chaired his support group, and what a privilege that was. From the smallest of beginnings in a huge, run-down medieval church at the centre of Reading has grown a work of which any diocese would be proud. But Canon Russell is not proud. He may not be a plaster saint, and, like the rest of us, is not perfect, but he is one of the most reflective and self-effacing priests I know. He has been effective in leading and growing a church with a core mission of reaching out to "hard-to-reach" young people. Some, to put it euphemistically, were known to social services and the police. There are wonderful and true stories of young lives, often badly damaged, being turned round.

That did not happen without prayer, leadership, intentional planning, team-building, and hard graft. Nor did it happen without serious engagement with context, and profound listening.

The quiet and slowly emerging miracle at St Laurence's began before the term Fresh Expressions became widely used. Many Fresh Expressions, sadly, struggle to find a pathway to sustainability. It took a while, but St Laurence's has become sustainable. Significantly, it has avoided becoming a "youth church". It has attracted an all-age congregation, who are expected to be committed to its core mission of reaching out in a holistic way with the good news of Jesus Christ to young people in need. I am not alone in thinking that what has happened in Reading could be a useful model for work elsewhere.

NORMAN RUSSELL
(Archdeacon of Berkshire 1998-2013)
47A Theobalds Way
Frimley, Camberley
Surrey GU16 9RF


From the Revd Charles Peer
Sir, - Your three letters criticising Canon Russell's piece on evangelism indicate why the case needed to be made. There is a deeply rooted seam of resistance to the concept of evangelism in the Church of England, a point that Canon Russell made in his article.

It is difficult to know exactly what provoked criticism, other than the mention of the "e" word itself. Your letter-writers call for listening, respect, and relationship, all of which Canon Russell was happy to endorse in the original piece. The only point of difference seems to be on the final act of the conversation, the "setting forth" of the person of Jesus Christ.

It is difficult not to see this distaste for evangelism as nothing more than the traditional English dislike for religious enthusiasm, a sentiment long past its sell-by date. St Francis, however many words he may or may not have used, would have had no patience for such delicacy about proclaiming the love of Christ.

We live at a time when there is no consensus about religious truth, but a great openness to debating the question. In such a world, we need to be able to articulate our faith without embarassment. If we spend all our time listening but never speaking, people may start to wonder whether we are actually interested in the conversation at all.

CHARLES PEER
Mission Development Officer
Diocese of Portsmouth
Peninsular House
Wharf Road
Portsmouth PO2 8HB

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