I RECENTLY sat on a conference panel on how beastly the media are to Christians, as a representative of the beastly media, when someone in the audience asked what had gone wrong for the Church of England in the past 30 years.
So I gave my stock answer: the end of empire, meaning that the England of which it had been the Church had disappeared; feminism, meaning that men felt threatened in their authority while women, whose volunteering had sustained the Church, wanted to be openly paid and recognised for their work; and transferring responsibility for church legislation from Parliament to the General Synod.
The Synod, I said, had done to the Church of England what Corbynism had done to the Labour Party. It had transferred power from a large group of vaguely interested people (in the case of the Church, parliamentarians, many of them nominal Anglicans; in the case of the Labour Party, trade union members) to a much smaller group of intensely interested people (Synod members, in the case of the Church; Corbynistas, in the case of the Labour Party), who had no interest left over for anything outside the movement
I once had a conversation with someone very close to Jeremy Corbyn, before Mr Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. One of the notable things about this close friend of Mr Corbyn was that he lived in a world where there was no one to the right of Tony Blair. Such voters appeared to be literally inconceivable to him. It was almost like talking to someone who had lost half his visual hemisphere.
This person’s idea of enlarging his party’s share of the vote consisted entirely of replacing the wrong type of Labour members with the right type. Once this had been accomplished, the Parousia would come, and everyone would see that he and his friends had been right about everything all along.
ON THE conference panel with me was a representative of the Church of England’s central bodies, a professional evangelist. Her response to church failure shocked me a little because it was so perfectly Corbynist.
Evangelism — and, in her case, the term is literal — consisted, for her, in replacing the wrong sort of Christians (those who were too shy or embarrassed to talk about Jesus) with the right sort (those who would get out and do the job). Sixty-seven per cent of the English people knew a real Christian well, she said. They thought these Christians were good, kind, and trustworthy people. All that was needed was for these good Christians to invite their friends to church.
But it is a large part of friendship (at least outside Church House) to know, or to intuit, what kinds of experiences your friends would not like or enjoy, no matter how important they are to you. Even if we leave friendship out of it, a large number of people are in interreligious marriages, or marriages where only one party is a believer. How many of those end up with conversion? Virtually none, and for very good reasons.
A Synod member told me how, at the last group of sessions, he was part of a small group where lay members were invited to tell them stories of how they had come to faith. All of them but he had been converted by the age of 18. This meant that he was the only person there who had lived as an adult non-Christian in a world where this was normal. The others had no idea of whom they were talking about, although this did not dent their confidence.
My fellow panellist’s view of mission and evangelism exactly repeats the Corbynistas’ mistake. Instead of trying to turn unbelievers (or Tory voters) into believers (or Labour voters), the plan is to turn one kind of Christian into another. This is not in itself illegitimate. You cannot blame the clergy for wanting to help people to become better, more thoughtful, more integral Christians: discipleship, if you have to use the word. But this can have only a very indirect and limited connection with evangelism.
There are obviously things that churches can do to make themselves more attractive, either as places of spectacle or of quietness. But what lay people can do is much subtler. It seems to me that they are, paradoxically, much less likely than the stipendiary parish clergy to come into contact with unbelievers, since, unlike the clergy, they can choose their own social circles.
But lay people could, if they tried, make the effort to recognise in the lives of those around them emotions, or motifs, that might make more sense if interpreted in a Christian framework. It is not as if evidence for original sin was that hard to discover.
But the starting-point has to be the experience, not the label. An approach that Evangelicals frequently adopt is to claim that Christians have a wonderful experience that no one else has. What is more often needed is the opposite approach, exemplified in Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic (Faber) (Interview, 26 August): to appeal to a common experience, and then, if tentatively, call it by its Christian name.
That is not always going to work. Nothing is. Reaching people who are not Christians, do not want to be Christians, and who cannot see why Christianity should matter at all will always be difficult. It is much easier to work with the people who are already worried about not being Christian enough.
It is also the way to ensure continuing irrelevance. During the recent Witney by-election campaign, the local Labour Party more than doubled its membership, to nearly 1200. It also halved its share of the vote at the election.