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Making manifest

08 January 2016

“GOD in Man made manifest”, as Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn neatly puts it, is the theme that runs like an electric cable through the Epiphany season in the Church’s calendar. We are put in touch with the power of the incarnation as much in this Sunday’s account of the baptism of our Lord in the Jordan as we were on Wednesday’s great feast marking the visit of the three wise men to Bethlehem. To them was revealed God-with-us: the eternal Word and likeness of the Father. Here is a renewal of the work of God in the creation of the world. All things are to be made new. Of Jesus, his blessed Mother, at the wedding feast in Cana — and another showing forth — utters words that were included in the Gospel as more than the record of an attempt to save a flagging party: “Whatever he saith unto you, do it.” And what does he say to his followers? “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

The great commission brings together both speech and action, word and sacrament: people are not only to be taught, if they will listen, but to be incorporated into the mystical body that is Christ’s Church, and to be made members of Christ, children of God, and inheritors of the Kingdom of heaven. Then they are to be fed with the living bread from heaven, the Body and Blood of Christ himself, the fruition of his saving work, and are to manifest him in lives that heal, liberate, and bless. It is, in an old phrase, “the extension of the incarnation”.

These two ideas, of word and sacrament, have not always been held in perfect balance. In the Church of England at present there is, quite naturally, an emphasis on speech, and a temptation to join the clamour, in the hope of being heard above the competition. There has seldom, we may feel, been so much competition. The title of a forthcoming book is That Was the Church That Was: How the Church of England lost the English people. Mark Twain will be quoted many times; but it would not be countenanced if all was calm in the dovecotes.

A sense of urgency need not be injurious; but it is no part of this commission to run about like Chicken Licken, or see a “crisis” (when is there not one?) as the chance to press a sectional agenda. In the fuss about reform and renewal, a great deal is potentially counter-productive. The project early on acquired a pettish tone. When focusing on mission, is it wise to revive old battles, such as liturgical vesture and the Church’s identity, under the misnomer of “simplification”? If the C of E has nurtured us, must we offer grist to the mill of those who are eager to write its obituary, whatever shortcomings we now see in it? Perhaps the Year of Mercy, for Anglicans, ought to be a year of being less hard on ourselves — except in sticking to our last — and on each other. The Word was made flesh whether the world wanted him or not. Anxiety cannot manifest him.

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Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
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