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Angela Tilby: Discerning the good news

12 January 2018


IT WOULD be easy, a fortnight into 2018, to sound a bleak note. The weather has been foul; plastic is gunking up the seas, marine life, and possibly our own bodies; the White House is a den of vipers; the internet is infested by fraudsters and predators; global capitalism is run by bandits; the NHS is crumbling for lack of money; and Brexit drags on interminably.

Christian communicators can get hooked on bad news. After all, it gives them a dramatic backdrop for the good news, and a choice of moral causes to run which could demonstrate the relevance of the gospel to everyday life. There is, indeed, a prophetic vocation for the Churches; but exercising it well requires that most elusive of spiritual gifts: right judgement, or discernment.

Part of that discernment is recognising good news when it occurs. Take the environment: 2017 was the UK’s greenest year for the production of electricity. In June, for the first time ever, renewable energy produced more power than gas and coal. Electric cars are already on the roads, and I have noticed more charging points springing up in car parks and garages. Christian voices rarely seem to give credit for this kind of positive change, leaving encouragement to secular optimists.

The campaign against plastic will be a big issue this year. But at least now, thanks to Sir David Attenborough, there is greater awareness of the problem. He has focused the attention of the television-viewing world on the harm being done in our oceans. But his judgements are never wholly negative. He has recently gone on record as saying that he is more optimistic about the future of our planet now than he was a few years back. True prophets speak grace as well as judgement.

When Prince Harry interviewed Barack Obama on Radio 4’s Today programme last month, the former United States President praised the benefits of modernity. He saw the past 50 years as a time of extraordinary technological and social progress which had brought liberation to many across the globe. At least some of the perils that beset us will no doubt be solved by technology, and the proper operation of the market, but it will always need prophets to keep us honest.

Prophets, too, need to be honest, and remember the good things that have enhanced our lives, including discoveries that have made inventors and investors rich. It is not enough to end up in constant search of the next protest march. Christianity should not always be banging on about sin, even those structural and corporate sins that reward us so pleasingly with the warm glow of self-righteousness.

We should live more from thankfulness and less as contributors to a culture of complaint.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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