THE communication gap between the Church and the rest of society grows ever wider.
A recent study published in a journal for doctors suggests that GPs are unsure of how to deal with patients who are suffering “existential distress”. One suggested that GPs must simply accept that they are “the new clergy”, and must attend to people’s spiritual needs. The author of the report commented that British people’s reluctance to talk about religion publicly had made it difficult to discuss this.
Yet inside the Church there is no shortage of talk about mission and outreach. The initiative Thy Kingdom Come, started by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York two years ago, has morphed into a global wave of prayer — a clear sign, apparently, that it is nothing less than a significant movement of the Holy Spirit (News, 26 January).
The marketing of Thy Kingdom Come has been clever. It includes a bit of social gospel to attract the left-wing; it uses the word “novena” to impress the Catholics; and it has colonised the days between Ascension and Pentecost to please the liturgically minded.
But the underlying theology remains that of individuals’ letting Jesus into their hearts and lives one by one. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; but it worries me that the Church of England is being driven by the assumption that there is simply no other way of speaking of the Christian faith.
The culture of Thy Kingdom Come is that of transatlantic Evangelicalism filtered through the public-school system, HTB, New Wine, and the other familiar networks. This is a heritage familiar to both our Archbishops. It will soon simply be the Church of England, thanks in part to the mixture of innocence and gullibility which characterises its appeal.
What, after all, could possibly be wrong with a wave of prayer from Ascension to Pentecost? I shall join in, as I have for the past two years. I shall be praying for an escape from the Evangelical takeover of the Church. I shall be praying for a language that is genuinely respectful of the existential distress that so many seem to be taking to their doctors. I understand all too well why people take their souls to the surgery: I would myself, in the current climate.
Too often in church, people in distress are patronised by the saved and the certain, infantilised by a faux inclusivity that has them playing with tea lights and cutting out little paper flames, while they are jollied along to find Jesus over (excellent) coffee.
The abandonment of traditional religion, with its respect for privacy and the slow nurturing of the person through unconsciously memorised texts and gentle counsel, has left a hole in the heart of society which is too deep for words. That is where (I hope) the Spirit is still crying out.
The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.
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