IF THERE was a recurring theme in the evangelism debates that dominated the General Synod, it was that carrying the motions would radically change the Church of England. “Don’t vote for this if you don’t mean it,” members were told.
Introducing a motion that backed establishing a worshipping community “on every significant social-housing estate in the country”, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North urged the Synod not to lend its support, “if you are not up for the implications”. It would present “awkward challenges to those sitting on historic assets”.
Both the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, and the Archbishop of Canterbury emphasised the extent to which achieving the vision would entail changing the way the C of E did things, from discernment and training to deployment and financing.
The work would “bleed” into every part of the Church, Archbishop Welby said, making it “less tidy, less controlled, less comfortable”, but “more successful. Not bigger successful, but holier successful. . . It won’t be more sensible, but it will be more godly; it won’t be more strategic, but it will be more obedient.”
The debate evinced more emotion than any other, as speakers described the sheer extent of the need in estate parishes. “We need help,” Chris Pye, a Reader in St Helens, pleaded. Would his church’s vision to reach out to its community be “sacrificed on the altar of parish share”?
But there was a strong under-current of hope and excitement, too. The Synod was told about a church that had outgrown its shop-front building, transferred to a tent in a hollowed-out nave; and of a “miraculous” answer to the prayers of a fasting priest, now equipped with a van to share coffee and Jesus on a Middlesbrough estate. There was a reminder that some of its own members not only served on estates but had grown up on them. The Revd David Tolhurst, of Durham, welcomed into a Baptist church as a child, brought back testimony from home: “God loves me, and I am starting to believe that, and that has changed everything.”
geoff crawfordThe Revd Stewart Fyfe
Rather than be pitted against one another, service and proclamation were combined in many speeches. The unifying potential of evangelism was evident, too, in the debate on a motion brought by the task group dedicated to its furtherance. A series of friendly amendments broadened it, after concerns about the language deployed and the theological implications.
Archbishop Welby thanked Fr Thomas Seville CR — who ruminated on the “different dialects” spoken in the Church — for reminding the Synod of the primacy of worship. Canon Rachel Mann’s offering — “I hear the song this report seeks to sing” — suggested that liberal Catholics were not hostile.
The warning from a Carlisle priest, the Revd Stewart Fyfe, that evangelism must be not about “empire-building” but about reaching out to a nation in need of hope was matched by a careful speech from the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, who directed the Synod’s attention outwards — as far as an inspiring performance at the Brit Awards. The task of the evangelist today was “primarily the work of listening and asking questions and deep theological reflection on our culture”.
Debates on children and young people, and youth evangelism, prompted clergy to observe that, in an ageing Church, they were considered “young” well past the ages being discussed. There were pleas “urgently to recover a sense of the family as a primary agent of catechesis”, and a reminder from the chief executive of Church Army, Mark Russell, that the situation was, statistically, “bleak”. It is estimated that half of all parish churches have no teenagers.
For Simon Friend, the father of four boys, and Lucy Gorman, there was an urgency, too, to remedying the alienating effect of the Church’s stance on LGBT+ inclusion. It is now five years since the Archbishop observed that the Church’s position on gay marriage was regarded by many of those under 35 as “not just incomprehensible but plain wrong and wicked”.
“Evangelism isn’t about saving the Church of England from extinction,” Mr Russell said. “It’s something much more important: it’s helping everyone know that God loves them.”
More than five years into his term, Archbishop Welby’s sense of urgency appears undimmed. Evangelism was “not the only thing among many”, he insisted. “It is an overwhelming force that directs our life, our actions, and our words.”
The Synod was voting for “a radically differently shaped Church . . . obsessed by the vision of God of the world, which we seek to change to show the shape of his love”.