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General Synod: evangelism and discipleship

01 March 2019

Motivate worshippers, Synod urges


The Revd Barry Hill

The Revd Barry Hill

THE General Synod amended and carried a motion that sought to equip the laity for evangelism, and called on every parish to make evangelism a priority and to take part in the Ascensiontide novena Thy Kingdom Come.

Introducing the debate on his motion, the Revd Barry Hill (Leicester) said that he had attended a Greatest Showman film singalong. “I guarantee that, over the coming days, a good proportion of those who were there told others about the experience.” He continued: “We are here because others have witnessed to us of the joy and life, salvation and hope, freely offered to all in God.” It would be “scandalous” in a “world of longing and need” if others did not have the same opportunities to live “lives of purpose”.

Talking about it with others was hard, but people were not seeking a “theologically perfect answer”, rather, to be listened to and to see “the messy reality of God at work in a person’s life. We listen to God, we listen to context, and we show, we tell, we announce that God has come down.”

John Stott had suggested, he said, that most people in England were not Christian not because they thought it was not true, but because they felt that it was “trivial”. But it was “the least trivial gift ever”, Mr Hill argued. Christians were “Tripadvisors for Jesus”. This paper was about “doing a few things well” to motivate the Church’s million regular worshippers. “It’s about developing confidence, not expert answers to questions, but in our brokenness: one beggar offering another beggar bread.”

Alison Coulter (Winchester), a former member of the Evangelism Task Group, emphasised the importance of lay witness, and said that evangelism could not be outsourced to Church House. Highlighting the 2017 report Setting God’s People Free, she said: “Evangelism isn’t an initiative: it is our way of life.”

Mission and evangelism must be a priority, the Revd Andrew Lightbown (Oxford) said, but the question was where the Church should start. Considering whether the work that the Church had produced on the matter was “a bit thin”, he said: “I worry that mission and evangelism is reducible to conversion. Is that all that mission and evangelism is?” He asked what it meant in multicultural and multifaith contexts, or to people who might be “scared and wary” of the Church’s mission. “The Church’s approach needs to include conversion at its core, but not to be reducible to conversion. What does it say to the poor, disabled, gay, not sure, imprisoned, wealthy?”
The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, called for honesty about the difficulty of doing evangelism. “Pretending a solution is obvious when it clearly isn’t undermines our confidence,” he said. Evangelism required “a deeper understanding of the needs of our culture” and a fresh vision of Christ. “The deep question of our age” was “What does it mean to be human?” This question was prompted by phenomena such as the environmental crisis, technological advances, and the erosion of privacy by big tech. He spoke of the seven “classical disciplines”: listening prayer, incarnational mission, apologetics, proclamation, catechesis, ecclesial formation, and forming new Christian communities. He also pointed to the Beatitudes as a way of being human; evangelism should be “meek and gentle like our Saviour” and “hungry and thirsty for justice, like Jesus”. Quoting the Jess Glynne song “Thursday” — which includes the line “I won’t wear make-up on Thursday I’m sick of covering up” — he said that the Church was “offering fullness of life” to a world hollowed out by pressures surrounding self-image.

Carol Wolstenholme (Newcastle) welcomed the “convergence and confidence” of the Evangelism Task Group. A better grasp of the Bible, an opportunity to talk and learn together, and social-media platforms were some means by which confidence could be spread to others. She requested good-quality materials that the dioceses could use to help parishes use social-media platforms better. She emphasised the importance of shaping ordinands in the skills of evangelism during training.

Introducing his amendment, Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) said that, while he was not criticising the report, he wanted it to acknowledge different dialects. The report started with evangelism. “Worship should come first,” he argued, “evangelism second.” His amendment was carried.

Dr Andrew Bell (Oxford) introduced his amendment — an addition of just two words, “and always” — since evangelism should, he said, be ongoing, not just for one year. “That should surely make sense if evangelism is what we are here for.” His amendment was carried.

Introducing an amendment on behalf of Canon Lisa Battye (Manchester), Jacqueline Stamper (Blackburn) agreed with the call to make evangelism a priority. Although many clergy were not natural evangelists, there was pressure for clergy to “keep the show on the road”. Freeing clergy to support evangelism would require a culture shift. After a short debate, Canon Battye’s amendment was lost.

The Revd Stewart Fyfe (Carlisle) said that his amendment moved away from the “manipulative and self-servicing” image of evangelism — an arrogance of which the Church must be seen to repent. Evangelism was not about empire-building, he said, but engaging with the whole nation. The amendment was carried.

The Revd Dr Philip Plyming (Universities and TEIs) said that he was currently teaching evangelism to his students: developing expertise in witness and evangelism was already being carried out. He contended that the most important thing to teach ordinands was not the practice, but the theology, of evangelism. “Theology reminds us that we are tasked with proclaiming the Good News.” Evangelism was not a survival strategy for the Church, he said.

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, said that it was important to spend time with people who did not spend time in church. He had been energised and inspired by “everyday faith conversations” that had increased his confidence as an evangelist. He applauded the motion’s call for an increase in the numbers and diversity of evangelists.

The Archbishop of Canterbury emphasised that evangelism and discipleship were “at the foundation of Christianity . . . not activities for some, let alone an elite or part of Church, but springing from compassion and love . . . from our own experience and knowledge of Christ”. If the Synod supported the motion, he continued, “we are also committing to very radical change. It’s not one thing among many, but an overwhelming force that directs our life, action, and, words. . . It changes our attitudes. . . It changes everything. . . When we talk of evangelism and discipleship we are talking about a radically differently shaped Church, which starts with being filled afresh with the Spirit of God, consumed with the love of God for us, for the world, and obsessed by the vision of God of the world, which we seek to change to show the shape of his love.”

Canon Rachel Mann (Manchester) welcomed the report as someone who had long argued “that the Church needs to recover the language of evangelism as the work of the priesthood of all believers”, she said. It provided a series of challenges “that interrogated those, like me, who, in some quarters, might be written off as flimsy progressives or liberal Catholics who refuse to grasp the urgency of the Good News”. The report used words “that might strike some as inelegant”, she said, but “I hear the song this report seeks to sing.”

In her own church, she said, “an inclusive, searching, and invitational culture has led to growth in numbers and depth, especially at the younger end.” One young person had described evangelism as a person to whom you could turn: to your right, to hear stories of old Manchester, and to your left, a “hot take on Foucault”. She feared that the “somewhat programmatic” language of the report could be read in a “reductive, prescriptive way, without the subtleness characteristic of Anglicanism at its best”. It could be mistakenly read as being “about certain followers of Christ who are supposed to be packaged Mini-Mes”.

The Revd Angus MacLeay (Rochester) referred to 1 Peter 2.9-12, which, he said, encouraged people to “abstain from sinful desires which wage war against your soul’s holiness”. He advised that, “without a passion for holiness, we will not be able to hold out this life-changing gospel with integrity.” Evangelism must be based on “the faithful teaching of God’s word”.

The Revd Mark Murthen (London) spoke of the “shocking” findings of the Talking Jesus report: “People know churchgoers, and they like us.” Yet most people, despite knowing someone whom they could invite to church, said that they had no intention of doing so. For Lent, he said, he needed to give up not only cynicism, but “my own self-confidence: by that I mean any confidence that I have in my own ability to bring about someone’s conversion”. He prayed for the help of the Spirit to “overcome that awkwardness, that pain barrier, and talk about the eternal things of life”.

Mary Bucknall (Deaf Anglicans Together) spoke of the needs of deaf people, and of her own experience of isolation. There were no theological courses aimed specifically at deaf people in BSL, and cost was sometimes cited as a barrier. Out of 43 dioceses, 17 did not have a deaf chaplain or licensed lay minister for deaf people. “If profoundly deaf people do not hear, how can they pass the gospel on to others?” She longed to see more in-depth Bible training that was accessible to deaf people.

The motion was clearly carried, and the result was greeted with applause. The amended text read:

That this Synod, welcoming the report from the Archbishops’ Evangelism Task Group and commending the work of the new Evangelism and Discipleship Department:

a) invite every worshipping community to recognise the depth of what God has done for them in Christ, in calling them to a community of praise and thanksgiving;
b) call on every worshipping community to make evangelism a planned priority for the coming year; and always
c) affirm the importance of prayer in the work of evangelism and call on every parish to be involved in “Thy Kingdom Come”;
d) encourage dioceses to envision, equip and enable lay and ordained people to be more confident in the sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ in their everyday lives; and
e) encourage every worshipping community, diocese, and the National Church Institutions to promote, within the national discourse, a renewed confidence in Christian evangelism and discipleship as bringing a positive, wholesome and practical benefit to individual lives and the life of the nation; and
f) ask the Evangelism and Discipleship Team to bring a report to the Synod on the progress made on carrying forward the recommendations made in GS 2098 no later than July 2020.

Click here to read about other General Synod debates and motions

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