‘Prioritise evangelism’ motion is amended to reflect Anglican breadth

22 February 2019

MARK WOODWARD/DANIEL EASTON

Fr Thomas Seville CR speaks at the General Synod in July 2018

Fr Thomas Seville CR speaks at the General Synod in July 2018

BY VOTING to make evangelism a priority, the General Synod has committed itself to a “radically differently shaped Church”, the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Friday.

Applause followed the carrying of a motion that calls on the Church to “equip and enable lay and ordained people to be more confident in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ” (News, 8 February).

Evangelism was “not one thing among many, but an overwhelming force that directs our action, words, life”, the Archbishop said. “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.”

While many speeches welcomed the report from the Archbishops’ Evangelism Task Group, three amendments to the motion were carried, after concerns were raised about the “dialect” deployed, and an evangelistic history that required repentance.

Moving the motion, the Revd Barry Hill, Team Rector of Market Harborough, told the Synod: “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 we didn’t give others the same opportunity which we have had to lead lives of eternal purpose, saved from debilitating shame and guilt, from slavery, consumerism, and a constant chasing after the wind.”

Passing on the faith was hard, and he had met some for whom it seemed as difficult as building a Hadron Collider. Yet, “important though academic apologetics is”, those exploring faith were not seeking a “theologically perfect answer”, but, rather, to be listened to and to see “the messy reality of God at work in a person’s life”.

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He quoted John Stott’s suggestion that most people in England were not Christians not because they thought it wasn’t true, but because they felt that it was “trivial”. Christians were “Tripadvisors for Jesus”, each “a beggar offering another beggar bread”.

Speeches from the Catholic wing of the Church welcomed the report, but called for attention to be paid to its language.

The Rector of Winslow, the Revd Andrew Lightbown, expressed concern that the material prepared for the debate was “a bit thin — I worry that mission and evangelism is reducible to conversion.” 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?”

Canon Rachel Mann, Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, identified in the report 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”. But, although there were moments when the report deployed terms “that might strike some as inelegant”, she could “hear the song this report seeks to sing”.

In her own church, an “inclusive, searching, and invitational culture has led to growth in numbers and depth, especially at the younger end”. She expressed concern 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 Christ who are supposed to be packaged Mini-Mes.”

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) wanted to acknowledge that different traditions within the Church spoke different “dialects”. In his own dialect, worship came first, followed by evangelism. There was a need to engage with the “deep mystery” offered therein. The Synod carried his amendment, which invited 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”.

Also carried was an amendment from the Revd Stewart Fyfe, a rector in the diocese of Carlisle, who warned that evangelism held “shady associations” of “scalp-hunting”; some saw it as “manipulative and self-serving”. This was something of which the Church must be seen to repent. Evangelism was not about empire-building, he said, but engaging with the whole nation. Faith had helped him through terrible depression, and his amendment spoke of “bringing a positive, wholesome and practical benefit to individual lives and the life of the nation”.

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.

Mary Bucknall of Deaf Anglicans Together expressed her frustration, speaking of the needs of deaf people, and of her own experience of isolation. “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 accessible to deaf people.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, acknowledged that the ground was “very hard”, and that the reputation of the Church as an institution was “poor”; but he could list ten growing estates churches. “The evidence is, when you build joy-filled Christian communities, people find that, on the ground, incredible compelling.”

In response to the suggestion that many words used by the Church, or related to Christian virtues, were falling out of common use, he argued for “confidence in our own language. . . Christianity isn’t about ‘values’: it is about being in relationship with a real living person.”

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