THE new National Lead for Evangelism and Witness is the Dean of Derby, the Very Revd Dr Stephen Hance, Church House announced on Monday.
He will take up the post at the end of September, and will succeed Rachel Jordan-Woolf.
Dr Hance “will be responsible for working with dioceses, churches, and other organisations to equip the Church’s million regular worshippers to be a confident witness in every part of their lives and enable a growing Church”, a press release said. He will also lead a national project to identify and train 1000 new evangelists by 2025.
Before his appointment in Derby in 2017, Dean Hance was the Canon Missioner of Southwark Cathedral and Director of Mission and Evangelism for the diocese of Southwark. As a parish priest, he served in London as Vicar of Ascension, Balham Hill, and Team Vicar of St Saviour’s, Handley Road, London, after serving his title in the diocese of Portsmouth.
The Church Times asked him some questions at the meeting of the General Synod in York.
Thinking about the parable of the sower, how would you describe the soil in England?
I think there is great variety in the quality of the soil in England. It’s not as hard and difficult as we sometimes think it is — at least, not consistently so. I think that among younger people, particularly, there is very often an openness, which is around two things: spirituality — spiritual experience; and justice issues. When those people have rejected the Church, rejected the Church of England, it’s because we’re not seen as being identified with either a place of spiritual experience and encounter, or, indeed, as being on the right side of justice issues.
We have to stop assuming that people know what we are talking about or what we are doing. We assume a lot. We are now in a culture where people are three generations unchurched . . . and, whereas for older people, it’s almost as if some of those experiences inoculated them against Christian faith later in life. I think that we are working now with people who have literally no experience at all of the Christian Church to react against, even. It’s new terrain.
There’s been quite a culture shift at Church House in the priority given to evangelism. How much can be influenced by the centre?
Primarily, I think it is about what happens in parishes and on the ground. The Church of England is a diffuse organisation. . . I happen to think that’s a good thing. What is required is culture change across the Church. This role, and the team at Church House, is all about trying to encourage and enable that culture change to take place at the local and diocesan level . . . and I think that there is great potential for that to happen. There is lots of good practice out there.
I tend to believe that all the wisdom the Church needs for the next chapter, we have. The challenge is embedding the best of the changes which are already taking place; so that they ripple out across the Church, and doing that in a way which cuts right across the Church in terms of tradition. It’s very important to me that the evangelism agenda isn’t seen as being the remit of one wing of the Church.
Right at the heart of this post, and Synod’s recent commitment, is this idea of motivating the million (News, 1 February). It’s not just Church House, Westminster, that isn’t going to do it — the Bishops aren’t going to do it, and, actually, the clergy aren’t going to do it. It’s going to take the million Anglican churchgoers to just be a little bit more confident in talking about their faith, inviting other people to church, thinking about how they live as disciples day by day.
A recent poll of synod members found that most people had come to faith as teenagers. Is there still a potential to bring adults into the faith, or should we be focusing on teenagers?
I do think we need to focus much more strongly on children and teenagers. I came to faith as a child. But I think it’s really important not to write off everybody who didn’t become a Christian by the time they were 18 or 21: that is, the majority of people in our country; and a very large proportion of those who have come to faith as children and teenagers have done so in the context of Christian family.
So, it’s not just about making sure that we communicate the faith to the next generation, and help the next generation to grow up as Christians, vitally important as that is, but about living out and talking about the faith in a way that is attractive to people who’ve never come across it before. I’m convinced that the Christian gospel is for everybody. . . In my own life and ministry, I’ve had the privilege of leading people to faith at all stages of life.
A report from the Central Readers’ Council suggested that the Church may have forgotten how to tell the Christian story, and questioned whether there might have been a failure of catechesis (News, 31 May). Is that question of confidence linked to the million not knowing how to tell the Christian story, or even not knowing it themselves?
The evangelistic fruitfulness of the Church comes out of the quality of our discipleship. We cannot expect the million to be confident in sharing the faith if they are not themselves being enabled to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ; so catechesis is a really important part of that. I think that catechesis becomes a really important part of the discipleship of those who do come to faith; so that they grow to maturity in faith and become people who can tell the story to others. We do have an issue of Christian and biblical literacy in the Church.
That seemed to be a concern in the Archbishop of York’s presidential address.
I was brought up to read the Bible every day — I suspect that that is a bit of a minority sport, even in the Church of England, now. The problem with reading the Bible only when we gather for worship is that people lack the meta story. I know that meta narrative isn’t very fashionable, but scripture isn’t just a selection of little vignettes to be taken and applied individually, but [it] actually tells a tale. There is a narrative arc, salvation history, and a lot of people don’t know that, understand that, which means that they don’t understand where history is going in God’s providence, and they don’t understand necessarily the part that they can play in that. It’s not about being able to quote key verses, but about having one’s world-view and imagination shaped by the scriptural meta-narrative. In a way, that’s the goal to discipleship: to embed that in people.
In your new post, what would be a priority for you in terms of research so that we understand the 98 per cent? What is the potential, and what are the limitations of market research?
I think that polling is limited in terms of what it can tell us. It gives you an interesting snapshot, but doesn’t always help you to get beneath the headlines, and I think we see that with political polling, as well. But I do think that, whether through polling or other means, we have to do better in understanding the concerns of the many sub- cultural groups that make up our society, so that we can think how to engage better. It isn’t about tailoring the gospel; but evangelism, essentially, is about good dialogue.
The really important piece is that these [one] million Anglican churchgoers, including me, are sufficiently engaged in real, meaningful, open, honest friendships with people who come from all sorts of different positions; that we are learning the way that other people look at the world through those relationships.
Research looking at “Nones” has identified a discomfort with exclusive-truth claims. Does that make speaking about the Christian faith more difficult?
I think that is one of the reasons why people are nervous about sharing their faith. But I think, in any cultural context, the way that you front and centre your sharing of faith changes according to who you are in conversation with. For younger people, in particular, spiritual experience and justice issues are a really key way in.
We have been through a period in our history where the debate about what is objectively true has been very much front and centre in our culture for 200-plus years. And that is important, and I believe that Christianity is objectively true. But I am not necessarily going to begin a conversation with a non-churchgoing millennial talking about why I believe Christianity to be objectively true.
It doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped believing that, but I think I need to be a bit more attentive in terms of where the areas of common interest might be that we could learn from each other. That might provide a foundation for talking about some of those other things that may be a bit more difficult, a bit more contentious, further down the line.