FORTY years ago, as a young college chaplain in Cambridge, I attended an extraordinary meeting called by Michael Mayne, then Vicar of Great St Mary’s. The Christian Union had asked whether they could use his church, the largest such space in town, for a Billy Graham mission.
Mayne seemed caught between his own distaste for Graham and the wide vocation of the University Church. So he called in the theological heavyweights: professors, deans, and even us front-line youngsters.
Geoffrey Lampe, the Regius Professor, spoke early. Graham, he said, preached “immoral doctrines” — meaning substitutionary atonement. What’s more, Lampe said, he was a friend of the disgraced former President Richard Nixon — clearly not the sort of chap you’d invite to high table.
I expected others to follow this line, ruling out American preachers and their Evangelical theology. Not a bit of it. Bishop John Robinson, then Dean of Trinity (and of Honest to God fame), rose to his feet. Cambridge, he said, was the Athens of East Anglia, and, if you had a wandering evangelist, you should put him in the Areopagus and hear what he had to say.
That turned the tide. Keith Ward, Dean of Trinity Hall and subsequently Oxford’s Regius Professor, said that he had become a Christian through preaching very like Graham’s, and, although he now disagreed with some of the theology, he would not want to stop the next generation having their lives changed, as his had been. That won the day: the mission went ahead.
IT WAS a success — but not, in the judgement of many, because of what Graham actually said. What counted was the prayer. Graham’s team insisted on sustained and careful prayer in the months and weeks before the mission, and the local churches and university groups joined in eagerly.
The result was a week in which, whether or not people went to hear Graham, suddenly it seemed normal and natural to talk about Jesus, about faith, about God, about spirituality. The prayer, although directly related to Graham’s mission, opened all kinds of windows, lifted the normal fog of cheerful scepticism, and allowed conversations to begin, perspectives to shift, and Jesus to appear powerfully attractive. The lip-curling liberalism of Lampe and others had missed the point. When people pray, God does new things, some of which we can plan, many of which we can’t.
Some people, after all, come to faith slowly and quietly; with others, it’s dramatic, all in a flash. When St Paul was in Philippi, Lydia’s heart was steadily opened to receive his weekly teaching. The jailer, by contrast, went to bed as a pagan and, thanks to an earthquake, breakfasted as a Christian. We humans are all so different. God tugs at our heartstrings in many different ways, but always with the golden thread of the gospel of Jesus, and with prayer tightening the knot.
THIS story comes to mind as I contemplate the remarkable success of the Archbishops’ initiative Thy Kingdom Come, and the nervous criticism that it has received in some quarters. It is upon us once more, in the ten days between Ascension (30 May) and Pentecost (9 June), and it is a great opportunity.
Part of the point is precisely the unpredictability of prayer and the larger context of the Kingdom. We are not in charge of things: that’s God’s job. But, as the New Testament insists, the Holy Spirit works through our praying — not necessarily in ways that we expect, or even want, but always to do new things, to bring genuine signs of new creation to birth, including the actual new birth of surprised people of every kind.
That is why the strapline “Thy Kingdom Come” is so important. Another John Robinson line: you can have as high a theology of the Church as you like, as long as your theology of the Kingdom is higher. The same is true for evangelism. The overarching context is the core belief that, with Jesus, the creator God has taken charge of the world in a whole new way, and is now working by his Spirit towards the ultimate joining of heaven and earth in the new creation.
A good deal of “evangelism” in the past two or three centuries has downplayed this Kingdom framework, or even dismissed it, leading to equal and opposite reactions. But the Archbishops’ initiative celebrates and embraces it. The ascension is the real “feast of Christ the King”, and it launches an invitation to prayer for God’s Kingdom to become a world-changing, life-changing reality.
Part of the answer to the prayer is the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, bringing fresh life to a thousand different areas: art and music, service to the poor, justice and peace — with evangelism itself at the centre, bringing to wise articulate speech both the truth of the gospel and its personally tailored individual challenge. God has put the world right in Jesus; he will put the world fully right in the end; and, in between, through the prayer-soaked powerful gospel message, he puts people right (“justification”), so that they can be part of his putting-right project for the world.
So, let’s surprise the sceptics, shame the scoffers, kneel down (now there’s a radical idea), and get on with the job.
The Rt Revd Dr Tom Wright is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, and a former Bishop of Durham. Listen to an interview about his book Paul: A biography here.
Thy Kingdom Come is a global ecumenical prayer movement for evangelisation, which takes place annually from Ascension to Pentecost. Resources, including podcast reflections by Professor Wright, can be found here.