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Theory and action are both needed

27 November 2020

THE Archbishop of York, in the chair of the vision-and-strategy review group, sticks doggedly to the central message: Christians are called to be followers of Christ, pure and simple. His group has the task of suggesting how the Church of England might ensure that it holds on to that simplicity, growing upright despite the entangling weeds, some of which have been sown by well-meaning church people with other priorities in earlier generations. It should not be, but it feels a luxury to have an archbishop who can rise above the administrative burden that the Church places on its leaders. It is right, having heard from many younger voices, that he should encourage others to do so. It would certainly be liberating to be freed from the burdens placed on many church people: gathering in the parish share, funding repairs to the fabric, filling empty places in rotas, attending PCC meetings, etc. Many of these tasks seem removed from the pure and simple following of Christ. Should they cease, therefore? It is far from clear that the Church could cope with the consequences if they did.

The trouble for visionaries, or even strategists, is that many people regard their visions as yet another unwelcome burden. Those who currently promote discipleship, a new and vital emphasis in the Church, need to be aware of where the lack now is. In the past, church leaders sought to persuade congregations to put what they heard on a Sunday into practice in their daily lives. This is the theory: now put it into action. Today, people understand action. Vast numbers are engaged in social and neighbourly acts, without which this country would emerge from the pandemic in a far poorer state. What is missing in many cases is the theory — or rather the theology. A humble church hierarchy will acknowledge the innate goodness that is at work at parish and community level, giving fresh insights into the meaning of selflessness and sacrifice. It ought to be concerned, though, if the loss of the Church’s influence means that Christ’s answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?” is forgotten. Makeshift answers can too easily exclude people of other shapes, sizes, situations, and nationalities.

The other concern is energy. In an interview this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury referred to worship as the fuel that keeps the Church going in all its manifestations (“35,000 social-action projects, its 2500 foodbanks”). Switching to a green analogy, Christians need to be plugged into the Holy Spirit to maintain the energy that a life of service demands. Martha must join Mary at the feet of Christ every now and then. The two Archbishops wrote here last month about the exhaustion apparent in the Church and society at this juncture (Comment, 23 October). The answer now, as always, is prayer, worship, and good theology. The task is to make these attractive and exciting for a new generation.

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