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Are we embarrassed by talking about God?

by
12 November 2021

Plenty of people think that the Church of England is; and good works don’t evangelise on their own, says Stephen Hance

“A CHRISTIAN presence in every community”. So says the strapline by its logo at the top of the Church of England’s website, and it refers to something deep and distinctive in the history and ethos of the Church. Most Christian churches see themselves as existing to serve, engage, and reach their local communities. Archbishop William Temple’s famous dictum, “The Church is the only organisation that does not exist for itself, but for the benefit of those who live outside of it,” could be embraced by very many denominations and streams, not just Anglicans.

But the way in which the C of E lives out this aspiration is very specific. It happens primarily through the parish system, in which every street, house, and individual is sited within a geographic parish. A priest who is appointed to a parish is entrusted with a share in the “cure of souls”, responsibility for the spiritual life and well-being of everyone who lives within that specific parish, whether or not they are Anglicans, Christians of other denominations, atheists, or adherents of other faiths. We express this in the way in which we offer marriage and funeral services to anyone who lives in the parish, Christian or not.

So, the question how the Church is perceived by wider society has particular resonance for us. Recently, I undertook some research on this, looking at our media coverage and relevant research, and convening five round-table discussions. The results were illuminating, with four key findings; but perhaps the most striking message that came through was this: people think that we are embarrassed about God.

Evelyn Underhill wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, in 1930, “God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God.” Most church leaders would, I hope, agree. Whatever else the Church may do or stand for, at its core it is an institution that is about God, and for God. Yet people observed that we seem embarrassed about God and God-talk.


ST FRANCIS of Assisi is sometimes misquoted as having said, “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” It seems that we have taken this flawed advice so much to heart that we don’t use words even when they are necessary.

Many Anglicans have a touching confidence that the care for their community which they express in social action — foodbanks, toddler groups, and the like — communicate the gospel in and of themselves, regardless of any verbalised Christian message that might be offered. This has almost certainly never been true at any point in the C of E’s history. It is certainly not true now, when people know less about the content of the Christian story than ever before.

In my round tables, some commented with all seriousness that they did not know what the Church believed about God. One participant wondered aloud whether we had stopped really believing in God and had decided to prioritise good works, instead. When people stop to think about the Church of England at all, it is the local manifestations of community service or the national expressions of establishment Christianity which come to mind, not the gospel of Jesus Christ or an invitation to faith in, and a new relationship with, God.

One result of this is that people who are interested in exploring spirituality often do not consider the C of E as a possible partner in that exploration. We are simply not associated with spiritual experience at all.

This relates to an argument that Tom Holland makes in his book Dominion (Books, 13 September 2019, Features, 27 September 2019), and which he also made at one of the round-table discussions. He argues that the values that we take as self-evident in 21st-century Western culture — human rights and the worth of every individual, for example — are not universal values, but the product of the very thorough inculturation of Christian thought in the development of the West.

The problem now is that when bishops or theologians talk about these things, they are no longer distinctive, but sound like everyone else, so widely shared are these values. This leaves the Church with the choice either to blend in, and so become irrelevant and invisible, or to speak about those things that the Church uniquely believes (what Holland calls “all the weird, odd stuff”).


WHAT does this mean for the C of E? We need to equip the whole people of God as witnesses. We may not all be evangelists, but we are called to witness joyfully to what God has done in our lives. We need to equip church leaders to lead evangelistically fruitful churches, regardless of whether they personally are gifted evangelists. And, at a national level, the Church needs to be able to engage in public discourse in a way that is culturally relevant and resonant, theologically rich, confident and yet humble.

In a post-pandemic world, we need leaders who can articulate a vision of a better society couched in terms that specifically link back to our faith tradition, and can invite others to explore it with us, humbly, but confidently and boldly, too.


The Revd Dr Stephen Hance is the C of E’s National Lead on Evangelism and Discipleship, and
author of Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us: Perceptions of the Church of England (MEv135), published by Grove Books at £3.95; 978-1-78827-185-1.

Listen to an interview with Stephen Hance on the Church Times Podcast.

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