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When religion is put through filters

by
15 January 2021

What stops people from talking normally to others about Jesus, Rachel Treweek asks

Alamy

A street evangelist who appeared at an Extinction Rebellion gathering last September

A street evangelist who appeared at an Extinction Rebellion gathering last September

IN 2019, I was reflecting with some curates on how they had shared their personal stories during a mission weekend in the Cotswolds. It had been built around community events that connected naturally with people’s lives, such as a farmers’ breakfast, a jazz evening, and a family craft morning.

When I had first met each of the curates on their journey to ordination, I had been struck by the power and poignancy of their personal stories. Now, though, I was noticing how, at times, those stories appeared overthought and over-filtered as they shared them with other people.

The person of Christ, so present in their lives, sometimes seemed absent or sanitised, and I wondered how being ordained had influenced this. We reflected together on how natural it is to share our thoughts and feelings about a book or film that has held our attention, or an encounter with a captivating place or person, and how we rarely have an ulterior motive in that conversation other than relating the stuff of our lives to each other.

We talked about both respect and offence, and were curious about our application of different filters when it came to mentioning faith rather than, say, sport or politics.

I wondered whether there was actually an implicit selfishness rather than selflessness in our hesitancy to speak of our questions or our experiences of Christ’s love, hope, and mystery in our places of both pain and joy.

I find it grating when people frame a particular conversation as “evangelistic”, such that they search for special language and formulae. In reality, this is disrespectful to the hearer, because people are no longer fully and equally present to one another in a place of relationship.

Some of this touches on our futile perception of control. We cannot control the outcomes of living in relationship as we stay present to Christ and those around us. That is the work of the Holy Spirit.

In the encounter described in Mark’s Gospel, after the people see what happens to the man and the pigs, they ask Jesus to leave. They had managed to exercise some level of control over the man, binding him with chains and leg irons. But now they have encountered a power that is even greater than that of demonic spirits, and they recognise their lack of control.

God’s power disturbs their way of life. Perhaps we need greater honesty to recognise that our reticence to share the love and hope of Christ is not always about a kindness to the people we don’t wish to offend. In truth, it is sometimes more about our own fear of rejection.

IN 2016, in the diocese of Gloucester, we sought to identify the vision and priorities that God was calling us to live out.

The majority of conversations about this took place in worshipping communities, including our Church of England schools, but there was also strong encouragement for people to have conversations with people who would not ordinarily identify themselves as worshippers. The aim was to get people’s perspective on the Church, and how it might be involved in local transformation.

AlamyChristian climate activists at an Extinction Rebellion rally in Parliament Square in October 2018

One of my perturbing observations was that our expression of being Church within many communities is commonly seen as somewhere on a spectrum between “nice” and “irrelevant”. A commitment to transformation too rarely seems to create energy, excitement, or opposition — unless it’s about reordering the interior of the church building!

I want worshipping communities to be people of welcome, hospitality, and holy balm. But I also hope that engagement with injustice, hope, and need will involve “holy agitation” as we participate in God’s work of transformation.

As Jesus lived his ministry on earth, he was far from the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. His words and actions provoked strong reactions, ranging from wonder to outrage.

The heightened sense of urgency about the climate crisis has involved much public agitation for transformation. It has been fanned into flame not least through the action of young people.

The uncomfortable protests around the environment have challenged me to ask how well I and all of Christ’s Church are speaking of God’s hope and life, not only in the way we cherish the earth and its resources, but also in the way we engage in the conversation about climate change and share our experiences of all that God has done for us.

 

WHEN I hear Jesus instruct the man to tell everyone how much God has done for him, I am reminded once more that, while faith in and encounter with God is up close and personal, not private and individualistic.

Our faith is lived out in community and relationship, and I am increasingly challenged about how I live with authenticity, and recognise the filters I apply to my words and behaviour, filters that sometimes remove the grit that might have been the making of a pearl in my own life or the lives of those around me.

I remember the night before my ordination as a deacon in 1994. My original call had seemed so strong, and Christ’s summons had seemed so vivid. Yet, as our pre-ordination retreat came to an end, I remember musing momentarily on the fact that, if one day I discovered that God had been nothing but an illusion, I would have given my life to fantasy.

I remember recalling those words of St Paul writing to the Christians in Corinth, when he points out that, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then his preaching is worthless, as is the faith of the Corinthians.

Yet, like Paul, I knew that my faith was not futile, and that I wanted to play my part in sharing the good news of Christ. I don’t recall much about that ordination retreat, but I do remember the warmth and love of the retreat leader, Prebendary Alan Tanner, and 1 Corinthians 15.14-15.

I remember meditating on the banner that hung on the wall behind him as he addressed us. It displayed the words from Micah 6.8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Over the years, I have returned to those words again and again, and I like to imagine that they were known to that man who was healed in Mark’s Gospel narrative. I hope they encouraged him whenever he wondered what he should be doing in his desire to proclaim Christ and give God thanks for the work of transformation in his life.

I find myself wondering to where exactly in the local community the man in Mark’s account returned, after being asked by Jesus to return home. He had not lived in a house for a long time, but had been living among the tombs.

Since my ordination as a deacon, I have moved house five times. I have discovered that truly being at home is not about physical buildings, but about being at home with God in the depths of my being.

One of my favourite psalms is Psalm 121, with that promise that the Lord will watch over my “coming in and going out”. My husband, Guy, and I chose it to be sung during the signing of the registers at our wedding. When I was an archdeacon, I always loved speaking those words to clergy when I installed them at their service of licensing.

I like to think that the man who had been possessed by demons came to know that ancient “song of ascents”, and held on to that promise as he lifted his eyes to the hills around Galilee and grew in the experience of being free and at home with God.

 

The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek is the Bishop of Gloucester. This is an edited extract from her book Encounters: Jesus, connection and story: past, present and future (Darton, Longman & Todd £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70)).

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