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Lambeth to house new unit to explain and promote Christian faith

16 February 2022

Dr Graham Tomlin will step down as the Bishop of Kensington in August to lead it

ALAMY

The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, in 2017

The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, in 2017

A NEW Centre for Cultural Witness, dedicated to exploring how the Church can communicate its “profound and transforming” story to the public, is to be established on the site of Lambeth Palace this summer, it was announced on Wednesday. Dr Graham Tomlin will step down as the Bishop of Kensington in August to lead it.

“We have a remarkable story in the Christian faith that has shaped cultures over centuries in profound ways,” he said this week. “Yet, we need to find better ways to communicate that faith so that others can understand and believe it today.”

The Centre for Cultural Witness is planned to run initially as a four-year project. It will operate in partnership with theological faculties in the UK. It will be funded by donations, including grants from the McDonald Agape Foundation, an American foundation dedicated to encouraging “distinguished scholars for Christ at elite universities”, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Charitable Fund. Dr Tomlin will lead a full-time team, for which recruitment will begin shortly.

A key aspect of its work will be a website “explaining Christian faith in accessible terms and how it might contribute, challenge, and respond to contemporary cultural issues and themes”. The content will be produced by “both well-known names and younger, more diverse voices”.

The Centre will also seek to bring together “prominent Christian leaders” with media specialists and academic theologians in a bid to “develop the Church’s voice in public”, and support a network of “emerging younger communicators”. Finally, it will conduct theological research into “the changing nature of culture and communication and how the Church can better communicate its transformative message in the contemporary world”.

Last year, the Church’s national lead for evangelism and witness, the Revd Dr Stephen Hance, suggested that “benign indifference” was the most common attitude that the general public had towards the Church of England, while the minority who did think about it held a “largely positive” view (News, 12 November). In the course of conducting focus groups, he found that it was “frequently commented that the Church seems very embarrassed to talk about God. . . Some feel that bishops are more confident talking about social issues than they are matters of doctrine or theology.”

Before his consecration, to be Bishop of Kensington in 2015, Dr Tomlin worked in theological education institutions for 26 years; he served for eight years as the first Dean of St Mellitus College. An English graduate, he is the author of several books exploring evangelism and contemporary culture, including Provocative Church (SPCK, 2002), and most recently Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea (SPCK, 2020).

On Tuesday, he suggested that most people were “generally well disposed towards the Church. . . I think what people don’t quite get is why we do what we do.” An understanding of core aspects of the Christian faith had been “slightly lost in our culture”.

It was “impossible for the Church not to talk about politics and wider social issues”, he argued. “Politics is all about the life of the polis, the city, and the life of the city matters to us because it matters to God. . . But if that’s all we ever say then we are missing something, because it’s back to this point that there is a reason why we say what we do — it’s because of our deep Christian faith. We have to find a way to articulate that: the foundation of what we are talking about rather than just the application.”

Asked about contemporary approaches to apologetics, he questioned the effectiveness of a “very rationalist approach . . . where it was basically all about winning arguments with your opponent. So often, all you have proved is that you may be better at arguing than the other person. You haven’t necessarily won the other person over.

“I think we need to think about apologetics not so much in terms of winning arguments but in terms of bearing witness to our faith in Christ. . . to help people see his beauty and attractiveness and relevance.”

One way of thinking about the task of apologetics was to ask “how does the world look when it is with flooded with the light that shines from the faith that is placed in Jesus Christ?” A reason for the enduring appeal of C. S. Lewis’s books was that his approach was “not just argumentation; a lot of it was story and narrative.” In the 1940s, there were retellings of the Christian story in imaginative ways, by public figures who were not primarily theologians, including J. R. R. Tolkein, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Simone Weil, and Dorothy Sayers.

While the Centre would seek to work with academic theologians and clergy, its aim was “finding people who have a deep desire to communicate the Christian faith beyond the walls of the Church” from all walks of life, Dr Tomlin said. Its website would provide a place to explore both core Christian ideas, including the incarnation, atonement, creation, and the Trinity, and issues in contemporary society such as Artificial Intelligence.

There was a need to harness the wisdom that lay within theological faculties for the task of public witness, he said. “Sometimes the distance between theology faculties and the Church is a bit too wide.”

On Tuesday, the Revd Dr Andrew Davison, Starbridge Senior Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, said that the Centre was “sorely needed. The theological tradition of the Church is one of its treasures, but it has become a hidden one. The Centre for Cultural Witness looks set to bring it to light. . .

“The world of academic theology is particularly vibrant today, not least when it bridges between present contexts and profound resources from previous ages. The Centre will draw on that depth. This initiative is not about building defences; it is about exploring the central questions posed by human beings down the centuries in conversation with people of all faiths and none. Setting arid proofs and arguments aside, it wants to show that theology is the stuff of life and the Christian faith has wisdom to share with everyone.”

The Bishop of Aston, the Rt Revd Anne Hollinghurst, a member of the Faith and Order Commission said: “Our society faces multiple challenges for which it appears ill-equipped. . . There is disillusionment with political and economic systems and those who run them. There is a need to lift up the eyes of our nation to a new horizon of hope. That horizon is what the timeless good news of Jesus Christ reveals but we often struggle as the church in our contemporary culture to speak engagingly of the compelling beauty, sweep and relevance of this horizon.”

The new Centre “sets out no less than to capture the imagination of our generation and to restore a cultural vision for our times”, she said.

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