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Letters to the Editor

11 August 2023


Defining the C of E’s core business

From the Revd Matthew Hutton

Sir, — I applaud the article by the Revd Dr Nicholas Buxton (Comment, 4 August).

First, I would suggest that what we are “selling” is broader than salvation, namely, the offer of an eternal relationship with God (as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer), through a personal belief in Jesus Christ as Saviour and as Lord. The final paragraph of the middle column, indeed, makes this clear.

Second, in terms of identifying the “problem” of sin, Dr Buxton is spot on. I would add the observation that all of us looking for opportunities to explain the Christian faith to those who have not yet embraced it will have come across folk who simply do not “get” it. They may just have no interest in developing the conversation, or, relying on a false doctrine of works, say something like “I’ve led a good life.”

Only if the Holy Spirit convicts a person of sin and the need to repent will they come to Jesus as Saviour and Lord, having been shown “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.4, in the context of verses 3 to 7).

Broom Farm, Chedgrave
Norwich NR14 6BQ

From Mr Horace Mitchell

Sir, — Good luck to (and prayers for) the Revd Dr Nicholas Buxton in explaining original sin to the unchurched community as “a state that describes the human condition”. Dr Buxton may be right that our “core business” is selling salvation, but we won’t get far if we start with original sin.

Sadly, he and today’s hierarchy seem oblivious to the fact that successful businesses grow by selling things that people didn’t know they needed. Who knew that we all needed mobile phones, or that, when we already had a mobile phone and a camera, we would pay more for a phone with a camera? Who needed the internet? Or the worldwide web? Or, indeed, back in the day, tea or coffee?

The answer to this conundrum is one that we won’t hear from the hierarchy: namely, “marketing”.

For today’s unchurched generations, original sin is an entirely foreign concept. In sixty years of (successfully) designing, specifying, and selling innovative products and services to people who didn’t know that they needed them, I learned that one has to meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.

In seventy years of reading and thinking deeply about the life of Christ, one conclusion is that he was (though the term hadn’t yet been invented) an absolute master of the arts of marketing.

His world was, of course, entirely different: an oppressed but inherently religious people anxiously waiting and praying for a saviour. But he didn’t deliver the version that they wanted: he led people to an entirely new and innovative solution.

The question to ask is not “What should the Archbishops do?” or “What should the Rector do?” or the diocese, or the PCC, or whoever. The question is “What would Jesus do?” — Jesus, the ace marketing specialist.

Reader (retired)
Finisterre, Tile Barn
Woolton Hill
Newbury RG20 9UZ

From the Revd Bryan Pettifer

Sir, — Many thanks to the Revd Dr Nicholas Buxton for focusing our attention on the Church’s core business. His analysis points in the right direction, but terms such as “salvation” and “original sin” are remarkably unattractive in today’s secular culture, and only play into the contemporary trend towards individualistic thinking.

This trend reflects an emphasis to be found in Ancient Greek thought, which is analytic, static, objective, and individualistic, and focuses on ideas. Hebrew thought, in contrast, is synthetic, dynamic, and personal, and seeks to establish and renew relationships. These are the twin roots of Western culture.

Yes, we need to distinguish between the many sins that we commit, but from which God’s forgiveness releases us, and sin as separation from God, which is the root problem of the human condition and the cause of so much of society’s suffering. Jesus came to reveal God’s essential nature as love and to enable reconciliation between God and humanity.

Our business as a Church is essentially relational, because God is essentially relational and counter-cultural in an individualistic society.

23 Curlew Drive
Chippenham SN14 6YG

From Canon John Brown

Sir, — I guess that, like many, I found Dr Buxton’s article both stimulating and frustrating. The issue that he addresses is important, but I wish that he had gone further. Having been ordained for more than 50 years, I, too, struggle with the language of Church and theology when it comes to the interface between Church and society. Maybe it has been the same for years past; but the Church has not listened to society.

I find myself talking a lot about “rescue” when it comes to thinking about “salvation”, and Paul Tillich’s notion of “estrangement” when it comes to thinking about “sin”. Surely, there are so many aspects of the life of society today where the spoken or unspoken longing is for ‘rescue’, and so many situations in which ‘estrangement’ between people is so manifest.

10 Ayletts, Chelmsford CM1 7LE

What John Robinson got right in Honest to God

From Dr Andrew Purkis

Sir, — Canon Angela Tilby misrepresents Honest to God by John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, as a secular theology for a godless, secular age (Comment, 4 August). She wrongly asserts that he and other secularists insisted that was the only kind of theology which was now believable.

On the contrary, Robinson was trying to make sure that an increasingly secular society should not be godless. He was trying to find ways of being godly and being a Christian disciple without having to embrace the traditional imagery of a God “out there”, almighty and all-powerful. He repeatedly wrote that he was happy for people who could accept this imagery to continue to use it and find ultimate meaning through it. But he was aware that very many thoughtful and conscientious people were finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile that imagery with their contemporary understanding, culture and reason.

He argued correctly that even many practising Christians were in fact supplying their own simultaneous translations of what they really meant as they recited the Creed and used the traditional imagery of heaven and hell. He wanted to redefine a loving God as the centre and ground of our being, infusing it with meaning and hope. His bulging postbag included not only protests from traditionalists, but many letters of fervent thankfulness and relief that a bishop was brave enough to embrace them as seekers, searchers, and moral people aspiring to Christian values, and to help them to feel that they belonged in our Church and as people of God.

His alternative imagery had its grave limitations for many of us. But his attempt was noble and necessary, and should continue. Otherwise, the trajectory in England may well continue towards the godless society that he did not want to see, in which an ever-dwindling minority show any interest at all in Canon Tilby’s opaque language of “living in the mystery of God’s otherness”.

44 Bellamy Street
London SW12 8BU

A lesson to learn about rushing to judgement

From Dr Brian Hanson

Sir, — Archdeacon Barton’s comment (Letters, 4 August) relating to the Bishop of Newcastle’s ruling on Lord Sentamu is quite right to highlight “the rush to judgement against Sentamu”. In the same issue (News) is the report that the Cathedral Chapter of Chichester are reinstating Bishop George Bell’s name to 4 Canon Lane because they acknowledge that the decision to remove his name for alleged sexual abuse in 2016 “was deficient”.

Lord Carlile’s report of 2017 on the Bell case found that “there was a rush to judgement: the Church . . . failed to engage in a process which would also give proper consideration to the rights of the Bishop. . . Complaints are not considered proved until findings of fact have been made.”

Does the Church of England never learn from its mistakes? Perhaps the Bishop of Newcastle needs to understand that safeguarding is not above the law.

(Chairman, House of Laity, Chichester diocesan synod 2001-15; member of Chichester Cathedral
Council 2001-23)
Garden Cottage
Steyning BN44 3AG

From the Hon. Michael Benson

Sir, — The Ven. John Barton points out in his letter the perils now facing priests, in exercising their ministry, even if they have committed no offence, as in the case of Lord Sentamu.

Possibly a further question should be asked. Is it right that, because a bishop disagrees with a legitimate position taken by one of their priests, they have an unchallengeable right to prevent that person from going about their priestly duties?

It would be interesting to see the result if such a right was challenged in a court of law.

Grange Farm, Westow
York YO60 7NJ

When insurance won’t help . . . but friends will

From the Revd Neil Fairlamb

Sir, — The story of Glanvilles Wootton Church, denied help by Ecclesiastical for replacement to roof tiles (News, 4 August), reminds all PCCs that wear and tear is not claimable. We were faced at All Saints’, Tilford (Guildford), with a substantial plaster fall, which occurred on our patronal in October 2021, at 9.10 a.m., mercifully happening with the clock change that morning and avoiding our 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. services. Wear and tear of Victorian plaster (1867) was the cause.

The bitter irony is that, only weeks before, the church had been inspected for its quinquennial by an approved firm, who had inspected for years; but the condition of plaster is not part of the standard inspection. The building was passed as sound, with minor works recommended. In the end, we needed £110,000 for complete replastering, after advice from specialist professionals.

Victorian plaster will be vulnerable in many other churches. PCCs should act to forestall the challenge that we had. Tilford was very fortunate with its benefactors, not least the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, representing the Mubarak Mosque in Tilford; for here in this classic English village — cricket on the green where W.G. Grace played, swans and ducks on the river Wey, gastro-pubs — we have Islamabad, the world headquarters of this messianic expression of Islam. They were proud to help us.

18 Bromley Colleges
London Road
Bromley BR1 1PE

Incident in Jerusalem

From the Very Revd Geoffrey Marshall

Sir, — Francis Martin reported (News, 4 August) that a group of Church of England ordinands had been spat at by a Hasidic Jewish boy. Various explanations, even excuses, were offered. If the boy was an Israeli citizen, then he was also a tourist or pilgrim, if a very rude one.

The Via Dolorosa is in the West Bank, or Occupied Palestinian Territories, or whatever you want to call it; as far as the United Nations is concerned, it is not in Israel. It seems this boy was behaving like too many colonists and occupiers.

36 Saundersfoot Way
Oakwood, Derby DE21 2RH

Sex: welcome candour

From Mr Gwilym Stone

Sir, — I was saddened to read Canon Alan J. Bell’s letter (28 July), because his objection seems to focus on the Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes’s honesty, not on what she actually did or didn’t do.

At a time when the Church Times pages are overflowing with reporting on the Church’s ongoing failure to get a grip on safeguarding, it is distressing to be reminded that there would seem to be many who prefer the silence, secrecy, and a culture of shame, which all create the space for abuse to go unchecked, over any attempt to have an open conversation about the reality of sex in the 21st century.

Tomsk Villa, 11 Rollesbrook Gardens
Southampton SO15 5WA

Using AI gains priest interviews for posts

From the Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie

Sir, — As a desperate loser with little else to do, I have spent the past few months instructing the AI engine Chat GPT to construct applications to a number of C of E jobs advertised in your newspaper. In multiple cases, an interview has been the result of this mechanised inanity.

Have the bishops and their apparatchiks reflected on quite how familiar their pattern of speech is to a computer? Perhaps they’re indulged in some elaborate test programme to show the possible incarnational validity of even the least interesting message? If so, congratulations; if not, have we thought even for a moment how robotic the heart of the C of E might be?

Hopefully, still in contact with his human soul,

Tonbridge School, Kent TN9 1JP

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