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Angela Tilby: Conversion vocabulary can be alien  

14 July 2023


ON THE day of the announcement of his nomination as Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen appeared in an introductory video. He spoke from Westwood Road, Southampton, opposite the house where, as a student, in 1978, he “came to faith in Jesus Christ for myself” — the most important turning point of his life.

He then went on to speak of “coming home” to Hampshire, and of the challenges facing the diocese of Winchester, with its large urban populations represented in the video by Southampton. Cue ships on the Solent. (The rural parts of the diocese were briefly represented later by a flock of grazing sheep).

Media presentation aside, I was struck by the Bishop’s emphasis on his personal conversion in young adulthood. He made me wonder just how many of our current bishops would claim such a conversion, a “coming to faith . . . for myself” as the most significant moment in their lives. Quite a few, I would think.

It has been one of the great failures of the post-war generations not to nurture faith in their children. Many of my contemporaries were not prepared to countermand the children’s cry of “It’s boring” when summoned to go to church. They even made a virtue of leaving their children free to decide for themselves, without realising that this would also leave them prey to a culture increasingly hostile to religious belief.

Curiously, Bishop Mounstephen insisted that he had come from a loving and churchgoing family, leaving me to wonder how he connected his obviously Christian background with his coming to faith “for myself”. The phrase “for myself” is the key, I suspect. Today’s Christianity is restless and individualistic. Personal authenticity trumps shared beliefs and values; “lived experience” triumphs over religious habit.

One of the unspoken complications of church life at the moment is that the agenda is being written by those who, like the Bishop, have had an encounter with Jesus at university age, and who never quite realise how alien their vocabulary can seem to those more reticent souls who have never had or sought such an experience.

A Church led by self-confessed converts is at ease with an effervescent language about faith in a way that seems alien to those whose faith has been nurtured through habits of commitment, and shared, unconsciously memorised, liturgy — and also, I’d suggest, to those who are won over to Christ through patient pastoral care and friendship.

So, “driven” strategies for growth, implied in phrases such as “Mission Action Plan”, win out over faithful presence in each community. And Paul, the driven urban missionary, triumphs over Jesus the rural preacher, who had nothing much to offer apart from parables of wheat and tares, lost sheep and coins, and a Kingdom that is not built by our own zeal, but is mysteriously revealed in the midst of us.

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