As the Church of England this month joins other Christian communities across the country and around the world in ten days of prayer ‘for more people to come to know Jesus Christ’, an Oxford theologian has called on Christians to be still and listen to the concerns of the world.
The Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, has called on the Church of England to reflect on what kind of kingdom it is building, as its focus on charismatic evangelism over the last thirty years risks achieving little and alienating many.
The prayer campaign known as #ThyKingdomCome began in 2016 as an invitation from the Archbishops’ of Canterbury and York in 2016 to the Church of England. It has since grown into an international and ecumenical call to prayer between the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, which this year fall on Thursday 10th May and Sunday 20th May. People are invited to commit to pray, as a church, individually or as a family, hold prayer events such as 24-7 prayer vigils, prayer stations and prayer walks, across the UK and in other parts of the world so that, according to the campaign’s website,
‘people will be empowered through prayer by the Holy Spirit, finding new confidence to be witnesses for Jesus Christ.’
Prof Percy has set out his argument in an article published on the website of Modern Church, a society promoting liberal Christianity, of which he is a Vice President.
In the essay, called The Church of England: Mission and Ministry After the Decade of Evangelism, Professor Percy contrasts the Church of England’s two best-selling reports - Faith in the City (1985) which, he argues,
‘put the people and the places they lived in before the needs and concerns of the Church’
and Mission-Shaped Church (2004), which showcases church communities that
‘are usually apolitical in outlook, and often tend to be socially, politically and theologically conservative’.
The problem, Percy argues, is that the hierarchy of the Church of England is ‘stuck in broadcast mode’:
‘Like the proverbial Englishman abroad, they cannot make themselves understood in a world that increasingly finds the Church incomprehensible, especially in spheres such as sexuality, gender, equality, safeguarding, the exercise of power, the holding of authority and being open to accountability. But does the Church perceive this? No. It just talks louder, hoping, somehow, it will be heard. It won’t.’
Through such expressive evangelical campaigns as the 1990s Decade of Evangelism, the spread of ‘Fresh Expressions’ of church and the #ThyKingdomCome call to prayer, Percy suggests,
‘the Church only seeks to make itself more appealing and attractive to those who might join. Yet it rarely asks the same public why they don’t join. It is like a business doing even more hard selling, with increasing desperation, but unwilling to ask the consumers why they aren’t buying.’
He proposes a return to a theology of mission and church which is more ‘compelling and credible’ because it represents ‘an authentic and humble Church’:
‘One that listened deeply and lived its faith, faithfully and unassumingly, rather than brashly promoting its brand.’
He cites scriptural examples as evidence of the difference in approach, from Jesus:
‘We must also remember that Jesus did not plant synagogues. Jesus did not grow synagogue congregations. Jesus did not advocate ‘Fresh Expressions’ of synagogue. But Jesus did spend time with the marginalised and disenfranchised. Jesus did challenge prevailing religious structures and outlooks. Jesus did admit people to the Kingdom of God who were not Jewish - often, unconditionally’
and his Jewish disciples,
‘“discovering” that God is at work amongst the gentiles - and that God had started something in those communities before any proactive mission had got underway.’
This alternative approach to mission recognises, argues Percy, that ‘God might choose to speak from the world to the Church’ to prepare it to be reformed and renewed:
‘But the Church can’t seem to receive the wisdom of the world on equality legislation, safeguarding practices and protocols, the treatment of LGBTI clergy and laity, and gender-related policies… Here, the Church lags behind the world, locked into its own kind of bunker mentality.’
He calls for churches to spend more time listening to and receiving from the world, engaging in dialogue to enable meaningful, sustainable relationships and growth:
‘Then we might hear what the actual cares and concerns of our communities are. Then we might begin to discern where God is already at work. Then we might receive from these communities what God would have this Church become.’
Read and download the full 4000-word essay, The Church of England: Mission and Ministry after the Decade of Evangelism, by Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy.
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