Well, that isn’t quite what St. Paul said (Romans 10, v14); he said “Preacher”, but it’s much the same thing, for what people need today, regarding Christianity is “Knowledge”.
I imagine, few who spend millions celebrating the birth of Jesus, ever equate the spit and blood covered tottering figure carrying a cross, with the sweet babe surrounded by squeaky clean angels.
Of course, they buy Hot Cross Buns” (on sale from Christmas) but few understand why, and the figure on a cross is something alien. There is the true story of a young lady customer who said to the jeweller “I don’t want one of those plain crosses, but one with ‘the little man’ on it”!
The truth is, that we are no longer a Christian nation, for the simple reason that there is no one as far as I can see, trying to inform people of any and every age what the Gospel really is.
Nor has there been to any degree since the end of the last war.
You may tell someone that the word “Gospel” means “Good News”, but be incapable of explaining what that Good News is.
If you tell someone that it is “Jesus died for us on the cross and rose to life again”, fair enough, but such is the widespread ignorance, that they may well reply “Pull the other one “!
Study will show that there are diverse explanations of the cross by scholars, some of whom do not agree with the others, some of whom do not see the Father God as “loving and caring” when He allows His Son to die a criminal’s death in order to appease His anger at the world’s sins.
So, explaining The Gospel” is not simplicity itself.
Nor do many see the true Jesus, who was an outspoken revolutionary and have little awareness of who He was and why. They dismiss Christianity (and indeed most religions) as “boring”.
Reading the Gospels (especially St. Mark), we discover that Jesus was never “boring” or “respectable”; anything but! He was one who spoke the truth about Man and God, arousing animosity in all His critics.
A brave man who walked steadfastly into shame, pain, ignominious death and in some mysterious way, that man was (and is) also, God, which baffles us, but we are dealing with a Being and force beyond our comprehension, which many (including some church-goers) find difficult to grasp.
The Evangelistic report of which I have spoken before, in its criticisms of the Church of England’s condition (writing in 1944), drew attention to the poor preaching that was (and sometimes still is) heard in our parish churches.
As Editor of the Portsmouth Diocesan “Link” (from1967-1977), I used to receive numerous copies of parish magazines, which revealed the inability of many clergy to present basic teaching to their people in a language they could understand.
Indeed, so was the ignorance in the post-war years that the report spent a chapter on “How to use the media”, including literature (parish mags., radio and TV etc.) that went into people’s houses.
Indeed, I had words with one Bishop, for he seemed incapable of writing something that the average parishioner (living on the big Portsmouth estates) could understand; remember, that in those days we published no less than 27,500 copies of the “Link” (compare that with the measly 8,500 that now comes in the form of a quarterly, high class magazine).
The Bishop replied that “He wrote for the ‘opinion formers’ of the parishes and not for the ordinary folk!”
Whenever I have taken over a parish, I have always kept the 3 “Cs” (Communication, Community and Communion) in mind as the thrust of my Ministry.
“Between me and you there is a great gulf fixed” so Lazarus (in Paradise) told the rich man (suffering in hell) (Luke 16, v26) and the truth is, that the great gulf of “ignorance” still exists, so what should we be doing about it?
I sat spellbound as I watched the Easter Day Eucharist on the television from a packed St. Alban’s Abbey 2 years ago.
It was more congregational than many cathedral services, using the same Gloria, etc. as we sing at Brading, with an eminently understandable sermon, immaculate ceremonial. The more intriguing moment was when, prior to the “Peace”, one be-coped Canon disappeared (did he need a toilet perhaps?) but to return leading, like a clerical Pied Piper a procession of children, some babes in arms, together with their parents who joined the congregation for the rest of the service, and although “wriggly”, settled down as they proceeded into the Offertory Hymn.
A further surprise was to come, in that unlike getting a paternal pat on the head as a blessing, children as young as (I would think), 8 yrs. old received Communion together with their parents and behaving reverently.
“Were they confirmed?” you may ask, and the answer is simply, “No”, but the cathedral was taking advantage of rules that were changed some years ago, saying young children could be allowed to receive, provided that they were suitably instructed. This was to be authorised by the Bishop of each Diocese, some of whom welcomed the change, others were antagonistic. But the Ely report on the matter, concluded that Communion of unconfirmed children was lawful and indeed, desirable.
“But, they’re too young to understand?” is often the cry, yet an examination of the Acts of the Apostles, shows that whole households were converted and baptised, Despite the Church of England’s rules about admission to the Sacrament, Church history shows that Confirmation as a necessity for Communion was not part of the Early tradition. Indeed, Rome has always accepted baptism as the qualification, together with the Eastern Orthodox, for they give Communion (administered in a spoon), to the newly baptised baby!
It is Baptism that makes you a Christian and we have no evidence to think that an Episcopal Confirmation was always essential. Indeed in the Prayer Book rubrics, it says that “None shall be admitted to Communion without Confirmation or be ready and desirous to be confirmed”. When you think of medieval times when the whole of Cornwall was in the Diocese of Exeter, with communications being so poor, one wonders how long someone living in St. Ives might have to wait before the Bishop could arrive?
It is due to this policy that St. Alban’s Cathedral is able to instruct and welcome whole families at the Communion rail into the Family of The Church and this practise is growing.
We are able to hold services with a teaching element for the whole family and there is a growth of suitable lesson books available offering imaginative and participatory teaching.
Is this the way forward? I think so, from my own pastoral experience, but think and pray about it, for you may well disagree, but the lack of children and young people in our churches shows that what we are doing is not working.
However, I am only trying to give you some idea of how The Church is moving to become as inclusive as is reasonably able.
Children can accept teaching, without necessarily understanding. In answer to the cry “They won’t understand” I am bound to ask “Do YOU understand?” Because, I don’t. “I believe and accept” for that is what Faith is all about. Experience tells me that by “believing”, I truly receive the benefits of that Faith and Belief. Think about it.
The ‘phone rang. It was the Bishop (of Bath & Wells) Secretary. It was only my first year in charge of Holy Trinity, Taunton.
One of those moments when, like a naughty schoolboy, you wonder what would follow, rather like waiting outside the Headmaster’s study at School. I was soon to find out.
“The Rural Dean has told the Bishop that you are holding services at Holy Trinity which are not according to the Prayer Book and he would like to know what you are up to?”
Some 10 months earlier he had inducted me into my post there as Vicar and I had been horrified at the poor provision for children and their families.
An elderly, dictatorial lady ran a Sunday School in the Day School which she defended jealously, not even allowing me to take part and I knew all she did was to tell them Bible stories.
There was no relationship between her and the rest of the parish and I knew that I would need to fight that particular dragon if we were to make any progress.
We needed to encourage “Family” worship to replace a “Children’s Mass” to which only a handful of children came, but in no way could you say it was “Children’s” but only a bowdlerised version of the Prayer Book and the only person who made his Communion at it was the officiating priest!
These were the days (1957) prior to the advent of the Family Car and it was still possible to hold afternoon services to which I hoped complete families would come and gradually, with instruction, help them to understand and take part in the Communion.
Having explained it to the Secretary, she said she would explain it to the Bishop and in consideration of what I had to contend with generally in the parish, felt he would be helpful. Which he was, but with the stricture that it was not to be a permanent part of the Sunday worship programme. (Sounds a bit like the Brexit “back stop”!)
Planned to last only for a year of monthly services we hoped to cover all the essentials of Christian membership and at the end we might have added some families to the flock.
It succeeded beyond our wildest dreams and the first Sunday at 3 p.m. the nave was packed with families and it continued so for the rest of the year.
Some fell away as we “put the pressure on”, even gently, but numbers also diminished because some were transferring as we had hoped and prayed, to the morning Parish Communion, also some of the parents enquiring about Confirmation.
But that was then, some 60 years ago and times have changed dramatically.
When I was asked to rescue Swanmore, with a tremendous amount of publicity, we tried the same formula but doubtfully, because I had a gut feeling that the problem was much greater, especially for a parish that had been woefully neglected.
We held a “Family Toy service” inviting people to come with toys to distribute to needy families. We had lots of lovely toys, but only attracted four extra people! The rest brought toys which were dropped hurriedly in the church porch and the donors disappeared as quickly as they could!
I have recounted all this, because it has been clear to me (and many other clergy) that so much that worked in the past, no longer attracts or is effective and we are often trying to vanquish the well-armed Devil with out-of-date weapons.
Our “Family Services” were among the first in Bath and Wells Diocese, but their attraction has waned over the years, needing to be replaced with more revolutionary approaches. There are exciting ideas abroad and we need to have an armoury fit for the 21st century in a very secular England.
Close to the busy Newcastle Central Station is a small green oasis that is the churchyard of St. John’s Church, where I first encountered the “Parish Communion Movement”.
Cranmer and his associates together with the reformers of the 1662 Prayer Book tried to implement their aim, to make CofE members “regular Communion” people, to erase the then idea of worshippers only attending Mass to see the Sacrament lifted high and adored, but rarely made their Communions.
Cranmer envisaged every Sunday to be a Sacrament Sunday but there was a snag, for “pre-Communion fasting” was the rigid rule, which was adopted and few could endure waiting until noon before they could have breakfast,
St. John’s solved this by holding their ‘Parish’ Communion at 9 a.m. (the people coming fasting), and afterwards the congregation met either in the vestry, or (in the summer) sitting in the sun-lit churchyard breakfasting on a simple diet of cereal, toast and appropriate drinks.
This was the forerunner of after-church coffee, which was yet (in the 1940s) to be in the future.
As a ‘teen-ager, I thought it was brilliant, for normally then Communion would be at 8 a.m. (fasting) to be followed at 11.0 a.m. by a fully Sung Eucharist at which only the elderly and infirm were expected to receive.
It seemed strange to me that we had to come to church twice on a Sunday morning, and when I (a brash 30yr. old) became in charge of Holy Trinity I relaxed the fasting rule which immediately had a beneficial effect on the size of the congregation, nor did we have the usual post-Confirmation disappearance of the young from their worship.
We are all accustomed to people receiving ‘non-fasting’, but when I made the change, I received criticism from all sides of the Church spectrum; “Father Rayner’s gone all low Church”, that is, until the Pope said it was OK for his flock!
The 1950s/60s saw the growth of the “Parish and People” movement, trying to build this concept, but mainly through lethargy, lack of leadership and fear of “change”, it quietly sank without achieving its aims.
The set-up at St. John’s, Newcastle was a real “Parish” Communion, for, following on from their breakfast the people would stay to discuss parish matters and generally converse, so “Parish” meant that it was a part of an idea to weld the people into a knowable family with a real sense of belonging.
They were in a way following the same path as the Early Christians, where the laity felt that they “owned” and were deeply involved in the life of the parish, with the kind of social relationship that the Christian faith should engender.
Bringing Holy Trinity into a strong ethos that “we are all in this together” was made easier when I introduced in 1958 for (I understand) the first time in Somerset, coffee (or tea) after the Parish Communion.
Of course, it drew criticism that now “Father Rayner is turning the parish church into a coffee shop”, but it was soon followed by other parishes “taking the plunge” and now it’s the norm.
The pre-fix “Commun” is part of the word “to share” and The Church is not somewhere we go on a Sunday, but is the moment when we truly share in a divine mystery, where we share the bread and wine of the Sacrament, by which we are spiritually joined to each other and to Jesus.
When we become Christians we do not “go to Church”, for we ARE The Church and we need to BE “The Church” wherever we are.
“We break this bread to SHARE in the Body of Christ” and our response is: “Though we are many, we are ONE Body”.
St. Paul has much to say about the “Body” concept of the Living Church. By Baptism and Communion we are joined to be “Jesus among us”. “Christ has no Body here on earth but yours” says St. Teresa. A true “Parish” Communion enables this to become a reality.
I have been reading the life story of the late William Temple, who for a short while (1942-1944) was Archbishop of Canterbury, dying suddenly from a heart attack.
This was a tragedy for he was a great Missioner and was determined that the Church of England should be a missionary Church. He realised that England was only nominally Christian; in fact, Church attendance had already started its decline. Indeed it was calculated that in the 1940s less than 10% attended worship in the CofE on a Sunday.
There was still good attendance of children at Sunday Schools, but very few of them stayed long enough to be confirmed and active Church members.
Chaplains in the armed forces reported that a huge percentage of the men (and women) in the forces were completely ignorant of the Christian Faith, had no Church allegiance, knew little of the Bible, despite (at that time), in England, 60% had been baptised! Only 35% actually attended Sunday Schools.
I have written previously about the way in which a Report into Mission, entitled “Towards the conversion of England” was published at Temple’s command in 1944 (the year that he died) with a view to revitalising the Church to prepare for post-war problems.
Costing only one shilling (5p.) it was a mine of information and statistics, but also a wealth of good ideas, regarding “Outreach”. As a ‘teen-ager, recently returned to The Church, I (with many others so inclined), found it a source of inspiration.
So much so, that when ordained, I (and a fair number of young men) saw in it a blueprint that could have a positive effect on the Christian influence in our country. When we were in a position to do so, we began to work on its guidance, which if universally adopted would have transformed religious life, in a Society which was only nominally Christian.
Temple knew from his experience that people returning from the war when many had experienced so many challenges and horrors, would be seeking for answers and explanations, particularly where religion could take its part.
This could have been a sea-change in the way The Church approached and presented the Gospel, of which the majority of people were ignorant.
It was not to be. With Temple’s untimely and unexpected death, his successor, Geoffrey Fisher (who had never been a parish priest, only a public school chaplain) turned the Church’s attention to the need to revise Canon Law (the Church’s rule book). He wanted to discipline those clergy, who altered the Prayer Book services and introducing such “frowned upon” practises, such as incense (which at that time was wrongly presumed to be illegal).
As a result, the highest authority, The Church Assembly, spent 10 years discussing Canon Law; any idea of Evangelism and the “Conversion” report vanished, like other such reports.
Some of the older clergy were delighted, because they had endured the war with all its personal problems and the last thing they wanted was major changes.
The parish where I served as a curate (1952-56) still maintained the same service and pastoral pattern that had been in the 1870s when the church was first built.
Present-day social problems, emphasised by the terribly bitter division over Brexit, mirror those of Temple’s day, and there are tremendous opportunities for Christians to restate the Gospel and speak out clearly of a way by which we may gain a sense of purpose and of moral direction.
What has our Archbishop and other Christian leaders got to say concerning the role of Christianity in our Society?
The Church is worryingly silent on so many social and moral problems and I for one fear for the future of our Society and its lack of Christian guidance. We need to preach the Gospel with all its challenges, for unless we do, the future looks frightening.