The Church must live beyond the headlines
Andy Bryant argues that the role of the Church should not be driven by ephemeral whims of the news headlines or social media, but should follow God’s agenda.
Listening to the two candidates for the Conservative Party leadership race it seems at times they have both forgotten that that the Tory party has been in government for the last twelve years, and that for much of that time they have been part of the cabinet. The way they talk about all the things that need to change, the things that need to be done differently, it is tempting to want to ask: so what have you all been doing for the last twelve years?
For the last twelve years British political life has really been about the Tory party’s own struggle with its identity and which faction has been in the ascendancy. Nationally the main opposition has come not from the Labour Party but from different factions in the uneasy coalition that is the Conservative party.
The referendum on EU membership was promised to satisfy a certain wing of the party – Cameron thought he could call their bluff and failed. Then it became about our future relationship with the EU. The party thought May was the one to deal with that but once again party divisions shaped the agenda and she fell victim to further party intrigue. Johnson promised to get Brexit done and with a big majority thought he was safe, but the shifting sands of the Tory internal coalition felled him too.
We now await the next saga in the Tory soap opera that has so shaped our political life and meanwhile no other political party has even got close to influencing the political agenda.
And where in all of this has the Church been? Back in the 1960s and 1970s we were encouraged to pray the headlines. The world’s concerns should be our concerns. At one level this seems like a wise suggestion. Anything is better than the Church obsessing about its own concerns – can women be bishops? Should we bless same sex marriages? How do we fund the parishes? The world yawns and passes by on the other side.
But following the headlines can also distort our view of the world. The headline writers decide what we should be interested in and so skew our world view. And news has a short attention span. News is only news whilst it is new. Just because the news caravan moves on does not mean issues have gone away.
Similarly social media spins its own delusion. We follow those we like and those who echo our own bias, and the algorithms then send more of the same our way, so we are misled into thinking that there are lots of others who see things as we see them. We think we are seeing the bigger picture but in reality we are being fooled into thinking our tiny corner of the picture is the whole picture.
The vision of an established church is to have a Christian community in every centre of population in the country and a priest to serve every parish. At its best clergy are uniquely positioned to know their communities and know the real issues ordinary people are facing. More than any other institution in the country the Church truly has its feet on the ground, and we have brothers and sisters in every other country in the world who can similarly tell us what is really going on.
The Church should not be echoing the agenda set by divided political parties, by the headline writers nor by the social media influencers. Rather it should be the Church listening to the communities in which it is set and helping those who never get noticed to get their voice heard.
The Church is called to be in the world but not of the world, yet we have too often succumbed to the temptation to be both in and of the world, thinking that way we will be more popular – as if being popular was part of the Church’s mission. Rather it is about meeting people at their point of need, especially those needs that others do not notice or do not respond to. As fascinating as Tory party hustings may seem, they should not the Church’s agenda.
The Church needs to accept that its place is often on the edge. Jesus is born in a stable in Bethlehem. Jesus dies outside the city walls. The Risen Lord is encountered in a garden early in the morning and then behind locked doors. God does not seek to be centre stage.
The world does not set our agenda, our calling is to set the agenda for the world; that is to hear and respond to the voice of its Creator. Where God is weeping that is where the Church needs to be. Where God’s heart is breaking that is where we need to be of service.
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
The Revd Andrew Bryant is the Canon for Mission and Pastoral Care at Norwich Cathedral. He was previously Team Rector of Portishead, Bristol, in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, and has served in parishes in the Guildford and Lichfield Dioceses, as well as working for twelve years with Kaleidoscope Theatre, a charity promoting integration through theatre for young adults with Down’s Syndrome.
You can read Andrew's latest blog entry here and can follow him via his Twitter account @AndyBry3.
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