THE DAILY TELEGRAPH has been General Synod watching:
The Rt Rev Nick Baines, the Bishop of Bradford, said some parishes in his diocese were 95% Muslim but that this should not be seen as “a problem”. “This is a fantastic opportunity,” he told the General Synod, the Church of England’s national assembly, in York. “It is a challenge, yes, but it’s an opportunity to rethink what it means to be a Christian community. We often ask Muslims to learn what it is to be a Muslim as a minority culture. Maybe we could benefit from learning some of the same lessons in some of our cities.”
His comments came as Church leaders at the assembly were warned that Britain’s increasingly diverse society could undermine the position of the Church of England as the “established” faith of the nation.”
A comment on the bishop’s own Minority Matters post reads:
The point about starting from where people are, rather than where we would wish them to be, is one that the church (especially the CofE) needs to learn and learn and learn again. We also need to learn to avoid identifying Christianity too closely with particular cultural expressions of it.
The increasingly diverse society in my parish church in Bramhall has, thank God, most definitely “undermined” the notion of the vicar’s ministry as the (only) “established” ministry of the parish. Diverse societies – and all their attendant richnesses – have a way of pointing to the glories of orchestra as opposed to the decidedly more limited repertoire of the one man band – albeit that orchestra involves a heck of a lot more rehearsal, conducting, cooperation, coordination, determination, dialogue, “failure”, mistakes, rising to challenges and sheer hard practice. Not boring, says Bishop Nick: “It is demanding … and very exciting”.
Nick Baines uses words like fantastic, challenge, opportunity, lessons, rethink and learning pretty much every day. Such are the hope-filled and dynamic words of modern-day seers, and all of them necessary encouragements in the toolbag of a contemporary bishop in Bradford … or a bishop anywhere else for that matter. Jesus was no stranger to shaking the position of the “established” faith of his own nation; a vastly wider vision than position was what fuelled his mission, his vigour and his grace.
I’ve revelled in the last week or so in serious conversations with faithful Christian people, some of them priests, who are daily engaged in tentatively working out on the ground – their ground (I don’t believe it’s true that “people are the same everywhere”) how to be Church, how to speak of Jesus Christ, (and how to listen – for and with Christ – to accounts of others’ different faith experiences) in the context of a multi-cultural orchestra, the day having long passed when the vicar, his opinions, or his church-of-England were a one-man band on the block. Some have come to this work in relatively recent times. Others have been asking questions and learning valuable lessons for very much longer. I learned “multicultural” lessons I’ve never forgotten in the city of Bradford at the time of the Football Stadium fire in 1985. All will encounter both the need and the challenging work during the course of their ministries.
How are we, any of us, “to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”? Well, I think that more than a few of us would do well to follow Archbishop Rowan’s general encouragement to spend a bit more time on seeking after what “the Lord’s song” today might be, (so definitely no cheap, or trite, or personnel-managed, or “growth action planning” quick fix, then) and yes, most certainly, trying to avoid identifying Christianity too closely with particular cultural expressions of it.
A friend pointed me today to David Hare’s Guardian interview with +Rowan (8th July) – who said:
Self-absorption means thinking the most interesting thing in the world is myself. Self-scrutiny, on the other hand, is very deeply part of the Christian experience.” So is his religion a relief, a way of escaping self? “Yes. We are able to lay down the heavy burden of self-justification. Put it this way, if I’m not absolutely paralysed by the question, ‘Am I right? Am I safe?’ then there are more things I can ask of myself. I can afford to be wrong. In my middle 20s, I was an angst-ridden young man, with a lot of worries about whether I was doing enough suffering and whether I was compassionate enough. But the late, great Mother Mary Clare said to me, ‘You don’t have to suffer for the sins of the world, darling. It’s been done.'”
Self-absorbed one-man bands are ultimately unhealthy. Learning to sing the Lord’s song in a bigger orchestra is, as +Nick says, demanding and exciting. And God knows (I don’t quite know whether to say “fortunately” or “hopefully”) where an “undermined”, “exiled” Church will lead us. Maybe all the way to a new Jerusalem.
Canon Paul Oestreicher writing on Donald Reeves’ Fraction Meditation for the Church Times of 24 October 2008 asked:
Do we really mean it when, in the eucharist, we proclaim the mystery of faith? Mystery it will remain in this interim. How dare we then lay exclusive claim to the truth we perceive so dimly? No two of us see the same Jesus, face to face.
This, however, we do know. Jesus broke down all human barriers. He ate with the despised, saw goodness in Samaritan heretics, prayed for his executioners, gave women true dignity, welcomed children, and assured the poor that they would inherit the Kingdom.
This, too, we know. The whole human family, however brightly or dimly our inner light shines, is embraced by Christ, and so are all living things, and each one of us in our brokenness. This prayer at the breaking of the bread symbolically expresses what the Church is meant to be about.
It comes close to making clear the universality of the gospel and its social significance. And, in its unexpectedness, it is a prayer that those whom we have hitherto called outsiders may be glad to hear as a message of peace. The divine banquet may change its nature, and that may change us.