An Invented Conspiracy: A Response to Giles Fraser

One of the most interesting (and by that, I mean exasperating), things about the social media echo chamber, is watching people support an article or editorial, and seemingly ignore its potential flaws, simply because it supports their already established view. I do it myself, so I know how annoying it is.

I was reminded of this again last week, when Giles Fraser published his latest article on UnHeard. For your edification it is available here. The gist is that, in Canon Fraser’s opinion, the Powers That Be (mostly it seems Evangelicals) within the Church of England have for the last decade or so, been merrily asset stripping the parish system and investing its resources in parachurch organisations (Fraser’s words), that they can shape in their own image. Now you might wonder why they have chosen to do that. Fortunately, Fraser provides the answer:

For years, perhaps even for centuries, the wider evangelical movement has looked on the Church of England with a certain amount of envy as a very convenient perch from which to fish for souls. It would like its money, its embeddedness, its position in the heart of the nation, but it doesn’t like the very ancient church structures that locate a great deal of power at local level.

Now this would be a fascinating argument if it weren’t, (if you’ll excuse my French), utter bollocks. Here Fraser has constructed a history of the evangelical – specifically the Anglican evangelical – movement that bears no relation to its actual lived history. Now I give a basic breakdown of why this is here, but let me go into some more detail.

Fraser suggests that evangelicals have been anti the parish system for “centuries”. As someone who has recently been reading up on the Evangelical leaders of the eighteenth century this was a surprise. While granted characters like Wesley did operate outside of the parish structures, others like William Grimshaw of Haworth and John Newton, based out of Olney were devoted parish ministers. Charles Simeon the great white knight of early Anglican Evangelicalism spent his entire career as minister of Holy Trinity Cambridge. All of these figures recognised and appreciated the missional potential of the parish system. In fact, it seems unlikely that Simeon would have spent money and effort establishing a patronage society for evangelical ministers if he hated the parish system.

In fact for most of its existence the Evangelical groupings within the Church of England have thrived because of and within the parish system. Large independent parish churches like St Mary’s Islington and All Souls Langham Place in London, HTC and the Round Church in Cambridge, St Ebbes and St Aldates in Oxford, and St Nics Durham and Jesmond Parish Church were the bedrock of the Evangelical movement. Far from resenting the structures that located a great deal of power at local level, the Evangelicals thrived because of it, as it allowed them to tell unsympathetic Bishops where to go. As NT Wright puts it when it came to Bishops in the 60’s and 70’s, “most evangelical Anglicans didn’t worry much about Bishops. They were out there somewhere but they didn’t interfere in parishes.” One of the central planks of the 1967 Keele Congress was encouraging Anglican evangelicals to come out of the “parish ghetto” and engage more with wider church structures.

So it seems from even a cursoury look at Church history, that far from disliking the power of the parish, Evangelicals loved it. In fact without the independence of parish ministry the Church of England might not even have an Evangelical party. So if Fraser’s point (which is really the very foundation of his argument) is wrong, what are we left with? We find ourselves left with the curious idea that at some point in the late 90’s/early 2000’s Evangelical leaders in the Church of England – many of who’s faith and ministry would have been nurtured in strong parishes – suddenly turned around and said “the parish system sucks. Let’s replace it.” I think we can all agree that this is unlikely.

This is not the only problem with Fraser’s article. He conflates Church planting with Fresh Expressions, while in fact many Fresh Expressions are parish based. He also seemingly ignores that Fresh Expressions was one of Archbishop Rowan William’s babies and Rowan can hardly be described as an Evangelical. In fact the whole column reads rather like Fraser started with a conclusion and then constructed an argument to back it up.

I suspect – and perhaps I’m being uncharitable – this might be because Canon Fraser isn’t actually that interested in having discussions about the future of the parish system and where we go from here. At best he’s interested in lobbing grenades into the air and stimulating explosive discussions. At worst he’s simply interested in staking ground and laying claim, dividing the church even further into, in his view ‘proper’ Anglicans who agree with him and those who don’t, who aren’t really one of us. And its interesting that once again the convenient strawman is built in the shape of the Evangelicals.

In many ways I actually agree with Canon Fraser and share his concerns about the future of the parish system. I don’t agree with a church planting concept that has no respect for those already at work in that field or transplants a church franchise into an area with no understanding of its history. But simply blaming it on the opposite churchmanship to you is too easy. We need to have honest debates about where the Church is going in the new few decades. But they have to be debates based on facts and on our churches actual lived history, not on the history that Fraser has invented in order to fit his own narratives. All this type of article does is further entrench the divides in our church and that stops us from moving forward. More importantly it distracts us from our real objective. Helping people learn more about Jesus Christ and the joy of a relationship with him.


Living in Harmony

The Church of England has always had factions, going all the way back to Whitby and the split between the Roman and Ioana backed churches. With an organisation as large as the CofE and with so many diverse theological viewpoints, it would be ridiculous to assume that factions and groupings wouldn’t come into existence. But by and large we all rub alongside each other pretty well. Some people prefer to stay in their corner, and theological developments such as the ordination of women have led to pretty major arguments but still. The Church of England is a big tent, everyone is welcome, and we all recognise that everyone is seeking to follow God faithfully.

Except recently it seems.

Now I accept that the Corona virus pandemic has got us all a little on edge, especially with regards to the suspension of public worship. But it does seem that this has lead to it being open season on Evangelicals – or at least those on the less sacramental side of things.  We’ve seen everything from accusations that we don’t care about sacred space and communion, to comments about the phrase “the Church is the people not the buildings” from the likes of Angela Tilby. (who at one point actually tweeted that “the liberal-evangelical CofE doesn’t actually believe in God” then refused to understand why people got upset, passing it off as mere criticism and debate). Now with the decision of Sheffield Cathedral to restructure its Cathedral Choir, and broaden its musical repertoire we have the suggestion that people will need to rise up and save our Anglican heritage from leaders who don’t care about the church their leading (as if Tallis is proper Church music and Matt Redman isn’t), and Giles Fraser suggesting that Evangelicals don’t see high culture such as choral music as a way of connecting with God but simply view it as “entertainment.”

Frankly, it’s both exhausting and insulting.

I would be one of the first to say that I have serious problems with how some of the CofE leadership has operated during this crisis, and with some forms of Evangelical worship, (being essentially a 1960’s Prayer Book and North Sider who happens to have been born in the 90s). But I am still proudly both an Anglican and an Evangelical, someone who in line with the late J.I Packer believes that in being an Anglican I “am where I should be and many others should be too.” I intend – God willing – to be ordained into the Church of England. So to spend months listening and reading as those with microphones both big and small, imply in a nudge nudge wink wink sort of way that Evangelicals aren’t really Anglicans simply because we favour guitars over organs, or view the Church first and foremost as a collection of people and not as a building (I say, desperate to get back to my church building), is just hurtful.

The also regularly seen suggestion that Evangelicals are involved in some sort of plan to take over the CofE is also ridiculous, and smacks of the very insults that used to be thrown at Anglo-Catholics back in the day. One wonders why it is so much  easier for some people to believe that Evangelicals are engaged in some sort of conspiracy to dismantle the Church, rather than believe that we are fellow Christians who simply have a different idea about how Church should be run.

Of course I have seen some Anglo-Catholics end up at the pointy end of some serious criticism, mostly centred around accusations that they “worship buildings” or a placing corporate worship above keeping people safe. But the majority of the negative comments I have seen have been directed at Evangelicals, or at least those of a less sacremental mindset.

Things are going to be hard for the Church over the next few months and indeed years, as we begin to restart public worship and explore the things that we have learnt over the last few months. The only way we’ll be able to safely navigate the road ahead is by working together. And that means we have to be supportive of one another, rather than critical, accusatory, and insulting. That is not what Church should be like. Frankly its not what Christians should be like either.

Whither be the Prophets?

The BCP morning prayer service, unlike its Common Worship counterpart, begins with a series of scriptural verses, relating to the corrupt nature of man’s soul and then a confession and absolution. The Reformers who put together the BCP were in doubt concerning the fallenness of man, and the need to put oneself right before God.

So why am I mentioning this?

There have been a few articles particularly in the Spectator over the last few days, questioning the Church of England’s actions during the pandemic. While the decisions to close Churches – which to be fair was required according to government guidelines – has been the main focus, there have also been some comments, both in print and online, suggesting the CofE has failed by failing to say something to a world suddenly confronted with its own mortality.

However, this failure does not surprise me in the least. It is but a symptom of a wider doctrinal issue, namely that while the CofE may, nominally still subscribe to doctrines relating to sin, death, judgement, and hell, it no longer knows how to properly articulate them. This is not to suggest that some individual churches, don’t talk about these things, because I’m sure they do, but by and large it is no longer on the official radar.

As I may have mentioned before, the central preoccupation of the CofE in recent years has been Church growth. Therefore, churches have sort to become more ‘seeker friendly’, more accessible to those who have no or limited experience of Church. This being the case it is no surprise that tricky and uncomfortable topics like sin and judgement get jettisoned. Far easier to talk about how much God loves you and how much this love should inspire you to do nice things for others.

When we do talk about sin, it is either in very general terms, – sins are things that make God unhappy – which allows people to focus on big issues like war rather than themselves, or in specific but large scale terms, – refusing to care for the environment is a sin. This way people can think “well I now only eat meat once a week and carry reusable bags, so I’m okay.”  However, the church no longer seems to address the fallen sinful nature of individual people. For example, during the aftermath of the Brexit referendum we have heard a lot about the dangers of Brexit and how racism is bad, but little about how hating our neighbour, either by telling foreigners to go home, or implying that all Brexit voters are racist, is also a sin. Perhaps the reason Common Worship morning prayer does not have a confession and absolution is because the CofE no longer thinks that people need to put themselves right before God every day? Or thinks that people will do so automatically without having to be told.

I agree that this Coronatide would have been a perfect time for the Church to prophetically engage with issues of mortality and death, at a time when people are thinking about these things more and more. But it would require the Church to have a good way of articulating these ideas publicly, and having left them to wilt on the side-lines for so long, I’m not sure it knows what that would look like.

The High and Dry Party: Time for a Comeback?


Nowadays when people hear the words High Church in an Anglican context, I imagine that they immediately think of incense, bells and vestments, or the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church. But while this is the modern meaning and has been since the late 19th century it has not always been the case.

Before Newman and Pusey, the ‘High and Dry’ party, were those Churchman who emphasised a strong link between Church and State, were strongly monarchist and adhered to the 1662 BCP. Good fictional examples, of this type of Churchman would include most of the clergy present in Austen, and Archdeacon Grantly from the Barchester Chronicles, as depicted above by Nigel Hawthorne. Some members of the High Church party were also followers of Archbishop Laud and disciples of the Caroline Divines. The founders of the Oxford movement were all High Churchmen and it is through them that the term High Church came to be associated with ritualism.

But is the time ripe for a new, more traditional High Church party?

Now I’m not suggesting a return to massive vicarages, and the right to own multiple livings, and pay a curate to do all the work.  But there is plenty of evidence that one of the most rapidly growing church services, in terms of attendance, is choral evensong, while cathedrals and other large churches are also seeing an uptick in visits by those in the 25 – 30 age bracket.  I do wonder therefore if there is room for a Church grouping that recognises the value of liturgy and sacrament, that is grounded in something traditional and timeless, but is not so ritualistic – and at times confusing and off putting – as Anglo-Catholic worship.

In addition in an age where people are looking for something more grounded, something that speaks of a world less transitory and temporary, I think there may well be room for a Church that grounds itself in not only being the Church of God, but the genius loci of the country of which it is a part. That is one of Anglicanism and the Church of England’s enduring positives, that it is grounded in the country it is in.  We see this in how saints have now become folk figures and how the Church is sometimes actively involved in folk events. But we also see it in how the Church is seen as being a key player at times of national solemnity, like Remembrance. The Church can speak for and act for the nation then, because it speaks of the country that should exist and could exist if we all tried a little harder.

This is where I think a High Church party could come in. A Churchmanship that is grounded in liturgy, and history and ceremony, but also seeks to place itself at the heart of national life, that embraces all that is meant by the idea of a ‘Established Church’. It might not be a Church that Archdeacon Grantly would approve of, but it certainly bears some consideration.


The Type of Church I Want.

It has been an interesting time to be a member of the Church of England. The actions of some members of the senior leadership (not all, I know many Bishops are incredibly hard working) has certainly left a lot to be desired – the decision to go beyond the government regulations for places of worship for example. Similarly, while I am deeply saddened and appalled that several Bishops have received death threats over their statements regarding Dominic Cummings, it is certainly interesting to note what prompts a public outcry from the bench and what does not.

This situation and other recent conversations have led me to think about what type of Church I want, more specifically what type of Church I want the Church of England to be.  To be specific I want a church that doesn’t:

  • Seek to be popular, ‘relevant’ or politically acceptable
  • Put a massive amount of stock in numbers

But instead

  • Preaches Jesus Christ and him Crucified and seeks to reach out to a word lost and hurting.

This is not to say that there are not plenty of Churches and faithful Christians out there doing precisely that, because there are. But the Church as a whole seems somewhere along the line to have decided that the way to arrest the drop in numbers is to make itself as culturally relevant, and accessible (or if you prefer seeker friendly) as possible, as if, if the Church stops looking like the Church (and stops saying things that make people uncomfortable) then people will start coming back. The logic seems to be that if the coffee and music are great and Church feels like a place you can hang out with friends, then maybe people will start paying attention to the God bit.

Obviously, the Church should always seek to operate and put forward the base principals of the Gospel in a way that is culturally appropriate. Missionary’s from St Paul onwards will tell you that. What works in Birmingham will not obviously work in Burma and what works in Accrington will not necessarily work in Ankara. But that doesn’t mean throwing out everything that makes the Church recognisable church, or even dumbing down its teachings in an effort not to scare people off.

Today the Church remembers St Augustine of Canterbury, who helped found the Church of England. But he didn’t do it by throwing everything he knew and had learnt out of the window and setting up a pottage making Church for the men of Kent to attend. Instead he met with them where they were and preached to them the Gospel as he had received it. Then he left it up to the Spirit to do the rest of the work.

You see it seems to me that the Church has forgotten in whose strength and power we make disciples. It is not our job alone but done through the Spirit. Yet we seem to have convinced ourselves that the aforementioned music and coffee and welcoming atmosphere will be enough to get people to listen. But let’s be honest. You can get much better coffee and listen to much better music almost anywhere else, and there are far better places to hang out with friends. If people come to Church, it is because they are seeking answers to puzzles the world cannot solve. They are seeking the truth that can only be found in Jesus. And our job is to present them with those answers and that truth. To bring them to Christ in the power of the Spirit via the Cross.

Of course, the Church should seek to be as welcoming as possible, and of course we should speak out on the issues of the day. But we should also remember that our task is not to be a Social club nor is to be a religious themed political pressure group. Our one and only task is to preach the Gospel of Christ in season and out of season. That is the type of Church I want to belong to.

By the Rivers of Babylon: A Church in Exile

The purpose of this blog is to respond to points raised in @eccenunc blog available here: which has been doing the rounds today. It is a well written piece that many have found helpful and has in fact chimed with many things I’ve been thinking. But it has also raised some questions.

As the title of this blog suggests and has been explained by many people over recent weeks, we are currently a Church in exile, cut off from our traditional lodestones. This is prompting many questions and conversations about what we understand by Church and what is vital. I offer this not as a rebuttal of eccenunc’s piece (though we do come from different churchmanship’s) but rather as a count point and conversation starter. As I have been reminded several times recently, iron sharpens iron, and solid theological debate has biblical precedent. My aim is not to cause offense, and if I have misunderstood some points, I hope that a clarification will be forthcoming.

So, to start, I have no problem with people being in mourning over our inability to access Church buildings. I have myself had a great deal of trouble coping with online worship and virtual church. I need to be in a place that has been hallowed by generations of prayer and worship. And I believe that the church is at its best when we can gather as a corporate body. But I take issue with the statement that:

Frankly, if the Church is not gathering as the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ each week, we are not the Church.

Because I feel that that creates a specific and limited definition of Church (which I am sure was not eccenunc’s intention). The Church is more than just a physical body (though its incarnational nature is important). It is also a metaphysical one, that stretches back and forth across the world and throughout history, comprised of all those who are joined with the body of Christ.

If we argue that we are only the Church if we are meeting together to partake in the sacrament, not only are we crafting a new definition that would seem to run counter to 2000+ years of ecclesiology, but we can also be seen as dechurching those who for reasons of health, age or work cannot make it to church or regularly partake in Communion. Someone who works on Sundays and listens to pre-recorded sermons, attends a fellowship group, and prays the daily office is still very much part of the Church. Jesus’ instruction was that where two or three are gathered together he would be with them, not where two or three are gathered together and consume bread and wine.

It is vital that we gather together to worship together and take Communion. But the Church is still the Church even when those things cannot happen because the Church is the body of believers joined together by faith in Christ. Our identity is not grounded in the physical act, but in our relationship with Jesus.

Secondly may be a situation where my Evangelicalism buts up against eccenunc’s Anglo-Catholicism. Placing such an emphasis on the importance of the Eucharist and being able to partake in the Eucharist during this time, could (though again I am sure not the intention of the blog) lead to a situation where to somebody exploring faith, believes the Eucharist to be something necessary to partaken in in order to recieve salvation. Receiving the Eucharist regularly when possible is vital for a healthy spiritual life, and it should be treated with respect, but it is not a weekly top up of Jesus, and it is not necessary for salvation  As Ephesians reminds us, it is by grace we have been saved, through faith. If someone was washed up on a desert island with nothing but a Bible, read it and came to faith through it, then died never having partaken in the Eucharist would we say they were not saved? No. Because faith is the key.

I fully sympathise with those who are missing and mourning the Eucharist. I am too. And I do not wish to belittle their grief. But it is also important to remember that there are many Christians across the world for whom the Eucharist is a rarity, and perhaps we can use this time to sit in solidarity with them.

As I said at the beginning, we are a Church in exile. There will be many discussion over the coming months as to what the Church will look like post Corona. And I again fully sympathise with those who long to be worshiping as a corporate body and partaking in the Sacraments. I want it too. But we need to remember that just as the people of Israel did not cease being God’s people while in exile in Babylon, we do not cease to be Church even though we cannot meet together. The Church is the family of believers and those joined in Christ, of which the corporate body is just one manifestation.

(And once again if I have got the wrong end of the stick at any point please let me know.)

On Being an Anglican – Volume II

Geoffrey FisherCyril Garbett

Being in lockdown due to Coronavirus can do strange things to a man. In my case it led me to think that perhaps I need to re-evaluate my opinion of the 99th Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher.

As some of you may remember last year, I wrote a handful of blog posts on Churchmanship and the issue of labels. In particular I wrote one on what it means to be an Anglican:, hence the Volume II in the title here. Now I haven’t achieved any great insights into what the CofE should or should not be doing, to emphasise its Anglican credentials or even what that would look like, as like many I think the question of what does Anglican mean is a tad complex. Like the Church of England itself it means different things to different people.

However, I have spent more time, over the last year contemplating the question I posed at the end of last blog on this subject. Having spent more time reading, thinking, and crucially spending time with a prayer triplet, with a person who is distinctly more high church than me, and someone else who is distinctly more low church, the conclusion I have reached is that I am very happy to simply label myself as simply an Anglican. I’m not willing to reject the label Evangelical entirely (because in many ways I think to be an Anglican is to be at least partially Evangelical), so I might also use the phrase High Church Evangelical, but in the main Anglican is what works.

So, what does that look like in practice? For me it is a ecclesiology and worship style that focuses on good liturgy, strong preaching, decent teaching, and a recognition of the traditions of the Church, as well as its wider place in society, as the Established Church.  I’m alright with celebrating festivals and will happily wear clerical gear if that’s what helps people connect with God. I can handle a certain amount of ceremony but am not completely Anglo-Catholic. Theologically my foundations are the Bible, the BCP and the Thirty-Nine Articles. Everything else is built on and observed through the lens of those things. I’m not too high, not to low. For me Anglicanism is pretty much the Goldilocks of ecclesiology’s.

Now what you may be asking yourself, does this have to do with Geoffrey Fisher, and why is there pictures of him and Cyril Garbett, one-time Archbishop of York at the top of this blog?

Before now I’ve never had much time for Fisher. Coming between the two luminaries that are William Temple and Michael Ramsey, Fisher, a former headmaster of Repton, who spent most of his Archiepiscopate reviewing canon law – when he wasn’t making odd remarks about nuclear armageddon – was never going to rank very highly. But I came to the sudden realisation one day that Fisher, along with his contemporary Garbett, represented just the sort of Church I’m talking about. One that wasn’t too high or too low. That recognised and valued the traditions of the Church of England, and the wider church, and also recognised the vital place the Church has to play in the life of the nation. We may have disagreed on many things, but I suspect Fisher and I may have agreed on more than I realised.

I realise that in many ways the Church of England is now a place that is largely divided between Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics and their various subsidiaries, and that there isn’t much place for a Central, or Anglican churchmanship any more (although Central does appear as an option on curacy forms). I’m also aware I may be setting out to plough a very lonely churchmanship furrow. But that’s okay. It works for me, and that’s really all that matters.

The Spirit and Purpose of the Church of England

This blog is an attempt to bring together a number of different thought strands, so apologies in advance for its bitty nature.

I found this quote from the Wind in the Willows on my twitter feed the other day:

As he hurried along, eagerly anticipating the moment when he would be at home again among the things he knew and liked, the Mole saw clearly that he was an animal of tilled field and hedgerow, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings, the cultivated garden plot.  For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict, that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places where his lines were laid, and which held adventure enough, in their own way, to last a lifetime.

The reason this first jumped out at me, was because – as I read it for the third or fourth time – I realised this is exactly how I feel about my home, about England – this blessed plot  as Shakespeare called it. It doesn’t so much belong to me, seeing as I’m not a landowner, but I belong to it. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else or wanting to live anywhere else. And not for me the joys of city life. Give the me the rolling Sussex downs, or the glorious Cotswolds hills any day. Just as Mole is a creature of the field and hedgerow, so am I a creature of England.

But the second reason this jumped out at me – and the reason behind this blog’s title – is because of the caption this quote had been tweeted under. “Mole describes the Spirit of Anglicanism.” Now that seems to be the perfect caption because its right. Just as I belong to England so to does the Church of England. I believe that the Church of England is not just called to be the state church, but to be the Church that belongs to and embodies and seeks to preserve and protect the spirit and soul of this country. That is part of what being the established church means. And I also believe this is true of other Anglican churches across the world, whether they are established or not.

There is something about the CofE and Christianity that is deeply intertwined into the national psyche (as befits an organisation that has been around since before there was an England, or a Britain or a UK). It is why a clergyman is a vital character in novels from so varied a set of author as Austen, Trollope and Christie, and why despite living in a supposedly secular age shows like Rev and Grantchester are still popular (though the latter may have to do with James Norton).  It is why so many people still insist on baptisms and church funerals, despite having no other link with organised religion. Because deep down they know that what it represents matters.  Something bigger and older than their universe, and yet at the same time familiar and homely. And of course, the physical organisation makes mistakes, super great massive ones. But that doesn’t mean that the spirit, the intention is any less noble.

This is why I’m annoyed that so much of the Church of England’s focus at the moment is on the urban areas and on planting churches that are ‘seeker friendly’ and will bring people to faith (but seem to me to have little idea of how to help that faith grow over time). This seems to be at the expense of the rural areas, which seem to now serve no purpose but to warehouse retirees and traditionalists, who are tasked with overseeing dying congregations.  Of course, urban areas are important, and of course the aim of the Church is to bring people to faith. But the call of the Church of England is also to live alongside people, where they are, meeting them in their needs, and living life according to their rhythms, patterns and seasons, as well as the Churches own. This is not to say that many talented and hardworking clergy aren’t doing that. But so long as the central organisation seems to see no point in their work, it will continue to be an uphill struggle. And we are missing out on a great mission field as a result. People don’t always want good music and great coffee. Sometimes they simply want a church that is there, in the highs and the lows of life. A church that seeks to embody the spirit of the country in which it exists.

The Church of England is a wonderfully accurate name. It is the Church that belongs to and is a part of England. Not just the physical country but the wider archetypal version that sits behind that. It belongs to the England that is and was and the England that is in a perfect world meant to be. And I hope there is a future in that. But only if the CofE stops acting like just another denomination, and embraces its purpose as the church that belongs to this land, as Mole belongs to the tilled field and the hedgerow

Sermon – 15/09/2019

This sermon was preached at the 6:30 service at Redland Parish Church on the 15th of September 2019. The text was Job 39. 

Before I start, I want everyone to take a moment. Do you know what your name means? Now turn to the person next to you or behind you and talk about what your name means, if it means anything at all.

Most of you won’t be aware that one of my middle names is Steuart, which derives from the role of a Steward, a person who had the responsibility of looking after the property of a more senior figure, usually a lord or monarch. The steward would represent their master when they were away and would govern in their name.

The reason for this little etymological diversion? We are all called to be stewards of God’s creation, which, affects our attitude towards creation care.

This chapter of Job and the previous one that Clare spoke on last week are two parts of the same long conversation. Prior to this, Job has been calling out God for the Lords actions in the earlier part of the book. Here in a section appropriately entitled “The Lord Answers Job” the Lord issues his response. In chapter 38 God challenges Job over his control of the natural world asking him, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

In chapter 39 God turns his attention towards living creatures, asking “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?” and Do you give the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane?” Now you might be asking what is the point that God is trying to make? Well the answer is fairly simple. He is reminding Job and by extension us, that it is God who made the heavens, the earth and all that live on it, and he maintains sovereignty over it, not humanity.

Way back in Genesis chapter two we are told how “the Lord God took the man (Adam) and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it.” The phrase keep it, is very important. Adam has been put in charge of what God has made, but has not, been given the right to treat it as he wishes. He has been tasked with keeping it on God’s behalf. As John Stott puts it in his book The Radical Disciple, “the earth belongs to God by creation and to us by delegation. This does not mean that he has handed it over in such a way as to give up his rights to it, but rather he has given us the responsibility to preserve and develop the earth on his behalf.”

If you were asked to housesit for someone and look after their garden, you would do your best to care for it and return it to them in the same state that they left it. You wouldn’t fill their pond with takeaway containers and cover their lawn with crisp packets because that would not be respectful either to the person or to their home and property. That is the equivalent of our situation with God’s creation. He has asked us to care for it on his behalf. He has not asked us to treat disrespectfully. Just as you would treat someone’s house that you were looking after with respect, (even if they did tell you to make yourself at home),  so we must not treat the earth as if we made it and can do with it what we like. We must respect God’s ownership of it.

A good steward will know plenty about his masters business, his estates and its operation. But he will also remember that it is not his estate to do with as he pleases but his masters to tend and care for. I think that is what is behind some of God’s comments in this chapter of Job.

Job we know from the beginning of the book had a lot of livestock. We are told he possessed, “seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys.” From this we can infer that Job probably knew something about livestock and animal husbandry. So why the question at the beginning of chapter 39 about the mountain goats and the deer? I believe he is trying to get Job to understand that no matter how much he thinks he knows about the world, he does not know it as well as God.

The same is true of us and I think we perhaps have failed to remember that. This passage along with Psalm 104 that Steven preached on last Sunday morning, remind us that God made everything, and however much humanity may uncover about the natural world, however much we may explore it, and uncover its secrets, we will never know as much as the Creator. We will never know how to treat it as well as he would treat it, and we will never understand it as deeply or intimately as he does, so the best we can do is respect it.. Any love we have for this planet is just a fraction of the love that God feels for it, and however disappointed we are about its current state is only a fraction of God’s sorrow at its present condition.

The other thing to remember about a Steward is that they only have authority for as long as the master is away. The authority is delegated, but the delegation is not permanent. In Return of the King by J.R.R Tolkien, Denethor the hereditary Steward of Gondor has forgotten that the role of the Steward is to rule until the King returns. He has come to view himself as the true ruler, forgetting that he is merely the place holder.

Humanity is in many ways guilty of the same thing. We have forgotten that we hold this planet in trust for our Lord and master and should be preparing for the day when he will return to take control of it again. Instead we have used it as we see fit, without remembering that it belongs to someone else. We have acted as though we are the king not as the steward that we are.

Before I move on to how stewardship should affect our attitude towards creation care, I want to dig into the animal imagery in this passage a little more. I said before that I believe God is trying to get Job to understand that as much as he thinks he knows about the world, God knows more. But I think there is something more to it.  When God talks about the mountain goats giving birth, or how the wild ass scorns the city, he is reminding Job and us that the animals he has created our beings in their own right.

As John Goldingay puts it in his commentary on Job, humans are “not the centre of the animate world. It exists in its own right.” God may have given humanity “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” But as with any property left to a steward, having control over it means it must be treated as the master would himself treat it. God still loves these animals that has made, and watches over them, even if like the ostrich their actions seem not to make sense. We too must treat the creatures that we share our planet with, with love and respect.

So how does this idea of stewardship, caring for God’s creation on his behalf, have a bearing on creation care?

On the one hand it would seem very simple. We must seek to treat the environment and other living things with the respect that God would treat them with. We must seek to ensure that we each live within our means and not take more from the earth than we need. We should seek to buy sustainably, avoid plastic, switch to sustainable fuels, perhaps think about meat free days. This may seem very simple, but, as the Tesco advert goes, “Every little helps.”

But it is more than that. The Church is God’s representative to the world and our message is not just about the coming kingdom of God but about how we should all be living now. That includes trying to encourage others to treat the planet in an appropriate manner, both via our words and our deeds. However, we should be sure not to act like Job’s friends do, and make others feel bad or shame them when they do not act in what we deem to be environmentally friendly way. It might not always be easy or practical (or healthy) for people to shift to a completely environmentally friendly lifestyle and we must encourage people to do the best they can, rather than chastise them for not doing as well as we think they should. Once again, every little helps.

As I have mentioned several times, the main thing to remember about a steward is that their rule is delegated, until such time as the master returns again. We know that one day, at a time of his choosing, God will come again, to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. And while the story that begins in a garden, may end in the new Jerusalem, at the centre of that new city will stand the tree of life, next to the river of the water of life. A garden at the heart of the city of God. God cares for the world he has made, just as much as he cares for the people he has made and he is not and will not be pleased if  we continue down this path and one day find that we have “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

As stewards of God’s creation, we must seek to care for that which he has put under our control, so that when he comes again we can return it to him in good order, having served him well. Creation is a great gift that he been left under our control. We must not squander or abuse it.




Should the Church Get Involved in Politics?

There are two persistent myths involving organised faith and the rest of the secular world. One is that science and faith are two implacable enemies, a sort of metaphysical Tom and Jerry, one always trying to one up the other. This of course ignores the countless scientists down the ages and alive today, who are committed people of faith, and the many for whom their faith drives their scientific explorations. The second and perhaps more frustrating myth is that the Church (as in the church universal) should have nothing to do with politics.

The request by certain MPs that the Archbishop of Canterbury should chair a citizen’s forum on Brexit has been met with many anguished cries demanding that the Archbishop keep his nose out of politics (and presumably deep in a biblical commentary). The Humanists Society have as ever got het up, and once again it seems that people don’t believe that religion or the Church should have anything to do with what many people now view as the secular world of politics.

I find this view interesting because it seems to emerge from a distorted view both of what Christianity is about, and about what religious people involved in politics would do, (perhaps stemming from watching the antics of American evangelicals). Yet religious people and the church have a long history of political involvement, usually resulting in a measurable good. For example, here’s a list of religious people and organisations who have been involved in politics. Was/Is it acceptable that:

William Wilberforce and John Newton worked to abolish slavery? Y/N

Lord Shaftsbury introduced child labour laws? Y/N

Dietrich Bonhoffer and The German Confessing Churches stood up to Hitler? Y/N

Archbishop William Temple provided intellectual ballast to the post war welfare state? Y/N

Martin Luther King led the civil rights moved? Y/N

Bishop David Shepherd stood up to Margaret Thatcher over her attitude towards Liverpool? Y/N

Archbishop Desmond Tutu opposed Apartheid? Y/S

The Church continues to battle food poverty by supporting and running food banks? Y/N

The wider point however is that those who believe that the Church should stay out of politics seem to have a very distorted view of what Christianity is about. They appear to view either as a Sunday social club, or as containing a set of rules for individual conduct, but which are irrelevant to the wider world. Jesus Christ meanwhile has become simply another philosopher with some nice sounding idea.

This is of course completely wrong. Christianity is perhaps the most political religion ever conceived and Jesus Christ a highly political figure.  I don’t mean political in the sense people understand that word to mean today, backroom deals, and highly polished but vague soundbites, I mean political in the sense of having to do with the governance of the world. Jesus came to tell us that God would soon be reclaiming ownership over the world, and would be instituting a new order, where the first would be last and the last would be first. According to Jesus, the second most important law, after Love God, was love your neighbour as yourself, treat others as you would yourself be treated. You don’t get more political than someone turning up to say there’s a new King in town.

If the church remains unpolitical, I believe it is not recognising its part in the world, which is to speak out about the present but still coming kingdom of God. But it must be made clear that this doesn’t mean that the Church is tied to any one political agenda. It is perfectly acceptable for a person to be an active committed Christian, and hold conservative political views, just as it is acceptable to be an active committed Christian and hold liberal political views. It might be hard to see how both things can be true, but the fact remains it is. And attempts to portray Jesus as some left-wing Che Guevara or a right wing, gun toting conservative are also inappropriate. Jesus was above and beyond such human definitions and was seeking to redefine what human existence was all about.

Should the Church be political? Yes of course it should, because when you are speaking on behalf of the King of the universe you cannot be anything but. Should the church get involved in the day to day minutiae of contemporary politics? That is a trickier question, but I personally would say yes to an extent, if only because it is hard to affect change if you are not in the room where it happens.

Politics is a messy business, but that does not mean the Church should avoid it. After all if the creator of the universe was willing to become a human being, to help fix our mess, we should be willing to do our part where we are. That will involve speaking truth to power. That will involve getting stuck into politics.