Good News, Local Church

Good news, local church. The Good News is, of course, the euangelion: the gospel. Today I want to draw upon my personal experience as an incumbent of a local church in West London, over the last four and a half years, and consider characteristics peculiar to all local churches but All Saints in particular, which make it God’s means for the transmission of His Gospel to wider culture.

As I step back to observe the wider culture the church occupies, difficult to do, because the last thing the fish notice is the water, we are poised between highly challenging political shifts. A march near here on Saturday of nearly 700,000 people protested against a 'bad deal' or 'no deal' Brexit. Our 2016 referendum, with its precarious maths, revealed us a divided people, but in withdrawing from European neighbours, do we indicate we are disenchanted with liberal values? Across the pond, Trump’s strangely dogmatic politics means we are not keen to become confused, either, with that kind of evangelical.

The UK’s constantly evolving and multi-cultural nation, I appreciate more on my move 4 yrs ago from rural Derbyshire, but the congregation of my local church is predominantly white and middle class, like so many, who are Anglican. I am sure I have more Remainers than Brexiteers because we do imbibe those London values we share, with other major cities, of tolerance, openness and diversity and Brexit will close down relationship.

All Saints was itself built to commemorate the UK’s only ever assassinated Prime Minster, who just so happened, also, to be an Anglican evangelical! Spencer Perceval was shot dead, in May 1812, on the steps of the House of Commons, having become unpopular with those who were becoming rich from the slave trade, as they exploited Britain’s odious colonial system. All Saints isthe Spencer Perceval memorial church’ with Green Plaque; historically-minded visitors and Perceval’s attache case, 1662 prayer book and even his death mask, bringing the drama of his life powerfully before us.

In his book The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith, (p.187), Walter Brueggemann reminds us ‘there is ... storied place… which has meaning because of the history lodged there ...[which] means that biblical faith cannot be presented simply as an historical movement indifferent to [it].’ 

And, influenced as I am, by the theology of Walter Wink, who advocates we ‘unmask the powers’ of the contexts we find ourselves in, we’re wise to give due regard to the spiritual formation of our forebears. Spencer Perceval’s story is apt for me, as I seek to discover how best the gospel can have traction in the local Anglican church.

Very Anglican Perceval spoke of no particular 'conversion moment[1]' according to doctoral research student Edward Hicks. He had a faith inherited from the generations preceding his and imbibed as a result of his education at Harrow Boys school and Trinity College, Cambridge. I believe that this kind of faith is very common to those who worship in Anglican churches.

Perceval did develop a more passionate faith under the counsel of one Revd William Lort Mansel, Master of Trinity, Cambridge, (later Bishop of Bristol), such that Perceval came to be compared to ‘a captain aboard an assailed ship, who rushes through blood and brains, examining his men in the Catechism and Thirty-nine Articles, and positively forbids every one to spunge or ram who has not taken the Sacrament according to the Church of England.'[2]

In case you wonder, still, why I recount my church’s history, it is because I really do believe it necessary to know the details of your local church’s story, if its people are to become disciples in God’s story. But I am also reassured by the fact that this contesting for the Good News, as if aboard an ‘assailed ship,’ is nothing very genuinely new. Vernon White in his reflection on Identity says it is, ‘a recurring vanity of every age to think it is suffering radically new experiences.’[3]

Some of our more evangelical brothers and sisters are, nevertheless, taking to the lifeboats, but contemporary Anglican theologians, such as Mark Pickles, believe it naive to ‘jump ship and start afresh somewhere else – just give it time, and the same problems will arise,’ he says.[4]

Mark rallies his readers to persevere, by considering the vehemently opposed Charles Simeon, founder of CMS, a contemporary of Spencer Perceval, who preached sermons encouraging a steadfastness to the gospel, despite a persistent hostile tide, which saw him frequently locked out of his own church by angry parishioners and losing his very voice for a decade.

That Spencer Perceval, an Anglican evangelical was shot dead, and the church where I am a minister was built upon that heritage, is not lost on me. It has not always been easy … but I dare to set my sights on what a former Bishop of Durham, William Van Mildert, said about Perceval, as he noted his ‘steadfast adherence to the Apostolical doctrine and discipline of our Ecclesiastical Establishment.’[5] This is an aim I share.

People at my local church also have a real interest in the formation of their faith, just like their forebear, Perceval. Our discipleship courses have doubled in size in twelve months. I am intent, with my community, to unpack that ‘apostolical doctrine’ and one tool, ACNA’s Catechism To be a Christian, which I have called The Creed Course, has been helpful for doing just that.

The local church exists for one urgent purpose: to guard and teach the Good News to its people so they might be made alive in Christ.  

Three factors help the local church with this: locatedness, longtermism and its demonstration of a cruciform sense of ‘life in all its fullness.’

I would like to share, first, something about its locatedness, on a particular street in a particular place. John Inge, Bishop of Worcester and Andrew Rumsey, translated in the last few days to Ramsbury, have done much to help evangelicals grapple with a theology of place as ‘the seat of relations’ with God.[6]

Second, that as a consequence of it being a historied place, the local church fosters in its servant-leaders a faithful long-termism for its vision: a very holy patience!

And third, by being a gathering place for community, the local church contributes something very distinctive to a narrative about human identity and our contemporary fixation with human flourishing.

Firstly, locatedness

Between 1805 and 1812, Perceval sought Anglican Reform & Renewal  through clerical residency. London’s ‘one vicar: one church policy’ would have met with his approval. Staring out of my vicarage, at the church building itself, I am impressed by its very concrete locatedness.

This appreciation of locatedness hasn’t come easily, because as a Gen X (born as I was between 1964 and 83), I have existed for much of my real Christian life (I am a cradle Anglican but was converted early millennium) in networks and movements, which do not have walls, never mind heating issues and a leaking roof.

Those who make up the majority of my congregation are, however, Boomers (born between 1946 to 63) and traditionalists (born between 1925 and 45), who value sacred space.

I have learned that our Anglican churches have appeal to both former generations: boomers and traditionalists, and Gen Y (born after me, 1981-96), who just so happen to be our growing demographic at All Saints. As digital immigrants, my generation has sometimes been too quick to see buildings as burdens rather than gifts, because we have had to adapt into a new digital world and have shaken off our concrete moorings too readily. It could be my generation which most obviously needs to develop a robust theology for a sense of place, and accommodate the generations above, who perhaps don’t want church to change too much, whilst listening to Gen Y, who yearn for embodied community and a sense of sacred place.

Sociologists tell us that Gen Y have a growing disquiet about the atomised and highly individualised life, lived in self-referencing cyber bubbles, with such a lack of walls their privacy is frequently compromised. Theirs is is an increasing yearning for 3 dimensional community and the wholistic life, with touch and sign and symbol. Words on a screen are so confusing, as we try to decipher each other’s emojis. The Barna group research tank, says of Gen Y ‘they don’t look for a church facility that caters to the whims of pop culture. They want a community that calls them to deeper meaning.'[7]  So we shouldn’t be surprised to see something of a resurgence in the appeal of the traditional space that is your average Anglican church. Much of our postmodern angst is generated by the loss of home and a rhythm to life, marked by rest. The local Anglican church can be counter-cultural, then, as it fulfils this vital need.

The Barna group claim that Gen Y want 'to be able to answer the questions "Where am I? and What's expected of me? by looking for cues in their surroundings...they want a church to be open and honest about what it is and about what it is trying to accomplish…[and become] connected to the church through the ages, (the "communion of saints" in the Creed)...’[8]

So inside that space, which has been set aside for such a vital purpose, the church is to disciple, because it must, to fulfil the Great Commission. It is not to apologise for its primary purpose and calling. By doing so, it satisfies this modern craving for authenticity. If I use the building analogously, for a moment – it has walls which do not apologise for the fact they define space.

‘The church’, says Richard Hooker, ‘is a visible society… the place and limits whereof are certain.’[9]  We are not to apologise for teaching and preaching truths about a faith we have received, and which has doctrinal boundaries. We are to explore a God who really has communicated himself, in words and time and space. There is a received body of knowledge; a collection of eye witness accounts. We really are in receipt of revelation and those written words point to the living Word, even Jesus Christ himself. We are not just fixed words and fixed buildings. Or to put it another way, we are more than fixed words and buildings but we are certainly not less, with a right theology of specificity and place.

So locatedness/concreteness – particularity – God has revealed himself in the flesh of Jesus Christ and in the body which is the local church and we can come to know Him as we gather as embodied human beings, in a real space, where the Christian faith is ‘uniquely revealed in the Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds,’[10] so we might discern together what is true and what is not, about God, amidst a culture shot through with fake news.

In his book, A Strategy that changes the Denomination, John Richardson describes how ‘Conversion requires a theology, both from the one proclaiming the message and from the one receiving it. It is not a very complicated theology, but it is nevertheless specific. Thus in Acts 2, we read the first ever  evangelistic talk, and it concludes with this appeal from the Peter: ‘Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:36-38).[11]

The Local Church is to teach this simple and specific message and if Gen Y, as we are told, hunger for authenticity, we proclaim Christ; we seek conversion; we engage in His mission to make more disciples for Himself, because these are the reasons we exist. The local church is ‘the primary vehicle facilitating God’s mission… God’s ‘mission agent’ to the world. ’[12]

So the Good News is facilitated by the local church’s specificity. Its locatedness can be a gift facilitating encounter with God. Paul Avis underlines this: ‘It is right and proper to love our church, and we should certainly do so, provided we love the mystical Body of Christ...’[13] Anglicans can too easily be Churchians rather than a gathered assembly of Christians, loving one another and loving God. Perceval’s story is such a gift, because through All Saint’s own history we hear how one man grew in his faith in Christ and sought the transformation of society.

We are wise to find the ways that our own local church’s story can point to the bigger story that is God’s. By taking local history captive for Christ, the local Anglican church, in all its concrete and historical locatedness shores up its existence as sacrament – pointing as it does, usually literally, with tower or spire ‘beyond the immediate to the ultimate,’[14] much as Matthias Grunewald’s celebrated “Crucifixion” has John the Baptist pointing to Christ. As Andrew Rumsay has also described, the local church has a ‘theological potency of both history and geography.’[15]

I pray before I preach every Sunday that the written word (in all its specificity) might transform us into the likeness of the Living Word, even Jesus Christ himself (a very Karl Barthian kind of prayer.) For this kind of transformation the local church needs a long term vision. Post-moderns can be suspicious of words. Who can blame them, so injured by words, as they are, by tweets and trolling? An authentic local church, then, must practice what it preaches in movements that make a difference to the surrounding community; its words must become real and living. The local church’s witness is also, after God, an incarnating kind of life.

As the local church does this, it is welcomed by the people on the receiving end of its gifts. It is prized for its contribution to the community’s ethical, social and moral capital: foodbanks, dementia cafes, after school clubs, debt relief. These are ends in themselves: “You will always have the poor with you,” Jesus says, but there is also an end-point further off, about which the local church must not give up and must think long-term. Tangible social reform and faith go hand in hand: you cannot have one without the other.

Long-term vision for community transformation appreciates nothing happens overnight but with much prayer, careful listening and, often, a string of failed attempts. Cultivating an attitude predisposed to long-termism is appropriate when the scriptures tell us that we won’t see the fruit of all our activity. The local church’s cure for souls as well as bodies requires an even greater patient commitment to the long-haul. As we tell our story and appreciate we are only a passing moment, we sure up this predisposition to the long-term and develop faithfulness.

Spencer Perceval lobbied alongside Wilberforce for the abolition of slavery and various other huge social improvements. Both were convinced social reformation could only follow from revived Christianity:

But fruitless will be all attempts to sustain, much more to revive, the fainting cause of morals unless you can in some degree restore the prevalence of Evangelical Christianity.[16]

Wilberforce was convinced that real transformation must be anchored in a living faith. He was aware of the deadening effect of nominal Christianity, saying:

Christianity seldom occupies 'the attention of the bulk of nominal  Christians… [apart from] those doctrines and principles indeed, which it contains in common with the law of the land... But whatever she contains peculiar to herself, and which should not be habitually brought into recollection by the incidents of every day, might be  expected to be less and less thought of, till at length... almost wholly forgotten' [17]

In our day, of course, certain tenets of the Christian faith are not just merely being forgotten but are felt to be completely incompatible with liberal, progressive British values. A 2016 Report by the Church Commissioners, proves the wider church is only too aware of this, by including a section called Adverse reputational impact – as a result of debates in the Church of England around contentious and divisive issues. Traditional Christian teaching about such things as the sanctity of life, and holy matrimony being the best state for sexual expression, are not just forgotten but are an affront to the modern mindset.

When All Saints compensates for the limitations of the welfare state, with our foodbank donations and homeless night-shelter and by becoming a venue serving breakfast (All Saints’ hope for 2019), it will find that, though our locus in in Christ, we shall we translating the propositions of the faith into real action. For these concrete endeavours the wider culture grants us its approval.

In John Steven’s short book, Knowing our Times, he describes the long-termism that is, again, attitudinally necessary, then. Where Wilberforce believed revival was needed, Stevens urges us to recognise:

we are in a missionary situation and not revival context. There of  course remain existential and psychological points of contact for the gospel, and we need to both deconstruct the false world-views that people hold and proclaim the truth of the biblical message, but this will be a long-term task [my italics] that requires careful contextualisation.[18]

At All Saints, though the Night-shelter is founded on clear Christian principles, and prayer begins every evening of our stretch, we actively encourage non-Christians to serve alongside us so that through such ventures God might indeed give us a ‘point of contact’ for his gospel. None of this is going to happen in an instant and relationships are for the long-term. This leads to my third point – that the local church can mediate the Good News that is the Gospel through these relationships which are at the heart of the local church community. It is these I wish to consider next.

When people, without Christian faith, happen to serve in ministries at their local church, because the ethic which underpins such initiatives chimes with that of the wider culture, how else might the local church convey God’s truth about what it means to be human and experience human relatedness? How might the local church challenge preconceived, culturally-shaped notions about what it means to truly flourish?

The recent trajectory in our culture’s recent history is towards the self’s bid for sovereignty [in claiming] ‘the ultimate freedom to define itself.’[19] If for a while, we seemed satisfied with what Leotard describes as our existence ’in a fabric of relations... more complex and mobile than ever,’[20] it would seem we’re beginning to find this dislocation from place and consistent community exhausting. Social media and digital static disguises who our neighbours truly are.

The government has recently appointed its first minister for Loneliness, Tracy Crouch, who said she would have preferred the title Minister for Happiness.[21] We are recognising that individualism and fluidity fail to deliver. There’s a plasticity to spirituality, community, sexuality, gender which is surely crying out for an anchor. And has the evangelical project helped? Alastair Roberts is critical of Evangelicalism’s own tendency toward individualism; how it has detached itself from the ‘concrete forms of the Church as the body of Christ [as the place of] our outliving of Christian existence...’ [22]

I have decided, then, I am Anglican first (and thereafter, Evangelical). (With time I would make my case that to be Anglican is to be Evangelical!)

But with no small degree of irony, as we label and construct ourselves are we convinced this will aid our flourishing? In Eugene Peterson’s translation of Jeremiah, chapter 17, verses 9 to 10 we read: ‘The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out. But I, God, search the heart and examine the mind. I get to the heart of the human. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are... (The Message).’

At the heart of the Parochial system of the Church of England, as J C Ryle explains, is the premise that ‘no one should be able to say, ‘I am no man’s parishioner. I am never visited or spoke to: no one cares [for me].’[23]

What we offer, then, as local churches, is a cruciform hospitality which treats people as they really are; calls one another so to frame an identity, holds before each other our ‘becoming’ so that all the other descriptions we give ourselves take their rightful place and submit to one we call ‘in Christ’.

R.J. Neuhaus, insists ‘The quality of our life together is part of the gospel we proclaim.’[24] At All Saints we have needed to deeply get to know each other, hear each others’ journeys of life and faith. Those who have participated in doing this and welcomed it, are becoming All Saints’ new leaders and all of this has taken a great deal of time.

At the beginning and in my first year, there was much disruption as we negotiated with each other ‘Who do people say I am?’ It’s interesting isn’t it, that Jesus’ first question to the disciples has them project onto him various identity categories. He must ask the question again ‘Who do you say I am?’ so that they (and Peter, particularly) can pull from their experiences of sharing life together and then confess the truth about who He really is.

So ultimately, what I am trying to express here is there has to be an honesty about our being a broken kind of people and in as much need of restoration, if not more restoration, than our buildings! There’s scaffolding on my building, as I speak! We have to love each other so much we pray for each other’s transformation and really get to know each other.

If we were to ask with Ephraim Radner ‘“What is God doing with the Church for the sake of humankind?”’ we would want to say that he is calling us out, as a people being transformed with a very special kind of vocation, to help Him, who has already redeemed us from sin and death to complete His restoration project in any way we can, but in accordance with what He wills.

As we take our blueprint for the Christian community (the ekklesia) from the scriptures, Tom Wright, our speaker this afternoon, observes, that within ancient Rome, ‘there were no other groups [other than the early church] living as though they were the new version of the human race.’[25] The local church is the new version of the human race. What a call! What a responsibility!

If members of the local church, as I hope, have become a learning community, able with confidence, to give “the reason for the hope”(1 Peter 3:15) living within them; discipled in the ‘apostolical doctrine’ and displaying spiritual fruit in their lives, against the backdrop of the culture we are in, are they not bound to provoke curiosity?

And if they are not ready to use words in explanation, despite St Paul’s, ‘Woe, to me, if I do not preach the Gospel,’ might we dare to dream that those they encounter, to use Michael Ramsey’s marvellous phrase, come to see the church as ‘the glow of Christ’s incarnate presence.’[26]

For that to happen we must trust that Christ truly reveals himself through the power of His Spirit in the local church and believe as much in the Local Church as we do in Him. Amen.

[1]  Hicks, E, ‘‘Christianity personified’: Perceval and Pittism,’ Oxford Thesis, 2018, p.49

[2]  Smith, S., ‘The Letters of Peter Plymley,’ London, 1852

[3]  White, V,.  ‘Identity’ London: SCM Press, 2002 p3

[4]  Pickles, M,. ‘Be Faithful,’ Lost Coin, 2017, p. 41 - 43

[5]  This too attests to his Anglican sensibilities: ‘[I]f any minister of this country, since the Reformation, has identified his whole political character with that of the Church of England; if one minister more than any other has stood pledged to the support of that establishment; and if any minister more than another has, by his whole conduct and example, proved himself the sincere and steady friend of that establishment;you sir, are the man.’ Senex, The State of the Established church; In a Series of Letters to the Rt. Hon. Spencer Perceval 1st edition, London, 1809, pp. 1-2.

[6]  John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003, p. 68.

[7]  Barna Group, Making Space for Millennials: A Blueprint for Your Culture, Ministry, Leadership and Facilities,  2015, chapter 4, p.14-26

[8]   Ibid

[9]   Richard Hooker, Of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity Book 3:1:14, London, J.M.Dent & Sons, 1954, p.297

[10]   The Church of England Ordinal

[11]   John Richardson, A Strategy That Changes The Denomination, Lulu, 2011. p.66-67

[12]   John Richardson, A Strategy That Changes The Denomination, Lulu, 2011. p.90

[13]   Avis, P. (2002) Anglicanism and the Christian Church (Second Edition) London: T&T Clark, p354

[14]   Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945 (Oxford, Blackwells, 1994), p.189

[15]   Andrew Rumsey, Parish: an Anglican Theology of Place, SCM Press, 2017, p.186

[16]   Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797, T Cadell and W Davies), p. 418

[17]   Ibid. p. 419

[18]   John Stevens, Knowing our Times: How British Culture impact s our mission, 10ofthose, 2017, p.11

[19]   Glynn Harrison, A better story’, IVP, 2016, conclusion to chapter one

[20]   Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 15

[21]   The Anatomy of Loneliness, Episode Three, Radio 4 first aired 16th Oct 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0000qpd

[22]   Alastair J. Roberts, What is Evangelicalism?, Free Pdf at https://alastairadversaria.files.wordpress.com/2016/10/what-is-evangelicalism.pdf

[23]   Ryle J C, No Uncertain Sound,, http://www.tracts.ukgo.com/ryle_no_uncertain_sound.pdf, p.3

[24]  George, Pilgrims on the Sawdust, p.105

[25]  Paul: In Fresh Perspective, Fortress Press, 2009, p.168.

[26]  Williams, R. Religious Identities London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004, p. 91

Rachel Marszalek is the vicar of All Saints, Ealing and Lay Licensed Training Officer for the Willesden Area in the Diocese of London.

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