New Testament scholar and erstwhile Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright has written an article for The Spectator, a British news magazine. Some of what he writes here is peculiar to the Church of England. But most of it is also true of the Episcopal Church - and other churches as well. Here are a couple of excerpts (the whole article can be found here):
Check out the volunteers in the prison, in the hospice, in charity shops. It’s remarkable how many of them are practising Christians. They aren’t volunteering because the government has told them we can’t afford to pay for such work any more. They do it because of Jesus. Often they aren’t very articulate about this. They just find, in their bones, that they need and want to help, especially when things are really dire. But if you trace this awareness to its source, you’ll find, as often as not, that the lines lead back to a parish church or near equivalent, to the regular reading of the Bible, to the life of prayer and sacrament and fellowship. To the regular saying and singing of prayers and hymns that announce, however surprising or shocking it may be to our sceptical world, that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and active in a community near you.
Despite two centuries of being told the opposite, in fact, the Church can’t help itself. Secular modernism still likes to pretend that the world runs itself, and that ‘religion’ has to do with private spirituality and otherworldly hope. The Church — not least those who want to create a ‘pure’ type of Christianity, and look either to Rome or to a ‘biblical’ sect to provide it — has often colluded with this secularist shrinking of the task. But the genuinely biblical vision, rooted in the four gospels, is of God already being king of the world, through the victory of Jesus. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth,’ said Jesus, ‘has been given to me.’ And on earth. The Church exists to demonstrate what that means.
It exists, in other words, to do and be for the world what Jesus had been for his contemporaries: to bring healing and hope, to rescue people trapped in their own folly and sin, to straighten out the distorted pictures of reality that every age manages to produce, and to enable people to live by, and in, God’s true reality. It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world: to see lives transformed by the gospel so that people can discover a new depth and resonance of what it means to be human, precisely by looking beyond themselves to God, to the beauties and glories of his creation, and to their neighbours, particularly those in need. The Church does this through liturgy and laughter; through music and drug-rehabilitation programmes; through prayer and protest marches; through preaching and campaigning; through soaking itself in the Bible and immersing itself in the needs of the world. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks (as many, including many critics, think he should). He sends in the meek; and by the time the world realises what’s going on, the meek have set up clinics and schools, taught people to read and to sing, and given them a hope, meaning and purpose which secular modernism (which gave us, after all, Passchendaele and Auschwitz as well as modern medicine and space travel) has failed to provide.
Saying that Jesus is now in charge, still more that the church is the agent of this project, has been rubbished for generations. The litany is familiar, though interestingly limited and repetitive: crusades, the Inquisition, witch-burning and so on. No church worth its salt will deny that it has made huge mistakes. We still say ‘forgive us our trespasses’ every day, only wishing that others would join us in this penitence. But the reason the anti-Christian brigade point out the Church’s failures is that, just as in Marxist totalitarianism the state replaces God, making it atheist de jure and not simply de facto, so in secular democracy the state attempts to replace the Church. That is why the Church is pushed to the margins, told to mind its own spiritual business and not to get involved in international debt or the treatment of asylum-seekers. As we survey the result — crooked politicians, bent coppers, bloated bankers, spying journalists — it may be time for the church to be more humbly confident in getting on with its proper vocation, leading the way in the true Big Society, bringing healing and hope at every level.
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Away from the pressure groups and the single-issue fanatics, the Church has a massive local strength on which we must build.
To do this, it must do the core tasks well. The only way to resist being squeezed into the tired old mould of modernism or the nihilistic anything-goes world of postmodernism is through that strange combination of worship and prayer on the one hand, and biblically based theology on the other, for which the Church of England has, historically, an excellent track record. Only when the Church is constantly refreshed in these ways will it be able to discern which of the agendas that infatuate today’s world are true gospel imperatives and which are a snare and a delusion. (For a start, a biblical theology would have a lot more to say about money and power than about sex, important though that is too.) The next generation of church leaders will need to be on their toes to articulate a vision of human community which our pragmatic, short-term politicians have all but forgotten, and to know how to speak the truth to power in a way for which our prurient, sniggering journalism provides a ghastly parody. I sometimes suspect that the pressure, from some politicians and some journalists, for the Church to retreat to the sidelines is because both know, deep down, that the Church — and especially, despite everything, the Church of England — still has the ability to speak the truth and shame the devil.
None of this, of course, provides the answer to the questions about women bishops, or gay clergy, or the Anglican Communion, or how to relate to our Muslim neighbours. But if you put the hard questions in the centre of the picture, everything else gets distorted. Let’s take a deep breath and remind ourselves of our real focus: the kingdom of God, the lordship of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, as Jesus himself nearly said, everything else will fall into perspective. At its best — and there is a lot of the ‘best’ out there — this is what the Church of England is all about.