It’s that time of year again. Easter is when the press do their ‘isn’t the church rubbish’ and ‘isn’t Christianity hopeless’ stories. So, in the middle of an excellent ecumenical Good Friday walk of witness in Ilkley, I got a phone call from a national newspaper about the story they are running on Easter Day.
I won’t spoil their fun (yet), but doesn’t this just get wearying? I would feel professionally a little embarrassed to keep doing the same thing every year and not find anything original or interesting to do instead.
Be that as it may, Good Friday happens to be a good day to think through this year’s shock charges against the Church. (That’s ironic, by the way.)
The Church of England is getting a bit of a kicking these days for not being ‘relevant’. I think the phrase this time is ‘out of touch’. Now, apart from the usual stuff about ‘out of touch with what or whom’, this sort of question in a poll simply tells us nothing. The main point, however, is that it has never been the job of the church to be ‘relevant’. Of course, the church has to live in the real world and understand/speak the language(s) of the cultures in which it serves. But, when ‘relevance’ is taken to mean that the Church should go with the flow of popular culture – for no other reason than that the popular culture is assumed to be unquestionably unquestionable – then the church has to dig into its tradition in order to find its bearings.
And what does this mean? Well, start with the prophetic tradition. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures got a seriously hard time for saying what people (especially powerful people) didn’t want to hear, and for not saying what the people (especially the powerful people) did want to hear. Being popular or ‘relevant’, whilst nice and affirming, can never be the primary motivating aim of the Christian church. If, for example, we are to change our mind/practice on ethical questions, then we must do so because it is right to do so and not (as some politicians and media commentators seem uncritically to think) because ‘most people think this way today’.
And the Good Friday light on this? Well, as I observed in Ilkley this morning, if Jesus had been asked to submit a business plan before going walkabout in Galilee and beyond, he would never have got the contract. Three years and then dead? Call that ‘being relevant’? Was Jesus ‘in touch’ with popular culture? Dead in less than three years was not an encouraging fact for people who think the business of God’s people is simply to give people what they want, to say what they want to hear, or do what people want them to do.
Just read the first few chapters of Isaiah. Or any of the Gospels. Or… er… anything else in the Bible.
The second charge (yawn) is that the church is doing a bad job at offering moral leadership. It doesn’t take much thought to realise that this is closely linked to the first charge. I remember Rowan Williams saying to me that when people ask him to lead, what they really mean is to go in the direction they want to see him go in. And when they ask him to be prophetic, they simply want to hear him say loudly what they want to hear him say loudly. To not lead in their direction and to not say loudly what they want to hear means quite simply that he is not leading and is not prophetic.
Let’s take a moment of embarrassed silence to think about the nonsense this represents.
OK, that’s that dealt with. But, what the story does challenge the church with is (a) how to articulate its story and its life in languages that can be heard and understood, (b) to engage in conversation with culture rather than simply shouting at it (which is what some people mean by ‘moral leadership’), (c) to get stuck into the world as it is in a way that offers an alternative to the usual cycles of destruction and violence, and (d) to be more confident in putting itself ‘out there’, even if we get a good kicking (deserved or underserved), get ridiculed or end up having to say “we got it wrong”.
After all, what’s the worst that can happen? Unlike some Christians in today’s world, no one has tried to martyr most of us yet.
Good Friday confronts us with mortality, death, endings and the bleeding loss of a world and a future – the disillusionment and betrayal of those who dared to think that God might be present in their world and found their hopes bleeding in the dirt of a rubbish tip on the edges of Jerusalem. If we stay with today’s experience, we might as well pack up and go home. But, Sunday will come and those who thought Friday confirmed the world’s mantra that ‘might is always right’ will find some embarrassment by Monday.
I am not worried about being relevant or having my leadership criticised or ridiculed. I am concerned about how we tell with credibility, conviction and imagination the story of Easter surprise – shining new light into a world that too often accepts that death, violence and destruction have the last word.