This is the final of 3 posts written for my Ministry Enquiry Form, each on 1 of the issues that I was asked to consider before meeting some Examining Chaplains (they will be given the task of discerning whether I should be sent for a BAP). The first post (Rescued from the darkness) was my thoughts about my spiritual journey so far and considered how my sense of a call to ordained ministry fitted in it. It was followed by my understanding of ordination (Defining Ordination is harder than you think!). In this post are my thoughts on what I see as challenges for the Anglican Church in the future, and my role in it:
Examining Chaplains will want to explore with you the nature of the challenges currently facing Christianity and the Anglican Church. What role will the Church have in the future? What will be your role as a leader in mission and ministry?
Here are what I see important challenges for myself, the Church and the faith (it is not an exhaustive or exclusive list, there are plenty more!).
The present time is a challenging but exciting one for the Christian faith and the Anglican Communion. If you view the state of the Church of England through the eyes of the media the future looks bleak. Yet dig beneath the headlines and the future is anything but bleak. There are more opportunities today to engage with those who don’t yet know Christ than any time in recent history.
The headlines tell us that the Church of England is an out-of-touch sexist and homophobic organisation that has no place in society, politics or business as it lives out its dying days. No longer is the Church seen as the sole moral arbiter of society or its statements accepted without question. What it says today is analysed, critiqued and judged against its practices. It is a time when the Christian faith is being frequently debated in homes, workplaces and the media. It is a time when ’being’ a Christian outside of church is frowned upon by some.
These headlines are far from excluding God and Christians from people’s lives, rather they are inviting God into them. There is no area of life in which God is not interested and there is no situation in which the love of Christ cannot be demonstrated. Ensuring God is accepted and not excluded from any part of life is certainly a big challenge in the current social climate. These challenges, though, are also opportunities; opportunities to communicate and demonstrate the love of God.
The Church leadership needs to lead the way in being involved in those conversations if the rest of the family is going to follow. It isn’t easy but encouragement is there in the example of Justin Welby, since his appointment as the Archbishop of Canterbury. His honesty and humility has generated tremendous respect and instigated many a debate that would not have happened without it. He has also faced criticism for commenting on areas some think Christians should steer clear of. The example he has set is both an inspiration and a challenge for me in how I seek to honour God’s gifts and calling.
Part of the challenge is encouraging and equipping members of the Church to feel able to be and bring Christ into everyday conversations. Evangelism need not be scary and or even need words, it is as much being Christlike and building communities that reflects God’s love. Such evangelism, subtle as it can be, is needed if those searching for meaning can feel able to consciously and publicly look into the Christian faith.
In-fighting and disunity play into the hands of the devil. Not only do they cause some on the outside of Christianity to stay away from Christ, but can tear apart congregations and even denominations. How the Anglican Communion handles the issues of female bishops and same-sex relationships will be one of the biggest challenges in the next few years. Although we are at the beginning of a 2 year conversation on the latter following the publication of the Pilling Report, the scale of the challenge of keeping the Communion together should not be underestimated.
Unity or disunity within a church, a denomination and the Christian faith as a whole therefore affects how people view the faith, the spiritual health of believers, and the ability of the faith to facilitate work that God wants done. It is encouraging that the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion are being led by Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby to whom unity seems very important. The common ground that we all share, belief in the Holy Trinity and one true God, should be at the core of all the Christian faith does. I sense that in my apparent call to ordained ministry that seeking unity will be play an important part in my future role.
Christianity is in the spotlight of traditional and social media. It affects the entire church, not simply those in high-profile roles. What is said on social media is accessible instantly to millions of people across the world, a fact that is both a blessing and a challenge.
With so many watching or participating in digital debates it matters how Christians handle themselves online. The tone of conversations between people, including between clergy, on social media is at times a matter of concern. Like any family there will always be disagreements but like a family there should be love and respect shown between its members. If Christians can’t show love to each others how can we expect or entice others in to do the same? It has created in me an increasing desire to encourage and assist people in finding the common ground, achieving consensus, understanding each other and dealing with differences.
Local churches often reach outside of their immediate geographical and working communities. Social media goes even further; buildings and borders become less important. Through it Christians can find wonderful fellowship, prayer and support across time-zones, cultures and denominations. It may be one of the factors that will lead to greater unity across the faith. It is though not a replacement for physical interaction and support that the local church facilitates so well. Integrating the 2 is a challenge I relish.
Many Christians do not assign their identify to a denomination, some even moving between different denominations as they feel led. This poses the challenge of ensuring that disciples are rooted in one place long enough to grow in their faith. God does call us to move on to new pastures from time to time but if people are leaving a church because they are finding it a struggle to be part of there is, at the very least, a pastoral issue that needs to be addressed. It is a challenge for church leadership to help people cope with such times, whether it be changes to the pattern and style of services, the provision of children and youth work. It is also a challenge to leadership teams to look inwards, to humble themselves and see if they are contributing towards the struggle. Only when there is honesty on all sides can the church move forwards.
Exploring ordination has demonstrated the challenge of finding time for God in the midst of a busy and stressful life. It is a challenge that every Christian faces. There are numerous calls on their time: family, work, study, church to name but 4. Finding time to attend church activities during the week, and even services on Sunday, can be difficult. Yet without an active relationship with God we can start to struggle or stagnate. In one prayer session I sensed that God was telling me not to forget the pressures people face, so that should I become ordained I may help people to meet the challenge. It may be in the pattern, style and location of services and activities that are offered. It may be in the teaching and encouragement that is given. It will be different for each person, and in that lies another challenge.
The personal challenge I have felt God place on my heart, and at the core of any future ministry, is to release the potential within His children. Not only does God want to establish, strengthen and enrich an active relationship with us, but I sense He wants to unlock the gifts, skills and talents that He has given each and everyone of us. For every person that feels comfortable in coming forward into the limelight there are many more who do not feel able to get involved in leading or contributing towards helping each other and to bring more into His Kingdom.
God has given me a passion for the overlooked, the quiet and forgotten ones in church and society; to reach out to people who need God and other people to believe in them before they can believe in themselves. Too many people do not understand just how much God loves them, how much pride He takes in who they are, or that God is reaching out and speaking to them each day. It is both a personal challenge and one for the Church to help people realise however broken they feel that they, their present and their past, is valued and of use to God.
As Justin Welby recently said, to many onlookers Christians can appear to be obsessed with a tiny amount of issues (listen to his interview on BBC Radio 4 here). It is a challenge for all of us to change that. It doesn’t mean failing to tackle difficult and sensitive issues; it means we have to double our efforts at all of the other aspects of Christianity, of taking Christ’s love out of the church and into our communities, whether physical or digital. It means meeting people where they are, not requiring them to meet a certain standard before we will accept them; just as God accepts people as they are and works from there so should we, tough as it can be. Implicit in this though is the challenge that we all face, of helping each other to live a life that honours God and His Word.
Perhaps the greatest challenge the church faces today is the one Jesus set some 2000 years ago: to be more Christlike in all we think, do and are. If we get that right the rest will, hopefully, fall into place.