I enjoyed Paul Hackwood’s two articles critiquing the centralising tendencies of the Church of England, but amidst much agreement there was one element that I vigorously disagreed with. Hackwood writes:
“This idea of general welfare is gaining traction as our culture changes; “well-being” is increasingly spoken of in the workplace and in civil society. Not coincidentally, this is what most clergy in the Church of England see as their purpose, and the horizon of their mission, and it gives meaning to what they deal with every day. Well-being and welfare are a strong foundation for evangelism and growth.”
I do not see well-being or the idea of general welfare as my purpose, or the horizon of my mission, and I suspect – I hope – that I am not alone in this. To me, this comment encapsulates all that has gone wrong with the Church of England, and it is why Hackwood’s recommendations, commendable though they are, will not ultimately bear the necessary good fruit of evangelism and growth.
For me, the principal purpose of ordained ministry is to feed the faithful through word and sacrament. There are other purposes too, of course, but that is the beating heart of the ministry. Mission, in so far as it falls specifically to the ordained in distinction to the purpose of the whole body of Christ, is fulfilled when new believers are enabled to share in the worship of the Body of Christ. This is what it means to love God with all that we have and all that we are, which is the most important commandment that we are given to obey.
The second commandment comes second – to love our neighbours as ourselves. All that can be considered as general welfare is an expression of that second commandment. Important, yes, but less important than the first commandment. We must insist upon the priority of worship in our self-understanding of who we are; we are most truly ourselves when we can come together in the presence of Christ.
To set aside the priority of the first commandment is a product of the unacknowledged materialism that so conditions the public language of our church. There is a story to be told of how and why the Church of England has come to be seen as lacking in faith, but a component of that must be the reluctance to talk about matters of faith. What we must surely do at this moment is talk about the priority of worship, and that means not trying to justify our worship in terms that the wider culture finds acceptable. We need to declare the priority of worship for its own sake.
Which is why the contentious decision to close churches during the first lockdown was so disastrous. It was the perfect embodiment of the priority given to the second commandment over the first. Love of neighbour was given priority over love of God; physically gathering for worship was optional, reducing the risk of infection was essential. As an act of prophetic drama this decision could not have more clearly communicated the theological wrong-headedness that governs our church. This is why we are dying.
What gives me hope is that there are enough church members who instinctively recognised the wrongness of that decision, both the substance of it and the way in which it was enacted. The capitulation of our leadership to the imperatives of the state, marked by an absence of theological perspective, is only to be expected from a church that has so systematically, over many decades, sought to make itself acceptable to society through accommodating itself to what it thinks the society wants. Please like us – see what good works we are doing! We no longer need to be Reformed from a works-righteousness in relation to God, we need to be reformed from a works-righteousness in relation to our wider society.
I believe that the only path towards evangelism and growth starts from unapologetic apologetics. The gospel is the truth, our primary need is to proclaim that truth – everything else will then fall into its proper place.