You may or may not have noticed, but we are now in the middle of a ‘global wave of prayer’ initiated by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, under the name ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.
This is the first of a series of posts reflecting on the Church, primarily here the Church of England. I ask how it is perceived by its leaders, and how we might perceive it differently. I believe their idea of the Church isn’t working. The aim of these posts is to offer positive alternatives. Thy Kingdom Come illustrates what’s wrong.
Its website tells us that Thy Kingdom Come
is a global prayer movement that invites Christians around the world to pray for more people to come to know Jesus.
When I first read it I had two immediate responses.
It is busy
It is designed to give you plenty to do:
Prayer events of all shapes and sizes are taking place from 10th- 20th May 2018, including 24-7 prayer rooms, prayer days, prayer walks and half nights of prayer.
There is even Thy Kingdom Come merchandise to buy.
40 years ago I was a young curate. I expected bishops and archbishops to remind us clergy that we had a duty to pray, and encourage others to pray - regularly, as part of daily life. But not to organise one-off prayer campaigns. Any such activity would be more appropriate at a local level. Haven’t local churches got enough to do, without having national initiatives thrust upon them?
It is superficial
I couldn’t find on the Thy Kingdom Come website any account of why we should pray more between 10th and 20th May than at any other time, or even what is the purpose of praying at all.
Again I see a huge contrast with my past. 60 years ago, as a child, I was being given prayer booklets describing the purposes of the different forms of prayer - adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication: why to do it, how to do it, what to expect from it. If that was possible then, why doesn’t that website at least tell us what praying is for?
Putting the two together, the Archbishops seem to be generating a flurry of activity without explaining its purpose.
It feels to me as though Thy Kingdom Come has been designed by the kinds of ecclesiastics I tried to avoid when I was a vicar. These are the ones who feel sure Christianity ought to make a difference in people’s lives but don’t have much idea what sort of difference it should make. So they generate activities and campaigns that use up the time and energy of the already-committed. They don’t know how to answer the hard questions, so they make everyone too busy to ask them. Within the church bubble, the activities earn approval. Outside it, they look like one more reason to have nothing to do with religion.
I see today’s church discourse, at least in England, as dominated by a particular kind of Evangelicalism. Roughly speaking - and I have to speak roughly, because every person is unique - I am thinking of the popular movement that characterises the Evangelical revival since the 1970s. It is quite different from the Evangelicalism of the nineteenth century, let alone the Anglo-Catholicism dominant until the 1960s or the liberal Christianity of Modern Church. It varies within itself, but also has distinctive features. Even today it doesn’t represent all Evangelicals; but it does represent those who produce national church initiatives. It is the driving force behind the Decade of Evangelism, Mission-Shaped Church and Thy Kingdom Come. It would never have produced Faith in the City, any more than Forward in Faith would have produced the Decade of Evangelism.
How can we put it right?
These are the main weaknesses as I see them, together with the alternatives I would prefer. Subsequent posts will elaborate on them.
- The Jesus cult. There is an emphasis on the individual acquiring a sense of identity by being part of a club, and therefore different from outsiders. Instead we could engage fully with society and world affairs, treating non-Christians as equals and contributing our own Christian insights.
- Prioritising the institutional Church. I am old enough to remember the once common Evangelical mantra that, just because you went to Church, it didn’t mean you were a Christian. Now, the Evangelical emphasis on conversion has come to be identified with ‘church growth’ - in other words, persuading more people to attend services. Instead we could be offering resources to help people with their spiritual lives regardless of whether they attend services.
- Short-term initiatives and target-setting. In these days of declining numbers there is a longing for observable signs of church growth. Instead we could accept that the inherited model is too top-heavy and expensive, and work towards a leaner system with fewer stipendiary posts and smaller financial demands on parishes.
- An exclusive model of church membership. Gone are the days when every baby baptised in the Church of England counted as a church member. Those who do not regularly attend services are not consulted in church decision-making. Instead we could recognise that real life does not produce hard and fast dividing lines. Nobody should be treated as an outsider if they don’t want to be.
- The suppression of disagreement. 50 years ago it was common for bishops to publicly disagree with each other. Now it is frowned on. The dominant narrative about what Christians believe is that we should all believe the same things. Instead we could be open about the fact that we don’t. Church life would be healthier and more interesting if we felt free to disagree with each other openly and respectfully.