by Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, Executive Director, The Centre for Theology & Community.
Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin have a striking amount in common. Both reject the idea that religion is a matter of ‘other-worldly’ piety. Both are outspoken in demanding justice as well as compassion for the poorest in society. And both challenge the stereotype of a church divided between ‘liberals’ (interested in social action and inter-faith engagement) and ‘conservatives’ (doctrinally orthodox and committed to evangelism).
These two Church leaders are ‘both-and’ Christians: committed to social justice and doctrinally orthodox; serious about inter-faith engagement and committed to evangelism and church growth; deeply rooted in prayer and active in the wider world. Their approach – confident in the truth of Christianity, serious about spreading the faith, and yet keen to work with those outside the Church – reflects developments within grassroots church life which defy the usual stereotypes. Social action is no longer seen as a distraction from, or a pretext for, evangelism.
‘Both-and’ Christianity is serious about social justice as an end in itself. It is unapologetic in its desire to spread the faith and make disciples. There is a strong and simple theological basis for this ‘both-and’ approach. It is summed up in one word: love.
Love is the word with which Jesus sums up ‘the whole law and the commandments,’ and it makes sense of both social transformation and personal conversion as complementary aspects of the church’s mission. The church does not feed the poorest, fight for a living wage and support Credit Unions in order to make converts. It is commanded to show practical love and fight for justice as expressions of unconditional love to believer and non-believer alike. As Pope Benedict wrote it his encyclical on social justice (Deus Caritas Est)
“Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends…. a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak. He knows that God is love (1 John 4.8) and that God’s presence is felt at the very time when the only thing we do is to love.”
By the same token, part of what it is to love someone is to share that which you hold most precious. As Mark Russell puts it, “If a church doesn’t do evangelism, it is effectively saying Jesus changes lives, but this is only for us.”
We don’t work for social justice in order to convert, and we don’t evangelise in order to do more social action – both are expressions of love to the neighbour. But there is an increasing amount of evidence that social justice and evangelism are mutually reinforcing. A report on church growth which is about to be published by the Centre for Theology and Community (CTC) argues that the practical embodiment of Christian love is vital to the credibility of its proclamation of the Gospel, and also makes the obvious point that churches which grow numerically have a greater capacity for social action (what Bishop Paul Bayes calls “a bigger church to make a bigger difference”).
In a context like east London, where alongside so many people of other faiths and of none, this ‘both-and’ approach makes obvious sense. Local churches work with people of other faiths and none to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless – and to organise for a Living Wage, affordable housing and ethical lending.
As these public relationships develop, it is inevitable that more personal conversations occur. In such discussions, neighbours of other faiths and of none have sought to persuade me of the truth of their convictions. Far from finding this offensive, I welcome it as an act of friendship and indeed of love. To take me seriously as a fellow human being involves sharing what you believe to be of ultimate significance. Likewise, for me to love my neighbour involves sharing what Pope Francis calls “the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ.” I don’t care for my neighbours in order to make them Christians. Sharing my faith is one of many expressions of that care.
The approach of Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin – humble and confident, frank and engaging – is indicative of a church finding its place, and its voice, in increasingly plural societies. ‘Both-and’ Christianity is well suited to these new and challenging contexts. It has the even greater advantage of being faithful to the breadth of Jesus’ message, which has always challenged the neat categories of those who seek an ‘either/or’ approach.