Couldn’t We Just “Dissolve the People”??

by Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool

advent-not-christmas

After the uprising of the 17th June the Secretary of the Writers Union had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee stating that the people had forfeited the confidence of the government and could win it back only by redoubled efforts.

Would it not be easier in that case for the government io dissolve the people and elect another?

Bertolt Brecht, “The Solution”, 1953

For the past few years we have been treated each Autumn to a series of (usually) light-hearted grumbles from Anglicans/Episcopalians about the coming of Christmas. These are not the usual grumbles about commercialisation and vulgarity, but specifically liturgical grumbles that the nation is celebrating Christmas too early, is putting up its trees when it shouldn’t and is ignoring the season of Advent.

This is usually a bit of fun, as the picture indicates. But it makes me uneasy just the same. For me it hides a nagging truth about the attitude of Christians to the world God loves. It seems that if the people around us don’t get our Christian thing, don’t see the point of our spiritual preparation, don’t see what we’re up to, then somehow it must be their fault. They are letting us down. Can’t we dissolve this disappointing England and elect another one?

But God loved the world so much that he sent his only son. And of course the world God loves is the real one, the one we’ve got, indissoluble. Shot through with the love of the One who loves it so much. In need of conversion certainly, but also in need, serious need, of loving and of being heard.

When I was installed as Bishop of Hertford in St Albans Abbey in 2010 I preached a sermon in which I said that the Church of England was not about the Church but about God and about England, that these were the poles of our thinking and our loving. The true God and the real England; God as God is and England as England is. And I said that when Christians find it hard to bear too much reality then the easiest way out of that was to get interested in the church. And we are, I said, many of us, very interested in the church. Extremely interested in the church. All too interested in the church; in its politics, in its gossip, in its image.

Well, the church rightly deserves a measure of interest. As well as being a fractured and fractious institution, the church is the mystical body of Christ in which we are by God’s grace incorporate.

But the main things for us will always be God and England. The church in itself has no right of purchase on the people, and wishing they knew all about Advent – that is, nostalgia for the years of Christendom – is not a virtue but a snare. If the Bible is our guide then we can expect the ways of the changing world to speak to us of God’s action[1], not simply of human foolishness and forgetfulness. And as we dialogue with the world God loves, we can expect to learn something as well as to teach.

It is easy to forget how quickly England is changing. In 1993, in a speech defending the place of Britain in Europe, John Major as Prime Minister said:

‘Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”… We are the British, a people freely living inside a Europe which is glad to see us and wants us.’ [2]

Twenty-three years later the morning mist has dissolved like the football pools, and the England we have now is a different place. And yet we’re called to love it just the same, and perhaps also to learn what God is doing in it, and to join in.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but not all change is for the worse. Nostalgia for the England of 1993 cannot be unalloyed. In 1993 for example if that old maid cycling to Communion was in a same-sex relationship, she would almost certainly not have dared say so when she got to church; not 18 months after “Issues in human sexuality”, not when Section 28 of the Local Government Act still had ten years to go on the statute book[3]. More people may have known about the liturgical year, but for many of them love was a secret thing to be treasured but not shared. And that has changed now, and changed for the better.

This is indeed a strange new land, this late-Christendom or post-Christendom England, in this post-Brexit UK, in this post-Trump West. But we cannot dissolve it. We can’t be with an imagined England that we love. We have to love the one we’re with, the real one. We have to speak the love and the truth of Jesus to this strange and unyielding England that we are called to love, and we are bound by our love to listen to the echo of faith as England reflects it and speaks it back to us. Called to speak critically, called to defend fidelity and steadfastness and gentleness and spiritual seriousness, but also called to discern the signs of the times and perhaps to see the hand of God in the swirling of the times. Because sometimes the culture has good news to offer. Sometimes the long arc of history does indeed bend toward justice.

God loves England so much that he gave his only son. And the angular, angry, diverse, confused voices of England are not to be ignored, or conformed to the cultural prejudices of Christian people, but listened to and grasped and discerned and permitted to change us, even as in the Scripture Peter was changed in his encounter with Cornelius[4], and Jesus in his encounter with the Canaanite woman[5]. Ours is an historic faith, and a faith in the One who not only entered history but who loves it still and who is in it still and who still has much else to teach us[6].

The true and real God is a consuming fire[7], and the real England is getting pretty hot to handle too. Between them they form the crucible of our discipleship, as we follow the call to love and to be changed and to grow and to be real ourselves. And if bearing all this reality is not the heart of our incarnate faith this Advent, then what is?

Meanwhile, as Aleppo burns and as Christmas draws near, here are five liturgical things to do[8]

5-steps-for-christmas

Footnotes

[1] See for example Isaiah 44:28ff with its inclusion of the emperor Cyrus in the purposes of God.

[2] John Major, speech to the Conservative Group for Europe,  22nd April 1993.

[3] Section (clause) 28 of the Local Government Act 1988: “No Local Authority shall promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. The clause was repealed in 2003 by Section 122 of the Local Government Act of that year.

[4] Acts 10

[5] Matthew 15:21ff

[6] John 16.12

[7] Hebrews 12:29

[8] From Jarrod McKenna; https://www.facebook.com/jarrod.mckenna

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This entry was posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Church of England, Social Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Couldn’t We Just “Dissolve the People”??

  1. Pingback: Couldn’t We Just “Dissolve the People”?? | Kiwianglo's Blog

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