By the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool
Last week the General Synod met to address a wide-ranging agenda which included listening to victims and survivors of abuse, debating the Church’s approach to climate change, to appropriate investment in (or disinvestment from) energy companies, to nuclear weapons, and a large raft of legislative business. In and among all this a debate on evangelism, built around the final report of the Archbishops’ Evangelism Task Group, was squeezed out and will be debated at a future Synod, hopefully and presumably in February 2019.
This was a pity, not least for those of us who had prepared for the debate and had written the report on which it was to be based.
I need to declare an interest in all this, as I served as vice-chair of the Evangelism Task Group (ETG), under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I’m so glad to have been asked to serve on the ETG and to have worked with an outstanding group of colleagues from all traditions, whose presence on the group at different times blessed the whole Church. I thank God for every single one of them, and I thank God that in our Church there is a place at the table for them all, for as long as they wish to stay in the room, or to re-enter the room if they’ve left it, so that wisdom and grace may abound.
The motion on evangelism which the Synod hoped to debate asked the national officers of the Church to continue their work of resourcing and supporting Christians in their sharing of the good news of Jesus. This was an excellent thing, as far as I was concerned. I served for six years as the National Mission and Evangelism Adviser in our Church of England, and I am proud to have done so and to have tried to make a difference from that position. I continue to value the work of national officers and of the new and expanded Evangelism and Discipleship Team. So I would have supported the Synod motion.
But as I have reflected on the non-debate, and on the undebated motion, I find myself worrying that it might have deceived the Church into believing that the responsibility for evangelism lies solely with Church House teams and officers and diocesan staff, as if without nationally smart ideas no evangelism can be expected to take place.
It is not so. Evangelism is simple if you do it, as Archbishop Moon Hing said to the Synod from his own experience in Asia. Evangelism happens when people talk. It happens when people talk. Evangelism cannot be delegated upwards. It takes place between friends, across kitchen tables and at school gates and in workplaces, when Christians listen to the ones they know and talk to them about Jesus.
Evangelism, the sharing of good news, happens most especially when there is love; that is when the redemptive love of Jesus is shared by people who have been redeemed, and who (you might say) love large.
Outstandingly the most significant single example of commending the faith in recent memory is the sermon preached by the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church at the Royal Wedding. Bishop Michael communicated his humanity and he told the couple, and 1,900 million people besides, that there was power in love, and that Christians were people committed to redemptive love and to justice.
As the Archbishop of York said at the Synod, this came as welcome news to the world. Millions of people did not know that Christian preachers could be human, and they did not know that the Christian faith was about love. Repeatedly in newspapers and magazines Bishop Curry’s message was described as “unorthodox”. Since then, preachers have been invited to be like Bishop Curry. I agree that we should be like Bishop Curry, if that means we communicate who we are as beloved children of God (not pretending to be who he is!) and talk about the love that has made us beloved. As the man said, there’s power in love.
Evangelism is a long, churchy word, and love is a short, everyday one. Evangelism is a blah blah word and love is a real word. I’m afraid people expect blah blah from church people. They don’t expect Christians to talk about love. They think it’s unorthodox. That is a sadness and an indictment of course, but let’s not be too gloomy. We beat ourselves up too much as it is. Instead, let’s look on the bright side; when we talk about the power of love then people are surprised and they want to hear it. People are glad that love is real. Isn’t that great?
The Washington Post was one of hundreds among the media that reported positively on Bishop Curry’s sermon. This is what they said:
“Based on social media, the reaction to Curry’s sermon showed that it was incredibly well-received, especially by black Americans. But emphasizing the power of love seemed to resonate across countries, races and even political views perhaps because such a unifying message is rarely shared so prominently. And it also possibly connected because the current times are politically divisive, and even violent.
Curry spoke for an alternative:
“Think and imagine, well, think and imagine a world where love is the way,” he said. “Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial redemptive.”
There is a lot to take away from Saturday’s ceremony, and there will be numerous pieces reflecting on it. But the component of the day that had the greatest potential to connect is that hate will never be an effective approach to righting societal ills. Therefore, tapping into love is worth a try.”
Tapping into love is worth a try, the love that’s “unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive”; as we would say the unique love of Christ that saves the world. Churches that speak of this love are like sprinkler systems on a parched lawn. Suddenly the dry and brown grass becomes green again. Suddenly the dry, harsh, misrepresented, half-forgotten Christian narrative makes sense again. Suddenly the ones on the edge of things realise that they are included. Love makes things work. Love large; love is big. Dante hit the bullseye when he said that it is love that moves the sun and the other stars. Love is as big as it gets. In short God is love, and Jesus is the word of God. As Brian Zahnd puts it, Jesus is what God has to say.
But we must, must, must be clear; if we live as Jesus people and say what God has to say, if we tap into love as the way God is, then people will expect to see love as the way we are.
In his Presidential Address at the recent Synod the Archbishop of York specifically and explicitly reminded the Church that its leaders have committed it to a radical new Christian inclusion. Each of those four words matters. No one of them cancels out the other three. Together they speak of a deeply rooted and refreshed welcome within a changed and changing world. Together they speak of love. There’s power in love.
Becoming a community marked by radical Christian inclusion has not been postponed until 2020, or even till next week. Our Archbishops have called us to it now, today, this moment, this breath; this welcome. There will be no evangelism without it. If it’s not radical, not new, not Christian, not inclusion, then it’s not good enough.
In my own Diocese we have a rule of life and each person who commits to it will be committed to prayer and to reading scripture and to living justice and to generosity, but they will also be committed to bringing one friend into the conscious company of Jesus each year. Talking to one, listening to one, bringing one. If that happens it will be because of love, radical, new, Christian, inclusive love, and where that is seen there will be evangelism. There’s power in love.
Can we then democratise evangelism, a radical, new, Christian, inclusive evangelism? Between friends and across kitchen tables and at school gates and in workplaces, can we speak of the love that is for all, of the power of love to embrace and to bless and to redeem the world? Can we tap into Jesus’ love? It’s worth a try.