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The World’s Agenda

An address by Fr John Slater

22 September 2002 11:00 | Fr John Slater

On its second time around, I’ve been watching Simon Schama’s TV History of Britain, and last week saw his interpretation of the tragic conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket. It’s a vivid reminder of a world in which religion and politics were bound up together in a way unthinkable today except, perhaps, in some Islamic countries or in the state of Israel. Archbishop Laud was probably the last churchman to exercise significant political power in this country since after the Civil War the Church was put in its place by the increasingly secular state.

In the next two hundred years there were significant examples of the Church being more than just the Establishment at prayer. There was the campaign to abolish slavery, and the establishment of church schools throughout the country. I’d like to include Shaftesbury’s work for the reform of factory conditions since he was a devout Christian but I think he found little support from the bishops of the day. In his very important book of the twentieth century, R H Tawney wrote of the withdrawal of the Church from public life - words I find rather haunting.

In last Tuesday’s Times, there was an article which was about a political party but which drew a parallel with the Church. It said: Political parties are either churches or sects. No political party can survive long without an animating core of belief, a respect for its traditions and a faith in the power of ideas to promote virtue. But the qualities which distinguish a successful party from a failing one are those which mark out a church from a sect. Sects cherish rituals which are opaque to outsiders. They venerate old relics or ancient texts. And they shut themselves away from the world instead of seeking to wrestle with the complex decisions that its inhabitants face.

Well, the author of those words may be wrong, but my hunch is that he isn’t, and I see in his words a clear challenge to the Church at the beginning of the twenty-first Christian century. What, after all, would a stranger find entering St George’s at this moment? Our basic texts are 400 years old but the musical setting is by a living composer - our own Director of Music, Simon Williams! I hope that a stranger would find here a welcome into a community which is realistic about the world in which we live while having a vision of the purpose for which we were created by a loving God. And I hope too that the stranger would discern that this vision both informs and transforms our daily lives as we wrestle with the complex decisions which face men and women today.

Queen Elizabeth I once famously interrupted a preacher to tell him to stick to his text - meaning, no doubt, that he should not comment on the political issues of the day. But there really can be no absolute separation between faith in the God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ and a deep loving concern for the welfare of our fellow men and women. For the first half of the twentieth century, the Church of England was dominated by William Temple whose writings really did wrestle with the relationship between Christian faith and the political and economic issues of his time. It is suggested that no one had a greater influence than Temple on our present Prime Minister’s developing political convictions. Rowan Williams, our Archbishop-Designate, has already demonstrated his willingness to address the complex issues facing our society - just read his reflections on the events of September 11th last year when he was in New York and had to run for his life from the collapsing World Trade Center Towers. Look at his recent comments on the possibility of war with Iraq or his book Lost Icons which addresses the questions of abortion and the media exploitation of our children. I sincerely hope our new archbishop can lead the Church into addressing the real agenda set by the world instead of being interested chiefly in its own internal divisions over subjects about which the world has no interest. I hope he can make sure we are truly a church rather than merely a sect.

But each of us has a part to play in making the Church more truly what it should be. Of course, both our Christian faith and our inner spiritual life need to be nourished by the Church. Our worship should both inspire and nurture us. But we do also need to be challenged lest we allow ourselves to be interested only in opaque rituals and ancient texts which we may love but which may fail to speak to others. We need to ask ourselves what is the unique ministry which St George’s can offer to the people of London. What, after all, can we offer to the thousands of people who come to work in Mayfair every day? How can we help people wrestle with the complex decisions they face day by day? How can we be more welcoming to those who dare to come here for the first time? One new venture you might like to check out is our website, now up and running and called simply stgeorgeshanoversquare - a small step, perhaps, but a link to millions of people throughout the world.
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