Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s video. I’m recording it from the crypt of Lambeth Palace. It's an amazing space, hallowed by prayer for centuries, and currently a base for the Chemin Neuf community. This ecumenical work began in France, has little communities of prayer around the world. The one based here has a particular focus on praying for the Church of England and especially the ministry of Archbishop Justin.
Throughout the scriptures you find people searching out such holy spaces. The religious life of the people of Israel in Jesus’ day was focused around the Temple in Jerusalem. The city itself was regarded as holy and a place you could encounter God. John’s Gospel, chapter 5, records one such encounter with a crippled man at the pool of Bethesda, a sacred site near one of the city gates. The infirm gathered there, convinced that if the waters stirred (they believed by an angel), the first person into the water would be healed.
As with many of Jesus miracles, it begins with a conversation. Jesus looks him squarely in the eye and asks, “do you want to get well?” You’d have thought that was a no-brainer! But his reply indicates that his illness had become such a part of his identity, that confronted with the possibility of healing, he unexpectedly prevaricates. He has been there for 38 years but rather than answering the question directly his reply is all about reasons why he can’t get to the pool in time to receive his healing. Is he rather foolishly blaming his condition on someone else?
One theory about organisations says they go through four potential stages in a journey from growth to decline. They start with building, with all the excitement of a new venture. As they grow, they need and infrastructure to sustain activity and can become more focused on maintenance. Without the continued energy of innovation, they inevitably get left behind, either by competition or changing culture and they move to stage three: justifying poor performance. If nothing changes they can move into the terminal phase, characterised by blame. It's very difficult for organisations to recover from stage 4. Blame is destructive. Rather than focusing on each person’s individual responsibility to address the current situation, it obsesses about how we got to where we are, easily drawn to scapegoating. Sadly, I find the Church of England shows an uncomfortable level of blaming. Evangelicals blame liberal leadership for diluting the gospel; liberals blame evangelicals for cultural insensitivity and intellectual naivety, church planters blame the traditional church for being too inflexible. Faithful traditional congregations and hard-working clergy rightly take umbrage at being described as limiting factors, and everyone blames the Archbishop for going on sabbatical!
But just as the man at the pool of Bethesda was wrong to blame others for his condition, much of our blame is misplaced. Leslie Newbiggen, the great missionary bishop, spent many years as a missionary in India. On his return to England in the early 1970s, he said this, “England is a pagan society and the development of a truly missionary encounter with this very tough form of paganism is the greatest intellectual and practical task facing the Church.” Bear in mind of course that church attendance, influence and involvement in those days was at a level we would only dream about now. His words proved sadly prophetic.
The Church of England (as indeed many established churches) are particularly vulnerable to loss of cultural re-enforcement. Church-going was stronger in former years because there was nothing else to do! Our churches average age tracked that of the population until the early 1980s. The loss of young people to a large degree relates to the growth of Sunday sport and extensive Sunday trading. It's hardly surprising that being wedded to Sunday meetings no one wants to come! it's no surprise that nearly all the kids we are in contact with are through messy church which doesn’t usually meet on a Sunday. Our challenge to grow discipleship within that context. When 1/6 – 1/5 of our pre-pandemic worshippers now in that milieu, it begs the question of what constitutes proper church anyway. It's tough to see a community that has nourished us in faith being rejected by our children, ignored by our peers and in some cases fading with age and infirmity. But much of the reason for this is beyond our control and influence. It's actually no one’s fault. Sometimes I recognise that what lies behind the blame is actually a deep sadness that can be hard to acknowledge.
Back to our story though. Jesus, with a simple word of command, says, “Get up, take up your mat and walk.” The power is Christ’s, but the paralysed man needs to obey the command. In a sense, he needs to take responsibility for his condition.
As we face our challenges, we’d be better asking the question, not who’s fault is it, but what is God calling me to do, as an individual to be faithful in the now? Jesus changed the world starting with about 120 people filled with the Holy Spirit, in a culture much more hostile and dangerous than our own. Our hope is based not on our current circumstances, but on that power of the Holy Spirit.