Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
We’ve just booked some tickets for the Hay Festival which starts next week. It’s a feast of literature, music and high culture and a privilege to have it on our doorstep. It represents the cutting edge of contemporary thinking in many fields: literary, political and scientific, effectively translated into the language of the everyday.
They didn’t pay me to say that by the way. But as I browsed through the catalogue to choose events, I was struck by the almost complete absence of any reference to the spiritual, let alone anything specifically Christian. I’m sure our friends in the Church in Wales in Hay will be making their best efforts to connect with festival-goers, but on the basis of the events, you’d be hard pushed to recognise any contribution of the Christian faith to contemporary culture at all.
In some ways, this is no surprise. Over the last 50 years, there has been a steady displacement of Christian input from the cultural conversation. The BBC has a fantastic religious programming department and they produce some great material, but there is sometimes a feeling of compartmentalising about faith broadcasting. The Moral Maze on Radio 4 does have a level playing field with Christian and other inputs, but most philosophical and moral programming doesn’t. It's not that Bishops and Christian leaders aren’t invited to contribute, but it feels like an indulgence or a sop. The real intellectual heft is to be found elsewhere. There is strong pressure to dispense with Thought for the Day for example.
When I’m invited to write for the local paper or make contributions to the radio I feel the challenge of making a connection. Although our culture remains steeped in metaphors and images drawn from a Christian tradition, they seem so evacuated of a religious sense that one is forever having to define one’s terms before even beginning a conversation. As a late returner to motorcycling, I am known as a ‘born again’ biker, for example, which is in fact accurate at many levels.
Our danger in this context is to reduce the gospel to things that do have cultural resonance. Inclusion and creation care are profoundly Christian values, but I would argue they are not the core of the gospel message. I remember a conversation with a Multi-Academy Trust Director in another diocese who said that the Christian values in their MAT were things that anyone of goodwill would agree to sign up to; they weren’t uniquely Christian, although that was where they were derived from. It can feel a bit disheartening when much of the social action, community engagement and environmental activism is driven by our faith is done better by others with no faith and who seem to have no need of God to motivate them.
Ultimately, we need to rediscover confidence in speaking of God. He is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. He is the reason the Church exists. His is the story that gives our lives meaning, purpose and hope. He is the supernatural presence who forgives, transforms and redeems individuals and communities. Yet somehow, we seem embarrassed to say that. This is not some wild evangelical or charismatic enthusiasm. The great Ignatian prayer tradition invites us to reflect in the examen prayer at the end of the day where we saw God at work. When we celebrate communion, whatever our tradition, the president begins the great thanksgiving prayer by saying, “The Lord is here”, to which we respond, “His Spirit is with us.” Before the blessing at confirmation services I often invite the curious to ask the candidates the simple question, “what difference does following Jesus make to your life?”
Perhaps all of us need to practice sharing our stories of God with one another. I know a number of churches that invite members of the congregation to share the difference following Jesus have made to them in the preceding week during worship. The simple practice of the examen can tune us into the presence of Christ in everyday life. A thriving Church will not be afraid to sensitively share that it is first and foremost a community of people who follow Jesus: a community that seeks to order its life individually and corporately in that way. We must speak of God because that is whose we are, and knowing whose we are is how we know who we are and how we are to live.
In a secular, dismissive culture, let us learn to speak of God again.