I’m not quite sure how I ended up at the college I did at university. It was described by one wag as being like cream: rich, thick and full of clots. It had the reputation of being for those from aristocratic backgrounds. There were several students who looked forward to inheriting the family estate. They would walk around with their noses at a slightly higher angle than the rest of us mere mortals. There was something about their self-understanding, their sense of personal identity, that gave them certain confidence, and the ability to navigate the difficulties of life rather better than myself as a direct grant boy from West London.
Questions about identity and the confidence that flows from it are ever contemporary. It questions about identity that drives the current conflict in Ukraine. Questions of identity that may well be based on historical myths, but nonetheless have the power to inform and direct behaviour. The Russian understanding of who they are and how they relate to their neighbours is rooted in a historical myth – the Baptism Russ that the Ukrainians, Russians and Belarussians together comprise one nation. The temerity of one of the nations saying they want to go their own way has motivated Putin’s war of conquest and suppression.
But we all have our sense of identity, our own self-understanding. This is sometimes rooted in our background, our education, or our nationality. We have a sense of identity rooted in our religious affiliation, our spiritual identity as members of the Church of England. Historically, the Church of England has been integral to the sense of English identity. Until comparatively recently most people would tick the box Church of England in a census or hospital admission form. In the last few censuses, more people have been bold enough to say ‘no religion’. This is moving towards being the majority in our nation. Comparatively recently most considered themselves Christian and that would have been expressed in some of the liturgical actions of the church.
Hensley Henson, Bishop of Hereford at the turn of the 20th century wrote a disgruntled letter to one of his clergy. He was wont to do that apparently. He had discovered (he had some time on his hands) the number of people who had come of age over the course of the past year in a particular village. He had compared this with the number of people the vicar had presented for confirmation. He wrote him a very acid letter telling him to pull his finger out. I wouldn’t do that now.
COVID has amplified our sense of crisis in that identity. We know post-COVID that on average 25% to 30% fewer people come to church than before COVID. We can be inclined to blame ourselves sometimes for what we think of as the ‘performance’ of our churches. We clergy are terrible at the comparison, always thinking someone else over the hill seems to be doing something better than us. We compare their perceived success to our own inner angst. But, of course, it’s ridiculous to say it’s our fault that 25-30% fewer people come to church. 25-30% fewer people come to church because of COVID, not because there is anything we have done. That is true of many other aspects of the life of our churches.
We need to communicate to people that the challenges we face are not actually someone’s fault for doing something wrong. We are all seeking to be faithful to Christ in our context, but we are all aware of how a shift has happened from our churches being the centre to becoming (sociologically at least) on the periphery, even in our village communities. As a denomination, we have proved particularly vulnerable to a loss of cultural reinforcement.
The prophetic writings of the Old Testament are often about helping communities to navigate through these transitions. I think it’s fair to say the people of Israel in the Old Testament were either about to go into exile, were in exile or were coming out of exile. Exile is a prevailing motif throughout the whole scripture. In the passage from Jeremiah the prophet in his usual colourful language berates the people of Israel for the behaviour that has led them into this place. Exile is a difficult place to be. It’s the place where you lose your autonomy and independence. You find yourself as a small minority group and therefore have to be more keenly aware of what you are actually there for. They needed reframing of their sense of identity in a very different context. These writings are powerful in helping us navigate our way through all of this. Time and time again in the midst of this dislocation and confusion the prophets call people back to the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God, not to rely on their own ingenuity. They are called not to achieve a psychological equilibrium through balancing pride and insecurity but to flip these on their head. Elsewhere, Jeremiah deplores a dishonest scale. This was not just about crooked business dealings but a metaphor for life itself. They are called to flip their insecurity into confidence in the trustworthiness of God and repent of their pride and autonomy and become dependent on God.
They make it clear to us that even in times of confusion and difficulty there is the possibility of continued fruitfulness, even in their case in the face of doubt and disaster.
Exile has a way of stripping all that had given them security away in order that they could rediscover the foundation of security to be found in their relationship with God. I read a quote from a Ugandan refugee who said “I didn’t know Jesus was all I needed until Jesus was all I had”. We don’t welcome the dislocation, the difficulties, the way in which we are confronted increasingly with our peripheral status and the mere struggles of keeping church-going. But, we are not called to a place of worry, panic and ever more frenetic activity. I believe He calls us not to that but to a place of trust. We recognise such transitions have been navigated by the people of God before. God remained and remains faithful.
We don’t know what the future holds but we know who holds the future. In our confusion, God invites us to go deeper again, to reconnect ourselves to those deep wells of our tradition, and our relationship with God, that we may be refreshed and restored. This is the source of life that will sustain us through our difficulties and confusion. It doesn’t mean we are not called to be strategic or use our strategic ingenuity, but above all we are called to be faithful, to trust and to pray. We are called to be more deeply Christian. It is there that we will find the resources to be God’s people in our own exilic moment.