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Sunday, 6 December 2015


A Church of England bishop was on Radio 4 this morning 

This is not unusual.

The bishop was taking a lot of flack on Twitter about it.

This is not unusual.

He wasn't taking flack just from atheists. He was taking it from Christians. And, in particular, Anglicans.

This is not unusual, either.

He was taking it because - apparently, because I wasn't listening - he was saying the Lord's Prayer ad should have been allowed to be shown in cinemas because this is predominantly or traditionally a Christian country.

No, I don't agree with that, either.

I don't agree with not showing the Lord's Prayer ad, though. I think it should be shown because the advertising agency apparently originally agreed to show it, and because I believe in free speech. Any argument that goes it shouldn't be shown because then other religions might want to show ads strikes me as the logic of fear and Student Union free speech bans. I wouldn't stop the National Secular Society or Regents Park Mosque advertising in a cinema. I'd prevent ISIS doing so as they're a terrorist organisation.

But the argument that the Church is entitled to something special because it's the Established Religion, or because "we're a [predominantly/historically] Christian country" is still heard. Mostly in the comments section of the Mail website, I would expect, but still heard.

John the Baptist came into a society where there was an established religion - Temple Judaism. And another, more locally-active version, Pharisaism. And most people seem to be rubbing along OK - going synagogue on the Sabbath. Up to the Temple on a semi-regular basis. It's a predominantly Judaic society. Albeit the Romans are the secular power, and that causes a bit of friction.

And John the Baptist comes in and says, "repent". A baptism for the repentance of sins. He's tearing down high places and raising up low ones, because he's building a highway, he says. A highway for the king.

Creation of a new highway is a radical thing. They're putting in the new Dunstable bypass at the minute - what will be a gleaming new structure, carrying people from Luton to Leighton Buzzard. And people from Leighton Buzzard to Luton. Some would say they've not thought this through. But there's a massive amount of work going on. Great swathes of countryside being torn up. To those of us who know that little swathe of countryside, north of Luton and Dunstable, and love it - it's a shocking sight. The reference points are being destroyed - the lie of the land changed. The skewed crossroads at what I always called Sundon Cross has been taken to pieces.

That's what happens when a new road goes in. Everything and everyone's expectations get realigned. There's a new way to get from A to B.

That's where the Church is now. We had a model. It said we are the Church, and as it happens we align to society. And Society aligns to us. Good citizens come to Church and all is well. Society will be well-ordered, everyone will behave quite well, and as a bit of a bonus you can go to heaven at the end.

Everything about that model is broke now. If people don't go to Church, it is no longer regarded as their problem. We don't have to get on our high horses when people show no Biblical literacy - there are people in our society, some of them probably still thinking they're Christians according to the old model - who don't know how to construct a simple, one-sentence prayer. And that's not their fault. While the world they lived in changed radically, we kept our old model of Church and Society - and they all lost interest.

I guess the call is the same as with John the Baptist - a call to repentance and baptism. Repentance isn't just about saying sorry. Repentance is about recognising that we've been going wrong, and we're going to have to change direction.

We've continued to sink our energies into buildings. We've continued to think we have a right to be heard. We've assumed that people may have wandered away but they're still basically just Christian, and as long as we stay the same things will be all right.

Well maybe now the time is to change. We have a road to build. And the top-down strategies of the past have failed. I remember the Decade of Evangelism. What an achievement. Ten years of slow decline, it could have been called. The assumption that the structures of the Church are for the best have been exposed as the wrongdoing of priests and pastors - only a few, out of the vast, vast majority - got ignored or hidden for fear that the organisation might be tainted. Well it's tainted now. All the arguments over modern language, inclusive language, furniture rearrangement - they're all just noise when it's the whole package, not just the wrapping, that people aren't even rejecting - they just don't care.

We have a road to build. We've got to see where our valleys are getting in the way - the sorts of places where we get bogged down, in arguments and point-scoring and name-calling - and we've got to raise them up. We've got to have a new way in the desert.

And we've got to go up to those high places - where we've worshipped the institution, or the building, or the way we've always done things, or the idea that Father is right - and we've got to flatten them. There's a chalk cutting in Dunstable. Originally built by the Romans, deepened by the road builders of the 18th century. The top of the downs would be a nice place to stand. A great view north and west, over the Vale of Aylesbury and all the way out to the hills above Hockliffe or to Dunstable Downs. You could sit there for hours. But if anything was going to move they'd need to be on the road. And the only way the road would be right would be - if you were a Roman - flat and straight. So the hill had to go.

And then if we've flattened the high places and raised up the low ones we can get ready to see the King. But remember - this isn't a road for us. It's for him. When we have thrown down our false idols and given up our low ways, we're still waiting for him. It's the Way of the Lord.

That's another thing we have to remember about repentance. It's not something we have in us. We have tried schemes and plans and self-importance. We should really be trying waiting for Jesus. Getting where he is. In prayer, and on the road. Walking with the people he walked with. Going with humility and hope, not a claim that we have some state-given right to be heard. If we're walking with the ones Jesus walked with, we must be on the Lord's highway. It may not be the country lanes we'd like. It may not be going where we expected.  But that's the way he's coming.


  1. Excellent, Eileen. Did you make this announcement in church?

  2. There's an interesting video discussion of the question "Is Britain a Christian Country" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fbxLqQp0xc&feature=youtu.be


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