If our Church disappeared from the face of England, would the nation be worse off?
Well, yes, of course it would; Christians are mostly an influence for good, we contribute large numbers of volunteers to society (big and small), we care for a very significant chunk of our cultural heritage. And yet, being brutally honest, for many of the population, Church does not touch their lives.
This is not so much because they don’t come to Church but rather because we have become much more inward looking. We are consumed with our own internal debates about women and gays, when the rest of the western world has moved on. And when we do engage with the wider world it is often on the basis of offering to rescue people from the wreckage of a fallen world. But actually, life is better – more comfortable, longer, with more opportunities – than it has ever been. There are things to challenge about society’s values but there are challenges it offers to us too – and we should not be surprised at peoples’ cynicism at a group which offers friendship and help concealing or not concealing a “come and join us” message. Indeed we ourselves would be equally cynical about others with this approach.
So we need to think about our engagement with our communities and wider society. Survey evidence from the Diocese of Carlisle (eg Archdeacons Article of Enquiry 2010) showed that most of our parishes do not engage and have no idea what engagement might mean. Parishes gave as examples of engagement: Coffee after Church on Sunday, outreach, fundraising dances, pastoral care of people in the village, and Songs of Praise services; these are all excellent and important but they are not community engagement. Yet one of the marks of Discipleship is Community Engagement.
Community Engagement is about Justice, and about Peace; it is about listening, understanding and making a difference; it is about connecting with people and valuing them for themselves (not as potential converts) – because all of these are the ways in which Jesus dealt with the world.
There are three or four areas of work which we think it might be right to concentrate on at the moment. One is domestic violence – and indeed offending generally, with Christian thinking about restorative justice (where the offender is given a chance to pay back to the victim). Another is low paid work in our county – think of the gangs of cockle pickers in the south, or the foreign workers in tourism (waiters, chamber maids, etc).
A third is financial exclusion and debt. Many people with nothing to offer by way of security, and needing money in the short term, fall into the hands of loan sharks charging many hundreds or even a thousand percent interest. Credit Unions have been running for some time to offer something different – many of them with Church volunteers at their heart.
Would the world be worse off without us? When we are shaped by our worship – in which we are called in by God, transformed, and sent out – when we turn outwards in word and work, we may find the world surprisingly interested and interesting.