February 2015

[Many thanks to our very good friend Richard for taking the time to write our leading article for the month]

Dear Friends

The nearest thing the clergy have to a trade’s union paper is the Church Times. Over the past century it has changed greatly. In January 1914 they printed a piece about the Germans arresting Cardinal Mercier of Belgium. He had written a pastoral letter counselling people to obey the invader whilst retaining an inward loyalty to their king and government. Clearly, the German army felt this was encouragement to resistance and put the Cardinal in irons. This showed, the paper wrote, the Germans' “entire lack of the finer feelings of gentleman”. One feels that the editors might have noticed the far wider atrocities committed by the enemy, but no, it was only the effect upon a Prince of the Church.

From being 'the Conservative Party at prayer' the Church of England has moved towards something more akin to a recruiting sergeant for the Labour Party (except at Wentworth, of course!!). The Church Times regularly contains comments by the Archbishops on this or that aspect of poverty or injustice. Food banks are commended, and the church encouraged to get involved, and the campaign against pay-day lenders is commented upon.

This reflects a wider shift in the life of the church, where parishes are always being urged to get involved in their areas and to ensure they do something socially useful. As a church noticeboard I passed in Sheffield recently said, “St X's, serving the community”.

It was interesting, therefore, to read a column on the opposite page to the one I have mentioned in which an American professor said that “religion is all the church has to offer outsiders”. There are countless opportunities to find community, either in the real world or in the digital realm (Facebook and the like); the church has no monopoly on this. And if the world appears a cold and unforgiving place, where the poor are downtrodden and injustice all too common, both governments and properly organised charities are far better placed to meet those needs than the church is.

Added to this, Harriet Barber (the professor's name) has noticed a parallel lack of confidence within the church, which is conscious of the fact that faith is declining and doubt increasing. The two answers have often been, make the church useful (the trend I mention above), and remove as much religion from it as possible. Take away mystery from worship, and replace it with something simpler, more banal, more easily understood. And if people say, “I'm not sure about this or that belief”, say, “Well, it doesn't matter anyway”. It's all redolent of a 1960s theological fashion called 'religionless Christianity'.

Harriet Barber says that the church, in its attempt to rid itself of ceremony and mysticism, was ridding itself of everything she came for (from a non-believing background, significantly). And if it is no more than a 'community' devoted to political action and social service, it has nothing distinctive to offer to the world. The secular world can find all that within its own resources. The only thing it cannot provide is the supernatural. Another quote: “the Church is the window, always open, to another world of glory and bliss beyond nature”.

I have always believed that what Wentworth Church does best is worship. It isn't the sort of thing you'd find on every street corner, it is couched in unfamiliar words, and it makes no attempt to be modern and relevant. But that is the whole point. Worship is 'the Other', a window on realities – God, redemption in Christ, heaven – that can be found nowhere else. And, to change the metaphor slightly, it is a door through which people from the same secular background as Harriet Barber will walk. They are not put off by old-fashioned language, or strange ceremonial. Instead, these become signposts pointing to a new and different reality.

So, keep that window ajar, a window “to another world of glory and bliss”. No-one but the church can do this; faith is the one thing which the church does best, its single unique selling point

Whilst writing, perhaps I can just pass on that Sylvia is making slow but steady progress after her surgery. I don't think she'll ever be quite so quick on her pins as she was, but we are thankful for the improvements already evident. And may I thank on behalf of Sylvia and myself all those who took the trouble to write or to visit after her operation last year. It was all much appreciated, and made us feel that we still belonged to the church family. More's the pity that we cannot do so on a regular basis, but the church gets quite edgy about its 'departing vicar' rules. For our part, we still feel a natural concern whenever we learn of any member of the congregation's troubles. Let's hope there won't be too many of them in 2015!

Richard Buckley