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Denier or panicker

Advent 3: 17 December, 2017
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as the prophet Isaiah said. (John 1:23)

What sort of Christian are you? A denier or a panicker? This is a polarity in the Church of England that Bishop Humphrey Southern, principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon, has pointed out. An article reflecting on Bp Humphrey's observation, published in the UK's Spectator magazine, notes (https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/12/mission-impossible-the-c-of-es-attempt-to-woo-new-members/):

If you work for the Church of England in any capacity, from Archbishop of Canterbury to parish flower-arranger, how do you deal with the distressing statistics that in the past 20 years, average Sunday attendance has plummeted to 780,000 and is going down by a rate of about 20,000 a year?
Do you pretend it's not happening and just tell everyone about the spike in your numbers at Christmas, or accept that it might be happening but believe that God's grace will deal with the problem in its own good time? Or do you throw your weight behind a vast national marketing initiative, hurling millions of pounds at the problem?

The 2016 Census here in Australia tells a similar story. In 2011 there were 17.1% of Australians who ticked the "Anglican" census box, last year that figure plummeted to 13.3%. That is a fall of 3.8%, or well over half a million people, in just five years.

How do you react to that reality in your Church? Are you a panicker or a denier? I put this question to our Parish Wardens, and they came back with some very thoughtful reflections, which they kindly have given me permission to share with you. One was very clear: "I am an unapologetic panicker! We have to increase numbers, and we have to reduce the age. Other churches can do it, I'm sure we can too."

Another Warden reflected:

I want so say 'neither! Or 'both'. Though I remember years ago in politics someone said: 'If you are in the middle of the road you could be hit by an oncoming bus'. But I don't buy that. Knowing each side and drawing something from each is valid. Or perhaps rather, being realistic but not panicking, and bearing in mind the lives of people today, being willing to 'think outside the square' but being driven by prayerful action, not dumb sales gimmickry ....
What we have to engage in, is not sales, or financial imprudence, or being an expensive museum piece .... At the moment, our congregation is ageing. Age, in itself, doesn't matter. But if we allow ourselves to nurture the conservative and risk averse, selfish and stubborn aspects of old age, we will rob our successors. If we fail to nurture the essence of faith, the life of the spirit, the wonder and mystery of the Christian life, and affirm its presence in our lives, and strive to live as we have been asked to do, then we might as well shut up shop now and find other things to do. So, no panic, no complacency, no wrecking.

Our third Warden responded:

There are two dimensions where we need to grow: quality and quantity. If we stay still, ageing will mean we will slowly not survive as a parish (the cost of unkeep will force us out).
I think if we grow qualitatively we will also end up growing quantitatively too. What do I mean growing qualitatively? or growing in quality? I mean increasing the depth of our commitment, the depth of our knowledge. My own view is we need to keep a substantial proportion of the parish growing in their faith other than through ordinary Sunday attendance (not that that is unimportant). So we need to have lots of faith exploration/development opportunities: Institute of Spiritual Studies, Mystics Anonymous, Education for Ministry, Lenten and Advent groups, our Bookshop ministry etc.
For me, the type of growth is important. Mere 'people in pews' is not a good measure. We have to be doing all this without losing our Anglo-Catholic flavour. And what do I mean by that? Anglo-Catholicism is first and foremost (in my view) a tradition which is about an engaged church: that is, it is not a naïve Pauline church of the dogmatic, evangelical kind (emphasis on grace and faith), but one emphasising faith AND works (as Paul himself also said) .... In addition we have the beautiful liturgy, but that to me does not define Anglo-Catholicism, as much as some at St Peter's might think it does.
Quantitative growth is important too, and we are holding our own I think rather than making dramatic shifts. But holding our own is OK. For me an important development is the [new RMIT Chaplaincy initiative] where I think our outreach will be crucial and should be a major priority for our Mission Action Plan for 2018.

Our gospel reading today encourages us to reflect again on John the Baptist. The Church, or rather the Synagogue, in his day was in trouble too. Was he a denier or a panicker I wonder?

Certainly many people were looking to him for answers in this crisis of faith. "Are you Elijah?" they asked him. He denies it, here in John's account, but the rumours were still rife. In Matthew's gospel (17:10-13) after the transfiguration, when Elijah had appeared to the disciples in their mountain-top mystical experience, even Jesus himself equates John the Baptist with the great prophet Elijah. He says, "'Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things: but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognise him ...' Then the disciples understood" Matthew writes, "that Jesus was speaking to them about John the Baptist."

One of the most concise and powerful summaries of the character and actions of Elijah, in the time of crisis that he found himself in, is found in the Book of Sirach. Let me read this short passage to you:

Then Elijah arose, a prophet of fire, and his word burned like a torch. He brought famine upon the people, and by his zeal he made them few in number. By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens, and also three times brought down fire. How glorious you were, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!

Hold on! What did we just hear? He brings famine, he reduces the size of the congregation, he preaches and there is a drought, and three times he brings down fire. What is glorious about that?

A clue lies a few verses later: "Happy are those who saw you [Elijah] and were adorned with your love! For we also shall surely live."

This is way past the categories of panicker or denier? This prophet of fire, saw the people through famine, persecution, unpopularity, and natural disaster. Rather than wallow in misery, despair and self-pity; those who saw Elijah, who were inspired by him, experienced this as being cloaked in love. This was life; life in its fullest sense.

Elijah; John the Baptist; panicker or denier? Neither! Lover of God and neighbour, and spiritual life-giver ... no matter what; there's something in that for all of us today.


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