Embarrassed about God talk?
The Revd Stephen Hance is the Church of England’s National Lead on Evangelism and Discipleship and has recently written a book in the Grove Books series about how he thinks people perceive the Church of England. From his ‘research’ (PCN wasn’t consulted!) he concludes that ‘people’ think ‘we’ are embarrassed about God. He expands his thinking in an article in the Church Times of November 12th. Hance quotes a person in a round table discussion who wonders if the Church now prefers to talk about good works rather than ‘God’. He worries that people who wish to explore matters of spirituality do not see the C of E as a possible partner in that enterprise. As for bishops or theologians, (he seems to think you cannot be both!) when they speak into the public sphere their voice is no longer distinctive because of self -evident shared values which folk don’t realise come out of our Christian culture (!). Hance then goes on to say, unsurprisingly , that we all need to witness what God has done in our lives and link back all our visions for a better society to our faith tradition.
As I read this I became more and more despondent. The initial alert to the distinct lack of ‘God talk’ could have been such an exciting venture theologically in which to engage the Church Times readers but of course instead we had only the call to be better evangelists and no discussion whatsoever about what we mean by ‘God!’ So I sent the following letter to the Church Times and the response was very interesting.
Here is my letter to the Church Times
Stephen Hance writes about a public perception that the Church does not know what it believes about God. As the National Lead on Evangelism and Discipleship, Hance asserts that people think 'we' (presumably speaking on behalf of the whole Church) are embarrassed about God. Well I can agree with and assure Stephen Hance that there are many of us who are embarrassed at the unintelligent, at times infantile and dogmatically emasculated way in which most senior clergy in the main conduct their theological discourse. The masculine sky God who sends a Son to earth to redeem sinful humanity by a blood sacrifice is alive and well in the liturgies and pronouncements of the churches. And this God talk is delivered by 'gifted evangelists' with the presumption that the Church has the complete packaged answer, unchanged since Nicea and all that must happen is for it to be delivered newly and attractively wrapped for the consuming general public.
Sadly for Mr Hance, there are millions of people whose experiences of life would raise far more complex questions about the existence and nature of a Creator God, who welcome exploring spirituality in the widest sense and across all faith traditions. Until the Church of England is prepared once again to engage with doubts and questions in a way which invites honesty as did Bishop Robinson all those years ago, 'confidence and boldness' will not even scratch the surface of people's lives.
Since the publication of my letter I have had some really interesting correspondence:
Margaret, a churchwarden in the Oxford diocese write : ‘I send you my whole hearted agreement with everything you say…..A friend, warden in a different area, recently told me what a relief and help it had been to discover that I did not swallow much of the doctrine which we are regularly fed. I know a number of clergy also disbelieve it but must seem afraid to say so for fear of upsetting the laity’.
Claire, an ordained person from London rang to thank me and looked forward to joining PCN!
Richard, a lay preacher in Bedford, wrote a kind letter in support, saying “God is more loving than we can ever be and without the need to spill blood!’
Ed, a university chaplain sent an email : Just a quick line to thank you for your wonderful Church Times letter this week. Spot on - a thousand upticks!
Andy, a clergyman from Leeds wrote: the massive decline parishes are experiencing is in part down to the intelligence and sophistication of people today and their inability to relate to a church where the order of the day is theologically semi literate evangelicalism. Young people in my experience are much more likely to relate to and be part of churches where you don't have to swallow several impossible things before breakfast.
Howard Grace, the convenor of our Newbury group tells me that my letter was circulated to members of the group for discussion
Brian a retired cleric in London emailed his agreement and referred to an interesting article by Matthew Paris in the Times on 19 November , entitled ‘Anglicanism was never really about God ( worth a read if you can access it!)
So to all PCN members and readers of this blog, how embarrassed are we in our God talk and should we be challenging our churches to do God talk better? It goes back to ‘Honest To God’ in 1963, to decades of historical biblical criticism, to the writings of Jack Spong, to Marcus Borg’s book, ‘The God we Never Knew’ and countless conferences, books, articles which have opened up conversations about the notion of God. Is there hope to find such honest debate alive in our churches today?
What do YOU think?