Church and State in the New Millennium

Church and State in the New Millennium is the title of a new book to be published on 4 January. 'Every month, or nearly every month, I write a "Coloured Supplement" in the Jesmond Parish Church Newsletter (in the pulpit we believe we should be expounding the Bible directly). I have looked back at, and "refreshed", some of that material. I also give lectures for the Newcastle-based Christian Institute (which remarkably influenced legislation over the last decade of the twentieth century) and I write papers for Reform (the Anglican campaigning group) from time to time. I have included some of that material as well. Most of it has been rewritten. My editor suggested that I should personalize the discussion from my own experience, so there is also some autobiography. I hope this will be helpful and not self-advertising!' This I say in the introduction. (The book is published by HarperCollins, 257 pages, £16.99).

What I have written is meant to be an analysis from a Christian perspective of British and western society at the start of the new millennium. In summary, I argue for a new politics. 'A recent Lord Chancellor's Department Consultation Paper said that "recent trends in society indicate that politics is becoming more cultural or value based"' (p.viii); hence 'the current "two-party" system of government cannot give leadership in respect of these significant issues'; and hence the importance of a clear voice from the Christian Church in Public life.

Subtitled, 'issues of belief and morality for the 21st century', the book deals with research evidence on the benefits of belief. It deals with 'damaged children'; with private morality affecting public performance; with Prince Charles 'as things stand' not becoming king (p 55); and with Europe. A range of historical and philosophical issues are touched on. Important for our schools are the issues of 'multifaith' religion and 'Evolution and Creation'. Chapters entitled 'War over the Family and Abortion'; 'The Bible and Homosexuality'; and 'Stemming the Tide of Divorce' speak for themselves. The last chapters address questions of the truth of Christianity and the future of the Church, where 'denominations as we know them are probably going to become things of the past' (p 221).

The following is an extract that may be of particular interest at JPC from chapter 13, 'The Changing World and the Changing Church', (pp 209 - 217).

Starting Out

In late 1972 I was asked by Jim Higginbottom, the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where I had been on the staff as a tutor and lecturer in doctrine and ethics for a short period, if I would be willing to look at Jesmond Parish Church as a possibility for future ministry. I was willing, and I accepted the invitation to become vicar of Jesmond. I was instituted in January 1973 and have been there ever since.

When I accepted the invitation I was fairly certain it would be for a long-haul. I was told that there was a need, as Jim Higginbottom put it, to work with graduates who lived in the area. On looking at the church, it was obvious to me that it also needed to develop a significant undergraduate student ministry. With parts of the University of Newcastle in its parish, as well as the Polytechnic (now the University of Northumbria) and three top schools, along with BBC Radio Newcastle, the Civic Centre, Trades Union Headquarters and the Mansion House, it clearly could be what its founders had intended it to be when it was consecrated in 1861: a church 'in which evangelical truth shall be declared [and which would] form a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth in a large and populous town.'

The church seemed to have lost its way earlier in the twentieth century. It became, as someone put it, 'the most exclusive club in Northumberland'. It had a great musical tradition; it was also a centre for Freemasonry, but this had put a spiritual ceiling on the church. The church was, therefore, hardly Evangelical. It was a 'low' church - hostile to ritualism but not too concerned with the Bible.

All that changed with my predecessor, Roger Frith. A decided Evangelical, he preached the basic fundamentals of the faith. The result was a 'backdoor revival' - that is, many people left. It was spiritually too 'hot' for them. You could not find a more gentle man than Roger, but the clear and simple presentation of Christian truth meant that people were challenged and some did not like it. Others, however, were converted and younger people started coming to the church. Overtly Christian youth work started; and students began to attend.

When I arrived at the church in 1973 all the spadework had, therefore, been carried out. True, the numbers were small; true, much still had to be done. But I was not only convinced that God had called me to work in Newcastle and at Jesmond - I was also convinced that the church could grow.

How was it best to start? Everything I learnt from my curacy at St George's, Leeds, where I was privileged to work under Raymond Turvey, was learnt by osmosis. He told me bluntly he had no time to teach me anything; my colleague, the other curate, could teach me what was necessary. But the mere experience of working as minister to students in that large, city-centre church in Leeds, with hundreds in the congregation and more visiting its Crypt social work centre, was far more beneficial than any formal instruction. It taught me the importance of having a big vision and simple faith in God, for this was what Raymond Turvey had. For all his disclaimers, however, he did teach me three things, at least, about starting off in a new church.

The first lesson was that you must begin with prayer. The second, that you must then preach and teach the whole gospel. From day one, therefore, the Sunday preaching programme at Jesmond was of primary importance. Now, with the church having grown significantly, every sermon is published as a booklet, and is also on audio and video cassette, and on the Jesmond Parish Church website. The third lesson was that you must establish a crèche. My wife, a paediatrician, was soon put in charge of the crèche at Jesmond, where she has been responsible for hundreds of babies over the years since then. If you have a crèche run to professional standards (or better), young married couples will feel secure in leaving their babies there. Not only do you have new sources of leadership potential, you have a 'young' church. Change becomes easier and the church relates more naturally to changes in the wider culture.


In 1973 that was all I knew about 'church growth'. Common sense dictated a number of other things, including the need for more staff. I knew that the ministry of any church is not just that of the vicar or other paid church employees (at Jesmond at the time there was one curate and a verger who occupied the church flat). Other, non-full-time people were asked to lead in the various groups that were developing. But such growth as we were beginning to experience also required more full-time workers. There is a myth that the more you use lay people the less you need professionals or full-timers. The reverse is the case. You need more full-time staff to facilitate the work of non-full-time lay people. We started to employ extra-staff.

In view of the centralism that was developing in the Church of England during the 1970s, we decided to operate independently. This was necessary in terms of both economy and efficiency. We therefore set up the Jesmond Trust, to which congregational members could give and which could hold property and, when necessary, fund staff. The result, under God, of what we did and are doing is church growth. At the time of writing there are now over 20 on the church staff including some working part-time and with only two 'official' Anglican staff (myself and one of my clerical colleagues). These minister to a congregation now averaging over 900 different people on a Sunday, from babies to the elderly. Our regular congregation - people who genuinely treat Jesmond Parish Church as their spiritual home - is in excess of 1,000.

In the early years at Jesmond, however, life was very different and difficult. Many changes were required. It was clear that preaching and teaching the Bible had to be a top priority. It was something that urgently had to be recovered nationally in every church in the light of the serious drift following the 1960s. I was also clear that biblical preaching alone was not sufficient. There are some words of the Anglican Reformer, Richard Hooker, which I have long believed to be important. He said that the Church is 'a society and a society supernatural.'

What does that mean? Simply this: the normal dynamics of human interaction do not cease for church groups or Christian churches. A church is still 'a society', for all that it is also 'a society supernatural'. The theological axiom that grace does not deny nature but perfects it is self-evidently true. Human management skills are required of congregational leaders as well as spiritual maturity and gifts. Too many good Christian leaders, however, only concentrate on the Church being a 'society supernatural'. They preach the Bible; they pray; they care for individuals - but they have little idea how to lead and help manage 'groups', whether large or small.

In my early days at Jesmond there was no one to help me learn how to manage a growing church. For most of the time I was flying blind and using a mixture of common-sense and help from secular management teaching. Secular management teaching, however, is often inadequate because a church is not a business or a government agency. It is a voluntary non-profit organization where motivation is everything in terms of getting things done. That contrasts with a voluntary for-profit organization (a business) where financial considerations are everything; or a non-voluntary non-profit organization (like the State and its agencies), where penal sanctions can be applied.

In 1979 I went to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, to their School of World Mission and their department of Church Growth, in order to 'audit' the Doctor of Ministry programme. It was stimulating. I was introduced to a whole range of thinking that was only common-sense, but in the light of my six years' experience at Jesmond, too easily ignored. I was also introduced to some authors whose writings on church management I have read avidly ever since.

All of this has led to our mission statement at Jesmond: 'Godly living, Church Growth and Changing Britain.' That is to say, there is a need for individual conversion and growth of faith in Christ. But an individual also needs to be in a lively, supportive fellowship. And then there is a duty towards the State, to see God's standards met as far as possible in the public arena.

A commitment to evangelism should mean all of this, but so often the neglected factor is a commitment to church growth. That is so necessary if the goal is not decisions but disciples. Of course, there must be no artificial creation of growth by underhand means. If there is no truth in a church, if the apostolic faith is not being taught, numerical growth will normally not occur. It is a fact, established years ago by Dean Kelly in Why Conservative Churches are Growing, that theologically liberal churches which deny or drift from the basics of the faith are usually not growing. Occasionally they do. A notorious case in Britain in 1995 was the Anglican 'Nine O'clock Service' in Sheffield, which the Archbishop of Canterbury described as 'a blow to the entire church.' These 'creation rock' services with a New Age theology attracted many, but were accompanied by abuse and a cult structure. Generally, however, it is the biblically orthodox churches which grow.

At Jesmond there has been growth that has been encouraging and, happily, more healthy. Over the last quarter of the twentieth century we saw hundreds upon hundreds of students built up in the Christian faith and then going out to other parts of the country (and the world) to work and witness for Christ. Over the last five years of the century the congregation grew by one third. This in turn helped support the student and youth work. It has been a privilege to work at Jesmond. There has been, and is, a wonderful staff team and very supportive lay leaders and congregational members. There is much to thank God for. But we cannot take the future for granted at Jesmond. There is opposition as a result of us being so firmly biblical, and this comes even from within Anglicanism. That is why, when I look out at the wider Church, particularly the Church of England, far from finding similar encouragement, there is so much that is discouraging. In fact there is a crisis in the Church at the very time when the Church should be ready for a great future and could be growing.

The 21st Century

Just before he died in 1976, André Malraux the French novelist and politician said, 'The twenty-first century will be religious or it will not be at all.' That is a rather cryptic but, I believe, important remark.

Richard Neuhaus, the ex-Lutheran Roman Catholic sociologist has this view of the future:

At the threshold to the Third Millennium, it seems that the alternatives to religion have exhausted themselves. That is true of the materialistically cramped rationalisms of the Enlightenment encyclopaedists, which along with ideological utopianisms, both romantic and allegedly scientific, have been consigned, as Marxists used to say, to the dustbin of history. The perversity of the human mind will no doubt produce other ideological madnesses, but at the moment it seems the historical stage has been swept clean, with only the religious proposition left standing.

In a similar vein, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington has written a major work on the future entitled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Henry Kissinger calls this 'one of the most important books to have emerged since the end of the Cold War'. Huntington's thesis is that world affairs in the nineteenth century were chiefly determined by the nation-state, and in the twentieth century by ideology; but in the twenty-first century they will be dominated by religion - by the conflict of civilizations, with civilizations being defined by cultures and cultures defined by religion. The collapse of communism does not, therefore, point to a simple worldwide embrace of democratic capitalism and Western values and vices. Rather, he sees an era of conflict that will be deep seated and endemic. And the West will be at a great disadvantage, with its Christian culture having disintegrated under an elitist imposition of a noncohesive relativism and pluralism. 'Peoples and countries with similar cultures are coming together,' writes Huntington. 'Peoples and countries with different cultures are coming apart.'

Who can deny that? You only have to look at the Balkans, the Sudan and the Indian subcontinent. It is quite frightening. Huntington's thesis is that culture is eclipsing both nationalism and ideology as the nexus of politics. And at the heart of culture, argues Huntington, is religion: 'In the modern world religion is a central, perhaps the central force that motivates and mobilizes people.'

The eight distinctive civilizations, according to Huntington, are: Islamic, Sinic (with China the core), the West (with the US the core), Orthodox (with Russia the core), Japanese, Hindu, Latin American and African. The most dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance and Sinic assertiveness.

That is the picture for the international, worldwide scene. What about the future of Western society, and society in the UK in particular? If this worldwide scenario is correct, there will be a significant process of desecularization. There will be a new consciousness regarding culture and religion. For the State this will reduce the significance of what is currently understood as the 'political' and the 'structural' and heighten the importance of the 'cultural' and the 'religious'.

David Martin, the Anglican English sociologist, seems to echo this new analysis in his study, Forbidden Revolutions. He argues against the 'misleading polarity ... between culture and structure, where the former is seen as derivative and passive and the latter as the arena of effective power and political action.' His point is that, for the past hundred years, religion and culture (and so, we may add, personal behaviour and belief) have been progressively considered marginal and part of people's private lives. The real action of life, it is said, takes place in 'the structures' and so in 'the politics of society.' But what we saw in the second half of the twentieth century, he says, was a contradiction of that. The cultural and religious margins around the world changed the so-called centre and structures - certainly in Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Martin is surely correct. Structures are subordinate; beliefs are primary. That has huge implications not just for our national corporate life but also for institutional churches, or churches with developed structures. At the end of the day, biblical and apostolic belief, prayer and straightforward evangelism - bringing men and women to faith in Christ - are central, while the structures (such as parliamentary and synodical life) are marginal.

The Crisis in the West

But can the West meet this new challenge? The process of secularization has so weakened the West, not only in terms of social coherence but also in terms of spiritual discernment. A public creative response to this new and emerging situation will be difficult. Secularization is not just the product of a loss of faith. It is the product of thinking that the Church and State have no relationship to each other. It has come from thinking that the Christian faith is irrelevant to everyday life and that society has no need for the truths expressed in the Bible and the Christian tradition. The effect of such secularization is ultimately to de-moralize society. It leads to the assertion that the Christian faith has nothing to say about the goals that men and women should aim for in life, or about the way they should conduct their lives once they are clear about their goals.

Secularization means that the West is ill prepared for a 'religious' twenty-first century. Calvin's claim in the sixteenth century is now not looking so foolish after all. He argued, presumably referring to Greek and Roman authors, that we could learn 'from the pagan writers'. He said,

There is not one of them who, when dealing with the duties of magistrates, law-making and the civil order, did not begin with religion and divine worship. By so doing, they all acknowledged that no polity can be well constituted, unless it makes duties owed to God its first concern, and that for laws to attend only to the well-being of men, while disregarding what is owed to God, is an absurdity.

While governments cannot legislate for faith, they can legislate to protect believers and to maintain moral standards. You cannot legislate to make people good; but you can legislate to stop the worst effects of their wrongdoing. The fact that Western governments were not always doing this in the twentieth century means that in the twenty-first century there will need to be significant spiritual renewal for the West to maintain a recognizable form of civilization. Nor should we be expecting a 'perfect' civilization from such renewal. What is wanted is simply a civilization where the majority not only admit that the Christian way of life is right and normal but also seek to shape its institutions accordingly. This will only happen as the Christian Church seeks to widen the frontiers of the kingdom of God. It can do that by increasing the number of Christians through evangelism, and by involving itself more thoroughly in all aspects of human life and society.

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