The Task Ahead - A snap-shot of Christianity in the North East

A transcript from the BBC Today programme, 14 December 2017, and referred to in the January Vicar's Note.

Nick Robinson (BBC Presenter): We're broadcasting from Lambeth Palace this morning and I've moved to the chapel where prayers will soon be held. Now if you choose to go to church this Christmas Eve, as so many of us will, you may struggle to find a place in the pews. But go to church just a week later, you'll probably be able to sit pretty much anywhere you like. This is a country that is becoming less and less religious and less and less Anglican. Fewer than a million attend Church of England services each week. That is less than the membership of the RSPB. Under the surface of the debates we so often hear about in the Church of England, whether it's about women bishops, or gay rights, is another debate: how to reach those people the Church currently struggles to reach.

A Street Pastor: …We pray that as we go out with the privilege of being able to serve you, that we would be able to demonstrate the love that Jesus brought into this world…

Nick Robinson: God, we're told, moves in mysterious ways and here on Saturday night on the streets of Newcastle, the party capital of the Northeast, and home to 67,000 students, there are many wonders that need to be performed. The legends (sic) who help those too drunk to help themselves are Newcastle's street pastors.

John Sinclair: Even when you're drunk, God loves you unconditionally.

Nick Robinson: The Reverend Canon John Sinclair is one of those who patrols the streets of this city offering a mixture of practical help and God's love.

John Sinclair: We do this, not to grow the church directly. The church forever really has said: here we are; come to us. Actually, we need to go out there because God is at work in people's lives out here so being out on the streets just makes the church available to them

Nick Robinson: There is, of course, nothing new in Christians reaching out beyond the pulpit. What is new, though, is the sense in the Church of England, that if they don't do so, the church risks an existential crisis. For the first time this year, more than half the British population describe themselves as having no religion. The percentage identifying themselves as Anglican has halved since the beginning of the Millennium to less than one in seven of the population

Vox Pops:
a) I don't not believe in it; I just never really thought about it.
b) I don't think much of the Church that much to be honest.

Christine Hardman: It does matter whether we manage to talk about God in a way that makes sense to people.

Nick Robinson: Christine Hardman is the Bishop of Newcastle

Christine Hardman: Rational discourse is now proving less effective actually in influencing and touching people. I think we're into a rather more emotional culture. I think story matters and I think lived out symbolism matches action matters and if I am trying to show the grace and truth of Jesus Christ – this is the scary bit – people will be taking more notice of how I am, what I do, than what I say.

Nick Robinson: Who you are in what respect?

Christine Hardman: Am I a loving person on the whole? Am I kind? Do I speak of faith in a way that sounds as if I mean it?

Nick Robinson: But what exactly it means to be a loving person is something the Church is desperately divided about. Some are yet to love women bishops. And a debate still rages about whether love between same-sex couples should be accepted, let alone celebrated

Clayton TV musical intro and the voice of Ian Garrett: If you're a Christian actually the worst impact of sexual sin is not on our self-worth or image or any of the other things that get damaged. The worst impact is in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Nick Robinson: Jesmond Parish Church is one of two parishes in Newcastle that are still holding out against the appointment of women bishops. It also maintains a traditional line on sexual relationships.

Ian Garrett: Experiencing desires, like same-sex attraction, for what's outside God's will - that isn't sin but running those desires into practice is.

Nick Robinson: It's an approach defended by Rod Thomas, the Bishop of Maidstone. He was appointed to minister to parishes that couldn't accept women in leadership roles. He believes that in a time of endless, often disorientating change, people crave certainty.

Rod Thomas: By all means change how you go about seeking to reach people. But if you change your message, you cease to provide people with spiritual food and at the end of the day, the real need that people have is for their spiritual hunger to be satisfied and that can only be done when people are clear about the Gospel message.

Nick Robinson: If for example some people say we need to change in our attitudes to sexuality, that's something you say no to?

Rod Thomas: Well, we have to understand why people are more and more concerned about that sort of issue and part of the reason is because people are very concerned about their identity: what it is that makes them who they are; what it is that makes them human.

Nick Robinson: But what have you got to say to gay men and women then?

Rod Thomas: I think we've got a great message because what we've got to say is that, in Jesus Christ, we find our identity primarily in him and in what he's made us to be – one aspect of ourselves – which is our sexuality.

Nick Robinson: This struggle between the Church's liberal and conservative wings is much more than a theological argument or one limited to the proceedings of the C of E's parliament, the General Synod. It's also about whether resisting social change, or embracing it, is more likely to make people turn up on a Sunday morning.

Andy Mason: Welcome to St John's Gym.

Nick Robinson: The Reverend Andy Mason runs a gym in St John's on the World's End estate just off the King's Road in Chelsea but a world away from it.

Andy Mason: 12 years' ago when we came here we looked into how we could reach local guys and we looked at what local guys were doing. We saw they did two things: they smoked weed and they lifted weights. And we thought, we can't smoke weed with them but we can lift weights.

Nick Robinson: Don't though confuse a change in the way this church communicates its message with a change to the message. This church was set up by a conservative evangelical group whose teaching would be seen by many as old fashioned.

Andy Mason: We find actually that, if we care about people, love people, but actually talk clearly about what the Bible talks about, people are very interested so we've found that people are actually quite drawn to what some people would see as the traditional teachings of the Bible, historic Christianity. People are actually very engaged by that.

Nick Robinson: Outside The Sinners Nightclub – yes The Sinners – Newcastle's street pastors have another call. Simon is huddled in an alleyway. They can't wake him but they leave him with a space blanket to keep out the cold. For those who can still walk, though not in the high heels they headed out in, the street pastors have another gift: flip flops. But shouldn't they be offered something else as well I asked the Bishop of Newcastle: advice that they're boozing too much, having too much sex and giving too little respect for God's values?

Christine Hardman: When we go just telling people how they should behave, or criticising their style, that actually isn't the way we resonate. People have got these big questions: am I leading my life the right way? Does my life have meaning? I have all sorts of conversations at a very deep level with people. Very often when things are going with difficulty in people's lives and then we're open to asking those deep questions.

Nick Robinson: Are you saying, at risk of being flippant, that what begins with the flip flops, can end with God?

Christine Hardman: Yes. I am saying that Nick.

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