In a BBC opinion poll out today, 46% of respondents agreed that Rowan Williams has helped the Church of England remain relevant to modern Britain. 27% disagreed, and 27% didn’t know. But what is all this business about being relevant? And how important is it? After all, the achingly trendy schoolteacher, desperately pretending to be one of the kids, is rightly a figure of fun. Is that what we mean by relevant? If so, then I suspect that the church is better off without it. Gimmicky relevance and trendy vicars are not going to make much difference to the broader arc of human history.Here's the broadcast (unfortunately the audio is slightly corrupted).
Indeed, by far the more important question is not whether what the church says is relevant but whether what it says is true. Is it true that God exists? Is it true that this God loves all human beings and seeks for them an existence that is fully and wonderfully alive? Is it true that Jesus died to free us from bondage to destructive self-absorption? You may think the answer to these questions is “no” – fair enough. But if the answer is “yes” - or even “perhaps” - then I think all this stuff about relevance looks after itself. Which is another way of saying that if the church wants to remain relevant, what it has to do is speak out of its deepest convictions. It has to re-tell its own story with passion and honesty. That will continue to be the job of the next Archbishop of Canterbury - who will be chosen by a meeting that starts later today.
It is an impossible job, of course. For there will be times when the church is saying something completely different to contemporary culture; when it will be deliberately out of step with the prevailing world-view. Christians ought to expect this to happen a lot - not least because we dream of a world that is transformed by God’s love, and, quite obviously, and in so many ways, the world in which we live is not a world thus transformed. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that Christians ought to be “resident aliens” – aliens because what we say seems so weird and out of touch with modern reality that it feels like it comes from another world.
And that’s is fine with me because I’m not all that enamoured with a great deal of what passes for modern reality. This is a world where millions die of starvation and where people continue to butcher each other for countless stupid reasons, including of course, stupid reasons created by religion itself. This is the reality the church must continually address and challenge. But let’s not call it relevance. We are not politicians wanting your votes. We are not shops wanting your business. The message of the church has been around for two thousand years, and I dare say is going to be around for another two thousand more. So we don’t really have to worry too much about focus groups or opinion polls. If what we say is true then it’s always going to be relevant. Indeed, it’s surely a matter of life and death.
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