It’s locked in my memory, my first ever Bradford City game. The year is 1986 and our next-door neighbour agreed I could go with him to see City play Huddersfield Town. We are stood in the crowd behind the goal, the ball is played into our centre forward, he is a couple of feet out in the box, it looks like a certain goal. Instead he manages to sky the ball over the cross-bar, the cheers stop in our mouths and turn to oohs followed by mocking laughter from our opponents supporters.
Has the church missed an open goal during Coronavirus? Douglas Murray, writing in the Spectator seems to think so. All this week, the magazine has been pushing his article suggesting that the church somehow went missing in action during lockdown.
The basis of his argument seems to be two-fold. First of all, that buildings were closed to public worship, without a whimper of protest and secondly that the national leadership of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches went missing in action when
“The vacancy throughout this period was an Archbishop of Canterbury – shaped one”
Well, he does acknowledge that local churches have been running online services via zoom and Facebook which is kind of him. Look a bit further and he will notice that churches have been doing more than that, they have often been in the forefront of things like foodbanks, delivering help to people’s doors, offering prayer and listening ears via phone and video calls or socially-distanced walks. The much-derided national leadership of the CofE organised a weekly BBC service and a daily phone in option where you can hear a hymn and listen to a short talk from Justin Welby. The church has been far from missing in action.
The point is that the very things he acknowledges and skims over, local congregations active in their local communities are the very things that show that the church is present. The Church is not about national leaders and physical buildings, it is about God’s people anywhere and everywhere worshipping him, bringing good news and living as salt and light in this world. That’s exactly what The Church has been doing.
Read further into the article and you will get to the heart of the real complaint that Murray has. The church has spoken up, particularly on #BlackLivesMatter and the problem of racism. Murray sees the evidence of senior church leaders from Black and other ethnic minority backgrounds speaking against racism as proof that racism hasn’t been a problem for them. The irony is this. The church here was far from silent. It was just talking about something that Mr Murray did not want to hear about. But that’s exactly what it means to have an active Church. We frequently talk about the presence of a real, living, active, speaking God meaning that we must be prepared for him to disagree with us. The Church will speak about sin and judgement, and people won’t like it.
Interestingly, several leading. independent evangelicals have been quick to suggest that Murray has a point if he is talking about the national leadership of the main-stream CofE but is wrong is talking about local evangelical churches.
My response to this would be two-fold. Surely, the point we want to make is that it is local congregations of Bible believers that make up the church, not national organisations and spokesmen. Secondly, whilst we disagree with the theology and message of some who present themselves as speaking for the church but do not because they have thrown away the message, the point is that on his own terms, Murry is wrong. The church as he sees it has not been absent and in hiding, it has been active and we would do well, in the interests of truth to state that.
However, because we believe that there is a better message than moralism and ritual that will help people to “prepare to meet the creator” and to speak of the love of God, we do have something to say to many of our friends in the higher echelons of the national church. It is, in the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler, “One thing you lack….”
The desire to be active, showing compassion and speaking out against the sin of racial and other injustices is good and comes from the best of motives. However, if we leave it at that, then we have left people with legalism. We have told them of sin and judgment, we have left them with an example to try and follow but we have not given them the Gospel. Without the Gospel, Murray is right, even though he may not realise how close to the truth he is: people will not be ready to meet their maker and they will not have fully and truly heard about God’s love.
The message that has been going out via Facebook and Zoom from the kitchen tables of our vicarages and manses, the message that has been going out in lots of individual conversations between friends and families is this.
“For God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)