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Podium: Hand on the torch of faith

From the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech to the Anglican Conference on Evangelism, held in the Lake District
WHAT IS the missionary challenge to Anglicans in the next millennium? The answer is: "We must pay increasing attention to culture and mission." But how? My response is that the attention we pay must be prophetic attention.

The importance of this in the developing world has been explored quite thoroughly. Prophecy is about the redemption and transformation of culture. In those countries where injustice from governments both at home and abroad blights people's lives, the call for transformation has featured strongly in the growing volume of the prophetic cries for justice.

Nor do I need to remind you of the books that have been written on these subjects, beginning with those of the liberation theologians of Central and South America. Their theology has given those of us in the developed world a number of useful and valuable insights, but I think many people find it difficult to see how the prophetic prescriptions of such theologians can work in this country as it is now. How do we make our prophetic witness in the Church of England today?

Our culture seems to be one in which it is claimed that Christianity is dying a natural death, literally of "old age". Life is not as dramatic in Britain as it is in Latin America or Central Africa so, perhaps, it doesn't require a Christian revelation to interpret it.

We can certainly be grateful to Christianity for all it has given this country - but its moment has gone. We no longer need its structures, liturgy or life. We no longer feel the need for peace, security or hope in God. We get them from other sources: our wealth, our pleasures, our democracy. Sure, Christian evangelisation works in Africa - but not here. It's no longer necessary in the affluent, self-assured First World. So the argument goes.

But it is precisely because we are in a society with something of an allergy to religion that mission is crucial. A different type of mission it must be, but it is essentially the same task that is being performed so inspiringly in other parts of the world.

If we are to bring people to God, we need a distinctive prophetic witness that engages with our particular culture. What is more, prophets are rather like parents. They bring a mixture of inspiration and criticism. So too, there is no doubt that we need inspiration and indeed, a bit of self-searching criticism in this country at present. There are some hard things that need to be acknowledged by a prophetic mission. We must be honest about the kind of society we seek to serve at the turn of the century - a society that includes ourselves.

We are a society oppressed, in the main not by lack, but by surfeit; not by strife, but by ease. Of course, there is real poverty in our midst, but most people have benefited enormously from the rises in real incomes over the last few decades. We have gone from "You've never had it so good" to "You never had it too bad".

Few of us remain who can remember the last world war, when we were on our beam-ends. And we have paid a price for such comfort and ease. We are in a situation where the things of ultimate importance are invisible, obscured by the things of transitory glamour. The "love that abides for ever" cannot easily endure in such a culture. The Church says that now, and part of its mission will be to keep on saying it.

And we must be honest that when we do mission, when we try to witness to the God who has called us, we are criticising such a society.

The public we seek to evangelise are not stupid. They know that very often, the gospel being preached to them is an implicit criticism of their way of life. They are not going to like it. But particularly they will not like it if we try to disguise that fact. Or if we try to hide the radical implications of following this Lord. If all we say is: yes, it's obvious you lead a wonderful life, with your two lovely children, your two holidays a year, your two cars, two television sets, two videos, two microwaves, two heated towel rails... but - you also need God in your life; that's all that is missing.

Let us not see the end of this decade as a winding down, a cutting back of those actively involved in mission. Let us see this as the foundation upon which we continue to build. The church is one generation away from extinction.

Our generation is called upon to hand on our torch of faith to the generations of the third millennium. It will require all our vigour, all our energy, all our faith and enthusiasm. And it is God's prophetic mission that we share. It is a concern and a commitment that, I am sure, the new Archbishops' Council will take to heart, as must each bishop and every diocese.