As I take up office as Bishop in the Diocese of Chester, I am acutely aware that on an average Sunday only around 2.5 per cent of the population will attend an Anglican place of worship.
The cultural fall out from the widespread apathy towards, or rejection of, the Christian Gospel in our land is a factor behind a myriad of social trends, from sharply increased rates of suicide and crime, to unacceptable rates of family break up, and abortion. Indeed, our persistent failure adequately to address a host of social problems suggests that they are beyond any merely secular or political solution.
As the churches seek to respond to this challenge, I believe that for many people the place to start is simply with a sense of wonder. Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to say that `there is a space within each of us which only God can fill'. It is, I believe, innate in all human beings to have a sense of transcendence and of wonder. It is experienced in many ways, including, but not limited to, religious contexts. It may be when you fall in love, and suddenly the whole world is transformed. It may be to hold a new-born child, or at key moments in family life. It can be true when you are present with someone as their life slips away. It can be the beauty of a sunrise or sunset.
These moments, when the world is transfigured with special meaning, illustrate and embody the human potential to know God. That potential, and these moments, bubble irrepressibly up in human existence, but in doing so they have to fight against the tendency in western culture to cash everything out in analytical lumps, to be examined and dissected. The desire to know can become self-destructive, if it does not recognise its own limits, and the things that pass beyond knowledge. We are living in the midst of a new industrial revolution, driven by the amazing possibilities of information technology. In human affairs, information should serve knowledge, and knowledge should serve the higher purposes of wisdom. When mere information, no matter how sophisticated or entertaining the medium in which it is embodied, serves no higher purpose it will enslave and deaden the true human potential in each of us.
It was an Eastern Orthodox priest making an official visit to the Church of England in the 1980s who remarked that, `this Church needs a lot of prayer and fasting and silence and solitude'. We need to beware of `poor, little, talkative Christianity'.
I can remember the shock of the death in 1961 of that remarkable Secretary- General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, in a plane crash. In the world of the early 1960s, drifting ever deeper into the cold war, he stood out as a beacon of hope. He wrote this in his personal diary: `God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.'
It is the task of the Church to point to this potential around and in us, and to articulate the innate sense of God which is present in everyone. Above all, this will require humility - it was T S Eliot who said that the true wisdom is always the wisdom of humility, because humility is endless. It will also need much patience. The world around us may be descending into a miasma of aggressive soundbites but the task of the Church is patiently to bear witness to its faith in the living God, who will always outlast the short-sighted obsessions which so blight the modern world.
An essential part of the churches' witness is embodied in worship. The Church of England is currently engaged in a renewal of its worship, on a scale unprecedented since the Reformation. There are signs that the long twentieth-century decline in church attendance is over. The challenge before us is to integrate the enduring elements in old and new alike into a true and inner renewal of worship, which feeds the spirit and points to the wonder of God.
There is a short prayer, which was also found in Dag Hammarskjold's papers, which sums up the way in which I wish to approach my new ministry as a Bishop:
For all that has been - Thanks!
For all that shall be - Yes!Reuse content