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An Easter Vision – Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York

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The Empty Tomb of Jesus

In this special blog for Eastertide, Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, explains the Church of England’s new vision for the 2020s.

Easter is a time of great hope. It is the season when Christians remember Jesus’ death on the cross, his victory in resurrection, his ascension into heaven and the disciples receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That gift nearly 2000 years ago is the reason why Christianity continues to this day and why Easter is such an important celebration in the Christian calendar. 

It is with this same Easter hope, rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ that the Church of England has embarked on its vision for the 2020s. It was William Temple, when appointed Archbishop of York, who wrote to a friend to say, ‘It is a dreadful responsibility, and that is exactly the reason why one should not refuse’ (letter to F. A. Iremonger, August 1928). Shortly before I was appointed to follow in his footsteps, albeit 91 years later, I had been asked to give some thought to what the Church of England’s vision for the 2020s might look like and, if I am honest, similar words to those of Temple went through my mind.

However, as I embarked on this task, I was clear on two things. This should never be about my vision, but about discerning God’s vision for God’s church in God’s world—and therefore I should not attempt to find it on my own. Over the next 9 months, various groups were gathered together, representing a huge, and usually younger, diversity of voices. After much prayer and discernment a vision emerged which we felt was God’s call on us for this time. Consequently, there is now a clear Vision and Strategy that the governing body of the Church of England and the Diocesan Bishops have agreed—and the whole Church is shifting and aligning to this new narrative.

Except, it isn’t that new. The Church of England’s vocation has always been to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ afresh in each generation to and with the people of England. In our vision for the 2020s, we speak about this as being a Christ-centred Church, which is about our spiritual and theological renewal, and then a Jesus-Christ-shaped Church, particularly seeing the five marks of mission as signs and markers of what a Jesus-Christ-shaped life might look like. It is therefore a vision of how we are shaped by Christ in order to bring God’s transformation to the world. Three words in particular have risen to the surface: we are called to be a simpler, humbler, and bolder church.

From this, three priorities have emerged, and parishes and dioceses are invited to examine and develop their existing strategies and processes in the light of these ideas.

  1. To become a church of missionary disciples. In one sense, this is the easiest to understand, re-emphasising that basic call to live out our Christian faith in the whole of life, Sunday to Saturday. Or, as we speak about it in the Church of England, Everyday Faith.
  2. To be a church where mixed ecology is the norm. This has sometimes been a bit misunderstood. Mixed ecology reflects the nature of Jesus’ humanity and mission. It is contextual, ensuring churches, parishes, and dioceses are forming new congregations with and for newer and ever more diverse communities of people. It is about taking care of the whole ecosystem of the Church and not imagining one size can ever fit all. In the early church, in the book of Acts, we see this mission shaped by the new humanity that is revealed in Christ, made available and empowered by the Spirit. Therefore, mixed ecology is not something new—it is actually a rather old, and well-proven concept. After all, every parish church in our land was formed once. So, mixed ecology doesn’t mean abandoning the parish system or dismantling one way of being the Church in favour of another. It is about how the Church of England will fulfil its historic vocation to be the Church for everyone, by encouraging a mixed ecology of Church through a revitalised parish system. We hope that every person in England will find a pathway into Christian community.
  3. To be a church that is younger and more diverse. Professor Andrew Walls writes, ‘The Church must be diverse because humanity is diverse, it must be one because Christ is one […] Christ is human, and open to humanity in all its diversity, the fullness of his humanity takes in all its diverse cultural forms.’ (The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, p. 77) We need to look like the communities we serve in all areas of age and diversity. For the Church of England that means believing in and supporting children and young people in ministry; facing up to our own failings to welcome and include many under-represented groups, particularly people with disabilities and those from a Global Majority Heritage; and committing ourselves to the current Living in Love and Faith process and our already agreed pastoral principles so that LGBTQI+ people are in no doubt that they, along with everyone, are equally welcome in the Church of England. It also means putting renewed resources into our poorest communities.

Whilst some have questioned why we only have three priorities, they are, I believe, vital for the Church of England in the 2020s as we continue to serve Jesus in the power of the Spirit through his Church.

In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.’ Our desire is to reach everyone with the good news of Christ, and especially those who in the past may have felt excluded. That is why the work with racial justice, a new bias to the poor, and an emphasis on becoming younger are so important.

Ultimately, this vision flows from the joy we find in the risen Christ. It is an Easter message. A message of transformation for the world, as a church that is renewed and re-centred in Christ and shaped by God’s agenda for the world will be good news for that world. It will bring God’s transformation to the hurt, confusion, weariness, and despair we see around us—that Church existing for the benefit of its non-members as Temple so memorably put it.

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Never Mind What Jesus Would Do: Progressive Atheism & the Big Society

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David Cameron’s recent Easter message continues to attract media attention. In the unlikely case that you didn’t see it or hear about it, the message affirmed not only a deepening development of his own Christian faith, but also reminds the nation as a whole of the importance of its Christian identity and heritage. Some have welcomed this message as an example of refreshing candour and a riposte to the assumption that Britain has become irretrievably secular and humanist – indeed post-Christian. Others interpreted it is as a more strategically motivated attempt to appease traditional Conservative voters in the rural heartlands, disenchanted with Cameron’s more liberal pronouncements on issues such as same–sex marriage, and tempted to join the UKIP fold. Another sector of opinion claimed these pronouncements were designed to neutralise church–led criticism of the more devastating impacts of government welfare policy on the most vulnerable sectors of our society, which has led, for example, to the unwelcome but increasingly normalised provision of food banks.

But perhaps most eye-catching was the Prime Minister’s (repeated) claim that, ‘Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago; I just want to see more of it’. In particular he cited, ‘the millions of Christians … who live out the letter of the Bible’ by setting up clubs and volunteering (including the setting up of food banks). He also recommended Christianity as a moral code by which to raise children. The increasingly confident and comfortable way in which Cameron claims the public space back for Christianity (and religion in general) seems out of step with what on the surface appears to be a widely-held assumption that religion is increasingly irrelevant and in terminal decline.

The marginalised atheist and socially conservative Christian – strange bedfellows?
A collection of atheist and humanist voices were quick to object to Cameron’s claim that Britain is a ‘Christian country’, stepping-up to the challenge set by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams for ‘atheists to show faith in themselves’. Williams’ arresting article published earlier this year depicted a well-meaning group of tolerant and decent people who don’t like to make a fuss, but who find themselves ignored for it. Williams’ writes of British atheists yet her illustration reminded me of so many popular depictions of the Church of England and hand-wringing Anglican vicars (think Derek Nimmo sitcoms from the 70s).

Meanwhile, Williams’ complaints that the public debate is generally hostile to the atheist/humanist perspective, runs parallel to conservative voices who cry foul over institutional and cultural discrimination of Christianity (despite Cameron’s more recent protestations of ‘evangelical’ fervour). Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury has claimed, for example, that it is no longer possible to state traditional Christian views about the uniqueness of Christ or marriage without being accused of being anti ‘other faiths’ or homophobic.

How have we managed to create a public square where both atheist and religiously conservative citizens are so equally convinced of their marginalisation that they contemplate political lobbying to address their plight?

The confused space of the postsecular public sphere
One possible answer to this pressing conundrum is the idea developed by the Marxist-influenced social theorist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas – we have moved from a secular to a postsecular society. The postsecular is not the triumphant return of religion into the public sphere at the expense of secularism and secularisation, but rather a new and uncharted territory whereby, ‘the vigorous continuation of religion in a continually secularizing environment must be reckoned with’. The twentieth century ‘one-size fits all’ version of the public square, in which religion is confined to the private sphere and only neutral (i.e. secular) symbols and language are permitted, no longer addresses the realities of the twenty-first.

Habermas argues that the religious and secular actually need each other. The relationship between the two is symbiotic, not hierarchical. Religion, he claims, helps provide the deepest ethical and moral imperatives by which to shape public life. On the other side, the dynamism of the secular helps convert religious ideas into progressive political agendas; for example, the Christian doctrine of Imago Dei (that every human being is created in the image of God) is translated into secular ideas of human rights and equalities. This complementary understanding of the religious and the secular provides a profound ethical challenge: to forsake our right to feel offended by others in favour of something far more risky; a willingness to engage and listen and then act together. It makes, says Habermas, ‘a difference whether we speak with one another or merely about one another’.

No one has the monopoly on being progressive
The key word here is progressive. Progressive is a word that has been used as a stick to publically beat others with. To label your opponents as non-progressive suggests that they are ignorant and backward looking – i.e. regressive.But this is a sterile and immature debate.  We need to capture less narrow understandings of these terms.

To be progressive means essentially that you are outward looking, ready for opportunities to move forward with others for the sake of the common good. To be regressive is to be inward looking, and willing to work only with those who share your view of the world. There is growing evidence to suggest that as many citizens seek alternatives to the current politics of despair, that ‘progressive’ people of religion and no-religion are coming together ‘to do something about something’. This coming together can be risky and contested, but at least it’s real. And more often than not it is remarkably effective and helps challenge reductive stereotypes.

Can we create together a genuinely bold and transformative vision of the Big Society?
Regressive minded people of whatever stripe, who are interested only in policing the public sphere and looking for wrongs to be righted, are of no help in the present context. That is why we need a progressive atheism and humanism, proud and comfortable in its own skin and willing to work in honest collaboration with those who share agendas for hope and transformation across the ideological divide. To shift the debate about the Big Society on from Cameron’s preferred vision of familial morality and enthusiastic volunteering, we need to develop together a more transformative view of the Big Society that offers much more than just warm hearts and a safe pair of hands (not to mention opportunities for still further privatisation of public services). I am not opposed to the flourishing of enthusiastic local groups caring for those less fortunate citizens amongst whom they live and work. But we also need to generate genuine alternatives to the way society is structured, and the distribution of wealth and opportunity. New affinities or alliances between progressive people of all religions and of none-religious beliefs can create a genuinely progressive shared (Big?) society.

For the postsecular society is here to stay – let’s see it as a glass half-full, not half-empty.

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation.


Read more blog posts:

“Blurred Encounters in a Messy Church” by Greg Smith

“A Change of Climate for Political Theology” by John Reader

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