Questions and Answers:
Faithful Cities
by Paul Hazelden


References

Faithful Cities: A Call for Celebration, Vision and Justice, Commission on Urban Life and Faith (Methodist Publishing House, 2006), ISBN 185852315X.

Mission Shaped Church, Rowan Williams (Foreword) (Church House Publishing, 2004), ISBN 0715140132.

Mission-shaped Church: A Theological Response, John Hull (SCM Press, 2006), ISBN 0334040574.

Question

Subject: Would appreciate your response to this...

Content: I read, and have re-read the original report Faith In The City, with sadness. It lackes a theological perspective, and nods at Liberation Theology with a confused comment. Rowland in his book Liberating Theology describes at as a 'top down' rather than a 'bottom up' report. That is a serious charge.
 
The intervening report Mission Shaped Church was also a disappointment. John Hull of Birmingham describes it as 'Not Mission Shaped Church, but Church Shaped Mission'. That is a serious charge.
 
I have read Faithful Cities and can only say that it does not move the mission situation on at all. It has an optimism which is unfounded in the situation of the unchurched millions in our society. One looks in vain for a Christology and theololgy of mission. It is essentially humanistic. As with Faith In The City it fails to criticise the church, but can criticise society. John Sentanu's comment on page 15 in the margin panel is a strong internal criticism. 'After ten years I thought our Church would be a Church of the poor and no longer talking as if it were a Church for the poor... I do not think we have shifted that much'. I had hoped more from the report. For a whole weekend after reading it I was depressed and close to tears.
 
Please, let us not waste any more time or energy on it.
 
We have lost the Kingship of Christ and created a club.
 
We have lost a commitment to Christ and to people, and have settled for comfortable lives.
 
We do not hear the cry of the people but reassure ourselves about our faith.

Response

I agree, but...

What sort of response are you looking for?

I very much agree with the author's position, and especially with his final three points. I believe we need to focus our attention on the Kingdom of God and not the church, we need to preach and practice a sacrificial commitment to Christ, and we need a wholeheartedly incarnational approach to mission that requires a total involvement and engagement in the struggles of real people.

There is much that I would want to take issue with in all three documents - and I may just do that. But I'm not sure the criticism given above is entirely justified.

Firstly, there is some genuinely good and faith building material in all three documents. Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Secondly, these are documents written by and for the Church of England. You can hardly blame them for seeing the world through Church of England eyes.

And thirdly, we have an opportunity through these reports to engage the Church of England - to challenge some of their assumptions and theology, and to suggest better ways for the church to respond to the principles and challenges they contain. So let's use this opportunity in a constructive way. If all we can contribute is "it does not move the mission situation on at all", neither are we moving the mission situation on.

It's not all bad

For example, we read that "Recruitment, training and continuing development of church leaders, clerical and lay, should give priority to their ability to empower others" (Summary, page 6).

This is not a new idea, but it is still a radical break from the traditional role of the Priest and Bishop. If the Church of England could implement just this one principle, we would see a transformation of the activities and structures of the church.

Or, again, "We call upon the Church of England and other denominations to make a fierce commitment to staying in the urban communities of our nation and to contribute in every way possible to the flourishing of our cities. We want people of faith to contribute their distinctive values in nurturing a physical and spiritual environment which makes a good city and which promotes the deep wellbeing of its citizens." (Summary, page 5)

If you think about the implications of this statement, they are vast. The people in the churches - the leaders included - are to get off their pews and out of their church buildings, and contribute to every aspect of the life of the community around them: successful schools, thriving businesses, welfare provision which empowers the poor rather than trapping them, suitable homes, effective services to deal with drug and alcohol misuse, and many others.

And it means we have to work out what are our 'distinctive values' - and how do they differ from the humanist values of the society around us, or the values being promoted by people of other faiths within our society? How do we promote distinctive values without being judgemental or bigoted?

These are massive challenges. We cannot expect any single report to give us the answers to such questions, but we can allow these challenges to stimulate debate and dialogue. If it does that, I think Faithful Cities will have been a worthwhile exercise.

What did you expect?

Any piece of theology will be criticised by people who do not share those beliefs, or who make different assumptions from the authors. A Roman Catholic might criticise it for the lack of prominence given to the Virgin Mary. I can criticise it for the assumption that the Church of England has a vital role to play in seeing God's purposes fulfilled in this nation.

For example, "No doubt because of its parish system, the Church of England in particular, is home to buildings and networks of people dedicated to the long-term service of the local urban neighbourhood" (Summary, page 2) - as if other denominations don't also have buildings and networks of people equally dedicated.

But this is a report written by and for the Church of England. You would hardly expect it to recommend that the Church of England disbands and gives all its buildings to the Pentecostals or the Baptists.

John Hull's criticism ('Not Mission Shaped Church, but Church Shaped Mission') is accurate, to an extent. But if what you have are lots of traditional churches, then describing what can be done with traditional churches does not look like a terribly bad idea. And since John Hull seems to dismiss all the alternatives to the ideas in Mission Shaped Church, you could also read his criticism as a muted endorsement of the work.

Where do we go from here?

Enjoyable as it may be to criticise the theology of the report, I think we have to resist. For the most part, anyway. The Church in England (and not just the Church of England) needs a strategy, and if this report does not provide an adequate answer to the desperate needs of both Church and nation at this time, then finding the answers must be a major priority.

I won't attempt to give the total answer in one neat package. Not right now, anyway. But it seems to me that the following are elements that need to be included in any comprehensive response.

The supernatural dimension. In seeking to get our own house in order, the Church must recognise that God is both present and active - and much more committed to seeing His Kingdom built than we are. But if God is a real player in this game, we cannot simply describe a strategy for success. What we must aim for is a methodology which allows us to constantly be challenged by God, to hear Him, and to respond to what He is saying to us today - as well as having a clear eye on the long term goals.

Christian unity. No one denomination has all the truth, and God has an annoying way of using people who do not agree with our theology or practice. Jesus prayed that the Church be one, and we can either ignore that prayer or seek to see it answered. I believe the answer lies not in organisational unity and theological uniformity, but in learning to serve the poor together, irrespective of our theological differences.

Real engagement with secular bodies. If our theology is right, then the principles we follow will work whether you believe the theology or not. For example, it is clear that adultery leads to family breakdown and hence to many social problems. You don't have to believe that God gave Moses the 10 Commandments in order to accept that adultery is a bad idea.

So we need to learn how to communicate Godly principles to secular bodies - without using theological arguments or religious language. "Adultery is wrong because God says so" cuts no ice. On the other hand, "Adultery costs the state millions of pounds each year" is talking their language.

Talking the language of the secular bodies does not mean that we abandon values or spirituality - it means that we defend them with arguments which have real power. Modern economics assumes that people are driven by greed, but we know that a society based on greed cannot survive, let alone thrive. Economists know that their theories are inadequate: what they don't know is that Christians have the answers they lack, by demonstrating how selflessness and generosity and a desire for justice can also motivate people to change their behaviour.

Biblical economics. The Bible is incredibly clear sighted about human behaviour, motivation and social structures. See my article on A Harvest for the Poor for a clear example of the way in which God's provision for the poor avoids both the harsh punishment produced by capitalism and the loss of responsibility and motivation produced by socialism.

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