Last night some bizarre rumours began to circulate on Twitter. Apparently the Church of England had announced that this country had become so clueless about Christianity that there is no point trying to convert anyone anymore. This, if true, would be a shocking volte-face from an organisation that has sent out thousands of missionaries over the years and is the home through Holy Trinity Brompton of the Alpha Course, so praised by the Archbishop of Canterbury which has seen 299,000 people attending 9,300 separate courses in the UK last year.
This apparent capitulation was mentioned in a Times article released yesterday entitled: ‘Losing our religion: Church acknowledges decline of Christianity’. Unfortunately due to their paywall not everyone has been able to read the piece and when firsthand information is unavailable, it doesn’t take much for the Chinese whispers to develop. Even the Bishop of Bradford, Nick Baines, put out a blog post defending himself after giving a quote for the piece worrying that the part on there being no point trying to convert anyone anymore because the people of England have gone too far away from the Christianity had been attributed to him.
Fortunately for Bishop Nick, this was not actually the case. The supposed source was a press release from the Church of England announcing their new Pilgrim discipleship course. The course has been designed in particular for new Christians who want to grow in their faith and become more mature disciples of Jesus. The press release mentions that the course offers an approach of “participation, not persuasion”. This would make sense as it is deliberately setting out to offer something different to courses such as Alpha which aim to introduce Christianity to those who are interested in finding out more about it. Pilgrim could be seen as a follow-on to Alpha for those who have already taken that step of faith. Harmless enough it would seem, but from these three words this sensational introduction to the Times article was generated:
‘The Church of England has admitted that the country has become a nation that knows almost nothing about Christianity and that there is no point any more attempting to convert anyone.’
‘An evangelism course to be launched next month pledges that there will be participation but no “persuasion”.’
Now this article was written by the very experienced Times religion correspondent, Ruth Gledhill. If I was being generous, I’d say that she wrote it in a rush without checking things properly, but I think it’s more a case of making headlines and stirring things up. Maybe I’m falling into the trap by responding in this way, but some clarification is in order beyond dismissing such an utterly nonsensical statement.
Later on in the article it talks about The Church of England adapting its evangelistic methods to take into account the nation’s changing religious demographic, which contradicts the opening statement and gives a much better representation of what the Church of England is trying to achieve, leaving you wondering what the article is actually trying to say in its confused manner.
It’s not been a good week for journalism and although this is really just a storm in a teacup, it doesn’t say much about the quality of journalism that you would hope for from a supposedly more serious paper such as the Times.
As a final thought it’s worth commenting on the quote towards the end of the piece given by Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society which is undoubtedly there to provide some ‘balance’. He says:
“I think they are desperate. It looks as if they have given up recruiting and are just trying to keep the people they have got. The Church is pushing against a tide of change in our society that cannot be stopped.
“It is very King Canutish. Young people today are living in a way the Church does not acknowledge, accept or fit in with. They feel completely detached from church. They do not feel guilty about not going to church. They feel no need to study religion. The Church is dying.”
Poor Mr. Sanderson has again demonstrated his ignorance when it comes to the Christian faith. Firstly he makes the schoolboy error of believing the headline rather than the substance. Secondly he appears not to be aware of what discipleship actually is. It might be worth him taking the time to learn that Jesus had disciples. Certainly he went around preaching the Gospel and performing miracles, but he actually spent much of his time discipling his followers; teaching them about his Father and the nature of his ministry. At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells them to “go and make disciples of all nations”.
Discipleship is integral to the Christian faith and goes hand-in-hand with evangelism. it’s not a bolt on or an alternative and definitely not a sign of desperation. If there is a criticism of the Church of England it would be that it’s failed to emphasise and acknowledge the importance of discipleship in the past; something that the Pilgrim course is attempting to address.
One of the most exciting moves we are seeing in the Church both nationally and globally is its increasing confidence in sharing the message of the Gospel rather than keeping it hidden behind closed doors. Giving up and retreating into a corner to slowly fade away and die is the last thing on its mind – even for the Church of England.
Update: Ruth has given a response in the comments section below. Please do read her reply.