One of my secret sins is listening to RadioX while I’m working, especially if I’m writing a sermon. I do it mostly for the music and rarely pay attention to what the presenters witter on about. While working this afternoon, on a pretty murky day in Exeter, my ears pricked up when I heard the presenters talking about an author I enjoy very much (Bernard Cornwall) launching a book at Church House, Westminster. One presenter asked ‘Where?’, and the other said, ‘you know, the place where the Church of England meets to talk about sex’.
Whatever we may think, however many numbers the Statistics Unit churns out, however many ‘initiatives’ Bishops might have, however much good work is done in parishes, chaplaincies and cathedrals up and down the land, however many people are fed by church Food Banks, however much we preach intelligent and spiritually profound sermons, this is what people ‘out there’ think we spend all our time talking about.
This is disastrous for mission, not least because most people ‘out there’ don’t spend all their time agonising about sex, and spend little time thinking about what happens in the privacy of someone else’s life and relationships. Our obsessions make us irrelevant to the lives of most people, and all the good stuff we do gets lost in the fulminations, recriminations and divisions.
But it’s worse than that too. Our obsession with sex creates a fog of noise and nastiness so thick and uninviting that few want to make the attempt to get through it to the sunnier places where the Gospel of God’s love shines in all those good things we do. Our obsession with sex is a barrier to the Gospel and not an expression of it.
Just because our church leaders seem to be obsessed with sex, we don’t need to be. We could instead, for instance, become obsessed with justice – a much more prominent biblical theme than sex. We could be obsessed with learning from the life of God incarnate and be open to the work of God in the world and change from narrow parochial concerns to a vision of a world transformed by love. We could learn an acceptance that turns to love, and quit our equally negative obsession with ourselves.
All this matters. My hunch is that the seemingly irreversible decline in church-going in this country – across all denominations – is a self-inflicted wound. We’ve clung on to passé ideas, refused new knowledge, hidden ourselves (and the Gospel) behind noise that creates more heat than light, and are now shocked and surprised to find that few people find us interesting anymore. Our moral authority went with the child abuse scandals; our intellectual authority went when we stopped taking scholarship seriously and put a kind of shallow Biblicism in its place.
It’s not clear to me that this position is recoverable; the damage may already be too great. There aren’t even that many deck chairs left to re-arrange. But perhaps this season of self-indulgent obsession with sex can be followed by a season of openness, learning and humility. We need to do what politicians find so difficult and admit we’ve got it wrong. We need to apologise for decades spent chasing our tails while opportunities for radical service and thoughtful listening were scattered around the hillside like sheep without a shepherd.
We may even need to stop talking about what we think THE Good News of the love of God in Christ is, and talk instead about what the Good News of the love of God in Christ means for this person or in that place. Perhaps, then, step by step, we can re-build trust, clear some of the fog away, shine some light into the dark places of our world (and even ourselves), and be, once again, what we are called to be: Christ for the world.
General Secretary of Modern Church