Following Christ’s route of ministry - Trinity 3 2019
Allegedly in the 1980s you could go to the bus station in Istanbul and catch a red double-decker bus to Beijing. That’s over 4000 miles, and it took several weeks. Quite an adventure though - through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and the steppes of Central Asia. Or perhaps it simply isn’t true, no matter how much we might want it to be!
Back in 2005, you may remember, the old red double-deckers - the Routemaster buses were taken out of service. It was done for health and safety reasons, but it became an insult to London pride, and the Routemaster bus was held in such esteem that in 2006 it was voted one of Britain’s top ten cultural icons, alongside Concorde, the Mini, the Spitfire and the World Wide Web (yes, the Worldwide web is British - never forget that...!). 6 years later, in 2012 the Routemaster was reintroduced in twenty first century guise, a personal pledge made by Mr Boris Johnson. You might have heard of him. At the time, you might remember that Boris’ main rival in politics was another colourful figure, Ken Livingston, who reminded Londoners that when he had been Mayor of London, on average 12 people a year died, falling off the back of the old buses. Which was fundamentally why they were taken out of service.
The old buses travelled slowly perhaps, but you could get on or off at almost any point. Without pushing the analogy too far, it seems to me that some people think the Church ought to be a bit like the old routemaster bus, you can get on – or off – I suppose - wherever you like, and the bus travels at a speed at which you can do so safely, but hopefully, even when the ride is bumpy, the character and traditional feel of the old dear satisfies, and does get you there in the end. Meanwhile the bus has been modernised, but, it is still red, it still has doors at the back and it plies the familiar routes and retains the same hymn numbers - I mean bus route numbers.
Has much changed? The internet in its various forms has revolutionised life, and back in 1956 when the first Routemasters entered service the worlds of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp were inconceivable. Yet there is much about life then that has not changed. Church life, and the religious life of our nation has not changed much, actually. The Church has embraced the Internet and technology, and adapted to new kinds of working lives, domestic and family make-up, sexuality, marriage and gender realignment even. It suits the media to portray the church as backward on these matters, but perhaps one thing that has changed in recent years is the extending of the gap between fact and fiction in the press. Ask any major profession - science, religion, law, medicine, teaching, arts, and they will tell you that the media never represent them well, glossing over, fabricating and spinning stories to maximum effect. So, in the church, for example, we have seen the press constantly banging on about the fact that no-one comes to church any more. Two books by journalists, one called The Death of Christian Britain - Understanding Secularisation and another called That was the Church that was - How the Church of England lost the English People presented a caricature of the dying church, and because the media is one of the most secular of the professions, it has not been hard for them to succumb to an unconscious bias that translates a desire for this country to be described as secular to an opportunity to tell us that it is so. Because journalists want Britain to be a secular nation, they tell us that it already is. This has led to moves nationally for humanism to have a voice in RE teaching, and ‘Thought for the Day’ now includes thoughts that are not religious.
No harm in that of course. Christianity is not a suppressor of other voices - indeed the whole self understanding of the modern Church of England is that the great advantage of having a national church is that there is a religious voice at the heart of our nation that speaks up for all faiths, and for the very concept of faith itself. This is probably the kind of thing Prince Charles would say, if only journalists would actually listen to what he says, rather than spinning it to make him look an idiot, or indeed anyone who speaks up for sensible faith in our day and age. Christianity in Britain is sufficiently intelligent, wise, stable, open-hearted and open-minded that it does not have the need nor the desire to suppress other voices. And anyone within the church who feels that the church should be speaking out against fair-minded and even handed debate and inclusiveness, might want to have a conversation with themselves about what the good news of the gospel really is.
For as I said, the bigger problem is the way everyone is being - and indeed always has been - manipulated by the agendas of those who have the ear of the nation. The articles and books that tell us that no-one comes to church any more, are at best disingenuous or misinformed, at worse, dishonest. There is as huge myth out there that churches were full a hundred years ago and now they are not. It simply isn’t true. While a cursory glance at our own parish magazines a century ago, when the Great War was ending, the organ being purchased and Boris Karloff making his debut on our hall Stage - the issues are the same: they wished more people would come to church more often; they struggled to raise funds for major projects; they had social and fellowship type meetings; they went to Frinton for the day. People have not changed much, and since the church is made up of people - the people of God - the church hasn’t changed much either.
Furthermore there is a new book out, which really does make us question the received wisdom about the downward slide of belief in God in our land. Entitled The Desecularisation of the City, and edited by an academic from Durham University called David Goodhew, it shows in mind-numbing statistical detail how there are a lot more people attending a lot more churches now than there were in 1980. Our modern city of London is not secular at all - it has actually undergone a period of de-secularisation, and can now be considered to be the most spiritual city in the world. Yes - I’ll say that again - the most spiritual city in the world. And I was as surprised as you are to hear that when I attended a seminar with Bishop Sarah at the event in St Paul’s Cathedral at which the book was launched. So, for example, 96% of people in Southall say they have faith. They are not all Christians of course, but that is the highest percentage of belief in the population in the world. Young people will talk about faith and Jesus, and demand radical justice. There has been a 17% growth in London Diocese churchgoing. The book has a chapter listing the churches - not all Anglican of course - that have opened in one London Borough - Newham, - since the time when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and Routemaster buses were helping a dozen people a year fall to their deaths. The list takes 11 pages.
I’m not saying that journalists are liars - there are bigger and more orange people than me who can say that - but there is a sense of truthful perspective needed here. And we all need to be careful about what we believe. For it may well be the case that many people in this country are more inclined or likely to believe what they read in the newspaper than what they read in the Bible. And again, if you are the kind of person who might actually be more inclined to believe what you read in the press than what you read in the Bible, then you might like to have a conversation with yourself about what that actually says about you - to yourself and others, and indeed to God. The theologian Karl Barth said that preachers should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and when I wanted to say that on the Today programme after I was a finalist in the Times preacher of the Year in 2000, the broadcasters decided that I shouldn’t be interviewed after all. That was not what they wanted me to say - it was far too reasonable.
The point is, we can, and should read the Bible with a critical mind, but so many people do not question what they read in the newspaper, and indeed choose the newspaper they read because they are already likely to want to agree with the kind of things the newspaper says. Again - this is not the end of the world, and I’m not rocking boats here, but it never hurts to be self aware about which boat you are actually in. And we all need to be in some boat or other, because no-one can walk on water - Not even Boris Johnson.
The boat we need to be in, of course, mainly, is the ark of God. The Navy of the Church - the nave of the Church - which is still plying the waters of doubt and faith as it always has done. In our gospel reading this morning Jesus sends the seventy out. I doubt they felt equipped - although they were because they went in the name of God. Like lambs among wolves they were. But they did rather well. Most people focus on this as missionary activity. It was, but we do not read that they preached, nor that they argued, dismissed or otherwise undermined anyone whom they met or spoke to. Read carefully - they sought admission, and when welcomed, offered a peaceful greeting. Then they are told to ’remain in the same house’. What this means is that they were to make relationships. Not ‘hit and run’, or impersonal affronts, but rather, ‘make yourself at home, build relationships, have conversations, bring peace, and let the Lord speak through you.’ It’s no different now really - the old ways are the best. Mission is for all of us, we are all called to it, and it is God’s mission not ours. All we have to do is open up the conversations and build the relationships. It means being informed of course, not so much by the newspaper as by the Bible, or perhaps even by both. But since it is God’s mission we are engaged in, each and every one of us, our main task is to find out what God is doing, and join in. The task, is to find out what the number of God’s bus is and where it is going, and jump on. And if it is a Routemaster, we can jump on while it is still moving! For Christ is the master of our route through life and beyond, and we join in his missionary journey wherever it leads, and we can jump on and join in at any time. So may Christ always be the root of our faith, and the master of our route, in this world and the next. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 07/07/19