Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Welby doesn’t get it, Gavin Ashenden finds

“There is little in this New Year message that suggests that the Christian faith has anything healing or remedial to offer a society struggling with so much turmoil.”

It must be rather wearing to have to write a New Year’s message as any public figure, whether you are the Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury or a CEO of some kind (as so many bishops see themselves and are seen by C of E Inc).

The medium often sculpts the message, and in the case of Welby’s contribution, the BBC helped him create a video. It was pleasantly folksy, with pictures of him lining up in a school canteen. Very much ‘man of the people stuff.’ But it didn’t make for profundity. Rather it went for populism over content.

The climax of the message expressed its theological and spiritual priorities.

“Jesus was a refugee, ….hospitality brings love, hope and joy….if we imitate them, the world becomes a better place.”

It’s the kind of thing one might find in an ailing parish magazine, an edition of two before its final demise.

But it’s not just an air of rather weary positive thinking it gives off. It changes what the faith actually is.  It reduces the Gospel to that of ‘the nice’. This long standing English-flavoured version of Christianity has at its roots the Pelegian notion that the world is not seriously bust, just a bit low on generosity; and if we try a little harder with kindness, we can make a great deal of an improvement.

A sweet if ineffectual idea, and throwing in the reminder that baby Jesus was once a refugee does not make it more Christian.

It is a shame to begin the New Year with criticism, so let it be done as gently as it can. But in a message from an Archbishop to a nation and a culture in turmoil, one might have hoped for a little more.

One might have looked for an element of the charism of prophesy. The nation is inexorably engaged in a slow but seemingly inevitable process of severing its allegiance to Christ and a culture that was forged from values our ancestors found in the Gospels.

There may not even be a Church of England we can recognise in 7 years time. Dioceses will go bust financially, and the age demographic will make it look as though congregations have simply evaporated. It is more than likely that there will be some kind of schism of episcopal allegiance over first -the tolerance, and then -the permission to celebrate gay marriage. So Welby may only half a dozen New Year Messages left while at the helm of a viable Church.

What does he see as his priority as 2016 dawns?

He touches on migration, hospitality to refugees, ‘extremism’, and making the world a better place.

This is a message that doesn’t attempt to deal with the serious theological and spiritual issues that underlie these critical matters; rather it smoothes a little seasonal icing on a collapsing cake.

Whatever the nation intends to do with its relationship with Christ, it won’t be much changed or affected by an Archbishop encouraging it to be a little more hospitable. The world is full of some very nice and kind people. Sadly, it doesn’t get one to heaven, or act very effectively in the face of the toxicity and power of evil.

If it had, no doubt Christ would not have had to die on the cross for us. He could instead have given us a few cheering moral aphorisms to encourage the nice to be nicer.

Welby begins his message by recalling his meeting at a school in New Romney, in the Diocese of Canterbury with a 14-year-old boy who has escaped the anarchy of North Africa. He is glad for him that he has escaped to a place of refuge, and he commends the school for its ‘welcome and hospitality.’

Of course the school is to be commended on its welcome. Nice is good. But the African boy is one tiny element of the most tumultuous migration movement in the history of the world. Never before have a million people trekked and trampled from the Muslim world to the Christian, or post Christian.

It throws up many questions which the Archbishop chooses not give his mind to on our behalf; questions that are central to the course of events that 2016 will experience.

Why have the migrants and refugees tramped to the Christian world and not those parts of the Muslim world that are very wealthy, for sanctuary?

They bring with them the paradox that by tilting the demographics so potently, by virtue of the scale of numbers and the very much more prolific birthrate associated with them, they import into Europe a pressure for a radically different culture; curiously, the very culture they were fleeing. Many bring with them a preference for Sharia Law and a validation of Islamic violence.

How do we know this? Because research confirms it. Even the BBC tells us that 45% of British Muslims agree that clerics preaching violence against the West represent “mainstream Islam”.

But there are more serious issues that underlie the invitation from Angela Merkel to open the floodgates to refugees to Europe, doing in the macrocosm what Welby’s  school in New Romsey, Kent does in the microcosm.

It begs several questions. Is the welcome of young Muslim men in their millions an attempt to meet the problem of aging and pensions in a Europe that has begun to commit social and pension suicide through its failure to have enough children?

This sterility is born of terrifying rates of abortion and the inevitable consequence of a feminism that prefers professional success to motherhood and the nurture of children. Is there anything Christian an Archbishop could say about the culling of a generation in the womb, or the worship of equality as a value beyond all others?

It seems he dare not. The Church of England realises that its role as chaplain to an increasingly secular nation depends on not upsetting the secular presuppositions of multiculturalism and the soft cultural Marxism that enforces ‘equality’  that it has come to treasure. Faced with either being faithful to Scripture and tradition, and challenging the perversities of a culture that rejects Christian values, or making secular accommodation, he has chosen accommodation.

Any child studying the history of Europe might  know that the Christian Europe has fought to within an inch of its survival with Islam since the Battle of Tours in the West, the battle of Lepanto in the Mediterranean and the Battle of Vienna in Middle Europe. These are the military assaults of Islam that are written into its DNA and enshrined in the Koran, Sunna and Hadith. Islam prides itself that it does not change. Many Muslim commentators are celebrating that they have achieved by migration what they failed to achieve by force of arms. Other Archbishops, only too aware of this, have issued their warnings to Welby and the West:

In 2014,  Archbishop Amel Nona,the Chaldean Catholic Archeparch of Mosul said this:

“Our sufferings today are the prelude of those you, Europeans and Western Christians, will also suffer in the near future. I lost my diocese. The physical setting of my apostolate has been occupied by Islamic radicals who want us converted or dead. But my community is still alive.

Please, try to understand us. Your liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here. You must consider again our reality in the Middle East, because you are welcoming in your countries an ever growing number of Muslims. Also you are in danger. You must take strong and courageous decisions, even at the cost of contradicting your principles. You think all men are equal, but that is not true: Islam does not say that all men are equal. Your values are not their values. If you do not understand this soon enough, you will become the victims of the enemy you have welcomed in your home.”

Welby has either not heard or closed his ears to his message. The theology of nice prefers putting out the welcome mat and finds these more complex questions too troubling.

Looking at the way in which Christianity has been almost wiped out in the Middle East, Welby might have called the country to a renewed evangelism of its Muslim neighbours. Since he rightly wants to mention Jesus, and all credit to him, perhaps he might have drawn attention to the number of Muslims who are converting to Christianity having had visions and dreams of the risen Christ? He might have called Anglicans to pray for more visions for their Muslim neighbors. He might have launched a campaign to give each Muslim family a copy of the Gospel of St John.

He might have noticed that those Muslims who do find Jesus risk their lives, their health, their families and their safety. And not just in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Try Bradford.

He might have noticed, – he might even have paid tribute to the man who was placed at the top of the list of the 100 most prominent Christians in the UK in 2015.

Since his conversion from Islam to Christianity in 1996, Nissar Hussain, with his wife Kubra and their six children, have been driven from their home and subject to years of harassment, bullying, intimidation, criminal damage and violence. All this at the hands of the jihadi vigilantes of Bradford. He has even been threatened with beheading (in 21st-century England!) A few weeks ago he was battered with a pickaxe by Muslim neighbours.

He appealed to the police and was advised to move house. He appealed to the Church of England for help, and received none.  Welby chose to preference one kind of refugee over another. Perhaps it would have taken him beyond the boundaries of his theology of to recognise the plight, defend the courage and actually help Nissar Hussein?

In so far as he can bring himself to mention the problem of that Islam presents to Christians and to the secular west, he didn’t manage to break the commitment to secrecy that the BBC practices daily. Instead of Islam, he talks fleetingly of ‘extremism.’

In order to give some element of historical context to the present migrant crisis, Welby turns creatively to the Huguenot chapel in Canterbury cathedral, set aside to give them hospitality. This does indeed provide an inspiring model. They were Christian, and many become Anglican. They integrated into English society remarkably quickly and smoothly.

Might Welby have used any of these other elements in the Huguenot story he turns to, in his approach to the Muslim migrants ? He might have said “you too are welcome, like the Huguenots, and we look to share our faith in Christ with you, welcome as members of the Church of England and help you in your plans to integrate fully into our Christian society”.

Sadly the theology of nice doesn’t stretch that far. It doesn’t see the need to.

There is little in this New Year message that suggests that the Christian faith has anything healing or remedial to offer a society struggling with so much turmoil. Little to help it discern what the issues are that underlie the symptoms of turmoil and angst that the media propel into the daily consciousness. Little even to suggest that the Church of England has anything distinctive to offer the nation as it faces the complexities of 2016.

He is right to end on the need to confront what he recognizes as hatred and extremism that face us. It may be though, that despite his best hopes, hospitality and love alone will not, on their own, be enough.

The Church has more usually called for a rather tougher approach involving evangelism, calls to repentance, the priority of conversion to Christ and the prospect of personal transformation.

Not even politics is much affected by the nice; the struggle between good and evil even less so.  Jesus was a refugee for a time. Hospitality does have a role to play in Christian spirituality; but the times are disturbed and pressing, and may call for more from the Church than a celebration of ‘the nice’. 

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