Losing the plot at St Paul's
The troubled stand-off between the anti-capitalist protesters of the ‘Occupy the London Stock Exchange’ and the management of St Paul's Cathedral has put Christianity into the national headlines for all the wrong reasons. The first closure of London's great landmark since the Blitz of the Second World War and the succession of resignations that have followed has perplexed many. What is going on? Who's right and who's wrong?
The reality is that it's a complex matter, involving both the purpose of our cathedrals (now uneasily both places of worship and tourist attractions) and the relationship between the church and the establishment. My own take on the matter is that it results from a subtle but deadly disease: the mistaken priority. Widespread through all denominations and not just my own C of E, this frequently lethal ailment so mutates the faith that it ends up wasting away. My reading of the New Testament – supported by my own personal experience and confirmed by my thirty years as a minister – is that the heart of Christianity is the proclamation of the need for men and women to follow Christ. The same St Paul after whom the cathedral is named wrote this in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.’ Throughout the New Testament we get the same message from many different voices: people should be called to Christ to be forgiven, adopted into God's family and transformed. Bringing people to faith in Jesus is the good news and it is the foundation of any form of living Christianity. This emphasis on making disciples is as essential to Christianity as that on scoring goals is to a successful football team. Without it, the church has in every sense lost the plot.
Now to say that Christianity is about conversion is not to abdicate our responsibility for social comment. God proclaims his standards clearly, not least in the summary that is the Ten Commandments. Furthermore, the letters of the New Testament are full of practical, moral exhortations concerning how Christian believers are to live. Yet the New Testament offers no advice whatever on church buildings and stays silent on how believers should advise a secular government and culture. The priority of the Early Church was preaching the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. We would do well to follow its example.
The inevitable consequence of neglecting this foundation of Christianity is that secondary matters will become primary. Matters such as church buildings and commending or condemning social protest will take priority, with the unavoidable result that the cart will get firmly put in front of the horse. The responsibility of the church is to transform society but it is to do it by changing the attitudes and actions of individuals. A common maxim these days is ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ In this context it may be particularly appropriate to ask, ‘What would St Paul say?’ I have little doubt that he would advocate preaching good news to the captive audience outside. It’s not a bad idea!
Revd. Canon J.John