Over the last few weeks I’ve been to a number of excellent, thought provoking events, organised by WATCH, Christians on the Left, and Changing Attitude. These are organisations that espouse some of the values I most care about. They are each doing valuable, vital work and I have left each event full of excitement about the next steps for these groups, and how I might get involved. And then I’ve come down to earth with a bump. How do I possibly think I have time to do any of this “extra” stuff? I’ve got a busy parish ministry (to put it mildly). I’m a school governor, a charity trustee. I’ve got more than enough to get on with. So why do I feel the need to get involved with these “distractions”? I haven’t been able to work it out.
And then last night I suddenly did. At our first Lent talk Bishop Paul Bayes was talking, amongst many other things, about the five marks of mission. Sure, I know what they are. But how long since I really thought about them, and how they apply to me and my ministry?
For those not familiar with them, the five marks of mission, as adopted by the Anglican communion, are:
- To proclaim the good news of the Kingdom
- To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
- To respond to human need by loving service
- To seek to transform unjust structures of society
- To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain the life of the earth
Now, the first three are the easy bit. Not easy to do! But easy to aim for, certainly for anyone in full time Christian ministry. Those things are the bread-and-butter of what I do day to day. For each of them, I could point to at least one example in the last 24hrs of something I’ve done to that end. And don’t get me wrong – these things matter, really matter. They’re what our churches are built around, if they’re any good. They’re an important part of what marks us out as Christians. And though easy to identify, they’re anything but easy to live out.
And the last on the list is something we could all do more about. I know I could. But that’s a post for another day!
It’s that fourth one that brought me up short: “to seek to transform unjust structures of society”. There it is: a key part of the mission of the church. Yet for many of us in parish ministry our efforts in this direction are seen (not least by ourselves) as something separate from our “proper” ministry – a side-line at best, a distraction at worst.
And I feel it’s the same with public perception of the Church as a whole. Churches feeding people? Great! Churches asking what can and should be done so that people don’t go hungry in the first place? Expect a reaction somewhere between bemusement and hostility.
It happens within the church too. Most liberal Anglicans I know are clear about the imperative to offer pastoral care to LGBT people in the church. But speaking out about the systemic injustice which these brothers and sisters experience, the discrimination and oppression at the hands of the Church? Careful, now…. Don’t want to rock the boat…..
Except rocking boats is what Jesus does. Turning over tables. Telling people in no uncertain terms that they’re wrong, that the way they’re doing things, the way they’ve always done things, is not the way of God’s Kingdom. And obviously I wouldn’t for a minute claim the same sort of authority that Jesus has, but I do think we have a responsibility to challenge injustice when we see it, however much we might be flying in the face of the received wisdom of the world or the church.
I think there is a danger that we focus on social action at the expense of social justice, pastoral care at the expense of engaging with the big theological issues. I know I’ve been guilty of that myself. And I think we too easily forget that we’re called to do more than pick up the pieces. We’re called to be the means by which God transforms the world.
We need to listen to prophetic voices, whether from individuals or organisations, inside or outside the church. We need to seek to discern God’s will on the big issues of our time, and look for the ways we can bring that about. And we need to get involved with the mess and challenge of changing the world. It’s not a distraction or an optional extra – it’s part of God’s mission for the Church.