Confidence in our Church's Mission

First published 5th March 2015

Michael Lloyd

Revd Dr Michael Lloyd, Principal of Wycliffe Hall attended Diocesan Synod on 28 February and gave a fascinating, insightful and at times extremely humorous address on why he has continued confidence in the mission of the Church.

What we have to give is what people crave. Because the Christian gospel meshes so intricately with human need. The doctrine of the Trinity feeds the tap roots of our beings.

And our mission is to love them, so as to reflect God's love to them. Our mission is so to love them that they find it easier to believe in God's love for them.

Watch the video of Michael's address or read the transcript below.

The need for love

I feel rather like the boy who had learnt the list of the kings of Judah and Israel for his RE exam, because the RE exam always asked them to list the kings of Judah and Israel. Unfortunately, this year, the examiners decided to replace that question with one on the minor prophets, instead. This threw all the candidates, except for one boy who wrote: Far be it from me to call any prophet minor. Let me instead give you a list of the kings of Judah and Israel.

And the reason I feel like him is that I thought I was meant to be speaking this morning on Confidence in the Church's Mission, and then I discovered that I have been billed as speaking on The future of ministerial education, which, if RME gets through, wont require 50 minutes! So let me instead give you a talk on Confidence in the Church's Mission, and then briefly draw out the importance of theological education to the fulfilment of that mission.

Theres a nice scene in Season 2 of The Big Bang Theory, when Leonard has invited Leslie Winkle round for a date, and he tells his flat-mate Sheldon that he would appreciate it if he could make himself scarce for the evening. To which Sheldon replies, "Leonard, Im a published theoretical physicist with two doctorates and an IQ that cant be accurately measured by normal tests how much scarcer could I be?"

Anyway, he finally gets the message, and is sitting on the stairs playing Super Mario on a poorly coded Nintendo 64 emulator Ive absolutely no idea what I have just said, but, anyway, thats what he was doing - when Penny comes past. They greet each other sort of and Penny asks why he is playing computer games on the stairs. Because, says Sheldon, "Leonard is upstairs right now with my arch enemy."

Penny: Your arch enemy?

Sheldon: Yes, the Dr Doom to my Mr. Fantastic. The Dr Octopus to my Spiderman. The Dr Sivana to my Captain Marvel... You know, its amazing how many supervillains have advanced degrees. Graduate schools should probably do a better job of screening these people out.

Anyway, it turns out that he is referring to Dr Leslie Winkle. And Penny says, "Okay, let me put it this way. If you are really Leonards friend, you will support him no matter who he wants to be with."

To which Sheldon replies, "Wait a minute why am I doing all the giving here? If Leonards really my friend, why doesnt he have to support me in my hatred of Leslie Winkle?"

And Penny shows that she is actually rather more intelligent than they give her credit for - and in some ways rather more intelligent than them - when she replies, "Because love trumps hate."

Sheldons predictable repost is, "Oh, now youre just making stuff up."

And there you have the dilemma of the contemporary world. Because its heart is with Penny, and its head is with Sheldon. It wants to believe that love trumps hate. It wants to believe that love is ultimate. It knows that there is nothing more important in life than loving and being loved. It knows that to lose a job is bad, but to lose someone who loves you is of a different order. It knows that the human heart craves being loved. Since my parents died, I have had a recurring dream that they have moved and I don't have their forwarding address - and, whatever people's equivalent of that is, they know their own inner craving for love. They know that love is what makes the difference between living and existing. Their heart is with Penny.

But their head is with Sheldon, because they can see no grounds for believing that love does trump hate. Scientifically, they know that we came to be through a long, bloody process of violent competition. They know that love is a reasonably recent arrival on the cosmic stage. They know that love is an evolutionary by-product that tricks us into perpetuating the species (romantic love) and protecting the next generation until it is capable of looking after itself (parental love). (As Jerry Seinfeld reminds us, 'Babies may look cute, but do not be deceived. Remember why they are here: they are here to replace us!' We are tricked by our parental instincts into just passing on the DNA.)

So, if we look to the past, love is a bit of a cosmic johnny-come-lately. And if we look at the future, we are assured that love will not last, because entropy will ultimately put paid to all loving.

Is Sheldon right? Is Penny just making stuff up? Is her dictum that love trumps hate an unsupported assertion? After all, when students make unsupported statements in their essays, I write "Asserted, not argued" in the margin. A friend of mine who does a lot of marking bought himself one of those print wheels, which have embossed letters round a wheel, so that when you run it over an ink pad and then over a piece of paper, that word is printed out over and over again. And the word he chose to have imprinted on it was bullshit which he would then run in red ink over selected passages of his students essays: bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Very satisfying. As a marker, I would have Asserted, not argued put on my print wheel. It is amazing how often you need it.

So, should Pennys belief that love trumps hate get the print wheel treatment? Is it not just unsupported, but unsupportable?

I suggest that it would be, if it werent for the doctrine of the Trinity.

One of the great spiritual classics of our day is of course My Ministry Manual by Revd Gerald Ambulance, minister of St Ursulas High Pentecostal-Reformed Church in Lewisham. Revd Gerald gives us the benefit of his years of ministerial experience when he tells us "the 12most popular questions Ive come across in pastoral ministry, and the right answers:

Problem: Im confused about the Trinity. How can God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit all be God, if theres only one God?

Answer: Look at it like this: once upon a time there were three little bunnies called Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. One day a nasty man caught them and put them in a rabbit pie. They were still three rabbits, but only one pie. (Although the pie got cut up into lots of pieces, admittedly.) To put it in plain language that even a complete dur-brain could understand, the three persons of the triune Godhead are one in substance, but in three hypostases. If you have any further questions, dont hesitate to ask ... someone else."

What the doctrine of the Trinity is asserting is that the ultimate fact about existence is a relationship. The ultimate reality is the love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. This is the most fundamental of facts. You can split the molecule, you can split the atom, you may even be able to split the quark but you can never split the love of the Father for the Son, or the Son for the Father, or the Father for the Spirit, or the Spirit for the Father, or the Son for the Spirit, or the Spirit for the Son. So there is nothing so basic, so ultimate, or so surely founded and grounded as love.

People need to know that.

People need to know that love does trump hatred, because love is prior to hatred. Love is older than hatred. Love is more original than hatred. Love will outlast hatred. Love is essential in a way that hatred is not. Love is deep down things, in a way that hatred is not. All things are orientated towards Love. All things were created by Love.

People need to know that love trumps hate ontologically.

People need to know that their instinctive knowledge that love is the most important thing in the world is not just a bit of clichd folk wisdom its a clue to the meaning of the Universe.

People need to know that the most important thing about them is that they are infinitely and eternally loved.

People need to know that they dont have to earn that love it is just given. It is just there. It just is. And that all the workaholic attempt to prove ourselves worth something is unnecessary.

People need to know that, though human history is blood-stained, and though cosmic history is violent, yet there is an older history, a truer truth, a deeper magic, a more fundamental fact that they and all people and all things were made by Love, and were made for Love.

And we only have that information in the doctrine of the Trinity. We only have that information in the new understanding of God that the experience of Jesus forced the Church to conceive, because only in the Christian doctrine of God is there a receiving and giving of love within the very being of God. Only in the Christian doctrine of God is God actually constituted as love. As Hans Urs Von Balthasar put it, "It depends on Jesus whether we dare to address being as love, and thus all beings as worthy of love."

Thats why I am confident about our mission. Because what we have to give is what people crave. Because the Christian gospel meshes so intricately with human need. The doctrine of the Trinity feeds the tap roots of our beings.

And our mission is to love them, so as to reflect God's love to them. Our mission is so to love them that they find it easier to believe in God's love for them.

But our mission is also to tell them of the nature of Being, of the surd of Love at the heart of reality. If we do not tell them of the triune nature of God, we leave them to starve off the scraps.

So thats the first thing. I am confident about our mission because I know that only the doctrine of the Trinity can meet the desperate need for love in the human heart.

Fear of meaning

The second reason why I am confident about our mission is because I know that only the Cross can defuse peoples fear of meaning.

We long to have meaning in the face of our own finitude and mortality. In the face of our crippling transience, we try to link ourselves in to something bigger than ourselves - something that was there before we came to be, and which will still be there once we are long gone.

The search for meaning is really a quest to push back the frontiers of our finitude. To mitigate the otherwise crushing nature of our insignificance. Let me give you an example.

The famous funeral oration of Pericles no relation to John Cleese, so far as I know was a eulogy for all the Athenian youth who had been killed in battle that year. He wants to give their deaths some meaning. How does he do that? He begins by talking about their ancestors. By linking them in to a story that began long before they came to be. And then he goes on to speak of how those who have died live on in the memories of those who love them, in the fame of their heroic acts and in the continuing influence of their example.

Trying to push the frontiers of finitude backwards into the past, and forwards into the future. Pericles is here tapping into a universal human need for meaning. A universal human need to be linked into a bigger story than their individual story, and into a bigger community than their own nuclear family.

The problem with meaning, of course, is that it can so easily be used to justify violence. And indeed, the whole point of Pericles funeral oration was to keep the Athenian nation onside with continuing the war against the racially inferior enemy.

Many other purveyors of Meaning have done the same. Vladimir Putin was asleep one night in the Kremlin, when Stalin appeared to him in a dream. And Putin says, "Tell me what I should do, Uncle Joe? Things arent easy with all the trade embargoes what should I do?" And Stalin says, "Well, you must do two things. First, you must take the leading bureaucrats of every department out and shoot them all. And then, secondly, you must paint the Kremlin blue." And Putin says, "Blue? Why blue?"

To which Stalin replies, "Yes, I thought it would be that one youd question!"

Communism offered the great march of history to be part of but used that meaning to justify the Gulags and the Laogais. Christianity offered people the meaning of salvation history but used it to justify persecuting Jews, burning heretics and excluding from universities all who would not sign up to Anglican doctrine. ISIS offers people the meaning of an eternal future and uses it to justify the most appalling brutality towards outsiders.

So I deeply understand those who fear the whole concept of meaning, those who fear the big story, the big picture, the coherent account of reality, the meta-narrative. It is an entirely understandable fear that, if you have a complete account of history, you will end up imposing it on others. As one post-modern writer put it, "All ideology wreaks of the death camps."

Consequently, despite their longing for meaning, many people have given up on the big picture. They have given up on Meaning. And they have decided not to fit in to anyone elses story but to create their own meaning. They are not going to be told what is the Meaning of their lives not by mullahs, not by missionaries, not be commissars, not by anyone. They are going to determine that for themselves. That way, no one is going to oppress them. That way, they remain in control.

That is one of the main reasons why, as your Diocesan Strategy puts it, "we are becoming more remote from the communities we seek to love and serve." Not because we offer a different kind of music to the kind they listen to on their MP3s. Not because our worship is too formal or too informal. But because what we offer is something they deeply and understandably fear.

The dreadful preacher satirised in Alan Bennetts Take a Pew sketch says, "Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key." But many people today have given up looking for the key. Many people refuse to believe that there is one key that fits the lock for everyone for fear that that one meaning will then be forced on us, regardless of who we are, and what we want.

The problem with that, of course, is that, if you create your own meaning, its smaller than you are. And the whole point of meaning is that it is bigger than you are and mitigates your smallness. The problem with making your own meaning is that it will leave you unconnected to anyone else. For your meaning may not mesh with my meaning. And the whole point of meaning is to bind us together in an overarching framework. The whole point of meaning is to mitigate our isolation from one another. And the problem with making your own meaning is that it tends to run out when you most need it.

So our generation is in a cleft stick with regard to meaning: we long for it, and we fear it in equal measure. Is there a way out of this cleft stick?

In Revelation 5, the narrator weeps and weeps that there is no one who is worthy to open the scroll that stands for the meaning of history. The scroll is that which would unfold the mystery of lifes meaning. And one of the bystanders tells him not to weep, because there is one who is worthy enough to open the scroll. And he's told to expect a lion, though what he actually sees is a lamb, and one that has been slain, at that.

Jesus did not impose His agenda on others by force. Quite the opposite He allowed others to impose their agenda on Him by force. He would rather be slain than slay. The Cross therefore defuses our generations fears, because Meaning that is based on Jesus will not impose itself on others by force, because that is not Jesus way. It is His scarred hands alone that may be trusted to open the scroll, without forcing its contents upon us.

So we need not fear the Meaning we crave. We need not fear that the weight of this eternal story will be used to crush people into subscribing to it for this is the man who allowed others to leave Him, to desert Him, to deny Him, to crucify Him, and all He did in response was to pray for them, to love them. If we are faithful to the Cross, we will never impose the story of Jesus upon anyone. A world-view that is focused on the Cross will never propagate itself by force.

Again, people need to know this.

Because people are being robbed of an awareness of their meaning and significance by fears that the Cross defuses.

People need to know that there is an eternal story that longs to include them, that invites them to contribute to that story, to make their mark in that story, but will never compel them to be included, that will respect the very freedom that God gave them, that will suppress nothing that is truly them, that not only mitigates their mortality but removes it.

So I am confident about our mission because I know that only the doctrine of the Trinity can meet the desperate need for love in the human heart.

I am confident about our mission because I know that only the Cross can defuse peoples fear of meaning.

The defeat of death

And thirdly, I am confident about our mission because I know that only the Resurrection can give people the hope without which we wither.

So, the conversation in the pub dries up a bit, and one of the regulars tries to jump-start it back into life by asking an intriguing question of the other drinkers. "Okay," he says, "the day comes when they put you in your casket, your family is gathered around what would you like them to say about you?" And one of the other drinkers says, "Well, I would like them to say, 'Gillian was simply one of the finest surgeons of her generation. She was able to save the lives of patients when no one else could. She developed techniques that are now standard practice in hospitals all over the world.'" Another one says, "Id like people to say, 'George was just the best father anyone could hope for. He was fun, generous, wise, always there for us.'" And the third one said, "Id like them to say, 'Look! He's moving!'"

Our generation is no more at peace with the prospect of dying and bereavement than any before it. World literature is at one in its horror of how death terminates the contribution of every individual, guillotines their relationships, and haemorrhages the meaning of our existence.

Let me give you an example.

There is a section from Nicholas Wolterstorffs book, Lament for a Son. When his son died in a climbing accident, he wrote this:

"What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. Thats OK too. Your words dont have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you cant think of anything at all to say, just say, I cant think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief. Or even, just embrace But please: Dont say, its not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think that your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, its not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. ... I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. Its those who think it is not so bad that need correcting."

And I am immediately struck by the deep congruence between Nicholas Wolterstorff's view of death and the New Testament understanding of death as enemy.

God never says, "Let there be death."

It has no positive place in His purposes.

It does not belong in His world.

Death in biblical thought is that which God assaults.

Death is enemy.

Just as we never see Jesus declining to heal someone on the grounds that the suffering was doing them good, so we never see Him acquiescing in death except, arguably, His own, and even there He prayed against it, and sweated blood at the prospect of it. And at the tombstone of Lazarus, He breaks down in grief and anger. Because for Him, death should not be. It should not occur. It has no place in God's good world. It is a distortion and an obscenity, and He sets His face against it.

And of course the Resurrection of Jesus itself is the ultimate sign of God's hostility to death.

The Resurrection shows that death is not the final step in the Masters plan to bring us safely home as one Oxford undertakers brochure put it.

It is not kind and gentle death, despite what the hymn says.

It is that which God opposes, and will one day undo.

What we can offer to Nicholas Wolterstorff is to refuse to downplay death.

What we can offer to those we serve in their grief is a recognition of the should-not-be-ness of what they are going through. We can face the full horror of it with them and for them, because we know that death is not just enemy, but a defeated enemy.

People need to know about the Resurrection of Christ.

Because the knowledge of deaths defeat is transformative of life. It does not take away the pain, but people need to know that the pain, though terrible, is temporary.

People need to know that. People need to know that death, though a hiatus in our relationships, is not the termination of them.

I am confident about our mission because I believe that the doctrine of the Trinity reveals the desperately needed truth that love is not peripheral, but the point of it all.

I am confident about our mission because I believe that the Cross defuses the fears of our generation and frees them to have meaning.

I am confident about our mission because I believe that the Resurrection of Jesus sets the implacable and victorious hostility of God over against the enemy of death that otherwise makes a mockery of our relationships, our lives and our hopes.

I am confident in our mission because to be loved, to find meaning and to have hope are utterly basic to human flourishing - and they are only fully found in the eternally loving, temporally (and temporarily) dying and gloriously recreating God we meet in Jesus Christ.

We require more theology not less

Notice that all these three mainstream missional messages for which, I have been suggesting, our generation is crying out are messages about God. They are theology. It is actually theology, for lack of which our world is starving. It is actually theology that enables people to thrive. Theology lived as well as spoken, of course but it cant be either lived or spoken unless it is learned.

As your bishop is always saying and thank you, by the way, for letting him serve as Chair of our Council, which he does with huge wisdom, warmth and humour ... As your bishop is always saying, "A missional church requires more theology not less." And no way forward that equips its leaders with less is going to arrest the decline of the church.

Of course it is theology that people need because it is God that people need; it is God towards whom our hearts and world are orientated; it is God we have to communicate, and the communication of God is theology.

We have nothing else to offer that would change a thing.

Revd Dr Michael Lloyd, Principal of Wycliffe Hall

28 February 2015

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