Postcard from London
By John Martin
It’s somewhat hard these days to secure diary commitments for Monday evenings with Church of England clergy. The reason is the third series of the BBC television comedy BAFTA-winning Rev is back. Tom Hollander’s portrayal of the hapless East London vicar Adam Smallbone has achieved a cult following among English clergy.
Rev snugly fits a much-used formula in British sitcoms. Its basic axiom is that failure is funny. Hence the pompous and blundering Captain Mainwaring (Dad’s Army), the spiv Del Boy (Only Fools and Horses), and jailbird Fletch (Porridge) rank among British television’s most loved characters.
Financial woes are a recurring theme in the latest series of Rev, with overbearing diocesan officials threatening to close the parish. Of course the topical issue of same-sex marriage gets an airing. And in a recent episode Smallbone runs a chaotic interfaith event in cahoots with a trendy imam.
Rev prompted Imam Ajmal Masroor to ask in the London Evening Standard why Christianity in London’s East End is shrinking while Islam is ascendant. “Why is Islam so much more popular?” he wrote. “Is it because of all of its rules for life? People like rules. Maybe if Christianity had rules like Islam, the church would be full too.”
There are notable flaws in Masroor’s claims. They begin with him seeming to take Smallbone and his foibles at face value when they are fiction. Moreover, while churches struggle in many parts of Britain, the trend in the capital runs in the other direction, with parishes bucking the trend of decline.
On Palm Sunday the London Cycle of Prayer invited worshipers to pray for five new missional communities that have sprung up in the last year or so. Another trend is that more young people are coming forward as candidates for ordination. Statistics from the Church of England indicate that under-30s make up 23 percent of those entering ministry — that’s 113 of 501 who began training in 2013. There was a time when under-30s would be told to “go and get more life experience and come back later.” They rarely came back.
Last November the General Synod held a debate on “Intentional Evangelism.” It was a response to Archbishop Justin Welby’s decision to identify evangelism and witness as one of the three priorities for his ministry. He has appointed a task group of 12 experts in evangelism and church growth. They met for the first time at Lambeth Palace in March.
“It is the task of this group to see every church and every Christian embrace their calling to be those who proclaim the Gospel in word and deed,” Archbishop Welby explained. “Nothing quite brings energy and renewal to a church [like] seeing people come to faith.”
The Rev. Canon Chris Russell, Welby’s new evangelism adviser, said the project’s scope is “to see massive culture change.” The aim “isn’t to come up with a new initiative, to launch the archbishop’s course in evangelism, or a program. It’s about enabling local churches and the national church to see and to live out a vocation to evangelise, to be proclaimers of the Good News.”
“We tend to see it as something for the extrovert or people who are good at running programs.”
“Too often with so many church people, we can’t quite believe the gospel is about us. The truth is that Jesus Christ calls me. He wants to use me and you. We don’t have to wait for the experts to arrive. He uses our lives and he uses them for the sake of other people,” he said.
“Every single Christian community needs to attend to what God is calling them to do in their locality. … There’s no magical method — just do this and it’ll happen. But there are some things [that] if we do them we will grow. First we must pray. Then, we need to do something that has as its intention to introduce people to Jesus Christ, putting the gospel out there. Then we need to be giving people who are not Christians opportunities to come and find out more about Jesus: whether it’s little groups, meals; whether it’s a course off the shelf or something you design for yourself.”
There is an element that not surprisingly is missing in Rev. The BBC finds it impossible to include the action of God in its storyline. This is also missing from Ajmal Masroor’s analysis.
Russell deflected all attempts to analyse past archbishops’ evangelism initiatives like George Carey’s Decade of Evangelism or William Temple’s work leading to the much-read report Towards the Conversion of England.
“Churches grow because they make a decision to grow,” he said. “Expect that when we pray and when we share faith, God makes all the difference.”
John Martin is TLC’s London correspondent.