Gospel as Counter-narrative

Like other leaders on the world stage, the Archbishop of Canterbury is calling for long-term responses to a rising tide of Islamic terrorism and the societal conditions that incubate extremism.

But in an interview with TLC, Archbishop Justin Welby broke with other public figures who have avoided theological issues in their search for economic or political solutions. He sees a role for Christian evangelism among Muslims, even in regions where it’s dangerous or unlawful.

“The solutions are going to be in the ideological challenge to the basis of terrorism and providing an alternative narrative that is more exciting than the ones that people like [the Islamic State] and Boko Haram and the Taliban are offering,” Welby said.

Mainstream religious leaders must impart a renewed sense of adventure, vocation, and challenge, which is about changing the world for the better, Welby said. Sharing the gospel among Muslims can be part of that renewal.

“Jesus calls us to go make disciples of all nations,” Welby said, adding that evangelism must never be done by manipulation or underhanded means. “We must be courageous in our confidence that the gospel is the right thing for people.”

Welby gave the interview during Trinity Institute 2015, a two-day conference at Trinity Wall Street in New York City, where he and other speakers addressed economic inequality as a moral issue. From scripted speeches to more relaxed media interviews, the archbishop delivered a consistent message: what’s needed from the Church in these challenging times is courage.

Being courageous is not solely about evangelism for Welby, but that’s part of it. When asked if Christians should seek to win converts in Muslim countries, he answered: “Yeah!” And they should do it even where Christian evangelism is illegal, including wide swaths of the Middle East and North Africa.

“This is what the apostles answered: do we obey God or human beings?” Welby said.

He recalled having broken the law to advance the gospel. “When I was young and when we were first married, we smuggled Bibles into communist countries,” he said. “That was illegal in those countries. That was strictly illegal.”

Welby set a fearless tone for the conference at its full-house opening worship service. He exhorted worshippers in a 17-minute homily to transform their society and to expect difficult moments as they grapple with moral responsibilities.

Welby argued the next day in his opening talk that equality is a biblical principle. It’s encoded in creation, and manifest in the Garden of Eden and in the visions of prophets. Yet today’s economic and political systems have begun to safeguard wealth and power in perpetuity, and to prevent upward mobility among the poor.

Permanent wealth marks an injustice, in Welby’s interpretation, and the systems that enable it need reforming. Reform will require courage to confront people who spend enormous sums to control lawmaking, regulations, and enforcement.

Later, away from the crowd in a comfortable sitting room, he leaned back reflectively, holding his folded, silver-rimmed spectacles in cupped hands. He answered questions by invoking current events, citing Bible verses, even quoting Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

When asked what’s needed to confront Islamic terrorism, he hunched over to listen to the question, then straightened up and said, with a brief, wide smile and a chuckle: “You do realize that if I had the simple, straightforward, one-sentence answer that I should be the President of the United States of America.”

The archbishop was quick to lay out a moral imperative, yoking compassion to social action. He urged Anglicans worldwide to pray for persecuted Christians who suffer at the hands of extremists, but not to say amen and be done. What else can they do? Be courageous, and be with those enduring persecution. Be with them in body as well as spirit.

He suggested a role for courage on the home front, too. Welby had said last fall at the Church of England’s General Synod that “sufficiency is in loving those with whom we disagree.” What might this love look like in North America, where hundreds of congregations left the Episcopal Church to join the Anglican Church in North America? Should the Episcopal Church work toward reconciliation with the ACNA?

“From my far from lofty position, I’m not going to start lecturing, What TEC needs to do is,” he said, adopting the mock voice of a stern British schoolmaster. “I’m just not going to do that. But what does it look like? I’ll talk about something I know about in England.”

Welby described how the Church of England is managing its transition to women in the episcopate, beginning with the Rt. Rev. Libby Lane on January 26. And February 2 will bring the consecration of the Rev. Philip North, who believes only men should be bishops.

The two events within a week are causing “quite a hoo-ha,” Welby said, but an adopted set of guiding principles stands to help everyone remember where their unity lies.

“For putting these principles into practice, implementation is a real struggle,” Welby said. “But the Church is committed to the mutual flourishing — not because we agree with one another, but because we are all in Christ.”

Welby described how the Church of England is managing its transition to women in the episcopate, beginning with the Rt. Rev. Libby Lane on January 26. And February 2 brings the consecration of the Rev. Philip North, who believes only men should be bishops.

Throughout his brief visit Welby exhorted Americans to resist silent complicity. He made clear that God’s people should not cower in the presence of bullies — nor should they placate unjust regimes, nor be content with seemingly safe distance from fellow believers of a different political or theological stripe, nor countenance those keen to concentrate power forever in the hands of a select few.

Modern society may be tempted to let fear cut a path to moral paralysis. But for Justin Welby, the Church should have no part of it.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Image of Archbishop Welby courtesy of Trinity Wall Street.

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