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Telling the Christian Story in Public

By Graham Tomlin

In the past few years, an idea has been growing that has the potential to shift the cultural narrative about Christian faith in English-speaking nations. It came to fruition in September 2022, when the Centre for Cultural Witness was launched. Based in Lambeth Palace, at the invitation of Archbishop Justin Welby, the aim of the centre is to retell the transformational Christian story in public, aiming at a renewal of the public understanding of Christian faith. This article tells its story so far.

Western countries are struggling, and so are their churches. We have a crisis of trust in our political leaders, who never seem to match up to what we expect from them. We have a crisis of anxiety fueled by culture wars, a global pandemic, actual war in Europe, and the specter of what is happening to our climate. We have a crisis of relationship, in the loneliness and isolation that modern individualism has brought and a missing sense of obligation to each other.

In other words, we have a crisis of faith, hope, and love, qualities about which Christian faith has quite a bit to say. We have a 2,000-year history of living, practicing, and nurturing these things. A deep-rooted Christian revival could mean building the very virtues that our cultures, and the people in them, need. And yet our churches are struggling to make their voice heard, and to find ways to offer their life-giving message in the noisy chatter of 21st-century life.

A friend recently returned to the United Kingdom after several years in the United States, and I asked him about the difference between the Christian presence in both countries. “In America, you cannot avoid the Church’s voice, for better or worse,” he said. “In the U.K., you hardly hear it at all.”

It may be that our contexts across the Atlantic are very different, but either way, too often the Church’s voice is either shrill, silent, or scattered — sometimes heard, but often uncoordinated and rarely brought together.

At the same time, mainstream theology is facing something of a crisis. While there is a clear public role for sociologists, psychologists, geographers, scientists, and specialists in other disciplines, that is not true for theologians. In the words of Miroslav Volf and Matt Croasmun of Yale Divinity School, “the number of people in the pew reading academic theology is negligible … [and] the wider public outside Christian communities perceives academic theology as so thoroughly irrelevant that it might as well not exist” (For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference, Brazos Press, 2019).  Neither the world nor even the Church, for that matter, seems that interested in what academic theology has to offer. The bottom line is that no one really listens to theologians anymore.

All this matters at the parish level because without an effective public witness, the task of spreading the faith becomes much harder. British priest and author Peter Owen Jones writes:

Parish priests like me operate at the coal face: we baptise; we marry; we bury; we console where we can. This is the work of the Church of England at the micro level. … Where the Church does not have a compelling presence is at the national level, the macro level. It is here that there has been a complete lack of engagement, of witness, of imagination. Without effective national witness, work at the parish level has been made far harder.

During the past seven years, while serving as Bishop of Kensington in London, I became increasingly aware of the need for this kind of public witness. In 2017, the Grenfell Tower fire happened near one of the parishes in my area, and I found myself at the heart of a global 24/7 media storm, appearing on just about very news outlet you can name, all asking for comments on the tragedy. In the subsequent months and years, I often found myself asking how I could say something distinctly Christian in my two minutes on national radio or TV, rather than what any community leader might say.

So an idea began to hatch. How can we do our public witness better? Might we be able to harness the wisdom of Christian scholarship in a more accessible form for the witness of the Church? Our task as the Church is not to win arguments, or to try to prove to people that God exists or the resurrection took place. It is to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Yet that witness never happens in a vacuum. It always happens within a particular cultural context. Hence the title: Cultural Witness. And witness involves both describing what we see when we look into the face of Jesus Christ yet also what Christ’s light illuminates.

Having raised enough money to start the project and appoint a small but high-quality team, the centre has launched a new website — seenandunseen.com — with the tagline “Christian perspectives on just about everything.” With new material appearing every day, much of it by theologians with an ability to write for a wider audience, everything on the site has people outside the Church in mind. The site doesn’t run stories on how to plant churches or run a prayer meeting, but contains articles exploring a Christian take on Artificial Intelligence, the Russia-Ukraine war, on why land and place matter, reviews of Oscar-winning films, why people should read Julian of Norwich and Søren Kierkegaard, and why a Christian revival is just what a post-liberal society needs.

In addition to the website, the centre is focused on leadership — working with others to deepen and develop the voice of those who have a public profile as Christians, whether Church leaders, members of Parliament, or community leaders, as well as identifying and nurturing the next generation of public Christian communicators. We also engage in research projects, working with theologians and others on topics that help clarify and amplify the Church’s witness in public.

Time will tell whether the CCW changes the narrative about faith: that is in God’s hands and not ours. In the meantime, it is our task to bear witness to the remarkable reality of the new world that God has brought about in Jesus Christ — and do it the best we can.

The Rt. Rev. Graham Tomlin is the former Bishop of Kensington and director of the Centre for Cultural Witness, Lambeth Palace. For more information on the centre, visit seenandunseen.com or email info@culturalwitness.com.

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