Over at Anglican Down Under, one of the regular commenters misunderstood something I said and drew the conclusion that I was really concerned about ‘who will become the next Archbishop of Canterbury’. As I said there, I must not be as lucid a writer as I thought; I’m actually entirely unconcerned about the Canterbury horse race – and that’s not solely because I’m in Canada, and Canterbury is in England, either!
Let me explain. As my regular readers will know, I came to faith in Jesus Christ while living in the little village of Southminster, Essex in the 1970s. At that time our village church, St. Leonard’s, was going through a real charismatic renewal and it was a very exciting community to be a part of. People were coming to faith in Christ, joining house groups and reading the Bible and praying together; people were getting ‘words from the Lord’ (many of which turned out to be genuine), exercising gifts of healing and prophecy and so on. The worship wasn’t old and musty but alive and informal, with a lot of what was then considered to be ‘contemporary Christian music’ (it doesn’t sound very contemporary now!). The sense of the presence of God was very real and attractive to a lot of people.
The thing is, I lived in Southminster from December 1969 to December 1975; I was converted in March 1972 and was an enthusiastic teenage Christian for the rest of my time in Southminster; I read the scripture lessons on Sundays, led intercessions, played in the music group, and did my share of personal evangelism. And in all that time, I rarely gave a second thought to the question of who the Archbishop of Canterbury was (I vaguely knew that he was a bloke named Ramsey, but that’s all I knew about him). I knew who the Bishop of Chelmsford was because he used to come down to the Bradwell pilgrimage every year to preside at the closing Communion service, and we saw the suffragen bishop of Bradwell at confirmation services every year or two, but that was the sum total of my involvement with the church hierarchy as a young Christian. Most days, bishops – any bishops – never appeared on my radar screen at all.
I suspect that most of the new Christians in our church felt the same way I did. We were very concerned about who our local vicar was (he happened to be my Dad), because he was the one who led our church and spoke at the services and (sometimes) the home groups and so on. I can understand that the question of ‘who the local bishop was’ might have been important to my Dad, as he had to work under his authority, but in a diocese of 475 parishes, even with a diocesan bishop and three suffragens, Dad didn’t exactly get a cosy coffee with the bish every other week. And for most of us ordinary folk in the pews, even the local bishop didn’t exactly have much influence on our everyday Christian lives, let alone the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Nowadays, in my fifties and a full-time parish priest, I try to keep that perspective in mind. There’s a world full of people out there beyond the doors of our church who are increasingly convinced that Christianity is irrelevant to their daily lives. The really important question we need to grapple with is how we can form growing disciples of Jesus who will go out to their homes and businesses and circles of friends and make a difference for the gospel of Christ. How do we engage non-Christian people with the Christian message? How do we evangelise them in a meaningful way so that they become convinced and committed followers of Jesus? How do we establish them in basic Christian disciplines like worship, prayer, Bible reading and the sacramental life, so that they grow in their relationship with God and each other? How do we equip them to use their gifts in service of the Kingdom of God?
So by all means, today I’ll spare a prayer for the Crown Nominations Commission as they meet to discuss the question of who they will recommend to the Queen as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. But I confess, it won’t be a long prayer. To spend too much time on the subject would, I think, be a distraction from the Gospel for me (‘tho not necessarily for the CNC). And I’ll also try to remember that Jesus said, not ‘Whoever welcomes one such bishop in my name welcomes me., but ‘whoever welcomes one such little child in my name welcomes me’ – a perspective, I suspect, with which most of the bishops of my acquaintance would agree.