Yes we can!

by Adrian Alker

from Signs of the Times, No. 32 - Jan 2009

In years to come our grandchildren may ask us where we were and what we were doing on the night that Barack Obama was elected the president of the Unites States of America. Across the world and across the generations, races and religions, there has been an emotional outpouring of excitement and joyous anticipation of the new ‘world to come’. Of course conservative southern Baptists in the USA are not well pleased, nor is the Iranian leadership. But rarely in recent decades has there been such an affirmation of a political leader and such hope expressed that change is on its way, that the prejudices around class and race are being confronted, that the overwhelming problems facing our planet, of climate change and inequality might at last receive serious attention from the world’s most powerful state.

Of course our grandchildren might then ask us where did it all go wrong? Obama himself will know better than us how strong are the forces of conservatism and self interest.  America’s first mixed race President, whilst honeymooning now in the glow of adulation, will be aware of the limits even of his political power in the face of global economic meltdown, in the appalling spectre of world hunger and escalating violence.

And yet alongside a cool and rational analysis of what might be possible go the aroused emotions associated with the possibilities of change.  Head and heart apply to matters of political as well as religious debate, as the last edition of Sign of the Times indicated!

Now imagine a future conversation between you and your grandchildren. ‘Did you play a part, grandma, in the big change of the Church?’ Yes, there have been times when a new prophet has arisen in ‘Israel’, when Christian people have had their minds expanded and their hearts warmed by the prospect of change.  For many such a point in time was 1962 when Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council. More personally for me a significant step forward for the Church of England was when Bishop David Sheppard gave the Dimbleby Lecture in 1984, entitled ‘The Other Britain’ and signalled the passionate commitment of my church to the transformation of our society.  Some people may see the day when the General Synod voted to legislate for the ordination of women as a time when the church made significant progress.

Obama called for change and gave assurances that, as with Bob the Builder, ‘yes we can’ (achieve that change). Few would doubt that the church in these islands needs to change, in order to avoid meltdown and marginalisation. For many people, not least the young, we have become at best an irrelevance and at worst a source of prejudice and bigotry. Yet at the same time even the most hard pressed inner city Christian church can be seen to be doing sterling work in its community and may still for others be a source of hope and real compassion. Just as Obama will attempt no doubt to radically change policies from within the establishment, so are we ready, able and willing to bring about such changes that will reinvigorate the church and reconnect with the many people sympathetic to Christian faith but yearning for a really fresh expression?

In this regard I remain an optimist. I believe that change can come, that a progressive Christian faith undergirding and inspiring Christians in their local churches is possible.

For twenty years as vicar of St Marks Broomhill it was a privilege to be part of a community unafraid to embrace a more radical understanding of the Christian story, to ask searching questions about God and the person of Jesus and to read the scriptures intelligently (and not as the savage text as Adrian Thatcher so aptly described in the last Sign of the Times). And of course there are other churches and other groups where change is happening.

Now, newly working in the splendid Diocese of Ripon and Leeds, I have the challenge of wondering if a whole diocese can embrace change through the working together of churches of different traditions, in very different contexts but passionate about the church relating effectively and purposefully to 21st century people?

What has Christ to say to a world facing climate change, the marginalisation of the majority of the global population? What has the church of Christ to say about escalating violence, about deprivation and social malaise? Of what conceivable relevance to most of our fellow citizens is the church’s obsession about whether a bishop can be female or a priest gay?

There are, in my judgement, many people ‘out there’ who are longing for change. They are the people who come to conferences, who join organisations like MCU, PCN Britain, St Marks CRC, WATCH, Inclusive Church, LGCM, and other sources of support and encouragement. I am convinced that through the working together more closely of such organisations we could do even more to bring about change. One such small step was the publication of ‘Together in Hope’ in time for Lambeth.  In the book are ten short essays covering aspects of the Christian faith, designed for busy people to read, to share with others in groups and to become excited about Christian faith and church. In this sense I am pleased to say that the book is proving to be a success.

I am therefore emboldened to suggest that MCU and other organisations pool resources again in the cause of change. One venture could be the realisation of a long desired aim to offer people in and out of the churches a radically alternative course on Christianity to that promoted by the Alpha course. Together we should be capable of producing visual material similar to Living the Questions but quite definitely for the UK!

As I begin to go around my new diocese I am encouraged by the dedication of so many clergy and lay people in settings both rural (the beautiful depths of Swaledale) and urban (the challenges of the Armley deanery where I live), in terms of their hopes for the church and its work.  We need to resource, encourage and support them in the process of change and development, in theological stimulation, in sharing with them the passion for the things of God. If MCU and others can see this support and encouragement as part of their agenda then maybe the Sign of the Times could resound with that well known American lyric, ‘The Times they are a Changin’!

Adrian Alker is Director for Mission Resourcing in the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds.