A sermon seeking to understand how church and secular society may engage in mutual modification

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Now officially retired, I'm the Director of a volunteer church outreach: Trinity-at-Waiake  eLearning Centre. Our website and ePortfolio is kiwiconnexion.nz for lifelong learning and spirituality, creating an online community of best practice and resourcing for professional development, with an emphasis on Methodism. Read more

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New Zealand Church and Society

web.jpg.2Church and Society: Influences and Mutual Modification

 How audacious can the Church be in terms of influencing society? Do we have a part to play in shaping the values of all New Zealand? And, by the same token, how audaciously can society shape the Church? To what extent can others have an influence on the Church? After all, anything less than a mutual modification would be dictatorial.

These are crucial questions, and attempting to answer them can help sharpen our beliefs about the role of faith. I want to use an example from contemporary New Zealand life, one from Methodist history, and one from an extraordinary clash on the world stage of evangelism and literature, to illustrate how being audacious for faith can lead to great good or great harm.

Harm was vividly illustrated by the unhappy case of an otherwise morally upright couple, two New Zealand parents, convicted recently to five years imprisonment for the manslaughter of their infant. Their religious convictions precluded them from allowing medical intervention for their sick son. On reflection I thought the judge achieved depth and clarity in his summing up. The parents are, without doubt, utterly sincere in their religious beliefs. Equally, they are utterly unable to comprehend that another life depended completely on their human day to day judgements and not on their personal beliefs in the actions of an omnipotent, benevolent God. Moreover, those day to day judgements they made were, and remain, radically flawed. Their personal nightmare consists not in what they did to their son, but rather in the fact they are imprisoned for a crime they believe is not a crime. Our nightmare consists of knowing they committed the unspeakable crime of infanticide, and they know it not.

Well, the religious influences at work in this couple and their friends are not the Gospel. We know it, and the Seventh Day Adventist Church knows it and has publicized its abhorrence over what has happened. This sad case raises the question as to how far can an individual go before he or she clashes with the state on fundamental issues of freedom and freedom of conscience. When does the state have the legitimate right to over-ride individual freedom of choice in religious matters or matters of conscience?

Such questions are not merely contextual. Something greater is at stake that implies universality of rights and responsibilities. We will consider in detail a different example, apparently unrelated. Yet it too will illustrate the dilemma of rights, freedoms, and the rule of law. The early Methodist movement was obliquely centred on dissent from state imposed religion. The early converts were obliged to support the worship in Anglican churches, but were free to pursue their own spirituality in their own chapels afterwards. Inevitably many chose not to follow the obligatory worship. It seems mild enough on the surface, yet dissent went far deeper than this.

John and Charles Wesley not only imposed on themselves a rigorous self-discipline of study, alms-giving and prayer, but purposely visited the imprisoned and rode the gallows-cart with the condemned. Such activities were misunderstood, severely criticized, and sometimes ridiculed. Later on, John Wesleyâs insistence on open-air preaching often brought him into conflict with crowds of antagonistic hecklers. As well as this, many leading authorities of both Church and state wanted him silenced. This was equally true of other dissenters. Imprisonment was an ever present threat to them.

Inevitably there were serious accusations brought against not just the Wesley brothers but also their lay preachers and others associated with the Methodist movement. England was, at that time, all too conscious of revolutionary movements, and the question of independence for the American colony loomed large by the 1760s. Were the religious dissenters loyal? Or were they plotting revolution under the pretext of religious freedom?

The unrelenting Wesleyan opposition to slavery and poor social conditions throughout society, particularly in prisons and hospitals, provoked a great deal of anger among the wealthy and privileged. At a local level, the itinerant preachers often spoke with zeal, arising out of a social conscience acting in combination with personal holiness. The potential for misunderstanding was great. Charles Wesley said that he could identify the homes of Methodists because they were marked by missiles hurled at the walls from the hands of furious opponents. God, personal holiness, Church and state were thus inexorably intertwined in the Wesleyan approach to a revival of religious life in Great Britain.

John Wesley's diaries attest to the conflicts that arose, as do occasional verses in Charles Wesley's hymns. The Conference hymn of Methodist Churches throughout the world for the last 250 years has been:

What troubles have we seen, 
What conflicts have we passed, 
Fightings without and fears within,
Since we assembled last.

Perhaps more than a few who attend Methodist Conferences really mean it when they sing those words. Yet it ought to be the vast majority. For this is a record of radical discipleship. I have a strong conviction we ought to be attending much more carefully to what that song implies. Belonging to a Church, and taking it seriously, may evoke very strong reactions in others.

This raises for me powerful questions: how much are we influenced by society and how much does God influence us to influence society? And how do we know when it is genuine? It is all too easy to be deluded. Religious fundamentalism does not allow for the remotest possibility of being mistaken. That is what is so frightening about it, no matter whether it is Jewish, Christian or Islamic. Indeed, the fundamentalism surrounding political ideology is usually far worse. Religion and politics mixed as a Molotov ideological cocktail kills.

Consider the other tremendous influences society has had on the Church throughout the twentieth century. The development of science and technology has forever changed the way Churches go about their work. There have been deep-seated shifts in attitudes to employment and leisure; to mass entertainment through television and radio; to equality between the sexes; to the liberalisation of drug and alcohol use; to crime and punishment; to war and peace. Each of these has generated a host of new ethical and moral concerns some of which our forebears did not have to worry about. We do have to find a way through, because the problems are pressing and need tackling. We cannot give up on society even if society has pushed the Church beyond the event horizon, out beyond the margins of real influence.

The introduction of television accelerated the trend towards the total secularization of Sunday, during the 1960s and 1970s. Very few Churches invested time, talent and money in using the new medium well. Today the 'mainstream' or 'old-line Churches' have virtually given up on the medium of television.

Television makes us much more aware of diversity and what divides us, but also drives home the values that can unify us. I am not a loyalist, but can there be a more inspirational sight than a million people lining the Mall waving flags for the Queen, not out of duty, but from the base of genuine affection? There were moments in our history when something similar occurred around Christian themes. The Billy Graham crusades drew around 570,000 people. Genuine enquiries totalled about 17,500. Church historian Alan Davidson draws attention to the remarkable consensus among the old NCC leaders (they were more liberal than conservative) who brought him to New Zealand.

Despite his personal charisma, however, Billy Grahamâs theology was already out-of-step with the times. The Churches were, in reality, in decline, not keeping pace with population growth. His 1959 visit was a high point, but in a few yearâs time the lows of the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the cold war tensions meant a very different outlook was emerging among New Zealanders. Billy Graham crusades were answering questions that were no longer being asked by most people.

When I first became seriously involved in the Church many of the lay leaders hearkened back to the 1959 and 1969 Billy Graham crusades as the best time ever in Church life. As they saw it, the problem over intervening years was that no one in New Zealand Churches had ever been able to capture the popular imagination in quite the same way. The Billy Graham âtheologyâ may not have been wholly adequate, but that seemed comparatively unimportant at the time. Large scale vision is what Graham could communicate.

Yet, at the risk of spoiling some fond illusions, I want to say that theological inadequacy does, in fact, seriously erode the Churchâs foundations. Billy Graham persuaded some of the worldâs best with sheer emotional appeal, but there was a down-side to the lack of intellectual rigour. Let me quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, recipient of the worldâs most prestigious religious prize, The Templeton Prize, in 1983. He was, of course, one of the greatest Russian authors, who for his faithâs sake, was imprisoned and sent to a forced labour camp in Siberia. His works Gulag Archipelago, and Cancer Ward are spiritual masterpieces. The year before Solzhenitsynâs Templeton Prize, the winner was Billy Graham. Solzhenitsyn noted in his acceptance speech:

It is with profound regret that I must note here something which I cannot pass over in silence. My predecessor in receipt of this prize last year - in the very months that the award was made - lent public support to communist lies by his deplorable statement that he had not noticed the persecution of religion in the U.S.S.R. Before the multitude of those who have perished and who are oppressed today, may God be his judge.

Sombre words indeed. Solzhenitsyn was as appalled by the moral degeneration of the West as by the flagrant denial of human rights in the U.S.S.R. He discerned that the Church had become morally impotent, and that Western society ignored its claims to truth.

Inevitably a similar pattern has emerged in New Zealand. Only when an exceptional case arises, like the infanticide case, does the Church make big headlines. Inevitably these are also bad headlines. In the main, our Churches have become so boring to our society that it is almost like forced labour to attend them. It becomes even worse when evangelicals of the standing of Billy Graham have been replaced by the likes of the inane tele-evangelists. God preserve us from this form of Christianity. Society has the good sense to reject it.

The great detective novelist Dorothy Sayers used to ask for quality Christian writing in every branch of literature. She did not want poems, plays and novels about Jesus so much as plays and novels that were permeated with the qualities of Christ. The telling sentence or phrase, dotted here and there through the pages of a best seller or West End show.

It is certainly not a new idea. There is an evangelism by which the Church can and does influence society. We have seen it in the past, particularly in the Wesleyan approach. Can we achieve it again? Perhaps, but if so it will only be by a commitment to quality education, quality communication, and quality relationships in the Church.

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