One of the centre-piece debates at the General Synod of the Church of England in July focused on the Christian imperative to pursue the ‘Common Good’.
Early in the afternoon, Jim Wallis, President of Sojourners, gave a plenary address. His talk was inspirational, refreshing and humorous although, in truth, given his reputation I was expecting more substance.
Fortunately, when we got to the debate itself, a well-researched background paper from the Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Church grounded the concept of the Common Good with greater intellectual coherence. The paper suggested that ‘at the heart of “common good” thinking is a commitment to “intermediate institutions” – structures much smaller than the state but much wider than individuals and their families, which are substantial enough to be part of how people define the values they share.’
This is a stimulating and and heuristically helpful idea. The paper is saying that the Church exemplifies the kind of intermediate community made necessary when we strike a political balance between too much government on the one hand, and too much individualism on the other. It challenges us to create, or rather to be, the kind of bridging community envisioned in the manifestos of political thought leaders such as Philip Blond (‘red Tory’) and Maurice Glasman (‘blue Labour’). So far, so good.
Then, building on the paper during the debate itself, Justin Welby underscored the Gospel’s compelling call to Christians to serve their communities in deed as well as word:
‘To commit to speaking of the common good is not enough; we must also commit to live it, not only in the actions and the parishes, but in the whole way we live out our common life as the church.’
I was challenged. I pay lip-service to the injustices of poverty and inequality but what am I really doing about it? It’s easy to talk the talk, but how do I really contribute, beyond words and good intentions, to building tangible good in the lives of others? The description of ‘pure religion’ in the Epistle of James stung and hit home in a way it hadn’t done before:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1: 27 ESV)
The message was clear and uncompromising. I needed to get my sleeves rolled up.
And yet, without wanting for one moment to let myself off of the hook of that compelling call, as I reflected upon the day’s events, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. Something was missing. Jim Wallis alluded to it, but didn’t really address it.
It was the ‘S’ word.
In stark contrast to what I heard in the debate, the Old Testament Prophets had no fear of exposing injustice and poverty whilst also naming the corporate and personal sin that lay behind it. In fact, they weave together the language of sin, service and social justice:
‘Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.…’ (Is 1: 16-17)
And James’ vision of ‘pure religion’, too, is an ambitious amalgam of far-reaching engagement with the needs of the world on the one hand and an unyielding commitment to personal holiness on the other. Our hands need to get dirty with the personal and structural sin of our world, but they must never be stained by it.
So in the Church’s proclamation, whatever became of sin? Forty years ago, Karl Menninger, one of the great innovating practitioners and humanistic thought leaders of 20th Century Psychiatry, famously wrote a book entitled ‘Whatever became of sin?’ He observed:
“In all of the laments and reproaches made by our [modern] seers and prophets, one misses any mention of ‘sin,’ a word which used to be a veritable watchword of prophets. It was a word once in everyone’s mind but now rarely if every heard. Does that mean that no sin is involved in all our troubles—sin with an ‘I’ in the middle? Is no one any longer guilty of anything? Guilty perhaps of a sin that could be repented of or atoned for?… Anxiety and depression we all acknowledge, and even vague guilt feelings; but has no one committed any sins? Where, indeed, did sin go? What became of it?”
Menninger lamented the loss of the notion of personal sin in general public discourse. But now, the same hole appears at the centre of the Church’s contemporary discourse on the Common Good too. Nowhere have I heard explained, or unpacked, the relationship between the Common Good and Gospel proclamation that confronts us individually and corporately with our sin and calls us to repentance.
True, in the Synod debate and discussions, the point was made, more than once, that when those we serve are inspired to ask us about our motivation, we stand ready to explain that the love of Christ constrains us. But beyond that, where was the passion, the ‘searing vision’, the inspiration to take into the world the life-giving Word of salvation from sin and personal transformation to holiness? The scriptures hold forth no ultimate vision of human flourishing gutted of the problem of sin. I may have blinked – but if the problem of human sin was addressed, I missed it.
What is going wrong here? There are many reasons but briefly here are two of them. First, inevitably, in the mixed economy of tradition and theologies that characterise the Church of England, a shared vision has to shrink around the lowest common denominator. My liberal anglican friends seem uncomfortable with the language of personal sin and salvation, so inevitably our joint platforms tend to pivot around what we hold in common: in this case a shared understanding that we serve men and women who are fundamentally loved as bearing the image of God himself. And in doing so we witness to, and incarnate, the love of God for all. This is profoundly true, but for evangelical anglicans (and for traditional catholics) it is Gospel-lite.
Second, there is a great deal of discomfort, and rightly so, about Christian service being offered as a condition of receiving the Gospel call. Our love must be unconditional and our service offered freely to all. The ‘rice Christians’ of past missionary endeavour – those who professed faith to fill their stomachs rather than their hearts’ – stand as a warning against that. And it’s just plain wrong. But this is a problem that needs addressing, not avoiding. The relationship between individual sin and the injustices of poverty and suffering is complex and needs some careful qualification, but that doesn’t make it a no-go area.
I couldn’t help comparing the vision being offered by General Synod with that of great evangelical social reformers of the past such as John Wesley and William Booth. Booth, within just 3 decades of starting his ministry in 1865 established a massive network of social services, defeated one of the great ‘Wongas’ of his day ( by bringing an end to the infamous use of white phosphorus in the British manufacture of safety matches) and unmasked and fought the white slave trafficking of girls as young as thirteen. His great ‘I’ll fight’ sermon at the end of his life in 1912 stands as a soaring testimony to his devotion to the Common Good:
“While women weep, as they do now,
While little children go hungry, as they do now,
While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now,
While there is a drunkard left,
While there is a poor lost girl upon the streets,
While there remains one dark soul without the light of God,
I’ll fight-I’ll fight to the very end!”
William Booth was one of the greatest warriors for the Common Good in all of Christian history. And yet it was Booth who also said:
‘To get a man soundly saved it is not enough to put on him a pair of new breeches, to give him regular work, or even to give him a University education. These things are all outside a man, and if the inside remains unchanged you have wasted your labour…’
I don’t actually agree with Booth that you have wasted your labour, because you have witnessed to the love of Christ and incarnated the same unconditional compassion he showed during his ministry. But the passion to see souls saved clearly sat at the very core of Booth’s motivation and framed the scope and scale of his ambition. His passion for souls was welded to his service of the Common Good, but it was precisely this bridge, explored intellectually, and expressed passionately, that was missing at Synod.
I don’t doubt for one moment that the Archbishop shares Booth’s vision for the salvation of souls. In words and action, Welby has done much to promote evangelism as being integral to the Church’s mission. And the excellent resourcing paper from the Mission and Public Affair’s Council I cited above recognises the challenge of integrating evangelism with service in a quote from William Temple:
‘If we have to choose between making men Christian and making the social order more Christian, we must choose the former. But there is no such antithesis.’
But in a Synod that sought to raise the Church’s game, envisioning and equipping us for service, the challenge to resolve that antithesis, bringing a sense of theological coherence to the imperatives that drive the Church’s mission, remained strangely unexplored. To do so, we need to re-discover the courage to use the ‘S’-word. Because the gospel of human flourishing, gutted of sin and repentance, is really no Gospel at all.