St Francis, Terriers - Pentecost (15.05.2016)

Tony Dickinson

Let us be quite clear at the outset: the scattering of the peoples and the confusion of languages at the climax of today’s first reading are punishment for humanity’s overweening in building the tower of Babel. They should not be taken as God’s seal of approval for the individual nation-state, with one culture and one language, over against international cooperation across a range of cultures and languages. Nor should they guide our vote on 23rd June.

Let us also be quite clear that in telling the story of the Pentecost that followed the Passover at which Jesus was killed, St Luke is showing how God reverses the effects of Babel, enabling the disciples to communicate God’s deeds of power across all the barriers of language, nationality and culture that existed in the Near East and Middle East in the first century of our era. That long list of the peoples who could understand those apparently drunken Galileans goes beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire to include subjects of the rival super-power, Parthia.

So, human power and pride lead to confusion and division, while the activity of God’s Spirit liberates and unites. That might be a message for the people of Britain as we ponder how to vote next month. It might also be a message for the people of the USA, as they ponder the possibility of President Trump, with his walls and his bans on immigration and his divisive rhetoric.

God draws people together. We see that in St Luke’s account of the day of Pentecost. We see it, too, in those words of Jesus in today’s gospel, with their promise of the coming of the Spirit of truth to those who love Jesus and keep his commandments. And we recognise their importance for us. On Thursday, at the first meeting of our new Church Council, we were setting the priorities for this year. As often happens, we found ourselves agonising about the age profile of our congregation and wondering what we might do to push it downwards rather than let it creep inexorably upwards. And, as often happens, the conversation focused on our Sunday worship and how to make it more attractive not just to families, but to people generally in their thirties, forties and fifties.

The trouble is that focusing on what we do in our worship is looking at only part of the problem. That’s not to deny that we need to keep the content and style of our worship under review. We do. But in the situation in which we find ourselves we need to be putting at least as much energy into connecting with the world outside the doors of this building. Our problem – and the problem of many congregations, even “successful” churches, like our neighbours in Hatters Lane or Hazlemere – the problem is the low number of new people coming in. In fairly recent memory it was still possible for congregations to rely on “folk religion”, the stream of “four-wheel Christians” who came to church in a push-chair for their baptism, in a limo for their wedding and in a hearse for their funeral, as a source from which the church was renewed. In the past quarter-century that source has, almost everywhere, dried up. Changes in the way people live, changes in the economic circumstances of couples and families, changes in the perception of the Church have all had a negative impact.

Even where the Church is growing, as it is in London, growth is often due to inward migration from countries with a strong Christian tradition. That’s true across many denominations. The Orthodox Churches in this country have seen a huge increase in numbers in recent years, largely thanks to migration from those countries which were part of the Warsaw Pact and are now members of the EU. It applies to the ordained ministry, too. The last three parish priests at St Wulstan’s have come from Poland or Nigeria, because there is a massive crisis of vocations to the priesthood in the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

What then is to be done?

At one level the answer is obvious: events like the Open Day this coming Saturday; partnerships with other agencies, like our growing relationship with the Hospice; greater use of the church building for concerts, rehearsals, and other community purposes – including elections. These things help to give our church a higher profile in the locality. But simply opening our doors and hiring our space won’t in itself renew the congregation.

dietrich bonhoefferSeventy years ago, in a Berlin prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer pondered what kind of Church would emerge in Germany after the defeat of the Nazis. He set down some of his thoughts in words he wrote to be read at the baptism of his great-nephew, Dietrich Bethge: “Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world… Our being Christians today will be limited to two things; prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action…It is not for us to prophesy the day (although the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace… and the coming of his kingdom.”

Prayer and righteous action are still the key, the heart of a new Pentecost. Righteous action in Christian Aid Week, through the Lent Project, but also throughout the year in feeding the hungry, in welcoming the stranger (as we shall this afternoon at All Saints), in visiting the sick and those in prison, in clothing the naked – all of these involve us in going where people are, not expecting them to come to us. Prayer at home or in church, in small groups, on our own, in the congregation; prayer for ourselves, for our parish and its people; prayer for one another, for our neighbours – including those of other faiths and of none – all of these deepen our relationship with God, with one another, and with those for whom we pray. They open us to the working of God’s Spirit. Reflecting on the ups and downs of parish life in the past two decades, I’m struck by the fact of a growth spurt, particularly among young families – even reaching the Church Council – in the days when Laura Mann, Brenda Matthews and Val Evans met regularly to pray for the parish. Might such prayer be offered again, confident in Jesus’ promise in today’s gospel: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son”?