We wish to see Jesus

It was my name day last week, the Feast of St Andrew. It’s always lovely to get to that day; November is all but over and Advent has already begun or about to begin and the Advent calendar is waiting for the first door to be opened. But I actually love the day as well. I am always pleased with the name my parents chose to give me, I think I may have said that before. Why they chose to name me after the two brothers, Andrew and Peter, I don’t know. But they are names that I’m happy to travel though life with.

The reading for Morning Prayer on St Andrew’s Day is a passage from St John’s Gospel. It records an event that happened when Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem. The triumphal entry had just happened and Jesus was there at the heart of the religious authorities and institution, the Temple. Some Greeks approach Philip. They must have recognised that Philip was also of Greek heritage – his name gives the game away and the fact that he came from the town of Bethsaida in Galilee, which was in the hills above Capernaum, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and a place where the population was predominately from that heritage, made him an ally to approach. The request that Philip received and which led him to take these enquirers to Andrew, who then took them on to Jesus, was both simple and profound.

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12.21)

They had heard of him, perhaps someone had described to them what he was up to, perhaps someone had repeated to them some of things that they had heard him saying, heard him teaching – and they wanted to see him and hear him and witness him themselves. ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’.

On the day before St Andrew’s Day this year some statistics were released from the most recent census that had been conducted in the UK. The data around religion proved to be newsworthy. For the first time less than half of those who answered the question – and the response to this voluntary question about religious affiliation was up on the previous census, 94% compared to 92.9% in the previous census which shows that people were willing to engage with the question even though they didn’t have to – identified as Christian. As it says in the census report

For the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”, a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3% (33.3 million) in 2011; despite this decrease, “Christian” remained the most common response to the religion question. (ONS Census Release 29 November)

However you want to spin it this is a massive drop in numbers, a huge reduction. In the main points on the front page of the release it then says this

“No religion” was the second most common response, increasing by 12.0 percentage points to 37.2% (22.2 million) from 25.2% (14.1 million) in 2011.

We can suggest what this might mean, why people say this, whatever it does or does not mean, that they are spiritual but would not describe themselves as practicing, believing, ‘signed up’ Christians, but whatever gloss you put on it the figure is a stark one.

The day after the release was the Feast of St Andrew, the patron saint of mission. It was a wake up call as we kept the feast that there is a real mission challenge facing the church. If we saw that kind of fall repeated over the next few decades then the church would be in a very very difficult situation. Already people are rightly asking why we have an Established church in a non-Christian country and I am sure the same questions will be asked around the forthcoming Coronation of King Charles III.

I go back to those Greeks approaching Philip with that simple yet profound desire, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. My question to myself, as a dean, as an ordained minister of the gospel for almost 40 years, as a member of the General Synod since 2005, as someone who could be described as an institutional person, part of the Establishment, is this, is the church really showing Jesus? Do we take people to meet Jesus, or do we in fact block, restrict, obscure, distort that divine encounter. I wonder if the problem is not with Jesus, not with Christ, not with the one who comes amongst us and reveals the depth of the death-defying love of God for the whole of humanity but with the institution. Rightly or wrongly we are seen to be misogynist, racist, homophobic, privileged, exclusive, entitled, censorious, irrelevant, elitist – and you can add to that list – and at times and in places we have been and still are some or all of that. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ (Hamlet Act 1 Scene IV)

At it’s best the church is life-giving, life-changing, a blessing, the shepherd’s hut in the midst of a hostile wilderness, a place where we are fed, where miracles happen, where we encounter the Living God. But at our worst … well, I don’t need to spell it out. Yet, and there is a big yet in all of this, yet, we opened booking for our Cathedral Carol Services and all the places were taken within a few hours; yet we have a big online community, with us each morning to pray; yet we have a diverse congregation, age and ethnicity, and sexuality and ability and all the rest. The church is not dead and people are not uninterested but there is something that is getting in the way of us showing Jesus to those who wish to see him. That is the challenge for the whole church and we have to address it today because tomorrow comes along too fast!

Jesus, may we see you, in the church, in the world, in one another. Amen.


Stand up and be counted

I’m the kind of person who quite enjoys completing questionnaires. I think it goes back to the days when my sister used to get a copy of ‘Jackie’ delivered every week with the papers – I can’t quite remember what comic I was receiving at that stage – and I used to grab it to complete the questionnaire in it. There seemed to be one every week, the kind of thing about what kind of friend you were, or who you would fall in love with, three options, select one and then add up the score to find out about yourself. I loved it.

So opening an envelope with the details of this year’s Census was quite exciting. I’m looking forward to next Sunday and actually filling it all in for our household.

But I was just thinking about the rather chequered relationship that we have with the whole idea of a census. The Anglo-Saxon treasures exhibition at the British Library a couple, of years ago was the first time that I had actually seen in the flesh, so to speak, a copy of the Domesday Book. There it was at the end of the trail though all those wonderful objects and manuscripts as almost a holy object. We were proud where I was brought up in Wigston Magna that our ‘village’ was named in the Domesday Book, that you could discover who was there and who owned what and what the village looked like at that particular moment of history. Writing about it in the 12th century, Richard FitzNeal said

‘as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any skillful subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to … its sentence cannot be quashed or set aside with impunity. That is why we have called the book “the Book of Judgement” … because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, are unalterable.’

There are a number of times in the Bible that someone has decided to do a count of everyone, for various reasons, and often without a good outcome. The first census was conducted by Moses under instruction from God.

The Lord spoke to Moses: When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered. (Exodus 30.11-12)

The purpose was basically taxation, count the people so that you can be sure of how many half-shekels you can expect to receive and the benefit to them was they wouldn’t catch the plague! This census, though, was at the bidding of God unlike the one that King David orders. We read about that one in 1 Chronicles 21. Here the idea was not from God but from Satan as it clearly says

Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel. (1 Chronicles 21.1)

Joab though, who is commissioned like an early Office of National Statistics to get on with the job has a wise word for the King.

David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, ‘Go, number Israel, from Beer-sheba to Dan, and bring me a report, so that I may know their number.’ But Joab said, ‘May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundredfold! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?’ But the king’s word prevailed against Joab. (1 Chronicles 21.2-4)

God wasn’t pleased. As a consequence and after a little bit of dealing between David and God this happened

So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel; and seventy thousand persons fell in Israel. (1 Chronicles 21.14)

The reason for God’s reaction? It was all about David and his sense of power and position. David had to learn that God was in charge and no amount of counting of potential troops was going to do the king any good.

But perhaps the most famous census of them all is the one that St Luke tells us about.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Luke 2.1-4)

Households, as it were, had to re-gather from all the places to which they had been dispersed and so, as a consequence, Jesus would be born in the City of David, a child of the census, the one who really would stand up and be counted, not for taxes, not for power but so that

Since … the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (Hebrews 2.14-15)

or as Isaiah so powerfully put it ‘was numbered with the transgressors;’ (Isaiah 53.12), he was counted as one of us.

So I will enjoy completing the form online conscious also of how much we need the information that it produces to help in God’s mission and our ministry. We need to know just who we are, just what we need, just where we live, just what we face, not for power, not for taxes, but so that we can best serve one another in Christ’s name.

Jesus, counted amongst, bless each one of us as we stand up to be counted. Amen.

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the personal views of the Dean of Southwark