In the last couple of weeks I have been put in mind of a little story that was a favourite of the Reverend George Goodman, who I expect many of the Methodists here will remember, and who exercised a considerable formative influence on me in my younger days. It was about the boy in a wayside inn where a bishop was to stay, and who was told that he had to take up a jug and basin for the bishop to wash in, and was to knock on the door and say, "It's the boy with the hot water, my Lord." But confusion overcame him and he announced instead "It's the Lord with the hot water, my boy."
It may have been a belief that I was adopting a role of that kind that led someone to describe my suggestion that we should as a society encourage a few basic virtues, as "a hollow litany of Victorian middle-class sentimentalism and prudery, and utterly devoid of understanding of social and economic history." Well, perhaps. We can and should all learn from each other. Yet she based what she said on just a few sentences - one in particular - taken out of context.
And context is all-important. When I was a law student, we were given a good example of that when studying the law of defamation. A noble lady was heard in a very public place to say to a very notable personage: "Sir, you are a thief." Highly defamatory indeed. But it was rather different in context, for the noble lady had added: "Sir, you are a thief; you have stolen my heart."
I have been asked to talk about "The challenge to the Churches towards the 21st century." I am very doubtful of my qualifications to talk about that. But I offer some thoughts for what they are worth. I take the topic as an invitation to talk about context ; the context in which Christians (for they are the Church - the two are synonymous ; the Church really has no independent existence) the social context in which Christians will live, and in which they will have to fulfil their mission, in the next few years, and beyond. It's crucial that we all think about this. For the Church, Christians, cannot exist in a social vacuum.
Someone once wrote this piece of verse:
"The service over, God returns to Heaven,
And stays there till next Sunday at eleven."
Even if that is an accurate portrayal of an individual congregation, and Heaven forbid, it is certainly not an accurate portrayal of the Church as it should be. Rather, listen to these words of George MacLeod of Iona, explaining his ministry:
"I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, on the town garbage heap, on a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where he died and that is what he died about. And that is where churchmen should be, and what churchmen should be about."
That's of course a very graphic way of saying that the Church must be alive in the midst of the real world. But the present day reality is, or at least seems, more pedestrian than George MacLeod's description. What then is the present day reality? What is the context which provides the Church's challenge for the near future?
It has been said that we live in a post-Christian age: that we have tried Christianity, found it wanting, and moved on. The statistics seem to support that: census figures show that in 1991, 20% of the population said they were of "No religion", an increase of 24.9% over the 1986 figure. Between 1956 and 1991, the percentage of the 5-19 age group stating they were of "no religion" rose from 0.39% to 25.14%. On that basis, the young are formally abandoning religion even more than their parents. And those who do still acknowledge a religious affiliation, are, like their parents, staying away in droves.
The consequences are at times all too apparent. On the one hand there is the hedonistic, instant-gratification, living-for-the-moment lifestyle of some, usually the better off. On the other, there is the sense of alienation, the aggressive, couldn't-care-less reaction of others. Many see the values, the virtues, that have been the foundation of western civilisation as irrelevant, even undesirable.
But beneath much of the behaviour and attitudes that cause so much concern, is there not an ultimate dissatisfaction, a sense of deep insecurity? A generation ago, it was the prospect of nuclear annihilation that caused the young to despair about a future. Now though, the cause is a sense of purposelessness, of futility, and hence, of aimlessness or boredom. This lost-ness can express itself in the drinking binges we have been hearing about, in substance abuse, in our quite alarming rates of dysfunction of various kinds, sometimes in suicide. But are these any more than modern day manifestations, symptoms, of the age-old human quest, the search for meaning and purpose and fulfilment in a greater scheme of things? Christians believe - they know - they have the answer to that. The hymn writer expressed it well when he wrote, "I find no rest until I rest in Thee."
The alarming thing about changes in attitude is that they compound from generation to generation. So that if we want to reverse current trends, the challenge for the Church is to recapture the imaginations and the hearts of the young.
A second challenge facing us as we depart from the 20th century, is, I suggest, to put soul into science and technology. The advances in my lifetime, even in my children's lifetimes, in these areas of human endeavour have been astounding. We can see events on the other side of the world as they happen. We can obtain information in an instant on any topic we choose. We can not only fly faster than the speed of sound, we can launch ourselves into space, put people into orbit around the earth, land a robot on Mars. Radio telescopes enable us to see into the vastness of space, and almost back to the beginning of time. Microscopes enable us to see the minutiae of life and how it is formed.. We have learnt to read the genetic code, to replicate the strands of life itself. Science and technology have put into our hands horrendous means of mass destruction; but at the same time they have been of enormous benefit to mankind, so much so that it is fatally easy to see them as the means of human salvation. Given the know-how, which is surely attainable, we can cure the diseases that ravage us, we can feed the world's people, we can make knowledge accessible to all. In short, we can bring in a golden age. But can we? Or are we merely fabricating a golden idol?
Technology is as beneficent or as dangerous as the human minds that control it: provided they do control it. Take the home computer, for example. It is a marvellous instrument for acquiring information and communicating with others. But knowledge is of value only when it is creative and used responsibly for the betterment of mankind. And if all information is obtained through a screen, and if all communication is filtered electronically, what will happen to our perception of the world outside, the world where grass grows and birds sing? And what will become of human relationships, our ability to converse, to laugh and cry, and share, with our fellow humans?
Genetic engineering has revolutionary possibilities, but it opens the way for humanity to play the creator. And astrophysics too can create delusions of grandeur. But we are not God, no matter how great our physical and intellectual achievements. Unless we are moral beings, exercising our intellects constructively, we are nothing of worth. Scientific discoveries certainly require us to rethink ingrained concepts about the nature of the universe, but they cannot explain the human spirit. There will always be mysteries beyond human understanding. These are truths, fundamental to mankind's survival as a civilised creature, which the Church understands, and is ever-increasingly challenged to assert.
A third challenge for the Church I would suggest, is to restore our sense of community. This nation of ours was based upon a sense of community, on a spirit of belonging together and working together for the common good. The basic unit was the family - a mother and a father and "the kids" - the foundation of the natural order of things. But even that is now questioned. The increasing abandonment of responsibility by one of the two most essential of role models, fathers, has become a grave concern. And with the disintegration of families has come also a disintegration of community. Individual advancement has so often taken the place of any common good. And many people find that no matter how much they would prefer otherwise, the need to work to sustain a family means there is no time, or no energy, for anything more. And so community organisations struggle for money and for leaders. There are more and more lost souls, lonely souls, set adrift to fend for themselves as best they can.
The Church is often described as the community of the faithful. The concept of community is fundamental to it. But it is not, actually, a cosy concept; not tea and cakes and cucumber sandwiches. A true community strengthens and supports its members in faith and action, in going out into the wider community, and living there lives of Faith, in deed as well as word. The best image is that of leaven, permeating the whole and transforming it. Redemption is the old word for it, and redemption of the national community is the God-given challenge to the Church community.
Here then are three aspects of the context in which I suggest the Church faces a challenge as we approach the new millennium. And doubtless there are others. But let's not be despondent. What I said recently has prompted a great many people to write to me, and very heartening it has been. But many of the writers were far too pessimistic: New Zealand is not heading for total moral delinquency. We are at heart what we have always been, enterprising, energetic, innovative, caring. I meet huge numbers of wonderful people quietly doing magnificent service for their fellows. Christian love, Christian charity, are very apparent throughout our land. There are some splendidly-successful initiatives to bring the Gospel to young people. There are a great many people living and witnessing to the faith in a great diversity of circumstances. I see that rugby league, for instance, has its God-squad. We could do with many more God-squads.
I would like to share with you some words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking in England to a business school. His words are particularly relevant to those of us who come from what are conveniently, although not entirely accurately, called mainstream Churches. He said:
"We must try to adapt our ancient institutions to change, though without destroying what in our traditions is of enduring value. Like business, we cannot stand still. We must strive for higher and higher standards of excellence. We cannot rely on people flocking to Church from social habit, regardless of what we offer. We cannot rely as we once could on the historical assets contributed by past generations. We have to get out there and offer a vision and service which inspires in people a recognition and love of God."
"Human beings are the same everywhere and the Church's job is to walk with them and help them to walk with God." That puts it in a nutshell. And it is challenge enough, is it not?