Gospel unity in uncertain times

The global movement of prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, points us to the need for unity in the body of Christ, writes Bishop Paul Williams

We are living in challenging times for our world and nation which creates uncertainty, leading to fear and fragmentation. But one of the great strengths of the Anglican tradition, with its calendar of seasons and celebrations, is that it has the power to root us in our wider Christian story. And so, no matter what else is going on around us, in this the season of Easter, as we approach Ascension Day and Pentecost, we are in a time of hope and renewal. It is a time when we, as the Body of Christ on earth, not only celebrate the resurrection but rededicate ourselves to God’s mission.

This year in particular there is a discernible sense of expectation in the Church of England as we prepare to play our part in Thy Kingdom Come, a global movement of prayer, launched by our Archbishops. In this diocese alone there are over 200 prayer events planned in churches of every size and shape across an immensely diverse county, with market towns, villages and former mining communities, as well as in the vibrant and enterprising city of Nottingham, one of the UK’s core cities.

The invitation, taken up by congregations around the world and across denominational lines, is to pray quite simply for more people to come to know Jesus Christ and, inspired by their faith, to transform their communities and nations. It is a bold invitation, rooted in Scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit – which points us to the need now as ever for unity in the body of Christ.

Recent events here in England have, once again, illustrated the scale of that challenge. In one parish a clergyman (holding a licence from the Bishop of Newcastle) has, we are told, been consecrated as a bishop outside of the structures and pattern of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. The rights and wrongs of that decision will no doubt occupy much debate online and elsewhere and it is important to acknowledge that the Church of England, like churches across the world, is facing challenges – and this is certainly not the first time in our history that we have faced a move such as this.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of new church plants,
many reaching younger people in our cities”

But it is time now to draw a line in the sand and ask whether unilateral actions such as this will help the cause of the gospel in our nation. I have no doubt that this is the motive behind the recent irregular ordination of a bishop, however, I believe we live at a time of extraordinary opportunity for the Church of England and therefore this is no time to be distracted by further fragmentation. In the past five years we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of new church plants, many reaching younger people in our cities, as well as long established churches who are recovering a sense of confidence in their mission locally, and experiencing growth among all ages. We have also seen a very encouraging rise in the number of younger people being called to ordained ministry, many who will be outstanding leaders of the Church of England in the near future. There is also a new impetus seeing an increase in the potential impact of lay disciples as leaders in every sphere of society.

“I believe we live at a time of extraordinary
opportunity for the Church of England”

Across around 16,000 parishes Christians in the Church of England are feeding the hungry, caring for the vulnerable and bringing God’s presence into their communities. This is not just the work of a few well-intentioned ‘do-gooders’ but has the gospel at its heart. In Newcastle, the diocesan bishop, Bishop Christine Hardman, has brought prayerful insight and mission-shaped leadership to her Diocese. And, let it be said, lest there be any doubt, that, whatever the challenges, we are greatly blessed to be led by two Archbishops, Justin Welby and John Sentamu, with a passion for the gospel and faithfulness to the teaching of Christ. As Archbishop Justin put it, in launching Thy Kingdom Come: “Following Jesus has been the core point of my life and that’s one reason I want everyone to hear his voice calling to them and to learn what it is to find his love, his call, his purpose.”

Of course, we have experienced a period of significant social change in the UK, manifested in changing attitudes over issues such as human sexuality. While Christians may hold different viewpoints on how the Church should respond, we are unwavering in our resolve to value every human being as made in the image of God, calling all people to repentance and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever some would like to claim, the Church of England is and remains faithful to the teaching of Scripture as we have received it on these matters, including the understanding of marriage. Prayerful discussion continues, and as is already in the public domain, the House of Bishops is committed to producing a new teaching document on marriage and human sexuality which will be deeply rooted in and faithful to Scripture.

In Ephesians 5 verse 16 the apostle Paul urges the church to ‘be wise in making the most of every opportunity’. As we navigate the challenges ahead let us take care to use well the very great opportunities given to us at this time in our nation to make Christ known, reflecting this in our resolve to remain united in the gospel we proclaim.