2016: Terry Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, delivers the ninth annual Theos lecture
29th July 2013
It is rare to see the Archbishop of Canterbury dominating the front page of The Sun – rarer still for that to be a “good news”. With the immortal headline The Lend is Nigh, the tabloid reported Justin Welby’s ambition to support Credit Unions and “drive Wonga out of business”.
This being the Church of England, the positive headlines were followed up with a PR “own goal”; all very embarrassing, as the Archbishop readily admitted.
Yet, foot-in-mouth disease notwithstanding, the Archbishop’s initial intervention, combined with his frank response to criticism, means the church still has the rare sensation of being in the news for reasons which are, at root, positive – and, crucially, which resonate with people far beyond its walls.
In the same week, Pope Francis’ visit to Brazil for World Youth Day also generated interest and admiration far beyond church’s usual friends. As a number of commentators have observed, the ministries of these two new leaders seem to show an exciting new direction in the Church’s public ministry. Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin have a striking amount in common. Both are determined to engage with the realities of daily life. Both reject the idea that religion is a matter of ‘other-worldly’ piety. Both are outspoken in demanding justice as well as compassion for the poorest in society. And both challenge the stereotype of a church divided between ‘liberals’ (interested in social action and inter-faith engagement) and ‘conservatives’ (doctrinally orthodox and committed to evangelism).
The new Pope and new Archbishop are ‘both-and’ Christians: committed to social justice and doctrinally orthodox; serious about inter-faith engagement and committed to evangelism and church growth; deeply rooted in prayer and active in the wider world. Their approach – confident in the truth of Christianity, serious about spreading the faith, and yet keen to work with those outside the Church – reflects developments within grassroots church life which defy the usual stereotypes. Social action is no longer seen as a distraction from, or a pretext for, evangelism.
‘Both-and’ Christianity is serious about social justice as an end in itself. It is unapologetic in its desire to spread the faith and make disciples. There is a strong and simple theological basis for this ‘both-and’ approach. It is summed up in one word: love.
Love is the word with which Jesus sums up ‘the whole law and the commandments,’ and it makes sense of both social transformation and personal conversion as distinct and complementary aspects of the church’s mission. The church does not feed the poorest, fight for a living wage and set up Credit Unions in order to make converts. It is commanded to show practical love and fight for justice as expressions of unconditional love to believer and non-believer alike.
By the same token, part of what it is to love someone is to share that which you hold most precious: which is why Pope Francis told the crowds in Brazil, “I have neither silver nor gold, but I bring with me the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ.”
In a context like east London, where alongside so many people of other faiths and of none, this ‘both-and’ approach makes obvious sense. Local churches work with people of other faiths and none to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless – and to organise for a Living Wage, affordable housing and ethical lending.
As these public relationships develop, it is inevitable that more personal conversations occur. In such discussions, neighbours of other faiths and of none have sought to persuade me of the truth of their convictions. Far from finding this offensive, I welcome it as an act of friendship and indeed of love. To take me seriously as a fellow human being involves sharing what you believe to be of ultimate significance. Likewise, for me to love my neighbour involves sharing “the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ.” I don’t care for my neighbours in order to make them Christians. Sharing my faith is one of many expressions of that care.
The approach of Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin – humble and confident, frank and engaging – is indicative of a church finding its place, and its voice, in increasingly plural societies. ‘Both-and’ Christianity is well suited to these new and challenging contexts. It has the even greater advantage of being faithful to the breadth of Jesus’ message, which has always challenged the neat categories of those who seek an ‘either/or’ approach.
Angus Ritchie is Director of the Contextual Theology Centre