The Role of Church in Society

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I would like to belong to a church that is trying to make a real difference to society, but I can’t find it.

The present Church of England, like most mainline denominations, does not seem to be even trying to do that. It is not easy to put your finger on what is wrong. Church leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury would point out the churches are contributing a massive volunteer workforce of community service, and have never been doing more in that regard. That is correct. However, it still doesn’t seem quite right. 

Part of the problem is that there is no clear idea of what the church is trying to achieve. Because of that, it cannot really energise people, or give hope. As far as there is a theological rationale at all, it is usually in terms of ‘witnessing to the love of God’. However, that comes down to doing the right thing, rather than trying to achieve anything. 

We live in a pragmatic achievement-oriented age, and people don’t easily get enthused about something unless they understand what the objectives are. The church seems to have no obvious objective in its present program of community service. I think partly explains why, though there are many church people who are doing the right thing, there is no real passion about it.

Something else that is missing is a lack of prophetic attention to what God may be doing in society, how he may be challenging society, and trying to make it different. Any involvement of Christian people in social renewal needs to begin with that kind of attention and prophetic analysis. Without it, we are running blind and operating aimlessly.

What I long for is an energetic and committed programme to transform the nature of a society, which seems to have lost direction so badly. We need ideals which will inspire people, and which can become a reality. We need hope. We need a wide-ranging programme of activity, with many facets, but all contributing to an overall vision, and in which people can participate in as far as they are able. It should permeate the Church at every level: Nation, Diocese, and Parish. 

The best model I know of this kind of programme is that run by Coventry Cathedral, especially in its glory days, but to some extent even now. The central strand was framed in terms of reconciliation, and there was a real will and energy to leave the world a more reconciled place through the experience of destruction and rebuilding (cross and resurrection) which Coventry had experienced. 

There was also a wide-ranging attempt to grapple with urgent social issues and to understand them better, with major conferences on urban planning, a vision of Europe, the roles of nationalism in an international age, ecological responsibility etc. I long for a church which is grappling with such central social issues, pointing towards how we can build a more Christian society, and is going about it in an energetic and determined way.

I would like to quote Bill Williams, first Provost of the rebuild Cathedral at Coventry:

 “We have a vast amount of evidence every day, in the news broadcast and in our daily reading, of the failure and frustration of efforts to build the future around political safeguards. Christians must regard it as a reproach that a political search for these safeguards should be necessary at all. But somewhere, somehow, sometime, Christians must declare their belief that this barrier of frustration can be and must be broken through by sufficient weight being given by the church and the nations to the declaration that trust and hope and goodwill are worth working for, because alone of all the methods that are tried, it has the chance of evoking a positive response from those from whom we are otherwise divided, and it has the only chance of laying foundations of an international building which will be paid permanent. We may fail again, but this does not liberate us from the duty to try. If Christians either individually or nationally ever give up trying, then Christianity will die. And it will deserve to die.”

It seems to me that the Church has largely given up, and is dying.