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Prudence Dailey’s Commentary: What is the Church For?

Prudence Dailey’s Commentary

What is the Church For?

Amidst the political intrigue of the 2022 Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, addressed the assembled bishops on the topic of evangelism. Whilst unsurprisingly less controversial than the feverish debates over human sexuality, his statements—and some of the assumptions underlying them—nevertheless deserve scrutiny.

According to Archbishop Cottrell, just as McDonald’s makes hamburgers, Cadbury’s makes chocolate and Toyota makes cars, ‘…the Church of Jesus Christ makes disciples. That is our core business. That is what we are about.’ He then attempts to differentiate ‘disciples’—that is, genuine followers of Jesus—from ‘converts’ (although given that he equates ‘making disciples’ with evangelism—at the expense of a wider definition that would also encompass the ongoing sanctification of existing believers—it appears to be a distinction without a difference).

This is, of course, a crucial element of the mission of the Church, Christ’s Great Commission: ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’ (Matthew 28:19). Those who have received the Good News naturally do not want to keep it to themselves: the Anglican Communion exists only because the brave missionaries of the past were willing to sacrifice everything to spread the Gospel throughout the Empire and beyond.

The Archbishop said, though, that‘making disciples’ was THE ‘core business’ of the Church, and from the analogies he used, he evidently meant it was its sole, or at least primary, core business. I do not believe this is true.

When my father arrived at University (in the late 1940s—so this is not an entirely new problem!), he decided to find out what the Christian Union there was all about. As he put it later, it was all ‘Come to Jesus, come to Jesus—but it was never clear what were you meant to do once you’d come to Jesus’. The answer was no doubt that you were supposed to go out and bring more people to Jesus: but if that were really the whole story, the Church would be nothing more than a spiritual Ponzi scheme, with no end product.

To revert to the Archbishop’s examples, the ultimate purpose of a hamburger or a chocolate bar is to be eaten, and of a car, to be driven. So what is the ultimate purpose of a Christian? It must be more than simply to make more Christians; and indeed, that was not the only instruction Christ gave to his followers. He also said:

‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 22:37–40).

And, in the context of the Last Supper: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19).

So here we have (at least) three additional elements of the Christian calling—and, since the Church is the Body of Christ, the ‘core business’ of the Church: to worship God; to love one’s neighbour (with all that flows from that practically); and to partake of the Holy Communion. All of these are ends in themselves, and not simply means to make more new disciples—although, of course, we should not hide our light under a bushel, and we should rejoice if others see Christ in us and thereby come to faith themselves.

It may be that I am being a little unfair on the Archbishop: after all, his subject was evangelism, and—given that it is rarely possible to reduce the purpose of a complex entity to a single function—perhaps he was simply exercising hyperbole in stressing the importance of spreading the Gospel over and above the other elements of the Church’s mission.

Regrettably, however, this kind of thinking—that evangelism takes precedence over everything else—is too commonly encountered. The frequent repetition of Archbishop William Temple’s assertion that ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members’ does not make it true (what about the majority of charities, for example?); and furthermore Temple did not say that the Church exists only for the benefit of those who are not its members. I have nonetheless heard clergy complain that their existing congregations expect too much attention from the Vicar: the logic seems to be that the Church will be all over you until you are baptised, after which you are (at least to some extent) on your own.

I have noted before that it is a lot easier to drive people out than to bring them in. Side-lining the spiritual needs of existing worshippers can never be a recipe for success (however ‘success’ is defined)—and nor should it be.

Miss Prudence Dailey MBE, is a member of the General Synod from Oxford Diocese and member of the Crown Nominations Commission.  She also served several years as the Chairman of the Prayer Book Society.