Two stories…

In Mark 3.7-12 we read of the crowds following Jesus. There is “a great multitude”; we hear of “great numbers” and Jesus is concerned that he will be crushed by the crowd… And then we look at the church that we belong to. At our church council meetings, we receive a report on attendance. Spoiler alert: attendance is dropping. Year on year, fewer people are coming to church. As a vicar, that’s discouraging. And it’s not just us. In 2011, the Church Growth Research and Development website described the Church of England as being in the ‘Last Chance Saloon’. That was six years ago. Things have not improved. Of particular concern is the attendance of children. In the decade to 2016, adult attendance dropped by 13%. With children (under 16s), the fall was 22%. The average Church of England church has three children in it. 25% of churches have no children at all. (Last Sunday, at St Matthew’s, there was one child. I think there were two at St Cross.)

As you know, we are about to employ a children and families worker to try to address this situation. But what of the church we hope that children and families will join?

In Mark 3:8 we read that the crowds had heard all that Jesus was doing. That’s why they turn up to see and hear for themselves What is our community hearing about us and about Jesus? What they hear is a church that often inward looking, fighting its own battles – many of which are irrelevant to the wider world – and on its way out. Those of us who are part of the church know that there is good news too: in church, people find love, welcome, acceptance and purpose.

There is healing too – maybe not as spectacular as the miracles we read about in the New Testament – but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. People find support which helps them to live their lives.

I was reading an interview with Russell Brand. You may know him as a comedian, actor, writer and political activist. Many churchgoers would find his comedy and his persona crude, coarse, and vulgar. He is a brash, shocking character who has struggled with addiction. He was in a self-destructive cycle and was rescued from addiction by a 12-step programme. But this interview quotes him as saying something which may be most shocking of all:

“My personal feeling is the teachings of Christ are more relevant now than they’ve ever been.”

As an addict, he believes that the world of today is addicted to instant gratification. How do we break out of that cycle? By inviting God into our lives. That’s what he learned from his 12-step programme and he’s become an evangelist for it.

I’m not holding up Russell Brand as a perfect example of orthodox Christianity – far from it! Who knows whether his transformation will last and what long-term impact it will have? But the story he tells about Christian faith and spirituality is far more positive than many we hear.

Brand believes that investing in Christian spirituality has saved him. That’s old-fashioned language, ‘saved’! Most Christians don’t talk like that any more. But Brand believes that what he has discovered personally has the power to transform the world. He says the Lord’s Prayer every day and found himself asking, what does it mean to pray “Thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven”? It’s not enough to be transformed oneself. We need to seek the transformation of the world in which we live. The world is addicted to instant gratification and needs to be saved.

So there are two stories about Jesus. The one the church tells which is often negative and unappealing. And there’s the one told by those whose lives have been transformed by their encounter with the God who is made known in Jesus Christ.

St Luke

Yesterday (18th October) was the feast day of St Luke the Evangelist. Luke is credited with writing both the Gospel which bears his name and its sequel, the book of Acts. Which means he wrote more than a quarter of the New Testament!

In the Epistle to the Colossians, Paul refers to Luke as “the beloved physician” (Col 4:14) and he is, amongst other things, the patron saint of physicians and surgeons (and butchers, interestingly).

The Ministry of Healing

St Luke’s Day is a good time to think about the Christian ministry of healing. I’ve known Christians who believe that God will heal each and every sickness as long as you pray with enough faith. The danger with that is that if you pray and you are not healed, not only do you still have the illness, you now have to live with the guilt of not having enough faith. The opposite danger is that we never pray for healing, or at least never pray with any expectation that the person we are praying for will be healed. (A former colleague used to say that there was only one way off the ‘Prayer for the sick’ list…) My own view is that we should pray for healing, but with humility and honesty. And allow God to answer our prayers in the way that God chooses. I believe that, in prayer, God meets us with healing love. The way in which that healing love is manifested is up to God.

All healing is from God

There is something in the way in which we are created that has healing ‘built in’. If you cut yourself, your body tends to heal. If your doctor prescribes medication and it helps, that too is healing and ultimately the gift of God, as is the skill of a surgeon. As someone once said, ‘If I get a headache, I pray to God that the pain will go away and I take two paracetamol. Whichever gets there first doesn’t really matter, I’ll take the healing’. In prayer, we are working with the healing that is ‘built in’.

Mental Wellbeing

October (10th) also sees World Mental Health Day, hosted by the World Federation of Mental Health. Each year, Chester Diocese hosts a day to encourage conversations about mental health which some of us have attended. In Christian circles there is a particular issue with mental health problems: people we come across in the gospels who today we would recognise as having mental health issues are identified as being victims of demonic activity. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as evil but I am saying that our understanding of how brains and minds work has come a long way, and that people who present in those ways would today be diagnosed with a mental health problem and be treated appropriately.

Our culture is getting better at acknowledging that mental wellbeing needs to be addressed just like physical wellbeing. There’s no stigma attached to having a broken leg or needing surgery or pain relief. There should be no stigma attached to having a chemical imbalance in the brain and needing medication or a talking therapy. Among younger people, in particular, there is a move to change the way we think and act about mental health, and that’s a very healthy development.

It helps to know the facts: one in four people experience a mental health problem every year. Half of them say that the associated isolation and shame is worse than the condition itself, so that’s something we can work on. At our conference, the organisers took a photograph of those who attended. One in four of us had to put a piece of paper in front of our faces so that we were not included in the picture.

What can the church do?

From time to time we hold ‘healing services’. They’re good things and can be helpful. In my view, every service should be a healing service. Every time we come to church, there should be a healing encounter with God, the Healer. At the eucharist, when we get out of our seats and come to receive from God, we should expect to receive a measure of healing – enough to send us back out into the world, better equipped to cope with our own problems and to offer healing love to others.

In church we can offer a healing space to those who are struggling. Sometimes, it’s just a place to be quiet and reflect. Occasionally, people come here just to sit quietly. (What a shame the building isn’t open throughout the week!) Sometimes it’s having someone to talk to. In my view, listening is the most underrated skill and gift. It’s underrated as a skill because listening isn’t just waiting for the other person to stop talking so that I can say what I want to say. It’s not “I know how you feel because such-and-such happened to me…” It isn’t getting information from the person so that you can give them advice. Often people want to talk, not listen to advice. Actively listening to another person, letting them talk, is a gift that is all too rare.

The tricky bit is getting it right: when does someone want to sit quietly, undisturbed; when does someone want to be actively listened to; and when does someone want nothing more than a chat, just others to acknowledge them as a human being.

We don’t advertise our Thursday morning communion as a ‘healing service’, but it is. Many of us can testify that being part of a congregation like this, sharing this activity, is healing. (So, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone else about it. Because, if you do, they’ll all want to come!)

Alan Jewell