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/ 7 March 2014

The theology of service

On my travels across and around the Diocese I have met with many parishes already engaged in a variety of Community Ministry projects and others at the beginning of their time of service and giving. 

During my time with some of the parishes (not all) a couple of central themes of questions and concerns have emerged surrounding mission v ministry and how do we offer access to subsided space in the hall  v we need to continue to generate income to pay our way and …the Common Fund.

I have to confess that I had never seen these as major issues, as in my own rosy and cosy way I had always seen (felt that) the church – building, resources and people – should be outward looking and outreaching helping to offer some crumbs of comfort support and above all LOVE to those in need spiritually, emotionally and economically and that this care should go beyond those of us who sit in the pews. I do realise that it’s not quite as simple as that. I recently had a conversation with the Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, Director of the Contextual Theology Centre and he shared the following piece on the matter.

"Both/and" Christianity

All too often, Christians pull apart the things that Scripture holds together.  For example, some Christians emphasise personal conversion to the exclusion of any challenge to the political and economic order. Others do precisely the opposite.  Some emphasise only sexual morality.  Others focus their ethical teaching exclusively on social justice.  On each of these issues, the Biblical message is "both / and" not "either / or". 

Jesus’ ministry is "good news for the poor" (Luke 4).  His coming reverses this world’s hierarchies of power (Luke 1).  Before his Ascension, he calls his followers to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 25). In his words and deeds, social justice and personal conversion are held together. 

What is the glue that binds these different aspects of the Biblical vision together? The answer is love – a deceptively simple word.  It is love which leads us to seek justice for our neighbours, and love which impels us to speak to them of our crucified and risen Lord.  Love is at the heart of Biblical teaching on both sexual and economic ethics. In every aspect of our lives, Scripture calls us to material relationships which embody faithfulness and self-giving rather than predatory self-indulgence. 

We will only discover the unity of the Church’s mission – its personal and its social dimensions – when we focus on the nature of the love poured out by God in Jesus Christ. Unless our action flows from a deep experience of that love, one way or another, it will be unbalanced and shrill. 

This is what led Paul Hackwood and me to write Just Love: Personal and social transformation in Christ. Using the Gospel readings for the Sundays of Lent, we wanted to explore the nature of Christ-like love, and its implications for individuals and communities.  Each chapter of our book seeks to articulate something of "both/and" nature of God’s love: spiritual and physical, personal and universal, vulnerable and victorious. 

Christians believe, not just that God loves, but that God is love. That’s what it means to worship God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It is to believe that there is mutuality, sharing, communion at the very heart of God.  Our love needs to have those same qualities – which means our social action needs to move beyond a wealthy, articulate "us" doing good to a "them" who are in need. Again and again in the Bible, we see that the poorest are by grace the agents of God’s transforming work. So our action needs to be rooted first of all in listening: listening to what God is already doing in the communities in greatest need today.

That’s another aspect of “both / and” Christianity.  We must resist the temptation to divide the church into “contemplatives” and “activists.”  Jesus’ public ministry – beginning with his forty days in the wilderness – shows that contemplation and action must go together.  Christian mission can only be truly faithful and effective when it emerges from a deep and prayerful listening.  It is when our action flows from such listening – to God’s Word, and to his work in our midst – that it can lead to genuine and lasting transformation.

Angus Ritchie is Director of the Contextual Theology CentreJust Love: Personal and Social Transformation in Christ is available in Kindle and paperback versions.

You may recall the Beyond Sundays work and the report that was produced. The report told us that there were over a thousand social action projects and interventions taking places in our parishes so clearly for many the both/and philosophy works, but we still have a long way to go.

If any of what you have read today has stirred you contact Marlon and let him know what and how. 

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