NEWSLETTER – February 2009

Mere Christianity
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. So wrote C.S. Lewis. In this country he is perhaps best remembered for the Narnia books – the Harry Potter equivalent of their day – and their film versions. But these are just part of his large output of ‘apologetic’ writings, by which this Christian layman (a mild-mannered English don at Oxford, and member of a circle of disciples who called themselves ‘The Inklings’) sought to commend the Christian message, in a variety of literary forms. They may seem a bit dated now (most were written in the 1930s), but he remains big business in the USA, with a C.S. Lewis Foundation and many websites. Some will remember his Screwtape Letters, in which a junior devil is coached in the best and most subtle forms of temptation. Others will have seen Shadowlands, based on his touching autobiography Surprised by Joy in which this ‘confirmed bachelor’ recounts his marriage, late in life, to a woman who was close to death. And another popular book, Mere Christianity, attempted an intellectual presentation of the heart of our faith, shorn of all the ‘extras’ which can so easily get in the way.

The phrase ‘mere Christianity’ was not his, but was borrowed from a book by the 17th century Puritan pastor Richard Baxter. In his Church-history of the Government of Bishops of 1680 Baxter wrote [using the spelling and punctuation of his day]

I am a CHRISTIAN, a MEER CHRISTIAN, of no other Religion; and the Church that I am of is the Christian Church, and hath been visible where ever the Christian Religion and Church hath been visible: But must you know what Sect or Party I am of? I am against all Sects and dividing Parties: But if any will call Meer Christians by the name of a Party, because they take up with Meer Christianity, Creed, and Scripture, and will not be of any dividing or contentious Sect, I am of that Party which is so against Parties: If the Name CHRISTIAN be not enough, call me a CATHOLICK CHRISTIAN; not as that word signifieth an hereticating majority of Bishops, but as it signifieth one that hath no Religion, but that which by Christ and the Apostles was left to the Catholick Church, or the Body of Jesus Christ on Earth.

These are words that the Church of England's General Synod, and the Anglican Communion, need to take to heart in a world plagued by war, and in deep recession, where Christians still continue to squabble about their divisions rather than uniting behind a clear presentation of the gospel challenge to match the hour. Baxter – whom we remember today mainly as a hymn writer (eg Ye holy angels bright) was writing at a time when the nation was emerging from the bloody conflicts and upheavals of the Civil War. His plea as the Church of England was restored was for what he called ‘comprehension’, and what we would call ‘comprehensiveness’ – a church tolerant of non-essential differences, broad enough to embrace both the ‘high church’ Prayer Book party and moderate Puritans like himself (though, as you see, he couldn’t resist having a dig at the 'hereticating majority of bishops'). In this he failed; those like him got squeezed out into what became the Presbyterian Church. In the 18th century several 'ejected' clergymen set up dissenting chapels and academies in our parish. But his failure does not diminish the significance of his plea for us today.

Baxter’s ‘mere Christianity’ was not a lowest common denominator form of religion – the charge often made against ecumenical endeavours, implying that doctrines are being watered down for the sake of expediency and the struggle for survival. His convictions were too strong for such an approach. But he also believed passionately in the mission of the national church to all the people of the land. He had worked devotedly as a pastor among the poor of Kidderminster (where he is still honoured) and knew their need of the gospel. No doubt he also knew how easily our divisions can become stumbling blocks.

He too is more widely read in the USA than in this country, because some   Christians in that religiously-polarised land use his works to fuel controversy and to back up a particular approach to church organisation – which is against the essential spirit of his life. High – perhaps impossibly high – hopes surround the new President, and we shall watch with interest to see how social and religious issues are handled, now that they have finally broken with the ‘axis of evil’ model.

As Lent approaches, we need to re-group ourselves around the basics of faith. Let us strive to become ‘mere Christians’, focussed on the essential challenges of Jesus, before it is too late. One of Richard Baxter’s prayers begins with the words
  Keep us, O Lord, while we tarry on this earth, in a serious seeking after you,
  and in an affectionate walking with you, every day of our lives….
These are words that we should take with us into the coming weeks, when faith will be put to the test.

Parish snippets
Lindsay, the part-time Ranger for St George's Gardens, has started work, and has an office base in church. She will be working from lunchtime to late afternoon, Fridays to Mondays......  A BBC2 film crew has been recording a programme about The Highway then and now, with interviews in church, Rectory and elsewhere around the parish..... The PCC is busy thinking about a range of improvements and developments of our premises, some triggered by our crypt tenants and the churchyards security audit – it all seems to be happening at once.... We shall need to change the date we had planned for our Annual Parochial Church Meeting (26 April) as we discover this is Marathon Sunday – details of the revised date, and Electoral Roll revision, in due course

St John on Bethnal Green invites you Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves  - all-star local cast, including the clergy – on Friday 6 and Saturday 7 February at 7.30pm, with a matinee at 1pm on the Sunday. ADMISSION FREE.

Christians and politics – two events in the deanery
The centenary of the birth of Fr Basil Jellicoe, the 1930s priest who fought for affordable housing in place of the slums behind Euston Station (and was the inspiration for Nora Neal of this parish) will be marked with a lecture on the future of the Catholic tradition of social justice by Canon Robin Ward, Principal of St Stephen's House. Arranged by the Contextual Theology Centre and Magdalen College Oxford, it will be at St Mary Cable Street on Thursday 5 February, preceded by a eucharist at 7pm and followed by a drinks reception.

George Lansbury (1859-1940) – Michael Peet, Rector of Bow where Lansbury worshipped, has put together a programme to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of George Lansbury, describing him as, Labour pioneer, rebel East End MP, Cabinet minister, Labour Party leader, ally of suffragettes, Christian Socialist editor of the Daily Herald, anti-imperialist, republican, pacifist. There are four events: a walk round 'Radical Bow' on Saturday 21 February, starting from Bow Road LUL station at 2pm; a Memorial Service at St Mary's at 4pm the following day, with Ken Leech preaching; and two more specifically political occasions the following week. Fliers are available in church.

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