Our churches need to be both distinctive and engaged. So says the National Officer for Evangelism in the Church of England. By distinctive he means there must be something at the heart of each congregation which matters and which shapes its life. By engaged he means there must be involvement in the local community which understands it and shares its life.
But, he warns, it is not easy to be both distinctive and engaged. Some churches may be tempted to be so distinctive that they are a foreign land to anyone who is not part of the club. Some may be tempted to be so engaged that you would never suspect that their members had values which differed in any way from those of the community around them.
A Bishop from southern Sudan visited our Diocesan Synod last year. His diocese in the largely Christian south had a handful of congregations and was cut off from the wider world for several years by the effects of the Civil War there. Nobody even knew whether he was still alive. Then, as the Civil War eased, he emerged and was found to be Bishop of a diocese of a hundred congregations.
‘What did you do?’ we asked him. If there was a trick up his sleeve, we wanted to know what it was. ‘We prayed and we stayed,’ he said. At first that seemed a disappointing answer. About the only things which are characteristic about our most vulnerable congregations are that they have their services and they have not withdrawn from their locations in each community.
But, when he said ‘we prayed’, it turned out that he meant things like spending the whole night in vigil. When he said ‘we stayed’, he was talking about being the only people who did not flee for their lives as the horror of persecution closed in around the local people.
This is a version of material I was hawking around fifteen years ago, and I remember arrogantly and prematurely trying to offer it as a template for the parish when I moved here a couple of years later. But I wasn’t prompted to dig it out again to remind myself of the call to Christian living which is distinctive and prayerful as well as fully engaged in the concerns and needs of the place in which we stay.
The reason I searched for it again was that I keep seeing things about the referendum on Sunday in southern Sudan. It is the next stage in the fragile peace process agreed for the country. It asks whether the south wishes to separate from the mainly Muslim north. So memories of that Bishop’s visit sixteen years ago have returned strongly.
Many of those displaced to the north have been returning to the south so that they can resettle and vote - for some of them it must feel a bit like the Exodus. But even the expected positive vote is likely to lead to wilderness years and tribal conflicts especially in a under developed part of the country not yet equipped for nationhood.