The phrase Presence and Engagement is a call to the established Church of England to reflect on its ecclesiology (what it means to be Church) in a plural and multi-faith context. Parishes like ours who are surrounded by more than 80% of people who belong to a faith other than the Christian Community are called to be actively present and engaged to witness and proclaim the generous love of Jesus Christ.
Today we cannot develop our parishes’ missional life without acknowledging that we are surrounded by many other truth claims about God from the perspective of other religions. They have their own story and worldview about the saving acts of God. It is in this context that we are to share the unique life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is in this context we have to develop our skills to communicate the truth that Jesus is the ultimate source of eternal Hope in this world. It is in this context we are called to testify the generous love of Jesus to our neighbours by opening our doors for hospitality, respect and goodwill in this diverse community. We have an opportunity to act as responsible parishes reflecting the kingdom values shared by Jesus in the gospels with our neighbours.
Unfortunately at times inter-faith relationships at grassroots level gets reduced to social gatherings. At times relationships between faith communities seems to become symbiotic trying either to please each other or to tolerate each other. Inter-faith relations are not to be managed by pseudo flattering or by simply highlighting commonality in every religion. Rather we have to develop a living relationship with each other and learn to celebrate our diversity. A living relationship survives through honest conversations and sharing of one’s dearest beliefs.
Our encounters as faith communities should build in us a capacity to say ‘God’s Yes’, and to say ‘God’s No’ when we see evil taking over good. In a living relationship there is scope to point together to the transcendent from a faith perspective to bring social renewal and to live justly and cohesively. We can’t stand aloof from the reality that within our United Benefice we have a role to play in building a cohesive and a just community life. Our intentional Presence and Engagement with our neighbours as disciples of Jesus Christ is mandatory.
This requires from us courage for dialogue with other faiths. This courage for being present and engaged and in dialogue with our neighbours stems from the fact that God is already active. Or we can say that our God in Jesus has already taken the initiative to share His all-embracing love with His creation. This Love is comprehensive and in totality sweeps the entire world. We believe that all over the world the Spirit of God is moving. Only through Christianity did a person like Augustine in his spiritual quest learn, that ‘The Word (God) became flesh and dwelt amongst us’.
Therefore Salvation through this incarnate God in Jesus is comprehensive. Its wholeness touches the whole of human life. Our faith in Jesus is rooted in its historical character beginning in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, in His life, death, resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit cannot be bound by visible communal walls. It is the Parish or Congregation as the Body of Christ seeks to serve God in its community through its worship, its service, and its witness as those who have experienced the power of God’s Holy Spirit in their Baptism.
I am privileged to be a member of the Presence and Engagement Task Group since its appointment by the Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Church of England in 2008. As your Vicar I find it imperative that we equip ourselves to communicate the gospel of Jesus to our neighbourhood.
At the Parish away day on 20th September St. James PCC members and coordinators of different ongoing programmes and Lay Readers will reflect together and draw up a Mission Action Plan for the next three years. We hope to draw a Mission Action Plan for our Mission and Ministry in our United Benefice in the next three years.
However we cannot draw up any Mission Action Plan without appropriate Spiritual preparation. We have a vast reservoir of Christian Spiritual Disciplines shared by different men and women of God. I encourage you to attend Tuesday 2nd, 9th and 16th September at 7pm in the Church a time of Spiritual nourishment guided by our Lay Reader Jo Hartley. I am sure these sessions will contribute substantively as part of our preparation for our meeting on 20th September at Whalley Abbey.
In the month of October every Tuesday 7pm we will have sessions on ‘Presence and Engagement’ which will be guided by me. I encourage you to attend. Presence and Engagement without a robust witness and proclamation about the saving grace of Jesus will be void in its Christian substance. We are talking about Christian presence and engagement in our multi-faith context. Peter the Apostle was writing to the early Church in Asia Minor, in modern-day Turkey, guiding them to be present and engaged intentionally and boldly. In his first letter he encourages them to stand firm in the midst of persecution and trials and to be bold in witnesses;
“Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you. Yet do it with gentleness and reverence. (1Peter 3:15)
S.J. Samartha, 1981, Courage for Dialogue, WCC Publications, Geneva
Alan Race, 1983, Christians and Religious Pluralism, SCM Press
Tosh Arai and Wesley Ariarajah (Ed), 1989, WCC Publications, Geneva
Bible – RSV