Last October was a milestone for me; I reached my seventieth birthday. Now seventy is the age that those in ministry in the Church of England are called upon to retire. There is the opportunity to carry on in a limited capacity but I decided not to take it. I was originally licensed as a Reader in 1981 and have spent the last twenty-four at St. David’s. However, prior to re-joining the Church of England I was already active having preached my first sermon in 1967 at twenty. So fifty years seemed a good innings, hence retirement.
Of course, in those fifty years I have seen big changes in both the Church and society. In the Church perhaps the biggest change is that we now have women in the ministry, some reaching the dizzy height of Bishop. We have made great strides on the issues surrounding human sexuality but not as far as I would have liked. There have been countless other changes, too many to mention.
Society has changed too, some say for the good, but I am not too sure. What is sure is that religion features less in peoples’ thinking. More than half of the British public (53 per cent) say they are not at all religious – a figure that has increased by five percent since 2015 and by 19 percent since 1983, when just three in 10 people deemed themselves non-religious. Is it all doom and gloom then; have I and my fellow ministers wasted our time? Well it is all down to what people perceive religion to be. Most see it as an adherence to a particular faith, belonging to its organisation and following its rules and teachings. They think of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism etc. But what if we come at this from a different angle? What if religion is more to do with how we live and act, particularly how we act towards our fellow beings?
It may be a great surprise but Jesus never came to start a new religion. In the Gospels he deals with all sorts of people. A Roman soldier asks him ‘What should he do?’. Jesus does not ask if he follows any of the religions of Rome rather he simply says ‘Don’t use the power you have to persecute others’. He dealt with Samaritans who were seen as heretics by the Jerusalem Jews, did he ask them to change religion? No. Jesus summed his teaching up as loving God and loving our fellow humans. Now these are not two separate things. If we say we love God and do nothing to help those made in His image then we do not really love God. If we help those who need us, then we also love God even if we do not realise it.
I witnessed many selfless acts of giving over Christmas but this one brought tears to my eyes. I have a friend who is Vicar of a Church on the South-East Coast. They do a number of things to help the poor and the homeless. One day one of the homeless came into the church and gave my friend a Pound Coin. Knowing his situation he tried to give it back. ‘Father’, said the man, ‘keep it, there are those out there worse off than me.’ Surely a modern-day equivalent of the ‘Widow’s Mite’ found in Mark 12 verses 41-44.
The Apostle James wrote: “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” If you care for others while ignoring the voices that cry out ‘me and mine are the only ones that matter’ or ‘the poor have only themselves to blame’ – that is genuine religion in God’s sight.
Thankfully, I have met literally hundreds of people who unwittingly practise ‘pure and genuine religion’ without realising and know of thousands more. I hope and pray you are part of that army because there are plenty of people who need you.
So as I retire am I worried on surveys regarding religion? Not one bit.
(This article by Dave Chambers was originally published as part of St David’s Messenger in February 2018)