Lesslie Newbigin: autobiography - the Gospel and Our Culture programme

Lesslie Newbigin describes the setting of the Gospel and Our Culture initiative in his autobiography 'Unfinished Agenda: an Updated Autobiography', St Andrew Press, 1993. The relevant section, pages 250-256 of the Postscript 1982-92, is reproduced here with permission (3,008 words).

During the decade of the 80's I continued to wrestle, very ineffectually, with the problem of relating the Christian faith to public issues. In 1984 I was invited to give the Gore lecture in Westminster Abbey on 'The Welfare State: A Christian Perspective' and I spent many months on reading in preparation for this. I was only beginning to understand the dimensions of the changes that were being forced through under the leadership of Mrs Thatcher. We were in a very different game from the one which Gorostiaga saw us playing in the 1970's. Things which were simply taken for granted in the years following the war were being swept aside. The idea that we have obligations to fellow-citizens, that public service is a good way to spend one's life and that public consensus is something to be sought - all these were swept contemptuously aside in favour of commitment to private gain. Market forces were to have final sovereignty over our lives. People would only work effectively if they were subject to the pressures of a competitive market. Teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers and others in public service could not be trusted to acknowledge good professional standards; they had to be bribed or threatened. The BBC, previously respected (even if sometimes laughed at) as among our greatest institutions, was the target of constant attack. Long-term planning, such as only governments can afford, was to be replaced by the rush for short-term profit. We were out of the era of pragmatic politics and into an era of ideology. We were seeing (at a less violent level) a replay of what happened in the 1930's when British people, with their long liberal tradition, simply could not grasp the dimensions of what was happening in Italy and Germany. We had been thinking of Britain as a secular, liberal democracy. It was only slowly that one began to see that the terms of the Church's mission had to change. We were dealing not with a political programme but with an idolatry. We were coming into a confessional situation.

During all this time I was still having in the back of my mind the challenge which I had been unable to meet from the committee on 'Mission and Other Faiths'. How can one find a perspective on one's own culture? I had asked for a Christian approach to contemporary western liberal capitalism, in fact to the culture of which I was a part and by which I had been formed. Could there be an Archimedean point, so to speak, from which one could look critically at one's own intellectual and spiritual formation? It happened that I was invited to spend a few days leading Bible studies at St Deiniol's library in Hawarden, North Wales. This is the magnificent library bequeathed by W E Gladstone, splendidly maintained under a series of wardens, one of whom had been Alec Vidler. I had been greatly impressed by Vidler's book The Orb and the Cross, which was a study of works written by Gladstone before he switched from his earlier high Tory views to the liberalism of his public career. It was entitled The State in its relation to the Church. I took the chance of being at St Deniol's to read quickly through this work. What was striking was the perspective - so foreign to present ways of thinking - which saw the Church as the great, solid enduring reality in comparison with which the state is a fragile and ephemeral affair.

While at St Deniol's I naturally spent time browsing among the books. The title of one caught my eye: La Crise de la Conscience Europeenne by Paul Hazard. The title was striking. It was a study of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, a subject about which I had never thought. I found and read the English translation (The European Mind: 1680 to 1715). It seemed to provide the perspective I was looking for. Here was the critical moment in which one could say that, after a very long period of gestation. modern Europe came to birth and to consciousness of its own unique character. I bought and read other books on the period and began to see the outlines of what might be a Christian critique of things which I had taken for granted. The stimulus to think further along these lines came from an unexpected quarter.

The British Council of Churches had sponsored the formation of the Foundation for the Study of Christianity and Society. But its new General Secretary, Philip Morgan, was becoming increasingly uneasy about what the Council was doing and failing to do. It was continually being asked to react to particular political and ethical issues, making quick responses to whatever was the issue dominating the headlines for the moment. It was not making time and space for more fundamental thinking. This concern was brought to a focus by a remark made by the Dean of Salisbury (Sydney Evans) in the course of a sermon preached before the General Synod of the Church of England in 1982. He had spoken of "the end of Renaissance man". The phrase sharpened the conviction in Philip Morgan's mind that we were, perhaps, at a moment of profound change and that we needed to do some fundamental thinking about the direction in which we were going. He convened a gathering of distinguished Christians, lay and clerical, for a day's "brainstorming". Out of this came a decision to hold a conference of 1000 people at Nottingham in 1984. The imminence of this date naturally evoked thoughts about the vision of a future society sketched by George Orwell in his famous book. A committee was appointed to prepare for the conference, and I was included in its membership.

I was not able to attend the first meeting of the committee. At the second meeting on 3 September 1982 I found that a programme for the conference had already been drafted. I was very unhappy about it, as I did not think it began to deal with the underlying issues. I did not have the courage at that moment to question it but when I went home I phoned another member of the committee, David Jenkins (Bishop of Durham) and told him of my feelings. He encouraged me to challenge the proposed programme and at the next meeting (8 October) I did so. I suggested that we follow the example of J H Oldham when (in the 1930s) he was trying to rouse the churches in Britain to a recognition of the significance of what was happening in Europe. In 1934 he published a small pamphlet entitled "Church Community and State", raising the fundamental issues. He then initiated a three year study programme which provided the substance on which the 1937 Oxford Conference was able to work - with far-reaching results. The committee was generous enough to accept my suggestion, agreed to postpone the conference and instructed me to write a pamphlet raising the questions which needed to be discussed. Three weeks later I sent the results of my scribbling to Philip Morgan suggesting that (if it was not destined for the waste-paper basket) it might be sent to 25 or 30 people for comment and necessary revision. In due course comments were received, some of them incorporated and the pamphlet published under the title "The Other Side of 1984: Questions to the Churches". The BCC's publishing department thought that it would be risky to print more than 500 copies, but it was taken up by the World Council of Churches and quickly sold 20 000. I was quite astonished at the volume and range of correspondence that descended on me. Clearly the questions had touched a nerve, even if answers were still to be found. I was moved by letters from lay people who told me that it had illuminated their situation. A lawyer told me that he felt as if the sun had risen and he could see the landscape. But what gave me the deepest satisfaction was a brief note from Wim Viser t'Hooft: "You have written many good things but "The Other Side of 1984" is the best". Ever since then I have puzzled about the fact that such a brief, hastily written paper could have had such a reception.

The next step, obviously, was to start the study process. We needed a director to do what Oldham and Eric Fenn had done for the 1930's. Approaches were made to trusts. They were not impressed. When I was asked their natural question: 'When do you expect to see results?" I replied 'After about 150 years', and this did not loosen their purse strings. Sydney Evans hosted a conference in Salisbury, in June 1984, chaired by Professor Basil Mitchell, to initiate discussion of the questions raised in the pamphlet and this was encouraging, but there was no money for a proper study programme. Kenneth Slack, who chaired the process from the beginning had been struck down by motor-neurone disease and was nearing his early death. From his sick-bed he made an appeal to the Jerusalem Trust and, at about the time of his death, they made available enough money for us to make a modest start.

Irrespective of any study programme, it was becoming necessary to have someone to cope with the volume of enquiries that was coming in as a result of the publication of the pamphlet. Dr H D Beeby, an Old Testament scholar and former missionary in China and Taiwan, had just retired from his teaching post in the Selly Oak Colleges. He was deeply interested in the project and readily accepted an invitation to become the part-time coordinator, dealing with the flow of letters and following up enquiries which came from many parts of the world. It was also necessary to find a successor to Kenneth Slack who died in 1987. Bishop Hugh Montefiore had recently retired from the see of Birmingham, but was still full of boundless energy. I asked him if he would be willing to take over the chairmanship and he agreed with enthusiasm. From that moment things began to move. Under his leadership, and with the help of Dr Lawrence Osborn who was just completing his doctoral work at Kings College London, plans were made for the preparation of material for the postponed conference. Oldham's 1937 Oxford Conference had eight full volumes of preparatory study material, but we decided that we would have to be content with eight chapters in one volume. We chose eight subjects which we thought fundamental: authority (fundamental to any missionary encounter with out culture), epistemology (essential if we are to claim that the gospel is true), history (for Christianity claims to be rooted in historical events) and science (the most dynamic element in contemporary western culture). Among second-level subjects, recognising that the possible number would be very large, we chose education, economics, health and healing and the media.

To prepare material on each of these issues a panel of acknowledged practitioners and academics were assembled for a one-day seminar, at the end of which Hugh Montefiore chose one of the participants to write the chapter. He exercised a strong editorial control to ensure that the resulting volume would have some coherence, and in this effort he succeeded.

It was both disappointing and very significant that the only one of these eight seminars which proved entirely sterile was the one on authority. I was not present at this discussion, but Hugh found himself totally frustrated by a donnish discussion which was guaranteed to come to no conclusions. Yet it seemed wrong to proceed with the conference if there was no point at which the question of authority could be discussed. In the end it was decided that I should write a short paper which would define the central thesis which the conference should address, namely that the Gospel is public truth. Participants would, of course, be entirely free to dissent from this thesis, but at least it would be clear that this was what they were invited to discuss in relation to the several issues addressed in the volume.

Up to this point the enterprise had operated under the title 'British Council of Churches 1984 Project'. As the year 1984 came and went it seemed obvious that we would have to find another name. After the close of one of the meetings two or three of us discussed the point and I suggested (without having given the matter any thought) that we might call it 'The Gospel and Our Culture'. I am not sure that is was a very good suggestion, but it began to be used and it persisted. In an effort to respond to the growing volume of letters and enquiries we started a small newsletter which took this title. No attempt was made to advertise it; it was sent, in the first place, simply to those who had expressed interest. But its circulation grew.

While these things were going on I received a letter from Dr Jeremy Begbie of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, who said, in effect: 'If you are talking about culture, why is their nothing in your programme about the arts, literature, music etc.?' I replied that this was simply the result of my own incompetence in the field, but asked for his help. The outcome was that Jeremy himself convened a group of people active in the arts, and the excellent chapter which he wrote for the study book filled the place left vacant by the disappearance of a chapter on authority.

With not a little trepidation we booked the whole of the Swanwick Conference Centre (about 400 places) for six days in July 1992, giving us about three years for the study process. Meanwhile we were surprised to receive a request from the Bible Society to talk with them. The leadership of that Society had begun to ask questions about its role. Was it only in the business of translating and printing bibles, or did it have any obligation to have them read? In their vast operations throughout the Third World this was no problem. The demand for bibles exceeded the supply. But what was the role of the Bible in England? They had started training courses in the use of the Bible, but were not satisfied with these efforts. They saw 'The Gospel and Our Culture' as a possible ally. They urged us to extend our operations beyond the very modest business of circulating a newsletter. They put their resources at our disposal to organise a series of regional conferences for those who were interested in what we were doing and these brought together groups of Christians who were not normally on speaking terms. Their success encouraged us to ask the Bible Society to share with us in the planning and organisation of the 1992 consultation. In the event the success of the consultation owed an immeasurable amount to the devoted work of the Bible Society staff.

Meanwhile I was receiving a great many invitations to speak about the issues which the '1984' booklet had raised. Among these was an invitation to deliver the Warfield Lectures in Princeton Theological Seminary in the year 1984.Obviously this called for a major effort of reading if the questions raised in the booklet were to be properly addressed. I had a good deal of time for reading and tried to use the opportunity to read widely both about developments in science and about political issues. Of course this was bound to be very superficial but at a time when knowledge is so much fragmented by specialization I think that there is a proper place for the person who tries - albeit at a superficial level - to get a picture of the whole. The result of these efforts eventually appeared in a book which I called Foolishness to the Greeks and which I described as an attempt to outline a missionary approach to western culture.

Later during this period I received an invitation, which gave me much pleasure, to spend three months of the autumn of 1988 teaching in the Divinity faculty at Glasgow University. Helen and I were able to rent a flat in the Great Western Road, within five minutes' walk of the University. This meant that each day I passed the front door of Archie Craig's old house at 16 Bank Street and live among the scenes which I had known during the years as an SCM Secretary from 1931 to 33. On most days I gave a one-hour lecture in the morning and spent the afternoon with small groups of students who were eager to follow up ideas that I had been trying to communicate. I found this enormously encouraging, especially as I had been warned that there was no take-up for the offer of such seminar work. The substance of these lectures was later published as 'The Gospel in a Pluralist Society'.

In many ways I found this whole development very surprising. The points made in the booklet 'The Other Side of 1984' contained nothing new or revolutionary. The whole thrust of what followed was really just the very simple affirmation that the Gospel is true. In terms of structure, we were nothing but a small committee set up by the British Council of Churches to organise a conference. In my own mind I drew a line under the whole enterprise at that point. I reasoned that if there was any validity in what we had been trying to say, it would become part of public debate in the Church and required no organisation to promote it. Others took a different view and following the Swanwick conference plans have been made for a continuing programme. I sincerely hope that it may prove possible to give the churches in this part of the world the courage for a more confident affirmation of the Gospel in the context of 'modern' society without the development of any kind of party which erects fences to exclude other Christians.

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