The Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, reflects on what to do before, during and after a crisis.
The idea of crisis has been lingering in my mind for various reasons.
The entirely unanticipated illness of a dear friend, has found him in intensive care. He is in a crisis, because things are difficult and worrying. It’s a sudden crisis.
The progress of the negotiations about the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union is often termed a crisis. The arrangements for after the UK leaving the EU on 29th March seem to be less than finalised. It’s a crisis that some saw coming, whatever their views on whether we should leave or remain.
The ecological recklessness with which many believe the planet has been treated over a sustained period is increasingly summed up as a crisis. The consequences, including things like climate change, might mean some of us complain about summers hotter than we prefer, but for Polynesians they are destructive of their home, even of their island, as sea levels rise, extreme weather events increase and marine ecosystems are irreparably damaged. It’s a crisis long in the making.
And it is not difficult to find people for whom the state of the church in Western Europe is best described as a crisis. Decline of The Church’s influence, profile and size, and of the place of organised religion in many people’s lives, combine to suggest that we face a future that is unrecognisable from the past. That is certainly the trend over the thirty-four years of my ordained ministry.
The word crisis doesn’t have to imply disaster. It probably comes from the Greek word for decision, and perhaps that is a useful way for us to understand what a crisis is about, and what it asks of us. So, in ICU, the doctors respond to a patient’s crisis by deciding on the treatment to be offered. The UK/EU crisis requires decisions to be made, timeously. And the world’s return to ecological stability is about decisions that governments, businesses and each of us as individuals make, urgently.
So, what is the relevance of ‘decision’ to the Church’s crisis? For me, the vital point is not to deny it.
In January 1979, the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, earned some media derision when he returned from a summit in Guadeloupe, during which he’d enjoyed a swim. He suggested the press was over-reacting to the industrial unrest that was severely affecting the UK’s economy and productivity – the so-called Winter of Discontent.
The next day The Sun’s headline characterised the PM’s comments as ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ – borrowing the title of Supertramp’s 1975 album. Trying not to over-state the reality of the Church’s current situation runs the risk of it overwhelming us. We will not respond well to the mission imperatives and opportunities of our current era if we think The Church can go on as it is. We face some decisions.
They need not be decisions that suggest panic, nor lack of trust in God’s providence and grace. Rather, as I appreciate the privilege of visiting United Reformed Churches around these islands, I realise that the decisions we make need to be shaped by a careful listening.
First, I find real value in listening to those whom we as a church ask to lead us – in the General Secretariat and all the departments we commission and equip at Church House. People of experience, knowledge and passion are constantly striving to resource us in the local churches. They know things I don’t and are worth listening to as we face up to today’s realities and try to decide what’s next.
Then, secondly, I find it vital to listen to the people in the churches I am visiting – and, indeed the three I am serving – in order to understand how it is for them, and what we can learn from the realities of being the church in their context. A crisis maybe a decisive point, but the decisions it inspires must be well informed.
Essentially, is this not a question of faith: Christianity urges us to respond to our crises with trust in God.
Perhaps it’s what Bryn Rees is hinting at in his hymn: ‘God’s love for us sinners brought Christ to his cross, our crisis of judgement, for gain or for loss.’
For me, that’s the decision which ultimately makes our decision-making worthwhile – and it’s why a crisis is so often pregnant with opportunity.