The faces of Two Strangers at the Door

Each summer I try and read a book which I would not see myself as being naturally inclined to pick up. This summer I have begun reading a book by a research professor at the Institute of Psychological Sciences in Oxford. The author, Roger Scrutton, is a modern philosopher. He also plays the organ at Malmsbury parish church.

I do not know how well Mr Scrutton plays the organ but his writing has challenged me in ways I was not expecting. A few weeks ago I was preaching on the importance and centrality of prayer in the Christian life. I found myself quoting Scrutton. More recently I was invited to address a regional meeting of Church of England advisors on Distinctiveness in Church of England schools. Scrutton found himself being referenced… twice. Then I sat down to write this Rector’s Reflection and I realised that I would be mentioning this philosopher again.

Here is a quote from the book:

“The England that I knew as a child in the 1950s was not godless. Most people declared some kind of Christian attachment, and churchgoing, though a minority pursuit, was not a target of ridicule. Those intellectuals who… questioned the dogmas of the… church were not evangelical atheists, but spirited agnostics like Jacob Bronowski, who conceded that they could not be entirely sure about God’s non-existence… The Anglican Church was represented in school assemblies… and the Bible was widely read both in the classroom and at home.” P4

In another place he makes reference to a piece by Philip Larkin called Church Going where he argues against what he calls “enthusiasm” and “doctrine” (– ie: certainity in belief?) and in favour of “seriousness” and “routine” in Christianity and in life. I am not sure I fully agree with him and would say all four as central to Christianity but it certainly challenged me to ask how a routine of Christian faith was expressed in my life.

In another section Scrutton explores his personal experience of how Christians walk together yet disagree and compares this to how people with differing (or apparently no) belief and life structures approach conflict or debate. It has led me to reflect on my approach to decision-making. What is distinctive about a Christian view of decisions to be made? Perhaps its foundation is in the requirement of Jesus Christ that I see all people as created in the image of God so having value and being valuable even if I disagree with them?

Scrutton says that the Church of England has a theology of what is called a conciliar approach to debate. In an age where almost evangelical extremes of view and position seem to abound around us which reduce at least one ‘side’ or people to numbers, unpleasant names or ridicule: the black and white of right and wrong: equal vs unequal: where political strength is to be unbending: good leadership in business is maximised profit: education could be interpreted as economics of raising little-adults: tying up beds and pressurising hard-pressed hospital staff is reduced to statistics: the conciliar Christian approach of speaking, listening, seeking to trust, names before reducing people to numbers, time to care, seems like Scrutton’s age gone by of the 1950s.

And yet the very day I was writing this Rector Reflection someone came to the door of the church office on Brighton Road. His name was John Graham Taylor and he arrived with his brother, Tim. John had been baptised at Busbridge Church on the 16th July 1933(!) and on the 80th anniversary he had decided to make quite a journey to revisit that place of Christian initiation. There was something timeless – not of the past – but of eternity – in the conversation with the two brothers. They were not “serious”. They held a deep joy in their faces. It was not a joy of fleeting enthusiasm but of something else. It was a joy of what I would like to call ‘intentionality’. They knew, they just knew, that their faith had meaning, purpose and identity and nothing would shake them in this. It was written on their faces without a word having to be said.

All this challenges me, as Rector of a growing, vibrant and busy Christian community available for all people that success as a church is not about numbers, economics, time-management, quality of my space, strength of leadership or profit. Success is found in my intentionality of remaining faithful to Jesus Christ to the end of my days. In years to come I long to have a face like those two strangers who became fleeting friends. If it challenges me, I hope it is a positive challenge to you too.

If you would like Roger Scrutton’s book it is called ‘Our Church’ published by Atlantic Books. My copy came from Waterstones in Godalming High Street.