The new Archbishop of Canterbury is giving a lesson in ethics. What he’s actually talking about is changing the way the church functions.
Yesterday, the Archbishop didn’t zero in on the political mess the Church of England’s gotten itself into. The pundits on the sidelines are striving to get him to say something about women bishops or gay marriage. Welby mentioned several times his own “fear and trembling,” but I think he showed remarkable strength in not talking about those things – in not chattering on about the church in self-reflexive ways, focusing with profound insularity on theological method (as his predecessor did); in not taking a prophetic stance toward the issues of the world while ignoring the clutter of his own spiritual house (as our Episcopal Church, I’m afraid, too quickly does). Archbishop Welby showed great steel in turning our textbooks back to Aristotle and Jesus, in focusing our attention on a simple message: the church must be in the business of human flourishing.
In his inaugural sermon, Welby argued that the goal of the Body of Christ should be to enable human persons to flourish: in his words, to “make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.” The church has taken prophetic stances over the years, Welby acknowledged, positions which became manifest in social campaigns – freeing slaves and ensuring the safety of factory workers, among others.
Similar issues confront human society in the 21st century, he noted, but his analysis, interestingly, didn’t go from cause to cause. Rather, he quickly moved the conversation back to traditional Christian social thought.
Dissapointing media pundits and stumping secular critics, Welby’s message appeared, at first, to be about our work, our message, our cause and then, just as quickly, became a message of God. “Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human,” he preached. “Uniquely in all of human history Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who as living love liberates holy courage. …Courage is released in a society that is under the authority of God, so that we may become the fully human community of which we all dream.”
Early Christians adopted from Plato and Aristotle the concept that there is an end to which all human striving should be directed, a goal which is good for its own sake. The Greek word is eudaimonia, often translated as happiness or flourishing. In the Aristotelian worldview, eudaimonia is entirely egoistic: an individual’s self interest is to flourish, so a particular individual’s good is to flourish for the sake of her own good. That obviously wouldn’t do for the early Christian community whose Lord commanded them to love one another, so the Christianized concept of eudaimonia also had to do with mercy, justice, forgiveness, and community. Human flourishing from a Christian point of view is to strive towards the only goal which is good unto itself. That we call the Kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God involves people, but what’s good for people is not necessarily a good unto itself. That’s not an ultimate good. The kingdom of God has a church but what’s good for the church isn’t necessarily a good in and of itself. Better not chatter on about the church with incessant insularity. The kingdom of God is expressed, from time to time, in our social campaigns to make this world a more just and equitable and liveable place, but those causes are not necessarily the same as the reign of God. Best not confuse our social politics and theology. If we want to understand what it means to flourish, we’ve got to understand what it is to be of God, firstly, and to have our actions and words speak Him.
Although this is deep within our tradition, it’s also a new teaching for the church. It’s hard for many to understand, let alone embrace it. We, the church, allowed secular society to put us in the center of their world – first it was Constantine, then Charlemagne, then in America our own interpretation of the Bill of Rights. For centuries, we thought Christendom spoke for itself. Even when it’s been waning these past several decades we tried to bolster the buttresses, talking on and on about ourselves and our self-proclaimed mission and our business.
That’s all falling apart. Not the Way of Jesus, mind you. Not Christianity. Just the force of the predominately institutionalized shell.
And that’s why Justin Welby is the right man for the job, the right man, that is, at this moment. While bishop of Durham, he seemed uniquely able to speak the truth plainly. In an address in April 2012 to the Anglican Alliance for Development, Bishop Welby pointedly said, “The question that faces the church is that of what is human flourishing, good news, amidst the deep poverty…and utter spiritual bankruptcy and increasing material poverty?”
In that address, Welby named a profound truth: “Our good news,” he argued, “must be unique, because the radicality of the gospel call[s] us to a sense of what we are doing and saying utterly different from all other groups.” This can be unsettling. For those who have grown accustomed to Christendom this is a difficult teaching to bear. Yet almost automatically, Welby’s mind readily goes beyond insular theological methodology – a threat to those hiding inside the church – and criticizes the way of the world from nothing more, nothing less than the Gospel of Christ. To his credit, he already knows that world. When he mentioned “suspicion of the NGO industry, its thousands of employees and the tendency to be as donor dependant as the recipients of aid, with whom one is drawn in a grim dance,” Welby quickly added: “I know, I ran one.”
Authenticity is the litmus test these days, which is both an opportunity and challenge. We live in a time in which our message is heard only so long as the audience knows, already, the depth and quality of its source. It’s no longer sufficient to make grand speeches without mobilizing the People of God. Nor can we shirk from the obligation to speak a word of life in the public square; now, however, it requires the harder work of turning the hearts and minds and lives of those already among the body to influence those not yet. The new Archbishop put it as a question: “As Christians,” he asked, “are we simply a spiritual bit of the same tribe or, as self-proclaimed disciples of Christ, how is what we bring good news?” Reading Micah 6:8 (“do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God…”) and Romans 12:1-2 (“…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”), Welby reminded:
“the language of our good news is not GDP, output and so forth, though they are part of the means. It is human flourishing in a context of love. The tools of our good news [are] the unique ones of reconciliation and peace, with its fellow travellers of generosity, community and self-giving love. All aid outside the context of the grace of God leads to the abuse of power and the creation of dependency. So we are called not merely to do, but to be. The inner motivation matters as much as the outer.”
These days anyone and everyone can see directly inside, beyond the stuff we’ve projected in order to protect us – our beautiful churches and stately liturgy, our pomp and circumstance, our cathedrals and order, our tradition and customs. Real human flourishing is an inside job, and that matters a great deal.