Wednesday, 19 March 2014
Anyway, a few weeks ago I found myself standing underneath the Angel of the North sculpture in Gateshead. It was my first day in the new role and I was pondering what God was calling me to be and to do.
The Angel of the North is perhaps the modern icon of the North East, especially for those in the Tyneside region. I remember standing there on the day the wings were craned into position, with a mixture of wonder, interest and I have visited on many occasions since. Whatever you think about it, whether you love it or hate it, there’s no doubt that it’s striking. The Angel will mean different things to different people: a great guardian keeping watch over our region; a welcome home for travellers on the A1; a symbol of the new way of life that has taken the place of the coal mining which once occupied this site; a symbol of hope for the future; a sign of an unseen spiritual realm.
Antony Gormley, sculptor of the Angel, says that one of its meanings is as a symbol of the transition from the old age of heavy industry to the new age of information technology. The angel reminds us that there has been a revolution over the past 50 years in the way we live, work, socialise and use technology. Alongside this, there has been a social, cultural and spiritual revolution in the UK, perhaps mist succinctly summarised in the word secularisation. We don’t do God any more, at least not in the old traditional Christian way. Sociologists will tell us that we live in a post-modern, post-Christendom world. The old paradigm where church was a respected institution at the heart of community and national life has gone, though vestiges of Christendom will still remain for a while.
This presents many challenges to the Christian church and to us as Baptists, when people no longer know our story or see us as relevant to their lives. Mission in the 2010s needs to be quite different to that of the 1960s, just as our national way of life has changed so dramatically. There are many questions to be asked as we try to navigate this strange new world. How does the church find ways of engaging with those who are far from our doors? What should mission look like when the church is at the margins of society, not its centre? What does the Gospel look like when embedded into today’s secular culture? How do we live in this alien world, so that people can see and be drawn to follow the Way of Jesus?
My hope is that in this role I will help you wrestle with these questions, to find some answers – and no doubt discover many more challenging questions! What I know for certain is that we can’t just keep depending on the old traditional ways of doing things, that our churches have to adapt and to become more mission-oriented, or else they will die.
The Angel of the North does offer hope for us. It reminds us that for all the abandonment of our churches, people are still spiritual. Indeed angels are very fashionable – just look at the shelves of your local bookshop if you need convincing. The Angel reminds us that people are still interested in spiritual things, still searching for meaning, for something ‘other’ and beyond the self, wanting experiences of the supernatural; dissatisfied with the merely material lifestyle which those who would do away with God offer us. There are many opportunities for mission in this alien world in which we now live.
One final thought: the Angel faces in a significant direction. It looks to the south, where on a clear day and with a pair of binoculars you can make out the towers of one of the region’s other iconic landmarks: Durham Cathedral. An icon of a previous era which reminds us that the North East was home to many great spiritual pioneers, to a missionary movement which impacted our whole nation and other places beyond, through such people as Saint Cuthbert. In our own age we are called to be modern-day missionary pioneers: people who will seek God above everything else; who will pursue Christ’s ways in an alien culture; who will take risks for the sake of the Kingdom; who yearn to see God work miracles as we bring the Good News in deed and word to those around us. Let us move forwards together with that same wholehearted commitment to mission, opening our arms out wide like the Angel to embrace with grace those whom God brings into our lives, wherever he sends us.