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15 March 2013

Religion’s premature obituary

Religion’s premature obituary

Mark Twain is often misquoted as saying: "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." In fact he said something rather more prosaic. But this week proved to be one where the same might aptly be said of religious faith. The rumours of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, probably to the chagrin of its most ardent ill-wishers. Why else would the media and politicians make such a fuss when a bunch of unelected jumped-up vicars write a letter to The Sunday Telegraph about benefit cuts? Why else would 5,000 journalists assemble in Rome – complete with 'chimney-cam' – to witness dirty or white smoke emerging from a tin chimney on a church roof?

It is clear that people are interested in matters of faith, and its outworkings do make news. Christians are – as Jesus said we would be, – "a city built on a hilltop" that cannot be hidden.This is why it's so important that the Church gets it right. So we should be grateful that the first headline-grabbing comments of Justin Welby since being sworn in as Archbishop of Canterbury, were "on the side of the poor", because in that he was surely being faithful to Jesus's Kingdom manifesto: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18); and also to the apostolic demand "they asked us to remember the poor" (Galatians 2.10). It's an anachronistic anomaly that next week Justin Welby will be enthroned with the paraphernalia of medieval power, an apparent disconnect with the simplicity of the Church's Lord and his message to the poor.

He of course has little choice in the matter – as neither will Pope Francis whose ministry has been to the poor and whose choice of name restates that commitment. Bullet-proof buggies will replace public buses. Church leaders' only hope is to lead lives of transparent holiness, marked by Christ-like simplicity and prayer. However heavy the outer trappings, it is the inner man who is revealed by his words and actions and is watched by the world. And we shouldn't kid ourselves that onlookers are interested only in those with high profiles.

Every Christian believer is inhabited by the Holy Spirit in order to reveal the love of Christ in the community. C S Lewis wrote that the Church that "exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs.If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.God became man for no other purpose."To be a disciple is this radical calling to be "little Christs"; in us others hope for a glimpse of Jesus, full of passionate care for the poor, the marginalised, the imprisoned, the deluded and the dying – and for themselves.Not only must we pray that our leaders should be shining examples, but Jesus reminds us all: "You are the light of the world."

Michael Wenham, retired minister, active writer and blogger

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