So today I met the Duke of Edinburgh who asked me a totally left-field question that formed the springboard for my piece for this month's church magazine - posted below:
I went to the opening of the newly refurbished Bromley and Downham youth centre and had an unexpected conversation with the Duke of Edinburgh. The fact that he was there was not unexpected (the invitation told me he was coming to officially open the facility). And the fact that he spoke to me was not totally unexpected as he carefully made his way around the room speaking to pretty much everyone who’d turned out to see him (which was nice).
What was unexpected was what he asked me. David, Ned and I were representing JusB and between us we explained to him the kind of work we do with young people. The Duke nodded sagely and then clocking the fact that I was a minister (the clerical shirt – a new fetching pale blue one - was the give-away), he asked if I had a parish nearby. I explained that I was a Baptist and had a church in the town centre.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘are there any Christians in Bromley?’
That was unexpected! I was a bit lost for words, thinking wouldn’t it have been nice to have notice of that particular question. All I could get out was something along the lines of ‘yes, there are; we certainly have quite a few each Sunday…’
He moved on and the people in my group all marvelled at what a strange question it was to ask.
The more I reflected on it, the more I felt it was a really interesting question. I have no idea whether the Duke was being anything more than mildly witty, passing the time of day with a group of people who had turned out to welcome him to their neck of the woods.
I thought about his question again as a small group of us settled down to read Romans 12 together at the church Bible study. Here Paul, having magisterially outlined what God has achieved for us through Jesus, how he has created a single people from every nation of the world through their allegiance to Israel’s messiah, spells out how we should live in the world in the light of our new identity.
‘Are there any Christians in Bromley?’ Well, according to the 2001 census some 70% of Bromley residents identified themselves as Christian (it will be interesting to see the number from 2011 census). But barely 9% of Bromley residents are in church on any given Sunday. But do those numbers really answer the Duke’s question?
How many people are there who actively offer their bodies as part of the church’s living sacrifice? How many people resist having their lives shaped by the consumerist, careerist agenda of secular thinking that dominates our media and national dialogue? How many practice hospitality, seek out the poor to associate with them, regard others (all others) more highly than themselves? How many make it their goal to live at peace with everyone around them, bless those who speak badly about them or make their lives miserable? In short, how many live as Romans 12 urges us to live?
All of a sudden the Duke’s question – ‘are there any Christians in Bromley?’ – takes on a probing quality that I am not sure he intended.
I can answer the question by saying that there are loads of people who believe in God, seek to follow Jesus, would describe themselves as sinners saved by the grace of a merciful God. And I rejoice in that.
But I wonder how Bromley’s residents would have answered the question. It’s all very well for the Duke to ask a minister if there are any Christians in Bromley. I only need to think about the last time I stood on the platform in our building and looked out at a sea of engaged and eager faces to be able to say ‘yes; definitely’.
But would my neighbour wrestling with debt answer so positively or my work colleague trying to keep a drink problem hidden or my friend struggling with anger? Would the homeless man trying to get his life back together, seeking a community where he can be accepted and helped answer in the affirmative?
Romans 12 seems like light relief after the dense and deep theology of Romans 9-11; it is so familiar and loved. And yet I wonder if we have ceased to see and hear its challenge. I wonder, in the light of what Paul writes in this great chapter, if he would have been so quick to answer the Duke’s question so positively.
And that is why the question has been gnawing away in my mind since I was asked it. I stand by my first answer: ‘yes, there are a lot of Christians in Bromley’. But I also stand in need of God’s grace and the energy of his Spirit to be the kind of person Paul describes in Romans 12. And I suspect that that is true of all of us. And what we can be truly thankful for is that God stands ready to empower us to live Romans 12 both in our church community and in the neighbourhoods and workplaces.