In a perfect world, Passiontide should be a time of prayer, penitence and contemplation. In my imperfect temporal world I have filled too many of the last few days with travels, speaking engagements and meeting publishers’ deadlines. However, this hectic schedule has not been empty of Christian ingredients.
My travels have taken me to Palm Beach, Florida; Telford, Shropshire; Hickstead, West Sussex; Ipswich, Suffolk and Plymouth, Devon. At all these venues I have been in action as an “outreach” speaker. In contemporary jargon this means giving a secular talk with a spiritual message. The idea is to reach out with humour and human interest to audiences of all denominations and of none. The best outreach audiences are full of the doubtful, the uncommitted, the worldly, the cynical and the unbelieving – in other words people who rarely, if ever, darken the doors of any church to listen to far better messages from the ordained clergy.
Because of its potential to be heard by the unchurched, outreach speaking can be a useful tool in 21st-century evangelism. God, whom I am increasingly convinced possesses a sense of humour, uses all sorts of unsuitable and inadequate people for this purpose including me. We are only of use in His service if we know that we are nothing and He is everything. The moment outreach speakers start to say to themselves sotto voce “Didn’t I give that talk well!”, they are done for. So although I am delighted to have had the chance to engage with approximately 2,000 people in the last few days at the above-mentioned five venues (far bigger audiences than I ever got as a politician!) I try to keep a proper sense of my own unimportance, both as a “failed again” Christian and as an amateur sower of seeds.
Because the germination of spiritual seeds is a divine rather than a human process, it would be foolish to bet on the harvests, great or small, that might eventually be reaped in any of the places on my recent itinerary. Personally I felt that I rather flopped at the black tie dinner for the good people of several Sussex parishes assembled in Hickstead and at the plutocratic weekend conference for Fortune 500 Company CEOs in Palm Beach. Give me an audience of prisoners any time in preference to such upmarket gatherings. Yet I have done enough of this sort of amateur evangelism across the social spectrum to know that the worst of oratorical efforts can sometimes produce the deepest of spiritual rewards. It is always a case of: “Behold I tell you a mystery...” Travelling down to Plymouth last Monday to take part in an excellent Easter mission organised by over 20 local churches, I mysteriously felt inspired by a former Mayor of the City. He was not a recent incumbent of the post, for he occupied the Mayoral parlour in 1581. He was Sir Francis Drake, better known in Plymouth and around the world for his naval exploits than for his spiritual devotions. Nevertheless Drake was the author of at least one sublime prayer. It goes: “O Lord when though givest to thy servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning but the continuing of the same unto the end until it be thoroughly finished which yieldeth the true glory. Through him, for the finishing of thy work laid down his life, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.” This prayer seemed particularly appro priate for a mission in Holy Week for it links the idea of perseverance in our personal endeavours with Jesus’s perseverance in his duty to his Father, even to the agony of the Cross. Using the prayer in Plymouth, just a few hundred yards from Drake’s statue on The Hoe, reinforced the message that prayer is not a one-off call for holy electrical energy to solve our immediate problems. It is the slow building of a relationship with God by “the continuing of the same unto the end until it be thorough finished” – ie, by perseverance.
After a long perseverance test with the pen and the word processor I have at long last “thoroughly finished” two books, both due for publication this summer. Because of different schedules for my American and British publishers, this week brought to a head the final proof corrections of Charles W Colson: A Life Redeemed for Doubleday in New York and the delivery of final manuscript of Porridge and Passion for Continuum in London. Getting both biography and autobiography done on time was a sweat to say the least. But with a first print run of 100,000 copies in hardback planned for Colson in America, and a pre-publication serialisation deal with a leading national newspaper for Porridge and The more I write and speak on Christian topics, the less I care about denominations and their ancient disputes. One of the most interesting chapters in my biography of Charles Colson is headed “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”. This is the group founded by such Catholic luminaries as Avery Cardinal Dulles SJ, Fr Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, and George Weigel, the Pope’s biographer. When ECT started over 10 years ago to explore areas of transdenominational agreement on selected theological issues its first joint statements caused a furore in some Protestant circles. For example, back in 1994, Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministry lost over $1million in cancelled donations from angry opponents of this groundbreaking Protestant-Catholic dialogue. Yet now ECT’s publications are accepted as impressive and orthodox contributions to the dialectics of reconciliation.
Whatever wing or branch of the Christian faith one belongs to, it is good to find a special place in which to spend Easter. Last year, Easter 2004, I spent the dawn hours celebrating the Risen Christ with women prisoners in Mountain View State Penitentiary, Texas, including the inmates of Death Row. This Easter I will be back at my parish church of St Matthew’s, Westminster. We have recently become the administrative headquarters of Affirming Catholicism, an Anglican cause which may cause a raised eyebrow or two up the road at Westminster Cathedral. However, as an Evangelical AngloCatholic myself I enjoy these creative theological differences, and take care not to let them get in the way of spreading the Good News. This of course includes Jesus’s great prayer recorded in John 17: “I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they become completely one so that the world may know that you sent me.” It is a fine text for church outreachers and church insiders alike this Eastertide.