by Fr. Dennis Corbishley
"OF course, you will all he much more conservative up here." In these words, a few months ago, a business man's wife who had recently come to live in Lancashire greeted one of the northern bishops.
It was a statement, not a question, and a fair reflexion of a widespread attitude which takes it for granted that the north of England is always more conservative, not to say stodgy, than the south. And not only in religious matters, either. If Geoffrey Boycott plays a slow innings, the fact is at once seized on as an example of "typical" northern dourness; should the northerner in reply murmur something about Trevor Bailey, that, of course, is unfair; he was an exception.
In view of all this, then, it is interesting to note that the most widespread, and probably the most imaginative, ecumenical project in English history has recently been launched in the northern counties of England, to be exact in the area that lies within the Anglican Province of York.
It is easy to say when the movement known as "Call to the North" came formally into being. And this was last Sunday, Easter 1972, when a letter signed by the Archbishop of York, the Archbishop of Liverpool and Dr. John Marsh. recently Moderator of the Free Church Federal Council, was published. The letter in itself is an historic document.
Joint letters from religious leaders have, before today, appeared in newspapers, including the famous letters to The Times of Cardinal Hinsley and others during the Second World War. Often enough, too, churchmen of different traditions have put their signatures to joint appeals for good causes. But the Easter Letter must be the first occasion that they have written a letter offered for mailing in all the churches of the area, in which they are calling on their people to preach the Gospel : for that is really the shortest and best definition of what the Call to the North is.
The definition is short and simple, but its meaning is profound. To start with, we are being reminded that the spreading of Christianity is the responsibility of everyone in the Church, not merely of a few specialists whom we call missionaries. Someone who has been very much concerned with the planning behind Call to the North has put the matter in a nutshell by saying that we Christians ought to be more concerned with mission than with maintenance.
Up to now, we have spent much of our energy in fundraising — the Roman Catholics for our schools, the Anglicans for the repair of old churches, and so on. All this is necessary, and will continue to be necessary as long as Christians have to live in a material world. But it is hardly what Christianity is all about.
More than that, while the Call to the North is an ecumenical movement, it is not merely or even mainly a movement to promote Christian unity. The distinction is important. The Call is ecumenical in its essence, a demonstration of the fact that we Christians of dif
ferent denominations are sufficiently united to speak with one voice to a society which badly needs the Gospel.
But the aim of the movement is precisely that of reaching out to the society in which we live; it is a fulfilment, in one part of one country, of our Lord's command to make disciples of all nations. It is therefore anything but an inward-looking movement, though those who are involved in it both hope and believe that our joint prayer, study and work will greatly increase our unity as Christians.
Some people ask why the Call should be confined to the North. Very properly, they point out that the whole of Great Britain presents the same need. Everywhere, and not only in the North, we have a tiny percentage of the population practising a religion and a large number of people living their lives seemingly without any reference to their Creator and to the destiny that he intends for them. Everywhere we find that modern life has become increasingly impersonal, and that under its pressures many people seem to lose their bearings.
On the other side of the picture, we Christians have a cornmon belief in Christ as the Saviour both of the individual and of society, or, in the words of the Easter Letter, that "man as an individual, and society as a whole, cannot be healthy till God's word has been heard and obeyed." Why, then, a regional movement rather than a national one?
I suppose there are two answers, one practical the other historical. For one thing, even the north of England is a vast area in which to organise a cohesive enterprise of this kind, especially as the organisers must persuade and not cornmend. For another, it is a matter of historical fact that a northern Anglican bishop was approached by two laymen, who wrpte to him saying that the country badly needed the Christian message and asking whether the different churches could not do something together to supply the need. The Archbishop of York subsequently called meetings of Church leaders in the area covered by his province, and as a result of these meetings the Call to the North came into being.
The reader who has been patient with this article so far, and especially the reader who lives in the north and has heard the Easter letter read to him, must by now be asking what the ordinary Christian can do. Our leaders are pointing out to us that it is our duty to bring the Gospel to our neighbour; but what does this mean in real terms? Very few people have either the time or the ternperament required for knocking on their neighbours' doors, and even if they had, would this really do any good? This is a vital question, and it deserves an answer.
I believe that the very size of Call to the North will prove helpful. The movement is big enough and important enough to have obtained already the sympathetic interest of radio, television and the press. Some regional newspapers have shown themselves not only cooperative but enthusiastic and full of ideas. Though there will be mass meetings, drama festivals and church conventions in some places, the mass media have warmed to Call to the North just because it is not a "mission" in the revivalist sense of that word
but a thoughtful, long-term ecumenical project with a message that is both constructive and topical.
The effectiveness of all this publicity, when concentrated on a particular subject at a particular time, should not be under-estimated. Moreover, for you and me it will provide a framework for our own activities. During the coming autumn and winter, many localities will be organising discussion groups whose purpose will be to study the Christian faith, and Christian social teaching, in its relation to the needs of the present day. One hopes that, next spring, non-Christians will be drawn into these groups and given a chance to learn what Christianity has to say.
Some areas, too, are thinking in terms of leaflets, stating the Christian message in simple and attractive terms, to be put through every householder's door next Lent. (No one doubts that the first leaflet will, in most cases, go to the wastepaper basket by the shortest route, but one may reasonably hope that repetition will make an impact, as it nearly always
does.) I think that the importance of the laity in all these activities scarcely needs stating : they are best informed about the problems and ideas of the non-Christian people among whom they arc working.
Some people, otherwise sympathetic, have made the point that study and discussion groups are a middle-class activity. I think this is a fair point, and one is glad to see that in some places where this kind of activity would not be feasible, there arc signs that Call to the North is taking the form of very practical social service, ecumenically organised. This is by no means a second best, but rather a practical manifestation of one of the sentences in the Easter letter. "God cares."
It would be dishonest to pretend that the Call has met with universal acceptance by the Christians of the north of England. Would anything? It is notoriously easier to unite people against rather than for, and even those who agree about the existence of a problem will not so easily agree about the best method of dealing with it. One fears that some of the critics of the Call to the North are the sort of people aptly described by Fr. Hebblethwaite in these columns a few months ago as being in favour of ecumenism until it gets serious. Others have doubts about the timing of the Call, or more fundamentally about whether we yet have sufficient unity to make this sort of work possible.
One must always respect opinions sincerely held, though in this instance one is entitled to point out that the Call to the North has been approved by the leaders of the different churches after prolonged consideration. And, quite simply, if we have to wait until everybody approves of every aspect of a scheme, would any movement ever get under way? It is a commonplace that a divorce makes more news than a happy marriage. Likewise, we sometimes hear it pointed out that one region or locality has opted out of Call to the North; it needs to be said that a much larger number have opted in.
Sometimes it is wise to put first things last. From the first, those who are responsible for Call to the North have insisted on the primacy of prayer. It is not merely that they are aware that the success of the movement itself depends on God rather than man. The Call is envisaged as the start of permanent ecumenical activity in a world whose problems will not be solved by one campaign.