On a recent holiday trip we stayed overnight in a small English village. The next morning, as walked around I came across an old Abbey, which I entered and explored with visitor’s eyes. It is an ancient building, large and cavernous, with a history going back over 1400 years and which currently also serves as the local village church. It is a place visited by large numbers of tourists each year.
With my ‘visitor’s’ eyes’ I observed the many inscriptions on the stone-flagged floor, some very old, which appeared to mark the graves of church members past. There were a few small stands representing various good-works groups the Abbey supported and various posters advertising a number of cultural events to be held in the coming months. There was the usual selection of information brochures for the tourists, and the obligatory visitors’ book where the comments were nearly all about some aspect of the ‘beautiful building’.
Here was an ancient building, intended by the original builders for Mission. That is to be a centre of Christian witness and mission to the surrounding area that was in the 7th century lapsing into ‘Dark Age’ paganism following the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The irony occurred to me that once more it stands in an area that is again being swept by a rushing tide of neo-paganism, yet as I walked around what did I not find? Any reference to Jesus. I acknowledge that there may have been one somewhere that I did not see but if so, it was not very obvious. This in a place which receives large numbers of visitors each year many from overseas but a large number local. Most certainly the majority of them not being Christians, yet it offers very little obvious witness to the Person for whom it was built by faithful Christians all those centuries ago and should exist for today.
Indeed, there is very little sign of any intention to use the gospel opportunity presented by all those visitors annually entering the building. Rather the evidence for the visitor like me is of a place that has more focus on its history and building than on the current existential crisis the church in the west faces.
And here is the great and tragic irony, which is that a journey of only a few miles away from that Abbey brings you to Broad Street in the university city of Oxford. In a patch of cobbles there is a metal Cross which marks the spot where the English Martyrs Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were burnt at the stake for the ‘crime’ of proclaiming the true gospel of salvation by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone, rather than by the Luther-condemned de-facto ‘salvation by works’ of the medieval church.
Contrast the Abbey where the focus seems to be on ‘doing good things’, rather than witness to the true gospel of salvation through Christ.
Ridley and Latimer, as well as countless thousands of other men and women down the centuries, gave their lives that people might have the opportunity of hearing and responding to the true gospel such that their names might be written in the ‘Book of life’. This was Jesus priority, as he emphasised to his disciples on their return from a mission trip, elated as they were by their ministry success, when he said-
‘I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ – Luke 10:19-20
It was as the flames licked around him that Latimer is said to have cried out his famous call-
‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as shall never be put out’
The tragedy is that the candle is now but a feeble flicker, not just in England but also Australia and most of the western world. To fan it into flame again it requires the missional passion of the original builders of the Abbey and the Oxford Martyrs, something lacking not just in the Abbey I walked through that day but with rare exceptions, in the tens of thousands of Cathedrals, Abbeys and churches sprinkled across the western landscape, where what we see is but a ‘a form of religion’ lacking the power of the Spirit. (2 Timothy 3:5).
Ridley and Latimer knew that Jesus priority was to ‘Keep the Main thing the Main thing’ at all costs, cost they paid dearly with their life. Ultimately the ‘Main thing’ is not the maintenance of buildings (old or new), or old forms of church, or in doing ‘good works’ important though they are as we reflect the nature of God to society. No, it is that people have the opportunity, by hearing the gospel, of having their names written in the book of life, and so have no fear of facing God’s Judgment as described in John’s God-given vision (Revelation 20:11-15).
That is why when presented with the opportunity of healing and helping large numbers of people Jesus said no-
‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent. (Luke 4:43)
The Tragedy of the Abbey is that it is a symptom of the Missional Malaise that plagues the western church. It stands not even as a relic of a bygone Christendom past but rather of an age even before that, of an age when the church was engaged in mission to its own land. That is the reason, seemingly now lost, for which it was built, that is to be a mission base for the salvation of souls in the ‘Dark Ages’ of a largely pagan land, just like ours.
The Tragedy of the Abbey is that it is symptomatic of the candle flame dying, the gospel light fading in the West. It will only be by a recapturing of the passion of the Oxford Martyrs by western Christianity that the flame can once more be fanned into life.
That must be our prayer and intent.