Talk About Jesus As Much As You Talk About The Weather, Urges The Archbishop Of York

Ruth Gledhill'We need to be more confident as a Church': Canon Mark Russell addresses the General Synod.

If only people would talk as much about Jesus as they do about the weather, they might succeed in converting others, the Archbishop of York has stated.

He was speaking in a debate on how better to empower the 1 million lay people who make up 98 per cent of the Church of England to evangelise the nation.

Dr John Sentamu, who is from Uganda and fled to Britain to escape persecution by Idi Amin, described his own conversion as a  child, when at every step it was lay people who stepped in to guide and advise him.

'When I encountered Jesus at the age of 10 I was helped by someone who helped bring the Bible to me, helped me pray.' Then a lay person helped prepare him for confirmation.

And at 17, at a mission, he was asked to preach an 'evangelistic sermon'.

After telling the packed arena that Jesus loved them, he invited them to come forward, Sentamu told the synod. Hundreds did.

He said the bishops and clergy had to be confident about spotting gifted lay people, as he was spotted.

He said: 'When you complain about the clergy, remember they did come out of the laity. They were once the people of God.'

He added: 'In Yorkshire we get a lot of rain. People talk a lot about weather. If only they talked about Jesus as often as they talked about weather, then the whole of Yorkshire might be converted.'

He added that in his birth country of Uganda, they had 'climate' not 'weather'.

Canon Mark Russell, chief executive of the Church Army and a member of the Archbishops' Council, said people 'lack confidence' in applying their faith to their lives outside church.

Repeated reports have examined how the Church can  'liberate' the laity to become 'confident disciples'. None had succeeded in doing this.

Lay people think clergy are 'more important' than them. 'This is the culture we want to change,' he said.

Russell said: 'We continually face a barrage of headlines about a shrinking Church. We need to be more confident as a Church. We are making a huge difference.'

The Church has a million people on its books, he said, giving more than 23 million hours of voluntary service. 'Contrast that with the National Secular Society which has 7,000 members which is the same as the British Sausage Appreciation Society.' 

He was leading a debate on the report, Setting God's People Free, at the General Synod of the Church of England. The report calls for a 'seismic revolution' in the culture of the Church to empower the laity.

The report says: 'Until we find a way to form and equip lay people to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life in ways that demonstrate the gospel, we will never set God's people free to evangelise the nation.' 

Examples of successful initiatives already include a plan by the London diocese to commission 100,000 people as 'ambassadors for Christ' by 2020. More than 14,000 people have been commissioned so far. The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who has just retired after 21 years, was aknowledged by the synod as a rare example of a bishop who has achieved significant growth. 

The report admits that some lay Christians do not want to be empowered. 'It can be far easier and less time-consuming to let the vicar do all the work while seeing oneself as a "customer" on the receiving end of a service,' it says.

Jane Patterson, of Sheffield, an NHS consultant surgeon and a member of the Crown Nominations Comission, said: 'Time and time again we hear from dioceses the need to address a culture of over-clericalism.' 

She continued: 'For a body to be healthy it needs to be functioning. In other words, the 98 per cent of it who are the laity need to be part of it. The Church and our nation need to hear the Gospel. Both are in desperate need of a fully functioning body. We need to welcome this report and take urgent action.'

Sarah Maxfield-Phillips, of the Church's youth council, said that recent years had seen a fall in young people attending church. Those who had stayed, wanted to be more involved. 'I am disappointed at the lack of reference to strategies to help young people become disciples.' Young people were also under-represented in elected lay leadership roles.

Trevor Willmott, Bishop of Dover, said: 'Over the past five years in Canterbury I have asked every single person when they come to confirmation why they come there. I have over the past years read thousands of thousands of paragraphs. Not one has ceased to humble me.' They are coming primarily because of relationships, he said. 

Nick Land, of York diocese, an NHS medical director who works with doctors who are also Christians, said that 'for too many people there is still too big a gap between their faith on Sunday and their work during the week'. Work is not just an arena for ministry. 'It is ministry,' he said.

Bishop of Newcastle Christine Hardman, one of two woman diocesan bishops, said that at her original selection conference when she was being considered for ordination she was told it was a 'strength' that she was seen as someone who would never have a 'cosy relationship' with the Church establishment. 'Our energies should be about a deep commitment to culture change. That will mean valuing every single member of the Body of Christ,' she said, adding that clergy have a tough time and needed valuing themselves. This would enable them to value the laity.