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"Plan for the worst; Pray for the best" - by Simon Vibert

“Plan for the worst; Pray for the best”
Living with the eschatological tension of Urgency and Patience

By Simon Vibert

How do you go about teaching your congregation to live with eschatological tension? (perhaps, not by using that word, in the first place!).

It is a challenge, though. We have the first fruits of the Spirit, but not yet the full harvest (Romans 8). We are as a bride betrothed to her beloved, awaiting the wedding day (Revelation 21-22). We are, according to 2 Peter, as in the days of Noah – busy with the urgent task of building the ark, enduring the mockery of the unbelievers around us, but certain that, as God has promised, He will send destruction (see Chapter 3).

Yes, this is a tension! And over the years, the Christian Church has swayed between over or under-realised eschatology as it has lived with the tension.

This sense of tension is particularly acute for those of us in the Anglican Communion at the moment. We feel God’s hand heavily upon us as the Communion looks set to be torn in two (or many more pieces) following the implications of consecrating a practising homosexual bishop, and a tacit assumption that the mind of Scripture has apparently changed on this issue.

Some may argue, the horizons are not of eschatological proportions. Churches and even denominations come and go, as a cursory reading of Revelation 2-3 reminds us. Where is the living witness in those parts of the world right now?

The shorter term horizons for Anglicans are focussed around the results of the Eames Commission due at the end of the Autumn, and our reaction to the global scene in which Anglicanism now operates.

The tension is acute: How do we continue to operate in the denomination – working for the evangelisation of the nation – when even our Archbishops seem to concede that some kind of ‘tearing of the fabric’ is looking more likely?

For some, there is a capitulation to the world’s agenda. In recent weeks there was a fringe meeting of General Synod of a group calling themselves “Accepting Evangelicals” which requested that evangelicals reconsider its traditional condemnation of homosexual conduct. Evangelicals would surely not have countenanced having such a conversation a generation ago. There is no denying that the pressure on the world is very strong, but in my view, no excuse for adopting the world’s agenda!

For others, there is an agreement that this issue has become something of a defining moment over whether or not we will stand by Scriptural truth, but, there is a limit to the action that they would be prepared to take. Recently, a small group of us wrote to fellow evangelicals in Southwark Diocese with concerns over the perception that the official line over homosexual clergy has changed. It was a fairly mild protest which, in the first instance, asked for signatories to a letter which included the line:

While there are differing shades of feeling about the present uncertainty as we perceive it, many of us are having to reconsider the extent to which we will be able to participate in Diocesan life in the future.

The intriguing, and somewhat frustrating, thing was that a considerable number of Evangelical brethren were not prepared to sign the letter because this statement was included. I do agree that we will differ as to how we should protest and fulfil our desire to reform dioceses and the denomination. Many of those who responded are in positions of influence and preferment in the Diocese. However, what I really hope that we can agree upon is: speaking without any intention of acting can never be right!

My space is running out! However there is a third response which I have come across, and I guess it is the one I have the most sympathy with, but do still have some concerns about.

For some, the urgency of the Gospel mandate requires that we transcend diocesan structures and find co-belligerence wherever we can – for the sake of the Gospel!! And, “amen” to that!

However, when we met together as Council and Trustees a few weeks ago, I shared the concern that we don’t confuse Gospel urgency with impatience. I think that the eschatology of 2 Peter 3 helps here. God is our model. He is surely coming! But He is patient. As in the days of Noah, we will be urgent in pleading that the lost may not perish in the impending destruction, but we will also model the Lord’s patience.

I think my plea at the moment would be: plan for the worst, pray for the best! Is that naïve? I hope not. If we are truly living in momentous days, we do need to gain as many friends as we can in Gospel work. We need to consult widely. We need to realise that the 16th and 17th Century Reformation, though precipitated by a clear Gospel issue, nevertheless took decades to execute. I welcome the consultation process which the Reform Conference in October has committed itself to, and agree with them that action will need to be taken – and urgently!

The eschatological tension with which we live as Christians is being worked out in miniature in our denomination. Let’s live in anticipation of a day when the denomination will return to its Reformed and Gospel heritage. Let us also appreciate that such huge changes do not necessarily happen overnight. We need each other to be kept on track. The influence of the world is insipient. And our sinfulness colours all our agendas. But, I think I am convinced of this need to be both urgent and patient.

The Rev. Dr. Simon Vibert is the rector of St. Luke's Church in Wimbledon, London

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