‘Tremendous hunger for depth at Westminster’

by - 22nd July 2015

PUBLIC SERVANTS are so spiritually parched they are forgetting how to be human, says an expert in ethics.

Claire Foster-Gilbert made her remarks about the strains of public office in a lecture at the second annual ‘Lesslie Newbigin Summer Institute’ at Trinity Hall Cambridge last week (13 – 16 July).

The ‘Institute’ is a transatlantic brainchild of Anglican seminary Ridley Hall’s Lecturer in Mission Studies, Revd Dr Paul Weston, and Revd Dr Scot Sherman, founder of the Newbigin House of Studies (NHS) based in San Francisco. 

On the fourth day they launched the new ‘Newbigin Centre for Gospel and Western Culture’ to be based at Ridley and directed  by Paul Weston. There were wine and canapés before a service of thanksgiving and a banquet in Queens’ College, Newbigin’s alma mater.

Leaders from the worlds of church and academia – including Thought for the Day’s Elaine Storkey, President of Tear Fund who retired from General Synod this week, and Professor Janet Soskice representing the Cambridge Divinity Faculty who are backing the new Centre – drank a toast to ‘careful missional thinking about Western culture.’

The urgent need for the Centre was outlined in graphic terms by Ms Foster-Gilbert who is the Founder Director of the Westminster Abbey Institute based in offices in Dean’s Yard, at London’s political hub.

Public servants across the board had ‘forgotten their need as spiritual beings’, she said in her lecture Truth in the Public Square given in Trinity Hall’s Graham Storey Room on the Tuesday, and it was ‘not being attended to’.

She said there was ‘a tremendous hunger for depth’ at Westminster, like a ‘brittle sponge before being filled with water’.

The now annual conference has been established to study the work of the influential missionary and head of the World Council of Churches, Rt Revd Lesslie Newbigin, who made famous the phrase ‘the gospel is public truth’.

His radical thinking, summarised in the book The Other Side of 1984 which he wrote after retiring from 36 years’ service with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in India, created a movement on both sides of the Atlantic to work out what it would mean in the secular worlds of economics, government, and the sciences if the Gospel were actually true. 

‘We don’t seek to bring the truth to the square and expect people to gasp – but to find God in the public square, by trying to “see together”’, said Ms Foster-Gilbert.

She spoke of the joy of her work, and of its newness. ‘We are discovering our path as we walk it.

‘We find ourselves moving from a closed sense of individualised autonomy with a carapace, a shell, a public persona, to a softening, a dissolving, to becoming porous: this is where divinity can enter. 

‘The thing about a faith is it speaks to the heart of the human in a way that the things that govern us that are so much in our heads - cerebral, clever - do not.

‘But I don’t mind admitting the transformation is realized after the talking is over, and everyone has gone to evensong …’

She added that Lesslie Newbigin – whom she had known when she worked with him to establish the ten-year British Council of Churches ‘Gospel and Our Culture Programme’ in the mid-1980s - ‘reminds us of the joy of evangelism.’

‘It is the shout of joy at having found something irresistible. My work feels like a shout of joy’ she added.

Principal of Ridley, Revd Andrew Norman who proposed the toast at the launch, said that the ecumenical Centre’s significance to the Church of England was ‘huge’. 

‘The Church of England is currently embarking on a renewal and growth programme, but it has to be informed by thoughtful missional reflection, not just copying good ideas for things to do on the ground.’

The Cambridge Newbigin Centre has three aims:

  • to attract students to study for M.Phil., Ph.D. and Professorial Doctorates on the challenges of mission in the contemporary post-Christian West;
  • to resource and equip the church’s mission to the West through occasional conferences and seminars and
  • to develop on-line resources to help thoughtful missional engagement with Western culture.

Scot Sherman said the California-based Newbigin House of Studies he founded had been ‘struck by the quality of Newbigin scholarship’ he had encountered in Cambridge. ‘We are committed to being your partners’ he said.

Revd Dr John Proctor, General Secretary of the United Reformed Church, Newbigin’s own denomination, and of which he had been moderator in the 1970s, spoke of the ‘scandal of one particularity in a world of diversity’ and how ‘the cross of Jesus Christ stands tall enough to beckon every nation.’