From Athens to Taunton

I wonder if you ever have those moments amongst your family or your friends when they ask you why you are a Christian, or why you believe in God? I think it’s likely to happen more and more as Christians become more of a minority and as even believing in any kind of God, at least in the UK, becomes a more rare thing. It happens to me sometimes and I imagine I’m not alone and that it’s not just because I’m a minister. More and more we are going to be asked to say why we believe in God and why it matters to us..

This week I’ve been involved in a conversation at CICCIC, the Creative Innovation Centre right next door to our church, that took me there. I’ve had a conversation with someone involved in Work-Wise about how or whether we should make our Christian faith more explicit there. On a radio interview last Sunday I was asked whether Christian Aid would do better if it dropped the word Christian. And I’ve been reading the latest piece of research out that shows that nearly 50% of people in the UK now says they have ‘no religion’, that’s more now than the number of people who say they are Christian. I was particularly struck by this fact; that now for every person brought up in a religious household who becomes a churchgoer, 26 raised as Christians now identify as non-believers. The rise of the non-religious is, they say, the story of religion in Britain over the last fifty years.

Of course, even if everyone was a Christian, or if everyone was a person of faith, there would still be the need to be able to say why we believe, why God matters to us and is real in our lives. But it does feel different, and harder, to do it within a culture where so many now say they have ‘no religion’ and where the empty pews prod at our own doubts. We can take some comfort from the fact that Christianity is booming in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and China, but still.. it’s hard to be a Christian when the tide is against you and I think there’s no shame in admitting that.  But of course it’s also all the more important to be having these conversation when so many don’t believe any more. Just as it’s harder it’s also more vital.

I know that some of you here will know of, or even have known, Lesslie Newbigin, a great missionary from the 20th century. When he came back from being a missionary in India to minister to a tiny URC congregation in Birmingham he concluded that this country was a much harder mission field than anywhere in India. We are not alone.. And we are not alone either because the first Christians lived in this kind of reality too, and they can show us some of the ways to rise to the challenge, and they can bear witness to how God is with us in such times.

So, let’s leave Taunton for a moment and go to Athens. Not by Easyjet, but by imagination. And not Athens today, but the Athens where Paul preached in the first century, in the public square, in the market place, in the place where the philosophers debated. Paul didn’t usually preach in places like this one and he was way out of his comfort zone. What he usually did was to go to the local synagogue or the local new church and preach there. Then he could meet people who understood his language, who liked the same hymns, read the scriptures like he did, and no doubt liked the same food and drink, read the same newspapers etc… You know how it is when you fall into a community and you find you are just at home. Of course, that wasn’t all plain sailing either, because he had a message to challenge synagogues and churches and they didn’t always like it – but it was somehow familiar ground. It would be like me going to another URC somewhere, or a Methodist church or a parish church.. But in this part of Paul’s story he has to speak in a very different kind of place.. in the public square in the centre of Athens. This was like being pitched into Start the Week on Radio 4 or the UN General Assembly or perhaps even something as culturally jarring as a beauty pageant at Las Vegas. Paul hated Athens – we are told that it deeply distressed him to see all those statues of the gods – idols as far as he was concerned. He may have felt as I did when I once went to Amsterdam and saw the sex workers behind the windows right next to the Old Church; feeling the scandal and the human pain and suffering and the strangeness of it all. This was a foreign culture to Paul, a godless culture for him. He probably wanted to smash the statues and get out of there as fast as anyone could say Plato. The last thing he wanted was to struggle to say something there about the God he served, the God he had met in Jesus Christ. But they wanted to ask him. And Acts tells us that they rather liked new ideas. They wanted to hear what he thought about the gods.

So, Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and made the speech of his life. And, unlikely though it might sound, he gives us a whole lot of clues about how we might have some of the conversations we need to have too. Instead of having a go at them, he tells them that he can see how religious they are. He says that he’s seen one among their statues to ‘an unknown God’. And he says that he worships a God who cannot be made with human hands, a God who cannot be captured in a statue, or known fully by human minds. This God does not live in shrines and needs nothing from us, since this God made us in the first place. We are all searching for God, says Paul, and he is not far from us. And then he quotes their own poems back to them.. about the God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’. We hear that as a Christian sentence, but it wasn’t –  it was from a Greek poet – one of theirs – but one that Paul sees has grasped some truth. He shows them, using their own words and their own art and culture, how the great God of all creation is being made known to them. He speaks their language, he honours the best of their culture and he finds, in the spaces between their gods of love and sex, of war and power, a clue to the presence of the one God made known in Jesus. He found the empty plinth – and on it he placed the God of the ages. We are told that some scoffed, but that some said, ‘We will hear you again about this..’

I think I’ve told the story before about the letter that Rowan Williams wrote to a little girl of six called Lulu. She had written a letter to God, that said,

“To God, how did you get invented? From Lulu xo ”

Her very secularized, probably atheist if he was anything, journalist father, Alex Renton, then sent it to various churches to see if they would answer and Lulu had this reply from Rowan Williams.


Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan


Rowan was replying as much to Alex Renton as to Lulu, trying to say something honestly about who God is and why Christianity makes some kind of sense, to someone who doubted it.

But this is hard isn’t it, because you and I are not Paul or Rowan Williams… not apostles or archbishops.. just members of a church in Taunton, in a place where the roads are quieter on a Sunday because not so many come to worship God these days.

But how about we pick up some clues? Paul went to the public space of the Greeks, and he did his best to be there and get inside their culture and find the good things about it. He knew that you can’t offer good news and scathing critique at the same time, and perhaps he didn’t want to. He wanted them to know about the God who loves them and created them and whose being they were somehow already intuiting and knowing a little. He wanted to bring them joy, not condemnation, and he found a way of connecting with them… And then Rowan picked that letter of all the thousands he must have had to answer to be one that he answered himself, as honestly and simply as he could, because he knows that God doesn’t write letters and that God asks us to speak clearly, joyfully, with integrity and simplicity about him.. No-one takes God for granted anymore, but God has witnesses and we are them..

The thing that the all the surveys about the ‘non-religious’ say is that many, many people still say they pray, that they long for something spiritual. They may not like what they see of the church or they may just think us irrelevant somehow, but there is an empty plinth in many people’s lives, and we might be invited to place something there in some conversation, in some loving action, in some relationship of trust. But to do that we need to be out in Athens, or in our case in Taunton, meeting people who are not ‘religious’ and speaking, in words or in deeds, about the unknown God who created them and loves them.

Of course, none of us would be here at all unless someone once had come to our own shores and spoken simply, with integrity and grace, of the God made known in Jesus. Our culture is not the original one of the Bible. Our language, customs and ways are a long way from Jesus and Paul. But somehow, by God’s grace, someone found the empty plinth in our land and placed on it the story of Jesus and the God made known in him. No doubt that was hard and tough, maybe more so than the challenge we face today. But thank God that we have been brought the Gospel and thank God that we are given the mission to make it heard again today.

So let’s embrace all the conversations we can, with family and friends, with CICCIC and the Gazette, and whoever we can find. Let’s listen first before we speak, find the value and the beauty in what is already there, and speak with integrity of the unknown God, made known in Jesus, and known in our hearts. And who knows, some may say, ‘We will hear you again about this’. Amen.