Faith Matters

Dr Charles McMullen: The challenge of building relationships

Last week's Presbyterian General Assembly was dominated by votes to split from the Church of Scotland and to back guidelines excluding gay couples from full membership of its congregations - actions which appear to sit uncomfortably with 'building relationships', its theme for the year. Meanwhile, the assembly also agreed that the moderator should meet Pope Francis and called on politicians to set aside their differences at Stormont. No wonder many people are confused... Dr Charles McMullen, this year's moderator, explains what 'building relationships' means to him

The Rt Rev Dr Charles McMullen is taking the theme of 'building relationships' into his year as Presbyertian moderator. Picture by Mal McCann

I have chosen as my theme for the year 'building relationships', which comes with the strapline from 2 Corinthians 5:14: "For Christ's love compels us."

In the opening chapters of this epistle, Paul has repeatedly highlighted how indebted we are to Jesus Christ and all that He has done for us.

Suddenly it is as if his pen itself catches fire and he is freed from all restraint, now proclaiming what should be the motivation for everything we are, think, say and do: the all-consuming, all-constraining, all-compelling, all-commanding love of Jesus Christ.

Let Christ's love compel us, firstly, as individuals, "because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died... Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come."

Christ died for you and He died for me. He died while we were yet sinners and He died to set us free.

He died to take away all that is old, tired, stale and sinful from our lives, to give us a new beginning, a second chance, a new birth, an eternal hope.

Now we find our significance, our assurance and our security in Him as the very apple of His eye, the daughter and the son in whom He delights.

Let Christ's love compel us, secondly, as the Church of Jesus Christ. Christ is passionate about His Church and gave Himself for it.

One of my spiritual mentors and heroes is the late Selwyn Hughes, who wrote this: "A church can be orthodox in doctrine, efficient in service, blameless in character, beautiful in ritual, rich in culture, eloquent in preaching - yet all these things are but ashes on a rusty altar if it knows nothing of a burning, blazing love for the Lord Jesus Christ."

What does this mean and what does it look like? I have caught glimpses in the faces and hearts of so many over the years, but it is surely a picture of all that the church should be with God's love flowing freely, creating genuine community where every member plays a part and reaching out to the ends of the world.

This sense of building relationships in Christian community is the powerful antidote to the idols of self that drive so much of today's society, whether in terms of its insistence on consumerism, individualism, autonomy, selfies and social media, or whatever works for you.

'Building Relationships - let Christ's love compel us', lastly, as we reach out beyond ourselves to wider society.

Paul mentions several times the ministry of building bridges or reconciliation. This is costly, because there is no fence sitting.

On the one hand, we can insist that everyone becomes like us. On the other, we can be too inclusive as we accommodate ourselves to the spirit of the age 

It seems to me that we can face two extremes.

On the one hand, we can insist that everyone becomes like us. We can become exclusive, cutting ourselves off from those with whom we disagree, until we find ourselves splendid in our own isolation.

Michael Cassidy in his marvellous commentary on John 17, says that championing for truth can seem heroic and courageous, but warns: "Endless churches have been split and broken by such crusades when those who carry them out do not bear in mind and keep to purview the demands of love and unity."

On the other hand, we can be too inclusive as we accommodate ourselves to the spirit of the age, diluting truth, biblical integrity, the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ, orthodox Christian behaviour and morals, ceasing to be counter-cultural.

We need to be centred between love and unity on the one hand and truth and holiness on the other hand.

That is a picture of the Cross. It's what we might define as a generous orthodoxy in our dealings with others - confident of who we are in Christ, we are enabled and empowered to reach out the hand to others.

The difficulties for us in contemporary society are manifold. From our point of view, there is also the pastoral sensitivity of realising that many of the issues confronting us are seldom black and white, but nuanced and complex, often affecting our own family members.

And there is the vexed question of finding reasonable accommodation where there are conflicts of identity and differing definitions of equality.

By experiencing true freedom and hope in Jesus Christ and living together in the authentic Christian community of the Church, let us have the courage of our convictions to tell a different and a better story.

To tell that story we have a distinctive vocabulary to bring to the public debate - the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and all that flows from that relationship, including mercy, forgiveness, justice, peace and the ministry of reconciliation.

The word of God helps us to tell that story about redemptive love, giving a voice to the voiceless, defending the unborn, the marginalised, the abused and the victimised.

We can speak about the beauty and the sanctity of marriage and family life. We can stress the importance of caring for our neighbour and creating Christian community, given what has been described as an epidemic of loneliness.

We can promote a society in which responsibilities are preferred over rights and where we give ourselves in the service of others.

What will make the difference will ultimately be the genuineness of those stories that we share about how Jesus Christ has changed lives, the youth work and the elderly care in which we are involved, and the generosity of our giving and the sacrificial love that we display.

It would be a glaring omission if I were to talk on 'building relationships' but ignore the political impasse in Northern Ireland.

It has been simply appalling that attitudes have become so embittered and entrenched with such adverse effects on our schools, hospitals, businesses, the economy and the many, many victims and survivors.

Politics should not be played out on the level of brinkmanship, but of finding consensus on this small piece of land we have to share together.

We need to imagine a better future for our children's children, confronting our prejudices through tireless efforts of imagination.

What if our politics were based, to paraphrase Wesley, on doing all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can?

Recently I came under conviction as I revisited the parable of the Good Samaritan. It's the story of the priest and the Levite who walk by on the other side, ignoring a wounded man for fear of becoming involved in an act of sacrificial love at the cost of their religious defilement or exclusion from the Temple.

We must not run the risk in our politics, culture and even our theology that we cut ourselves off from the other person.

There was also the Samaritan, the person you would not have expected to provide help but who risked life and limb to do so.

Love for God and one another is the greatest apologetic for our faith and the one essential prerequisite for a ministry of reconciliation.

People do not care how much we know, until they know how much we care. No outsider will believe in Jesus until an insider treats him as a brother or sister.

And the parable emerges from the summary of the greatest commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind;" and: "Love your neighbour as yourself."

Let us build those relationships then, as we walk with God glorifying Him and enjoying His presence, as we reach out confidently to others - for Christ's love compels us.

  • The Rt Rev Dr Charles McMullen began his year as Presbyterian moderator at last week's General Assembly.

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