In the run-up to the 1930 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, the English spiritual writer and theologian Evelyn Underhill wrote a short letter to Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang offering her advice on the upcoming conference. One of the most famous passages is this:
“God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God…. We ask the bishops . . . to declare to the Church and especially its ministers, that the future of organized Christianity hinges not on the triumph of this or that type of churchman’s theology or doctrine, but on the interior spirit of poverty, chastity and obedience of the ordained.” (The entirety of the letter is.)
It is astonishingly easy to miss the point she begins with: God is the interesting thing about religion. I know that in the midst of college and church life, between conversations about the future of this institution or the decline of that congregation, anxieties about how I’ll finish all the work due before the end of term and concerns about preaching in front of friends and colleagues, and so much else that can occupy my mind on a daily basis—in the middle of all of this, it is easy to forget the central truth Evelyn Underhill holds before Archbishop Lang.
I think there’s an essential corollary to what she has to say. Not only is God the interesting thing about religion, Jesus is the interesting thing about the church. Again, this sounds obvious but it is again easy to miss. At a time of great focus on mission in our churches, one danger is that the church becomes an end in itself. We are interested in mission as a way of “putting more bums in seats” and preserving our existing institutions. Mission can become simply one way to recruit people to our existing club. But the important and interesting thing about Christian mission is not the church institution but Jesus Christ, the son of God. A central part of our calling as Christian leaders is to hold Jesus before a world that is hungry for his good news of mercy, grace, and reconciliation. Yet as Evelyn Underhill noted 90 years ago and as we may notice in our time, it is all too easy to be distracted by the concerns of the day from these central truths.
God is the interesting thing about religion. Jesus is the interesting thing about church. May we continue to find our focus set on those things that are truly interesting and for which our world is hungering.
This message was written by College Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community. Image: Icon of Evelyn Underhill by Suzanne Schleck