Let Bartlet be Bartlet

In my opinion, one of the greatest television drama series produced in the last twenty years was the American series The West Wing, a series concerned with the two terms in the White House of the fictional Democratic President Jed Bartlet.

What is arguably the defining moment of the entire series comes in episode 19 of season one, the episode entitled ‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet.’ This episode is set just over a year into President Bartlet’s first term. He is frustrated, disillusioned and angry with his staff and his approval ratings are plummeting. The cause of these problems is that, instead of carrying out the bold programme of radical reform for which he was elected, he has become so fixated on getting re-elected that he has fled to the political middle ground and as a result he is making timid, anodyne and largely pointless political proposals that inspire nobody (not even himself). The situation changes (and his presidency is saved) when his Chief of Staff Leo McGarry challenges him to have the courage to try to carry out the programme on which he was elected (to ‘let Bartlet be Bartlet’) rather than worrying about re-election.

The point that Aaron Sorkin, who created The West Wing, makes in this episode is that political leaders should be governed by their principles rather than considerations of short term political expediency. They should focus on what they really want and need to achieve rather than going for political quick fixes.

I watched this episode of The West Wing again shortly after reading the paper issued on Monday by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York setting out the programme for the ‘reform and renewal’ of the Church of England represented in the documents for the February meeting of the General Synod. In their paper the Archbishops stress the urgency of the challenges facing the Church of England in terms of numerical decline, increased financial pressures and the forthcoming retirement of 40 % of the clergy. In response to these challenges what the Church of England is being offered is reports from four working groups on the selection and nurturing of the Church’s senior ordained leaders, on resourcing ministerial education, on how to manage and deploy the funds held by the Church nationally and how to simplify existing processes in relation to pastoral re-organisation and clergy deployment. In addition, there is a report on discipleship which gives a fine account of discipleship but ends not with a call to get on with it, but with a recommendation for yet more discussion about discipleship and the production of further resources.

Having read the paper and then watched The West Wing episode I was struck by how much the Church of England needs its own ‘let Bartlet be Bartlet’ moment. President Bartlet was a frightened man in the early months of his presidency and his fear led him to put the focus of his administration in the wrong place. In a similar way, I would argue, very many in the Church of England are gripped by fear that it may become locked into a cycle of inexorable decline and this leads them to propose inadequate solutions to the problems that the Church is facing. There is nothing wrong with making adjustments to the way that the Church of England selects and trains its senior leaders, or resources the training of its ministers, or deploys its national funds or engages in pastoral reorganisation of the deployment of the clergy. There is nothing wrong with holding further discussions about discipleship or producing additional resources on this subject. However, we must not kid ourselves that these will build the Church or lead to the radical re-conversion of the English nation.

Firstly, the teaching of Matthew 16:18 is clear and unmistakeable ‘I will build my church.’ To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a sermon on this verse from 1933:

‘…it is not we who build. He wills to build the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess – he builds. We must proclaim – he builds. We must pray to him – he builds. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of building. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down. It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church; you confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me.’

What this means is that we are relieved of the burden of thinking that the future of the Church is in our hands. It is not. Our job is simply to be faithful in the simple, but all-encompassing, task which he has given to us, which is to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ in word and deed so that lost sinners ‘having no hope and without God in the world’ (Ephesians 2:12) may receive the gift of eternal life.

Secondly, even in performing this task we are dependent upon God. If the result of our witness is that people repent, and believe, and receive eternal life, this is ultimately not our doing. It is the action of God the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit, drawing people to Himself (John 6:37, 44, 16:8-11). Our role is to make ourselves available to be the instruments that God can use. The greatest need of our nation at the moment, greater even than the resolution of its social, political or economic problems, is a mass return of people to God.

However, just as we cannot build the Church, so also we cannot by our own actions bring about such a revival. In the words of a new book by Michael Green, When God  Breaks In, the consistent witness of the Bible and the history of the Church is that that kind of revival takes place ‘when God breaks in.’

Because God is sovereign, we cannot determine when He will do this, but the evidence of Scripture and history suggests that He acts where his people are prayerful, concerned about holiness, submit to Scripture, are aware of the seriousness of the issue of people’s eternal destiny and are prepared to suffer for God.

To quote Michael Green:

‘There is no way in which human beings can orchestrate the sweeping power of divine interventions, such as the ones we have looked at. They are the work of the living God, with or without human agency, and they take different forms. They come at the times of his decision. But what we can say without fear of contradiction is that they never appear when all God’s people are apathetic, prayerless, unconcerned about holiness, flippant about the great issues of life, death and judgement, or disposed to reject the authority of Scripture. Scepticism in theology and hedonism in lifestyle never spawn significant spiritual revival. That in itself ought to be a significant pointer to the way in which the Church should be moving.’

To return to where I began with this blog, what the Church of England therefore needs is a ‘let Bartlet be Bartlet’ moment. What it needs is for the Archbishops to have the courage to set out a truly radical programme for the Church of England.

This needs to start from the acknowledgement that there is absolutely nothing that we can do to build the Church or bring about a spiritual transformation in our nation. That is God’s job, not ours. What we can and must do is play our part by being more diligent in reading Scripture, more serious about holiness, more fervent in prayer, more concerned about matters of eternal life, more courageous in witness and more willing to suffer for the Gospel.

None of this requires changes in the administration or funding of the Church. Nor does it require years of discussion and the production of yet more resources. This could start tomorrow if people in the Church of England were more serious about God and need of our nation. In The West Wing, what changes the presidency of Jed Bartlet is ultimately a change of attitude. He and his staff get serious about putting their political beliefs into practice. What the Church of England needs is the same kind of seriousness. ‘If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.’ (2 Chronicles 7:14)