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Article No. 31

The goldfish bowl

Here is a question: do the fish know that they are in a goldfish bowl? Maybe they do, and just carry on living their circular life. Or maybe they don’t, and would blush a deep scarlet if they realized that their every move was watched from outside.

Today the churches in England are in a goldfish bowl. The education of the population has progressed to the point where there are millions of people out there capable of making sensible and informed assessments of what the churches believe and what they are doing about their beliefs. It is not as it was even fifty years ago. Then the men returning from the war were preoccupied – as was the resident population – with getting a life and enjoying it. Now we are in a very different position. Now the new forms of media have transformed the way the man in the street looks at things.

Nowadays there are the newspapers, there is television and, above all, there is the internet. People have a plethora of information and informed opinion at their fingertips. You can become informed in two minutes about any subject in the whole world with just a mouse in hand.

So I ask again: do the people in churches realize that they are like fish in a goldfish bowl, swimming round and round, and are observed by millions of people on the outside?

And what do those observers notice? Quite simply they see division, they see small mindedness, they see over-concern with trifles. They see fish aimlessly swimming back and forth without result.

Take for example the attitude of the churches towards drugs. Basically they are against them! That is not unclear. But there are precious few local initiatives to deal with the problem of dirty syringes, or youngsters being recruited to sell drugs at the school gates. Or with compliant parents, too busy about their own affairs. Where is the national outcry that the church should have instigated years ago? Where is the moral passion against what could become one of the deepest problems in society as the years pass into decades? Where is the education about drugs for youngsters equivalent to the education in basics that Sunday Schools gave children a hundred and fifty years ago?

So where is the vision of the church for this? As other writers have noted there seems to be an apathy that grips many of us – or are we so busy pushing round the machinery of meetings and committees in our churches that the real engagement with needy people gets bypassed?

Or take the question of deprivation. We bemoan the fact that two thirds of the world is without proper housing, education, food or work – but what do we do about the deprived areas of our cities, here on our doorstep? Valiant work is done by such as the Church Army and by some of the churches in those areas – but what about the rest of us who have a not-uncomfortable life, without too much worry or concern about these problems. If we cannot rouse our own consciences about the deprived here on our doorstep, what hope is there for arousing the conscience of the nation about the deprived elsewhere in the world?

Of course, you say, it is easy to criticise. Yes, it is. And there is much good work being done by Christians and others. Yes, again. But what I am pointing to is the lack of Christian conscience about these things. Where is the passion we should feel for seeing the Kingdom of God come on earth? Have we lost our belief in God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven? Or are we just dispirited?

What I am trying to say – and it applies to me as much as to you – is that we may not realize it but the outside world looks at the attitude we Christians take towards these matters and forms its own opinion about what our priorities are. They look at our lack of passion for social change and take their cue from us. Even worse, they pursue worthy social aims and recognize in their minds that Christians are not alongside them as they should be.

We Christians live in a goldfish bowl and we are being observed. More and more people are looking into our goldfish bowl to see what sort of life we lead, what sort of social passion we feel, what sort of loving outreach we have for the poor and needy of the world. One result of having a new Archbishop who, as a leading Christian, is challenging society, is that people are sitting up and asking – ‘what are these Christians doing about the problems in society?’

And what do they see? They see us squabbling over whether women can work alongside and be equal with men in the ministry. They see us spending time arguing about which vestments, if any, should be worn in church – and then deciding to leave everything just as it has been for centuries. They see Christians not only divided but actually cutting themselves off from each other because of moral customs about sexuality, or arguing among themselves about whether divorced people can remarry in church. And the conclusion they draw is that the fish are just chasing each other around the goldfish bowl, going nowhere and useless in all important respects.

The tragedy is that we Christians do this with some great sense of righteousness. Almost as if we had been personally told by the Lord of Lords exactly what to believe, and that anyone who thought differently had got it wrong. And so we cling to our doctrines and our dogma, our ritual and our vestments, our place in society and our comfort.

So what are we to do, with this church that carries on what it has always been doing, bemoaning that numbers are falling, casting around for better management systems or the latest gimmick to attract the crowds?

One thing we must not do is throw the cloth over the goldfish bowl – try to hide our inadequacies so that we avoid the criticism and censure. To do that would be the worst of follies. To attempt to appear to the world as if we were on the right track would be the worst of mistakes – it would be substituting the appearance for the reality. It would be treating the symptom and not the cause. Spin of the worst sort!

So what can we do?

I have no easy answers. Who does? There are no easy answers. The very desire we have for easy answers is part of the problem we are stuck with. There is no simple solution, and you should be wary of anyone who claims to have one.

I can only look at my own life and draw what lessons I can from that. Maybe if you will get honest with yourself and look at what comes from your own self examination, we might put our results together and begin to get some semblance of a way forward.

Truly the way forward must come from the Lord. I believe that things are in such a state, in Britain, that only the Lord can unite us and lead us out again into true witness and effectiveness for his kingdom.

What, then, do I learn from my life with all its prevarications, compromises, lethargy and fear? I know that the first thing is that only the Holy Spirit can truly show me the depths of inbred sin. And we don’t like the word sin these days. And we don’t like trying to deal with it. But only by recognising our sin can we even begin to turn around onto God’s path.

So what are the sins I find breeding within me like bacteria? For sin never stays still – it grows and increases the more it is left on its own. The first one that I listed was ‘prevarications’. This has to do with the way I recognize the need for change but place a hundred and one reasons in front of that need in order to hide from it.

I prevaricate by saying that it is now down to younger men – I have done my share. Or I say that I don’t have the resources to pitch in – the energy, or the strength, or the money, or the time. Or I quietly fill up my time with this or that – activities that are time wasters, really. They may be worthy things to do, but they are not really brought to the Lord to see whether they are His will for me.

Next I see the compromises. You know what I mean. Those places in one’s life where one is soft with oneself. Where I have given in to myself for an easy, comfortable life. I’m alright Jack. The over-indulgences in food and drink, or in certain hobbies or pursuits. The blunting of the moral cutting edge in my life. Once I become compromised, no man who meets me is going to feel challenged, He will simply recognize someone like himself – someone living a basically selfish life.

The third item I listed was lethargy, and this is really the outcome of compromise and prevarication. It is the truly passive will – not wanting to stir myself. Not wanting to get up and tackle the nearest challenge to hand or whatever the Lord shows me to deal with. Preferring to be comfortable – to enjoy my ‘comfort zone’, which I have worked very hard for years to achieve. If I am left to slumber my life away how can the Lord get his work done? I am his hands, his feet. So are you.

Finally fear takes hold. This is the simple result of spiritual deadness. When I push God out of the controlling power in my life, then fear seeps in. It is bound to happen because I have become the centre of my own existence and any threat to my well being produces fear. So fear becomes a part of my daily experience. Perhaps slowly – showing first as mild anxiety. But eventually blossoming into full grown fear. Fear of people. Fear of situations, fear of losing what I hold precious. Fear of losing what I think is important to me.

The temptation is to think that it is in doing some mighty act or significant piece of work that we escape from our besetting sins. Not so! Mere activity is not the answer to our level of compromise. For many of us, anyway, there are domestic ties that preclude any heroic act – we have a spouse and maybe children to think about. So it is important to emphasise that Jesus only talked of doing after he had talked of being. The being must come first. In fact it is the ‘being’ bit that really matters – for it is my heart that God wants to change. To replace a heart of stone with a heart of flesh – to sensitize us to Himself and then to the needs of those around. We are created as human beings not human doings!

There is a way out of the fishbowl. Your problems may not be listed above – they may be quite different. But if you recognize the situation I have described let me suggest a fanciful solution. If the fish decides to get out of the bowl, it can. With a mighty swish of its tail it can propel itself over the side of the fishbowl – and then perhaps you will find that you are not a goldfish at all, but rather a flying fish with God-given wings! By beginning to exercise those wings of faith you find you can actually fly. You can soar and skim the tree tops. You can ascend on a thermal to a point high in the heavens.

I am being fanciful – but to be entirely serious for a moment, let me say that I believe that any of us can, if we so determine, change our lifestyle, and our day to day practice of living out our lives, to be more in accord with Christ. When you start to do that, suddenly it is obvious what your next move should be – and you find you have the power given you to do it. And you do it. To the glory of God.

That is the way out of the goldfish bowl.

Tony Cross


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