Interview with Graham Kings: Dutch Perspectives
by Wim Houtman
Date added: 19/07/2015
'Do take your time to think and pray about it', Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had said. But there was no need. Graham Kings said 'yes' straightaway. He had just been offered his dream job. No cutting down towards retirement, but seven more years of pioneering in a new job that might have been cut out for him – Mission Theologian in the Anglican Communion.
'The centre of gravity of world Christianity has shifted towards the South. We need to hear those voices in the Church', says Kings, 61. 'I hope that we can bring the vitality of theology from Africa, Asia and Latin America into the western Church.'
He has always worked in mission, as far as he is concerned. First in the foothills of Mount Kenya, as a lecturer at a rural theological college, seven miles up a mud road. Back in England he became a lecturer and researcher, and founded the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide. When subsequently he became a parish priest, and later a Bishop, he regarded those as missionary jobs too. First, in a big city church in London, multicultural and with many people who worked in politics and the media. And as a Bishop in rural Dorset, on the south coast, it was as if he went to preach the gospel to a foreign culture. 'There are no motorways there, no skyscrapers, no ethnic minorities: people also need Christ there.'
The way Graham Kings talks about it, missionary work actually sounds like fun. He is full of ideas. And a networker. He knows everybody and brings people together. Once, in 1999, he walked from Oxford to Cambridge, with a camel, with a group of friends, including Kenyans, to raise money for Church schools in Kenya. Charles Simeon, helped found, and gave money to, the Church Mission Society in 1799. He lived in Kings College, Cambridge for 54 years above the jumbo arch there. Kings saw that arch and thought a camel ought to go through it.
He gets an idea, and then manages to find a company that rents out camels for events, a vet to come along free of charge, and a tourist operator, who arranges a route and lodging. The whole affair drew the attention of local and national media and raised almost 60,000 euros. And what is just as important: he won a lot of 'camel walk friends'.
Kings tells about a group of men in his village pub where he regularly drinks a pint. 'To them I'm not the Bishop, but just Graham. Once shortly before Christmas one of them, a science teacher who is an atheist, said to me: "I will give you a word and I bet a Mars bar that you won't be able to get that into your sermon." He knows I never bet for money. And what was his word? Quantumchromodynamics. I said: "OK, I'll take that up, but on one condition: that you will be there." "Oh no", he said, "that's not possible, I'm an atheist." Then the other men said: "Oh, come on, we will come, we'll make sure nothing will happen to you."
So he came and I started my sermon with a few words on the Higgs Bosun particle, which had just been discovered: an elementary building block of the universe. "That's fantastic", I said. "I know nothing about cosmology. I certainly don't know the most important theory, which is quantomchromodynamics –but I do know that I believe God created the world." Afterwards he shook hands with me and there was a Mars bar in it.'
As a Bishop , Kings leads an Alpha Course a year at a historic place in Dorset. "Colleagues had said beforehand: that's never going to work, as Bishop you won't be able to keep ten Tuesday evenings free in a row. But if you think something is important, you can."
He also had people come to him. "My secretary is brilliant. When someone would telephone to invite me to dinner she would often say: "Wonderful, I'll check the diary. He is rather busy at the moment but … you know what, why don't you come with a group of people for dinner one evening with him and the Bishop will give an after dinner talk. Or even better, why don't we make that ten evenings." Then we had an Alpha Course. And often they would be people who would never think of doing an Alpha Course by themselves."
Graham Kings is an evangelical Anglican of the centrist variety. In favour of women in ministry, against blessing same-sex relationships, but not willing to let a split in the Church be forced upon him on that point – to put it in a few broad strokes. And above all: passionate for a mission-driven Church.
In 2003, he was one of the founders of Fulcrum, an evangelical think tank which wants to work from the centre of the Anglican Church. This in contrast with some other orthodox groups, who are primarily against many developments and sometimes threaten to break it up.
The Anglican Communion family has gone through a crisis over the last years, following the ordination of a Bishop in the American Church who openly lived in a same-sex relationship. Slavery has been abolished, women have won equal rights, now it's time for gay people, is the American line. That upset many Anglicans, especially the Africans. For twelve years relations have been deadlocked. But Kings is in a 'realistically hopeful' mood. He expects a lot from the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who took over from Rowan Williams in 2013. Most of leadership of the English Church now consists of people who are theologically orthodox and mission driven, Kings says. But in America too, the plates are shifting. A new, more mission-minded generation is coming up.
'Hopeful' is also his mood for the Church of England itself, although numbers keep dwindling. 'I am not optimistic. That is a human trait. Hope is from God, rooted in suffering and in Scripture. Romans 15 verse 13 has become a key text for me: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing."
There are places where churchgoing is on the up. And the number of young people who wish to work in the Church is rising. The worst thing for the Church here in the West is being ignored by the secular majority. But when Archbishop Justin Welby speaks, people pay attention. He is a gift from God to the Church. He comes from the business world. He had a top job with an oil company at the age of just thirty. He is totally committed to the mission of the Church, and evangelism is one of his top three priorities.
Challenges remain high, especially in the countryside. I was talking about this with a priest in Dorset recently, who serves fifteen small village churches. I asked him how many people come to Church on a Sunday. They were 250 altogether. "That is a big Church", I said. "Think of it as one congregation, with fifteen house groups."'
In the similar vein, he describes the success of Fresh Expressions, the English programme for new ways of being Church to meet people of this time where they are. 'It's not about huge numbers. Most church plants are small, but you have to start small. But when you add up how many people are reached through all these places, you have the extent of a diocese.'
Kings himself grew up in a family which only nominally belonged to the Church. 'From my seventh till my twelfth year I sang in the church choir. I knew God existed, but I had no idea you could have a personal relationship with him. After high school I had a gap year in the army: I was miles away from God there. Then I went to Oxford to read law and I got to know some committed Christians. I started reading the gospels again and the Jesus I met in the gospels matched the Jesus I saw in the lives of those Christians.
Someone asked me along to an outreach service and there, on Sunday evening January 20th, 1974, I committed my life to the Lord. On Wednesday after that I met my future wife, and on Friday I attended a missionary prayer group of Operation Mobilisation. That was not just your average week!
In April, Alison and I started going out. At her parents' house, I encountered books, music and arts, which I had not grown up with. A whole world opened itself up for me to do with faith and culture. I thought: do I really want to be a lawyer? I went for theology. My Dad was furious. After two weeks, he gave up his resistance and said: "Give me something to read then." I gave him the New Testament in the Good News version. He went away with my Mum for a week and read the whole thing. My mother, who had chronic colitis, had been healed by prayer shortly beforehand in a Charismatic Church, nearby. And my Dad saw me change. Through all these ways God was speaking to him. In November he came to church and when the vicar made the altar call, he went up to give himself to Jesus. A week later my sister did the same. So God drew the whole family to himself in one year.'
In 1980 Kings heard the story of Jean Waddell on the radio, a British missionary who had been held hostage for several months in Iran, following the revolution of the ayatollahs. Inspired by her courage, but even more by her will to forgive, Kings volunteered for the organisation that had sent her, the Church Mission Society. After his curacy in London, he and his wife felt called to work overseas in mission.
'Those years in Kenya changed me completely', he says. 'I was a Barthian in theology. "Religion" was a dirty word: God's revelation came from an entirely different world, from above, and would turn all things upside down. In Africa, I encountered theologians who would build upon what was already there. The gospel enters a certain culture; it confirms some aspects of that culture, transforms some, and challenges others. Later on, that is the way I went to work in Islington and Dorset.'
What will he being doing first in his new job? 'We are going to invite theologians from Africa, Asia and Latin America to study in England on sabbaticals and write for publication. We are going to hold theological seminars in eg Bangalore, India, Nairobi, Kenya and Buenos Aires, Argentina. The papers that will be written for those sessions will be published immediately on our web site. A series of books will be published over seven years on various aspects of theology, such as the Church, Christ and Atonement.'
What may Western theologians and believers learn from these new currents of theology? 'What is "new" about theology from Africa, Asia and Latin America is that it often arises from a context of poverty and persecution. Because of that different context, you start reading the Bible in a different light, and finding things that you had previously overlooked. Just like Paul, who describes to the Galatians how the Church was flooded with Christians from amongst the Gentiles. They were full of the Spirit, but they were not circumcised. That caused Paul to return to the Old Testament and then he discovered that Abraham had already been justified before he was circumcised. You are accepted by God through faith, not through works of the law. Those new voices from Africa, Asia and Latin America are doing the same as the early gentile Christians: causing controversy, renewing theology and changing the shape of the Church.'