It was in the days when the local radio station still ran a weekly religious affairs programme; visiting clergy from other parts of the world were always welcome for the stories they might have to tell. Calling at a house in East Belfast, armed a with tape recorder, the man to be interviewed had come from mid-Africa.
He wasn’t much interested in being interviewed, more in launching into a lengthy attack on Irish churches. “Churches here do not know how to preach”, he said, “they tell silly stories. People do not need silly stories, they need the pure word of God to be expounded”.
The man came to mind as a colleague, who is rather good at stories, told a tale about the importance of encouragement. Days after hearing the story, the Bible passage it was told to illustrate remains fresh in the mind. Perhaps that is a legacy of being too long a member of a church where we tell stories, instead of expounding the Scriptures, as our visitor would have exhorted.
Perhaps also it is about being products of a history and culture where story-telling has always been an important skill. Even serious political discussions hardly proceed without the recalling of the odd anecdote, the recounting of particular memories. Ireland has always been a land of stories. Even the Constitution of the state opens with a reference to the story of the nation:
We, the people of Éire,
Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,
Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation . . .
The identity of the nation comes not in legal terms, but from the story of the times and the people that shaped it.
Such thoughts about why Irish churches might tell stories did not arise at the time; though it might have been pertinent to ask why Jesus was so given to telling stories if they were not what people needed.
Seventeen years on from the interview, the need to be able to tell our faith as a story is greater than ever. In times when authority is no longer trusted and when it is no longer possible to present people with a set of propositions and tell them they must believe, the only way of sharing faith is by telling people one’s own story and ask them what they think.
Preparing to visit mid-Africa, there is a moment to ponder the church there. Do those brought up to accept the authority of what is told to them find it enough simply to ‘believe’ once they move outside their home contexts? Or do the attractions of the material world become too alluring and the ways of secularised life become too tempting?
Once the acceptance of a set of propositions has been left behind, what is there left, with which to convince people? If we have not stories to tell, then how else shall we tell the faith?