A restored vision of Church
For centuries institutions provided security, identity, and continuity. Their very existence gave confidence that the contemporary world would continue to build on the foundations of the past. Each generation could expect to live much as their parents had done.
This is not contemporary reality. Institutions have been found wanting. Some have suffered public ignominy. Institutional Church is in serious decline throughout the Western world. Many would say the worst is yet to come. Here in my local community people are almost universally respectful of my faith and the way of life Margaret and I strive to live our lives, but have less than benign thoughts about ‘church’. Children of committed Christian families find it difficult to relate to their parents’ ecclesial experience.
In the past it was more than appropriate for institutional life to give flesh to the incarnate and eternal activity of God. Music, architecture, liturgy, ministries, works of charity, centres of thought, annual rhythms, pilgrimages, were expansive frameworks in and through which people could explore and grow into eternal truths. This is the world I have known and cherished.
With the demise of institutions over the last three decades and the rise of multi-faceted networks this is no longer the case for most people. Parishes that in the 1960’s 70’s and 80’s enjoyed congregations in their hundreds now experience much smaller gatherings, and much older, despite the overall population on a geographical basis being significantly larger.
Should institutional Church as it has been known in Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, the Orthodox and mainstream Protestant churches simply run up the white flag? No, because the universality of Christ can never be fully expressed solely through local expressions of Church that lack accountability to global and historical Christianity. The faith is not simply about personal piety, it is also about public engagement
So, what is to be done, what are we to do?
The longing for spiritual nurture and insight has not shrunk. Sceptics such as Dawkins and Hitchins argue that religion is a form of escape. I dare to argue the opposite, Christianity as I have known it is engagement in the totality of life. This is hardly surprising given the heart of Christian faith is belief in, and commitment to Jesus, the incarnate word of God who embraces and enables life itself.
So, where might the Spirit be leading us?
As is often the case, what otherwise might be thought a calamity - covid 19 – gives us a clue. During this calamity people everywhere have become aware of opposite realities which carry almost equal importance. On the one hand we have all come to know the importance of home, family, intimacy, and connectedness with those who are most important to us. Many of us have found blessing in the capacity to ‘work from home’. On the other hand, we are also aware of our irrepressible need for connectedness without limit, of belonging to and being fulfilled in the universality of life. I have become increasingly convinced that the Church of the future must come more thoroughly to grips with these two realities and hold them in healthy balance.
Since March last year Margaret and I have been running Church at our home to assist the local Parish in the context of the covid pandemic. Some of those coming have not previously been regular members of any Church. What people find attractive is a mixture of a less formalised liturgy, thoughtful teaching in which they participate, fellowship at a personal level and the joy of a shared meal. We have emphasized we are part of and accountable to the wider Church.
I have become convinced that clergy should act with oversight; legitimizing and authorizing a multitude of small gatherings in and through which a wide circle of people might be nurtured and fed. In the early Church bishops grew out of presbyters, it is time for presbyters to retake roles of intentional oversight. These groups could be as diverse as imagination and need suggest. Some will be based in meditation and contemplation, other through bible study, some through a focus on social justice and charity, some through a shared digital experience, others through arts-based activities, some through concern for and enjoyment of the natural order others through ministries of education and health, some through ethnic or cultural identity.
Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, urges the Church of England to establish at least 10,000 locally based and lay led ‘churches’ before 2030. There has been push back from Parish based leadership. This is short sighted. A move such as this could refresh ‘parishes’.
People in these groups may not be regular attenders of Sunday worship, but they should be gathered on significant occasions. It will be the duty of the ‘parish/diocese’ to provide universal experiences and linkages. Some of this can and should be provided digitally, but there must also be common shared experiences.
The purpose of Church is not to provide a chaplaincy service to a congregation of pious believers disconnected from the mainstream life of the wider community. It is to feed nourish and empower those who in Christ’s name are committed to the transformation of society. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “We worshipped Jesus instead of following him on the same path. We made Jesus into a religion instead of a journey toward God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of ‘belonging’ and ‘believing’ instead of a religion of transformation”.
Because institutional churches have largely failed to provide spiritual nurture and intimacy to many who seek it, this need has been met through many experiences of Church which Dawkins and Hitchins could legitimately describe as escapes from reality. Some offer false certainties in a world better understood through nuance, paradox, and complexity. Dangerously extreme examples of this were seen by those carrying signs bearing Jesus’ name in the assault on Capitol Hill following Biden’s election and on banners carried by those engaged in protests against covid restrictions here in Australia.
We should not be witnessing the death of conventional parish and diocesan life, but it’s opening up in new ways of serving the world which God in Jesus loves. Church membership or Christian discipleship should not be calculated on the basis of Sunday church attendance alone, but on the basis of engagement and connectedness with the multifaceted life that is modern society.
The choice that lies ahead is either to pull up the doona and keep the façade intact for as long as possible or throw off the bed cover and embrace a more exciting and engaging expression of Church. It is not a matter of being shaped by the dominant culture of our time but recognizing its influence and engaging differently with it.