I have a friend who is training for ordained ministry in the C of E, and quite frankly he’s struggling a bit with it all. The problem, he told me, is that while everyone thinks they know what church is all about, there has never actually been any discussion about it, and certainly, therefore, no agreed consensus. So much of their learning isn’t really aimed anywhere, or certainly anywhere which he would recognise as being useful. There tends to be a kind of lowest common denominator pretence that we all understand it really.
This problem, I realised, is a microcosm of the church at large. Not many of us, I would dare to suggest, have ever had much discussion about what it is we think we’re doing by belonging to this venerable organisation. Yet we all get on with it week by week, and most of us, if we have ever thought about it, will be working on our own personal agendas.
I have some thoughts about church myself at the moment. I find myself in the position of being a vicar without a church, having been bullied out of my last job and finding it difficult to find a new one. I tell you this so that you will understand that I might just be a bit jaded at this stage of my life. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it if I’m honest.
So I want to take a few weeks of my blog to explore this question. I’ll begin with a few historical reflections, based on changing fashions during my lifetime, but I want to go on and ask some deeper questions about the way we do church, and get a few rants of my own off my chest.
I’m going to end this series with a model of church which I believe is a useful and biblical one, but it’s probably right to begin with the Bible too. Why did Jesus set up a church? Quite simply, I would argue, because he wanted the stuff which he had been doing carried on, by more people in more places. When St Paul called the church ‘the body of Christ’ he was literally right: the things which Jesus had been doing with his body were the same things he intended his followers to keep doing. As the famous prayer of Teresa of Avila says:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out with Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.
Now that right there would be an interesting thing for a church to do: look at what Jesus actually did do while he was physically on earth, and compare it to the things which occupy your church’s life. Now of course time does move on, and we can’t recapture all the simplicity of organising twelve blokes and plop it down into a world-wide organisation. But surely we ought to be able to recapture something of Christ’s priorities. That is going to be my starting point, but for now let’s take a trip back 60 years while I invite you to consider some of the models of church which I have experienced.
Next week: Church as fortress.