What about the Church? 

Chapter four of
Dear Kim, this is what I believe . . .                           by Bill Loader
Dear Kim,

"Church is boring!" That’s what I often hear people say and sometimes I feel like that, too. Yet it is not always what I feel, in fact increasingly less so. I feel proud to be identified with the Church, when it stands up for human rights, when it gets involved in helping people who have real need, when it is a place which helps people get in touch with God in their lives, when it is prepared to ask critical questions about itself and its heritage and about what is going on in the world..

Part of me can feel very impatient with the Church and with what happens in it. I get quite exasperated when people in the Church think that Christianity is all about rules, or when they fail to look critically at what they are doing and saying, or when they make faith sound like mumbo jumbo or superstition or when the aim seems to be to make comfortable people feel more comfortable.

Yet some of the most exciting people I have met have been in the Church. They challenge me. They wake up my ideas. They seem to be in touch with life. They open up new ways of looking at things. They are generous, loving people, who illustrate by their lives everything I have been saying about Jesus. They are real saints. You probably know some people like that, too. They’re not necessarily people in official Church positions; often they are not; some of them are. They are just people getting on with life, but with an abundance of love to give to others.

At times, being in Church is like being in a health care centre, a healthy place to be, but you are there in a community of people who care and need caring. Some sit there in the congregation, carrying recent memories of someone close to them who has died. Others come, full of worry and fear about their job or their health or what is happening to their children or their marriage. Some seem to be regularly depressed people; and others are a bit odd and seem to feel at home here and few places else. And the line between wellness and unwellness is frequently blurred, because here it is Ok to acknowledge that we all need care and we can all give care.

When the minister and those leading the worship are tuned in to where people are at, the whole event can seem like an act of healing. The whole room fills with compassion and you feel a close sense of belonging together - limping along with the those who struggle, holding the hand of the elderly, putting your arm round the shoulders of someone going through rough times. And sometimes this can happen quite literally, especially where what matters most is people in the presence of God and not performance of a fixed and formal order of proceedings.

An odd mixture

The Church - any congregation - and the Church as a whole is an odd mixture, a strange assortment of people. Some of us are in the Church out of habit and tradition, without much commitment to what it is all about - in fact, often blocking any initiatives to be relevant to the world around us. Others of us are there by habit and tradition because we have always tried to walk the way of Jesus in their lives. We were there when it was what everyone used to do; we are there when it’s out of fashion.

Then I wonder what it would have been like around Jesus in his day. There would probably have been a similar assortment of different people. Perhaps a number who presently go to church would be more comfortable with Jesus’ opponents; but, all the same, you’d be in an uncomfortable crowd of people at all different stages of life’s journey. It is tempting to think: wouldn’t it be better if we could find a lot of people who think and behaviour more or less the way we do? But that is like asking Jesus to be selective about his company, a contradiction of all that he was about.

In moments of truth I also realise that we’re all people who are on a journey and I’m no exception. In some ways the progress Christianity has made in the world or in the Church is about the same as it has made in my own life - otherwise I’m kidding myself. And I’m not about to abandon myself; so I’m not going to abandon the Church just because it’s as human as I am.

That sounds simpler than it really is. At least I can make some changes in myself; with the Church that’s more difficult; will anyone listen? Part of loving myself as God loves me means looking at my faults and deciding to do something about them. I need to love the Church like that, too - I am also part of it! What I want to say about the Church comes from this approach. Let me begin with the great treasure that the Church is.

The wider church

The Church is the local congregation; but it is also bigger than that. It is worldwide and it reaches back across nearly 2000 years. We can think of the Church lying across the landscape of history in the shape of a cross: it reaches out across the world and it reaches back across history and also forward into the future. The vertical aspect is the one which makes me feel one with Christians down through the ages, right back to the first disciples and Jesus himself. At times I can sense this link quite strongly, especially when people leading worship help to engender it by pointing it out or using it in some way. The horizontal aspect is the Church across all the peoples and cultures of today’s world. We sense this when we pray or talk about people outside our own local congregation and don’t just focus always on ourselves. The traditional way of saying what I am treasuring here is that the Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. ‘Catholic’, here, is used in its archaic sense of ‘universal’. ‘Apostolic’ means it goes back to the apostles, the first Christian leaders.

In tune with yesterday - and today?

Treasuring the connection with all those who have been Christians in the Church over the centuries is why I’m comfortable about using ancient prayers or creeds and hymns at times in church. But they shouldn’t, to my mind, dominate and leave no room for saying and doing things in today’s ways as well. That’s a problem in Church services. It is like having the cross without the cross bar. Some use only traditional sources. That can be fine for those who are in the in-group. But I think too many churches have got stuck with only one kind of tradition in words and in music. They don’t seem to realise that they are giving people the message that what they are about can’t really be celebrated or lived in today’s world. Museums can be inspiring and nostalgia is not to be despised, but Churches which stay in that mode are missing something vital. At worst they are engaging in a form of community depression and need help.

Sometimes the opposite happens and I find it very odd. People go for modern sounds and systems with little thought for what is being sung or said. They can easily lose the connection with the treasure of tradition and with its wisdom and instead produce sloppy and sentimental songs which seem designed to make people feel good. Frequently when they do try to connect to the tradition they use ideas and concepts uncritically and inappropriately. For a long time this was true of many so called choruses which people used in churches. In recent years however we have seen exciting new developments which have been able to combine good contemporary music with words that do make sense without watering down the gospel.

It is also possible for congregations to be so focused on what is going on in the world and what needs to be done, that mutual exhortation to action and moral demand dominates with insufficient attention to nurturing people for the task. It is difficult to sustain the fruit if we do not attend to the tree itself and its roots.

Church communities need to work at the connections with the historical treasure of the gospel and with the style and issues of the day, if they are escape being a cultural ghetto or just another service club. Music is only one example of the need for cultural flexibility, but a good one. We need more church musicians with a sensitive tolerance to a wide range of musical style. I’m a classical music fan, myself, but I can’t, for the life of me, justify the monoculturalism which has tended to dominate decisions about music in the Church and the words and style of its written orders of service. This, too, has been changing in recent years. But there is still a kind of stuck-ness here which belongs to a wider problem in the Churches.

Fundamentalism also about the church

The general stuck-ness in the Church is almost a kind of fundamentalism; only, instead of treating the Bible as divine and infallible, people have treated the Church and its institutions as infallible. We treasure the Bible as our earliest witness to God in history, but some couldn’t help going on to make the Bible, itself, divine. At its worst, we have a similar phenomenon in the Church, where some people treat the way the Church has been organised from the second century onwards as somehow sacrosanct, as divine. That means: nothing is to be changed!

This rather odd tendency to go too far in devotion also explains how some Catholics came to treat Mass (Holy Communion) as something almost magical and to revere the Pope as infallible. We can almost see the same steps occurring: I have a profound sense of Jesus’ presence at Communion and jump to the conclusion that Communion must enshrine a magical act that makes the bread and wine quite literally the physical body and blood of Jesus. Or, I believe God speaks through the Pope and jump to the conclusion that everything he says must be infallible. More informed Catholics would explain to us that neither of these views truly represents Catholic doctrine. But they are typical of a tendency we have already noted with regard to the Bible and which, we have seen, also affects some people’s attitude to the institutions of the Church.

These more extreme positions about the Church become all the more absurd when people justify them by claiming that Jesus set the Church up in this way, whereas we now know quite well that the organisation of the Church evolved in response to pragmatic concerns over a long period of time. The pragmatic concerns of the Church’s mission of love still need to be the ultimate criterion for deciding how we should organise our lives in the Church.

In its less extreme form we find this kind of fundamentalism about the Church in the great fear and reluctance which people, including many clergy, have, about doing different, more imaginative things in the areas of music, worship activity and about finding more imaginative and effective ways of being the Church in the world.

How much do we hold onto?

But there is another side to the coin and it explains why the Church has often found itself stuck and not able to move. It relates to what I was saying about a sense of belonging with those who have gone before us. Saying the creeds, using parts of the ancient liturgy of Holy Communion and singing ancient hymns all help us sense that we belong to that great historic community of faith. The question is: how much do we hold onto in order to retain that connection? Congregations where all such links with the past have been ignored (except the Bible) seem to me to be greatly impoverished. They can easily degenerate into popular ‘feel good’ religions without much substance or they can become service clubs for social action, at worst a fellowship of ‘oughts’.

We need to stay connected with the historic community of faith and to ensure that its sources of spiritual nourishment can flow up into the tree in a way that will sustain a deeper awareness of goodness and an ongoing commitment to social and other action which will live the good news in the world. The Church has put in place some structures which are designed to help this to happen when they are made to work well.

The Bible is our key link with the earliest days of the Christian Church. But there are other important links. These include the service of Holy Communion which in most churches still retains ancient prayers like: ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord..’ or ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,..’ and a number of others. The basic forms of the Holy Communion Service and of Baptism, including Baptism of infants, reach right back to the time even before the Bible received its final stamp of approval.

Ministries

Another important link which people include is having people set aside (ordained) as ministers to help the Church to keep a good hold on its connections with the ancient Church, especially the Bible, and to reflect on the impact these can have on present day living. These have a vital role to play. We should be reminding them that this is so and telling them to get a sound grounding, to keep themselves informed and focused on the task. We do not want them to be full time paid Christians, but to help us with the connections. We need to tell each other that this must be a fundamental priority for the Church in a time of tight budgets when some see only the horizontal aspects of the Church and neglect the vertical, the linkage across history to the rich biblical and heritage. We neglect the compost of tradition at our peril.

The more ancient branches of the Church argue that we should preserve not only the ordained ministry but also the way the Church has structured its ordained ministry from the second century onwards. That structure has three kinds of minister: bishops, priests and deacons. ‘Bishops’ originally meant ‘overseers’. ‘Priests’ replaced the term ‘elders’ in the second century and means the minister of the local congregation. ‘Deacons’ was, and still is, a rather loose term which can range from meaning ministers with a special focus on social justice and caring functions through to little more than apprentice priests. Most Churches recognise that these forms of ministry cover some of the key functions every church must have in its ministry, but some continue to insist, more literally, on having precisely these forms of ministry and using precisely these words, bishops, priests and deacons, even though, in reality, they are now very different from what they were in the second century.

Standing in the stream

There is much more that some would add to the list of what should be preserved unchanged. The power and wonder of the message of the gospel of love inevitably resulted in magnificent art and music and a myriad of traditional practices and rites which came to carry special meaning for people. People of one culture or one Church denomination developed their own particular traits. The Church in its history has given the world wonderful treasures, magnificent architecture, beautiful music. Each Church and each culture has found its own way of being the Church and of seeking to serve as a channel of the impact of Jesus.

If you stand in the stream of the Christian gospel today, you stand in a stream which has flowed through many of these channels. It is in many ways a beautiful heritage. We cannot change that even if we wanted to. It is given to us. But how do we live as a body of Christians today? Some will want to enter fully into the marvels of that inheritance and will find it inspires them for living out the gospel in fresh ways today. Others will know little of it and not find it greatly inspiring. That is our choice. People are different and to some extent different denominations reflect such options much more than they do profound differences in belief. There is surely room also for different kinds of congregations even within denominations to cater for these differences.

But the question is, when is it a matter of choice and when does it become a matter of obligation? When is it a matter of recognising people’s rights to different cultural expressions of the gospel and when is it a matter of holding onto something without which Christianity ceases to be Christianity? Putting it in this way makes us face the issue: what is it in Christianity that we want to preserve?

I myself would want to put the ancient formats of Holy Communion and of Church organization, including ordination to a threefold ministry as commonly defined, in the optional category. To me the rite of the shared meal, Holy Communion, is central, though I do not want to deny the validity of other forms of Christianity without it (as in the Salvation Army). Further, I believe we need order and organization in structuring the Church’s life. At least we need to be exercising the functions represented in the so-called historic patterns of ministry. But even in saying this I am aware I am being very traditional and adapting myself to what is familiar.

I suspect the Church is still too ‘hung up’ in many of these matters and too much concerned with preserving what has been deemed authoritative and is less free for celebration and service appropriate to current need than it ought to be. It was because Jesus shortcut the established procedures for ordering community life to meet the immediate needs of people that he came into conflict with his religious contemporaries. More than once I have felt myself on the wrong side of this conflict. It seems to me, for instance, that anything other than an open table at Holy Communion where all may feed puts us on the side of Jesus’ critics. Yet most churches still impose limitations.

Obsessions of religious people

It is my view that what we see as the obsessions of the religious people of Jesus’ day are not so different from what have become the obsessions of many in the Church. They mostly touch situations where allegedly divinely sanctioned law and ordinance are given higher priority than human need. The Church too often finds itself not on the side of flexibility. There is a quasi fundamentalism often operating in discussions of such matters as church order, ordination of women, divorce and remarriage, and who may receive or celebrate Holy Communion.

At worst, we find ourselves back with a puny understanding of God, who is liable to get terribly upset if things are not done in exactly the right way, the way they have always been done. Such images of God are blasphemous. Would any of us, at our best, behave the way God is, at times, alleged to behave? Parents, at their best, encourage children to experiment, to ask questions and to explore and they stay with them even when they have their doubts. I can’t believe any less of God; yet so often the picture I get is of a very insecure God, with little trust and full of oppressive fear. This is not the God I find in Jesus.

Setting boundaries and keeping our identity

To stay with the image of parenting, parents also need to know the importance of setting boundaries. Many of the Church’s traditions have arisen from just such a need. The need continues. Within the community of faith we need to recognise that we are not perfect; there are things we do not see; we make mistakes. We need each other and we need the voices of the past. They are brought to us through tradition, especially in its earliest form, the scriptures. We also need to listen to the skilled interpreters of Bible and tradition and to those in the present whom we recognise as especially wise.

I am all for our having a very positive, appreciative attitude towards what has gone before us in the stream and a respect for the various practices which have become special to people. However I think that this can all happen without losing sight of the first priority, living out the good news about God we find in Jesus in the present. I am not advocating that the Church abandon its tradition. Jesus was not advocating that to the religious leaders of his day; but he was calling them back to what really mattered and he sat lightly, when necessary, to the rest. I think the Church needs to live by that principle.

You and me and the church

Where does that leave you and me, as individuals, in relationship to the Church? As I said, I think each of us as individuals faces similar issues in our own lives to those faced by the Church. We need to show the Church community the same tolerance and love. For instance, there are plenty of people who, in a similar way to the Church, get stuck with doing things the way they have always done them and who do not seem to have the flexibility to make changes that would be so good for them and for those around them. That doesn’t mean forgetting everything we were. We can’t do that; but being alive means being awake to doing things in new ways as new situations arise and to following old patterns only when they are still relevant.

A way of being together?

How, then, do I, as an individual, relate to the Church? I go along to Church and to wider Church gatherings and I meet all the things I have just described. I feel I belong there, even when I feel frustrated and it is hard. I will continue to go. But I know I also need more than that. I also value the support, encouragement and friendship from others who are on the same path of faith. I value plain talking and direct personal encounter, meeting people and being enriched by sharing issues and experiences with them. Therefore I need to be able to get closer to people than is usually possible in a large (or small) Sunday congregation.

I would not want to give up the rest and stay only with a close or closed group, though I know a lot of people who have chosen this path and I have a lot of sympathy with them. In fact, my hunch is that many people are outside the Church today because nothing like the small group existed for them within the Christian community. It is asking a lot of people to expect them to come each Sunday to a traditional service and there decode, demythologise, and translate what is going on before they can gain any benefit from it - it can be hard work! I sometimes find it so. We are losing, or have already lost, many of our more thinking and more feeling souls by our persistence in pandering to more staid and conservative movements in the Church and the fear they engender, especially among clergy wanting to feel accepted. In the smaller more intimate group there would be a place for such people. The last decade has seen a significant swing towards establishing such groups.

I often find it strange that few people reflect on the major changes which came about in Christianity when, after flourishing successfully for two hundred years, it finally received authority to build churches, that is, church buildings. Before that Christians met in houses. Groups must have been smaller than most of our congregations. The house would add greater intimacy and informality. Communion would probably have been served from the meal table and usually after or in connection with a normal meal. They still had sermons, at least, according to Acts, because there is the celebrated incident of someone going to sleep and falling out a window!

In some cities there were a number of such house churches. We don’t know whether, or how often, they would have all crammed together for a common celebration or service. Probably they did from time to time. It seems to me that such a system had special value worth recovering. I sometimes have a vision of Christians returning to make the local house group their main gathering and feeding centre again and meeting only, say, once a month in the wider group.

As I’ve said above, I think the wider connection with other Christians is essential and I sometimes find it very uplifting, but I wonder if making Christianity’s main activity a weekly Sunday meeting in a large hall or specially constructed building has not robbed Christianity of something vital. I hope we will see more experiments in this direction. They are beginning to happen. It has immediate implications for our traditional understanding of ordained ministry and administration of the sacraments, but that is a refreshing change. It also calls for ministers to play a major support role for local group leaders and for leadership teams.

The danger I would see in such groups, apart from the possibility of poor resourcing and oversight, is potential exclusiveness. We need to make all sorts welcome in our homes and learn to live with much greater openness, abandoning the ‘my little castle’ approach to own homes. Maybe that, in itself, would make us more Christian where it counts - in the neighbourhood! A feature of earliest Christianity, soon noted by outsiders, was its hospitality.

In my imagining I still see a role for the local congregation, groups for the children, youth and adults, and occasions of worship and celebration. I hope the churches will continue to be centres of vibrant life for young families in the new suburbs. Coming to a friendly congregation where the children have something for them and you find something for yourself can be an enrichment and inspiration for the week. Appropriate worship and fellowship for seniors in the older centres of population must continue to be a strong feature. It’s everyone in between that worries me and where I think we need greater flexibility and more imagination. The worsening financial state of the Church is forcing the Church to consider some of these options, but it is far better if they are looked at with a view to being more effective than only with a view to saving money.

The extraordinary achievements of local churches

For someone like myself, involved personally and professionally in the Church, it is easy to touch on the sore spots in the Church and also to have blind spots. I also need to remind myself of the extraordinary achievements of the Church in so many unsung ways. Often no one knows the comfort, help and healing given by so many clergy and lay visitors to families facing grief. Few hear of the hours of support of people in crisis in the their relationships or within themselves. Ministers and priests are still among the few helpers who feel comfortable, or for whom it is socially acceptable, to make initiating house calls. Much of the front line caring in this way goes unnoticed as people are helped to stand on their own feet again or are referred to helping agencies.

In some congregations there are elaborate networks of mutual caring and support which spill over into the surrounding neighbourhood; few notice the delivered casserole on the doorstep; and the conversation over morning tea at breaking point remains confidential. There is often a privacy about the visit on the anniversary of the death of a spouse or loved one and only the proud and patronising will want to report to all and sundry about relief and assistance brought to the unemployed family or new immigrants.

Church knockers are frequently ignorant of the life given lonely youth in the local church club or by the parents of one teenager to others who just had to spill it all out, because they couldn’t approach their own parents. The fellowship which many with disabilities find in church groups or the shelter found by the homeless kids do not make headlines, except in the occasional excesses of some parachurch groups seeking public funds.

Newspapers prefer to report problems and the lashings out by oppressed cultural and ethnic groups than to focus on their creative forms of Christian community which are bringing hope and new vision to so many. Occasionally the Church makes its official voice heard on matters of poverty, discrimination and injustice; but its more progressive forms have constantly been out front in challenging the dehumanising forces of exploitation which frequently hide behind Christian respectability. From the church have come many of the courageous heroes of communism’s collapse in the east, of apartheid’s dismantling, of movements for justice within our own countries, of the growth of the peace movement and of the establishment in public consciousness of the need to conserve the environment.

Good, ‘honest John’ values, which win popular community support, can be far wide of where a commitment to Christian compassion for all would lead. The struggle continues. The Church is big, bigger than the local group, bigger than the local congregation. It is a network of cells for change and conversion throughout society, living from the heritage of liberated and liberating communities of the past and Christ, the liberator, and seeking to remain faithful to that heritage.

A holy place built of people

The church continues to be for so many a place where they find inner stillness and peace, a holy place or a gathering of people which treasures and fosters the sense of awe and wonder that is the essence of worship. I like the image of the church as a community of people being like a building put together from rocks and stones of all various shapes and sizes, some smooth and hard, some weathered and broken, some beautiful, some very plain, some soft or brittle, some very old, some very young, but all together creating a place where people can sense and enjoy the presence of God. There’s room for everyone and for all sorts.

It is, therefore, out of the Church, this mixed bag of humanity, with all its warts and disfigurements, that, nevertheless, something beautiful has been possible that goes beyond the ugliness of which it has also been capable. I have this faith in the Church that the stream still flows and that, as long as it does, the life will be there and the love that matters will break through. At times as I stand in the stream I notice an awful lot of sludge and rubbish passing me by; but the same stream also channels life giving nutrient. It is worth being there.

I believe the Church still has good water to offer. In parts it urgently needs to clean up its banks and to make its waters more accessible. But the water is there, the same water that has quenched people’s deep inner thirst for two thousand years and brought parched desert places of humanity to the miracles of peace and love. I believe, too, that that good water also helps us face issues of Right and Wrong to which we address ourselves in the following chapter.

What about the Right and Wrong?


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