Who might save the Church?
There was an article on the BBC News web-site recently which began “The Bishop of Truro has said the Church of England has only “five or six years” to save itself’: “radical changes” were needed to halt a “steady decline” he said, and ‘the Church of England will struggle to exist in 10 years.’ This is probably not news to most of us, but what grabbed my attention was the notion that the Church has to save itself. It was not clear if the Bishop actually said that, but all too often those in authority in the Church give the impression that that is what they believe and it gives me considerable cause for concern.
My main ministry is in spiritual direction and the stock question of the spiritual director is ‘Where is God in all this?’ or ‘What is God up to here?’ or even ‘What might God be inviting you to be or do here?’ So naturally I am inclined to ask the same set of questions when faced with the crisis that is undeniably facing the church. And it takes me in quite a different direction from that which the article attributes to the Bishop.
It leads me to assume that the Church’s decline is something which God is bringing about and that there is some divine purpose in it. Our task thence is:
- for each of us to ask ourselves what God might be calling me to be or do at this time?; and to learn to trust it;
- to notice what God appears to be calling others to be and do, and to see if there might be things we can do together;
- to assume that God is behind all this, and that our role is not to try and control what is happening but rather to trust and follow it. We need not know where we are going. Indeed its best if we don’t, because if we think that we do then we’ll certainly try to control it!
It’s a fundamental tenet of Christianity that we can’t save ourselves, only God can do that, and the same applies to the Church. To ask what the Church must do to save itself implies the opposite: that this is a problem that the Church has to solve by itself, or worse still solve by managing it, and it leads to what one senior churchman described to me recently as a culture of ‘institutional atheism’. A church that talks a lot about God but when push comes to shove appears to place its faith in secular management techniques rather than in the activity of the God about Whom it speaks.
[Read part 2.]
What is God up to?
My ministry means that I listen to people trying to hear and respond to what God is calling them to. Not altogether surprisingly there is a deal of common ground: God does not appear to be calling people in completely random directions. There are certain themes that emerge, and I begin to wonder if it is part of my responsibility to articulate them back to the church? I don’t claim that this is a comprehensive list, others would name other themes, but these will give you a flavour of what I sense that God is up to! And again, I doubt if much of this will read like news to you, but put all together it sounds exciting to me!
- The main institutional churches are dying. This seems a common pattern across much of Europe. Clergy are put under great pressure to maintain them, often very much against the odds. They feel that their primary task is to keep the numbers up and the finances healthy: ‘to keep the show on the road’. They mostly know that they are failing in this impossible task. They feel largely unsupported. They have little time for nurturing their own faith, let alone the faith of others. This ironically at a time when society’s interest in things spiritual is high!
- All alike, laity and clergy, are mostly feeling a great spiritual poverty. Many seek spiritual nourishment outside the local church. Hence the numbers of people seeking spiritual direction. Hence the number of extra parochial Christian communities: some of whom share a corporate life, others share a common rule of life. But all of whom seek to offer something people are no longer finding in their local church.
- While the number of mainline Retreat Houses is declining, there is a growing interest in domestic spirituality. People open their homes or gardens as quiet places for others to use [I’m sitting writing this in one such place in Lincolnshire]; others have ‘holy places’ in their homes in a way that would have been unimaginable thirty years ago.
- Alongside this, there is a growing interest in contemplative prayer, and a burgeoning of people feeling a call to some degree of ‘solitary life’.
- There is a hunger for the ether of Christianity rather than its dogma. So people go on pilgrimage to holy places like Iona, Lindisfarne, and Glastonbury in this country and Santiago de Compostella in Spain ; they visit cathedrals; and attend festivals like Greenbelt.
- God is being encountered, and sometimes named, in the natural world. The old adage about ‘God feeling more real in nature than in church’ is very apt. Hence the interest in gardening, in wild life and wild places, in walking, in ecology, in the preservation of birds and animals etc.
- There has been a massive shift in our attitude to our bodies: God is encountered through yoga, dance, massage therapies, fitness regimes. Hand in hand with this goes a positive affirmation of our sexuality, with greater equality for women and growing equality for gay men and women, and indeed for those of all sexual orientations.
- Years ago the churches spent a lot of energy on ecumenical relations with very limited success. Nowadays at a grassroots level people move much more freely between churches. And the current issue is inter-faith dialogue.
- There is much involvement in social justice issues: The Church of England set up the Church Urban Fund to show solidarity with the poor in our own country, and local Food Banks do the same thing today; the fair trade campaign and the drop the debt campaign had massive Christian support; as has the plight of the Palestinians.
- There is huge interest in the arts [partly I suspect in reaction to much literalism in the churches]. So people find spiritual nourishment in art, film, poetry, photography. Novel reading groups are the new Bible study. And Christophers and the Sixteen go on annual pilgrimages around the country taking sacred music to packed cathedrals.
[Read part 3.]
New life outside the city walls?
I draw a number of conclusions from all this:
- Interestingly most of the above take place outside the structures of the institutional churches.
- They incarnate a face of God other than that incarnated by the church.
- They often involve men and women of deep faith taking risks, stepping out into the unknown, not knowing where they are being led, and not being sure that they are right.
- They frequently require people to accept failure as part of the process.
- Yet, they appear to be overwhelmingly life giving, for all that is touched by them.
- Often those involved in them are people who have either left the churches or are only clinging on by their fingertips.
- When they come together they are, by definition, new ways of being church.
- One of the things that frequently typifies these people is a willingness to trust themselves.
- Trusting God and trusting oneself are two sides of the same coin: it’s difficult to do one without finding yourself doing the other. In doing so we discover who we are called to become and something of the nature of the God Who calls us. It is invariably Good News.
I find myself reflecting that the New Testament tells of how the persecution of the early Christians in Jerusalem drove many of them out of that city. It must have felt like a terrible loss combined with an uncertain future. I wonder if something similar is happening now. Many are finding themselves driven out of the institutional churches. They often find it a bewildering and lonely experience. But it also seems to be a seedbed of creativity. I wonder if it is God Who is driving people out of declining churches, bringing about a death, so that there can be a re-birth?. And perhaps this God is already planting signs of new life, indeed has been doing so for some time?
If there is truth in this, then the Church’s task is not to save itself. At the heart of the Christian message is the reality of death leading to resurrection. The current form of the Church appears to be dying. We need to embrace that dying as a gift not a problem. We need an honourable and dignified funeral [I think that Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke in these terms] and we need a celebratory excitement about the signs of new life that are emerging. Crucially we need bridges to be built between the dying and the new.