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Has the English Church a future? 3

New life outside the city walls?

I draw a number of conclusions from all this:

  1. Interestingly most of the above take place outside the structures of the institutional churches.
  2. They incarnate a face of God other than that incarnated by the church.
  3. 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.
  4. They frequently require people to accept failure as part of the process.
  5. Yet, they appear to be overwhelmingly life giving, for all that is touched by them.
  6. Often those involved in them are people who have either left the churches or are only clinging on by their fingertips.
  7. When they come together they are, by definition, new ways of being church.
  8. One of the things that frequently typifies these people is a willingness to trust themselves.
  9. 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.

3 Comments

  1. Love these three posts and a healthy reminder among other things of the importance of not arguing with reality but starting from it. They reminded me of that honourable spiritual tradition including De Caussade and Walter Ciszek – about accepting situations as God’s will and acting accordingly – not a passive resignation but a recognition that this situation is upheld by God and requires welcoming as such along with a discernment of appropriate responsiveness which go with the grain of God’s activity in gifting this reality. The quote about “institutional atheism” reminds me of a refrain being used by proponents of ‘Partnership for Missional Church’ which is that our culture, in and out of church, is one of functional atheism, and until and unless we re-claim an awareness of God active among us, within us and around us, we are hardly being ‘church’ at all.

    Recovering the habits of heart and mind that attend and respond out of an awareness of God as our active lover, friend and companion on the way are central to this I would have thought, re-ordering our being so that our everyday life with God is joyful, confident and thankful. Maybe it will take a kind of death before we appreciate this is not to be an afterthought once the ecclesial day’s work as done but our abiding and wonderful invitation to life … together.

  2. I think the conclusions drawn are generally true in my experience. However, I am also aware of a growing literal and fundamentalist element within Christianity in this country that causes me some concern. It mirrors the increasingly right-wing and reactionary political climate that is seeking to blame-throw the difficulties and problems of this country at particular groups and individuals. I have personally experienced this sense of judgement from some Christians who fit this spectrum of belief. There is an increase of ‘we’re right, you’re wrong.’ Lines are being drawn.
    Inter-faith dialogue is still, I feel, in its early stages and can often be derailed at important points of exploration. As I write this, two red kites have just flown over my rooftop using the air currents to glide and turn independently but in unison. A metaphor for me of the best of inter-faith dialogue.
    I cannot commit myself to ‘saving the Church’ even as a full time stipendiary priest – such a task is impossible and in many ways irrelevant. What I can commit myself to is seeking as faithfully as possible to carry the Christ-Light for others and encouraging them in the carrying of their Christ-Light. This does not necessarily fit into a ‘mission statement’ unless, of course, it is one in its own right!

  3. I think these are very important posts, and wish that the ideas within them were engaged with by those who search for the latest management technique with which to bombard the church.

    In my role with the (Methodist) church, I meet people with the same concerns. For example, many folk, lay and ordained, who have been called to chaplaincy are finding engagement with God far more real outside the institution of the church than within it..

    However, I am a corporate Christian. I need community, fellowship with other Christians and meaningful, regular corporate worship to sustain my faith, and so I continue to commit to working for that within the institutional church, with all the frustrations that involves.

    As a result I am not sure that I do see the decline of the church per se as God’s will. I believe the Church to be called to be God’s agent for the Kingdom of God. But neither do I necessarily believe the decline to be the Church’s ‘fault’. There is a real sense of guilt around in churches that we have failed, and sadly, rather than turning people back to prayer, it can reduce confidence and lead to the functional atheism Henry talks about.

    However, I do believe our current situation is a call to work in partnership with God; a call to discover what shape of community, that through its life helps people grow in grace and holiness, and is an agent of the work of the Kingdom, God is calling us to in Britain today.

    The management language is not helpful, but we do have resources of people, buildings and money, and discovering the best way they can be used to partner with God in the work of the kingdom, after the prayer does need visionary and strategic thinking.

    One thing I am sure of is that the church is being called to look radically different from what it is today, and it is a great tragedy that we seem to have no common passion or mechanism to look at this across denominations, as churches under pressure retreat back into their bunkers and leave the ecumenical scene in worse shape than it has been for 50 years.

    Like the previous post I have reservations about those who point to the growing fundamentalist churches, as a sign of where we ought to be going in the future. But have been challenged to ask the question, ‘where is God in these places too?’. I cannot believe it is in the exclusivism, and triumphalism that some of them seem to thrive on, but it may be in the fact that they do not practise functional atheism. They offer me a challenge to take God seriously 24/7.

    Today, I was unusually able to sit in a congregation, rather than lead, for our annual Covenant service. It perhaps enabled me to reflect more on the Covenant prayer and pray for its reality not just in my own life but that of the church, so that we truly discover how it becomes God’s agent for transformation in our situation.

    I am no longer my now but yours.
    Your will, not mine be done in all things,
    wherever you may place me,
    in all that I do,
    and in all that I may endure….
    I willingly offer all I have and am
    to serve you
    as and where you choose.

    If we really took that seriously together, …?

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