Church: A lot more than a “pointy roof”

In the Parish where I used to serve people would often tell me about Father Jack. He was priest in the parish throughout the Second World War and into the early 1950`s. Father Jack divided opinion. On the one hand people would tell me with tears in their eyes how their hard-up family had been helped by that bag of groceries he`d left on the doorstep. But then there were the others who loved to tell me about the incident of the Union Flag and the Coffin. I gather from what they told me that towards the end of the war a soldier`s body had been repatriated and Father Jack had refused to allow them to place the Union Flag over the coffin whilst it was in Church.

Now, we might discuss whether he was correct in such difficult days and at such an emotive time to act in this way but if I understood them correctly the point he was trying to make was that all people come before God equally and not under the banner of their achievements, rank, wealth or status. What I discovered of course was that after fifty years and more this event still resonated around the village.

Again, whether we understand, agree or disagree with this particular gesture (I really don`t want to go there just now!) the essential point he was trying to make had nothing to do with what you can and can`t do in a Church building. It was much more about how once you are a Christian you can`t help but find the patterns of behaviour and indeed the values you might otherwise live by being challenged and re-shaped by being part of the body of Christ, the Church. At least this ought to be the case but I sensed that behind Father Jack`s action was a certain frustration that this is so often not the case.

What I`m getting at is that it can sometimes be all too easy to assume that the life of the Church will be shaped according to the values and mores we`ve grown up with and find agreeable in the rest of our life rather than the other way around. So for example, think about the Boxed pews you find in many churches or the old practice of charging pew rents. These were just some of the ways in which what happened in Church on Sunday morning was shaped by the social and other status which people held when they were not in the building: there was special place for the squire and all the rest.

If you want a much more up to date example, we might want to ask how appropriate it is that our part of the Christian family is governed by a General Synod which takes virtually all of its practices and procedures from the Houses of Parliament? And the upshot of this often adversarial model is that it is frequently riven by exactly the kind of party Spirit which the Bible tells us we should avoid.

Again, over the years and in many different places I`ve learnt that if something goes amiss on a Sunday morning (and people have picked me up on things as trivial spelling mistakes on the weekly sheet, to more importantly a lack of heating or the Organ not working) time and again the tone behind the question is so often not a good humoured understanding that well people are doing their best and we`ll manage. On the contrary it`s almost ….and sometimes has been …..cause for an angry letter. And that`s because the presumed relationship between us is one of customer and provider. Since that`s so often the model that operates out there… we assume it`s the same here.

Earlier this week I was asked (and it`s becoming more frequent) what charge there is for a Baptism. Now that`s not something the Church has ever done but again people who live in a `transactional` culture will assume that`s how it will be here… and they`re wrong. Sometimes I can`t help thinking that we have ever really come to terms with what Jesus means when he tells us, “It will not be so among you”. Words he used to call us his people to a very different and socially transforming way of relating to one another.

You remember? Two of his disciples had sought places of honour at his side. But Jesus gathered them together and said, “‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Matthew 20).

Again, I don`t think we`ve ever really understood how radically different the early Christian community was. I`ve sometimes observed distinct embarrassment when Christians have to reflect on that example of communal living in the Acts of the Apostles; where no-one claimed their own property but held `all things in common`. And I wonder if we`ve really appreciated quite how challenging the early church was to its host culture by incorporating Jews, Greeks, Slaves, free men and women on terms that were outrageous in any other setting.

You see this was a Church which didn`t as I fear we are so prone to do, emulate and seek to fit in with the wider society; on the contrary it stood as a radical criticism and contradiction of it. But how easy it was for the Church of England at one point to be known as the `Tory Party at prayer`. How convenient it was to arrange our Sunday worship along class lines so that `Upstairs` came in the morning and `downstairs` came in the evening; or if that was too much we would charitably build the poor their own church down the road….

How easy we found it, during the 1960`s to exclude so many of the immigrants from the Caribbean who came here expecting a warm welcome but who ended up having to set up their own churches. And how chastened is one of the American, what they call `mega- churches`, with a congregation of thousands to discover recently that yes, they`ve gathered the numbers and made a lot of noise but they haven`t made disciples of Christ. They realise that they haven`t changed lifestyles; they`ve allowed the consumer mentality and the entertainment spirit to be the primary forces which have shaped everything they do.

I think sometimes we should be shamed by our early forbears. Because it was the quality and the distinctive nature of their common life which was so attractive. They didn`t spend their time, as I`ve said before, in trying to be relevant; they sought to be faithful to Christ and to HIS vision of how they should relate to one another …….and it changed the world.

Part of the challenge we face nowadays is that we have allowed ourselves to be shaped by what we might call an `associational` model of Church. That is to say, being a Christian has become in many peoples` eyes synonymous with `church-going`. That is attendance and involvement in its activities are if you will, the defining features. The problem is that there is little here to differentiate that kind of `associating` from any other quite worthy community group is there? Attendance at meetings, involvement in its activities, paying the required subscription; we recognise the all too familiar model. The only difference, as the Archbishop of Canterbury says is that “We`ve got a pointy roof”!

And you see, having positioned ourselves as `a community group` just like all the others and having allowed our common life to be shaped by the same criteria (attendance, activity, subscription and so on) we find ourselves riven with angst about the same pressing issues….. because ALL associational groups are in decline these days. Look closely and everyone is concerned for their attendance and of course the vexed question of “where are the `young people`?”.

The problem is that while ever we hold onto this model of relating and being Church we`ll suffer the same fate as all the others. But Jesus said, “It will not be so among you”; that`s not the way of being Church he`s called us to and the Scriptures offer us SO much guidance on what it might look like to `be Church` in a way that is faithful to him and his mission. It is, I believe, high time that we should tell ourselves that we are done with modelling ourselves on `the community group`; the good cause; the association.

The word is getting around. There`s some very creative things happening these days. Some of it is crass and misguided, some of it born out of panic but as they say, the question is whether we will commit ourselves to really listening and praying and exploring together what shape our common life will take into the future? We have absolutely nothing to fear. With our God, raising the dead comes as standard. Our forebears went through far more challenging and turbulent times than us and flourished. And they had the kindness of heart to put down in writing the Gospel we heard this morning. (Mark 35-41)

We are seated in what`s called the `Nave` of the Church- for reasons which I hope are obvious when you think about boats and sailing. We`re gathered as Christ`s companions in the boat; we`re journeying at his command. He may seem quiet and our ship inadequate to the task but we are sustained and protected; guided and perhaps justifiably chided by the one who commands even the wind and waves.

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