Sunday, 16 October 2016

Time for church to start again?

By Ian Harris               Otago Daily Times              October 14, 2016

JJ Murphy & Co is a pub in Wellington with features that remind one of a church. Amid its recycled gothic-style windows, stained glass and snugs suggestive of confessional boxes, customers drain their glasses, chat, play pool or slip into the gaming room. Not quite the atmosphere worshippers would ever have imagined.

There we gathered one evening last month to hear a panel of four ministers and academics give their views on what is happening in church life. The organisers, St John’s Presbyterian Church in Wellington and Victoria University’s religious studies department, noted that though the church today is much critiqued and frequently written off, it was also proving surprisingly durable — "vitality and innovation abound".

Hence their topic, The Church in Question. It sounded promising, and the pub was crowded with people thirsty for answers. In the event, however, that proved too much to expect. For one thing, two Presbyterians, a Baptist and a Pentecostalist don’t reflect the whole church. Other denominations would bring different perspectives. All harbour a range of viewpoints within them and all would no doubt assume other churches would do better if only they were more like their own.

The Pentecostalist certainly left that impression. .For me, the most forward-looking comment was that the church needs to re-think its theological content. Dr Susan Jones, of St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, said the community had moved beyond infantile and old-fashioned assumptions still current in many churches, and asked: "Are we brave enough to look again at the content of what we are offering?"

Content of faith was the detonator for the great explosion that split the Western church at the Reformation, whose 500th anniversary falls next year. New forms of church emerged after 1517 in protest at a corrupted Catholicism. Circumstances today are far different. The church that was once the bedrock of society is now very much in question.

One reason why pressure isn’t building towards another explosion is that secular reality is chipping away at church membership, leaving no great energy for change. Another is that many who see change as necessary have abandoned their unresponsive churches. On the churches’ inadequate response to societal change, Bishop Richard Randerson said from the audience clerical conservatism was a problem.

Also, many ministers were either not equipped to engage openly with people who were not church members, or were fearful of doing so. That is in marked contrast to a challenging definition of the church as "the only institution in society that exists for the benefit of the non-member". The churches’ social service arms do splendid work for many who are not members. If they suddenly ceased, many vulnerable people would quickly notice the difference. At least that aspect of the church should not be in question — but the churches have to have the people on hand to carry it out.

Theological content, social services — what else? Even to insiders, church forms, structures, rules and processes sometimes seem more important than what Christian faith is supposed to be about. Innovation is curbed and opportunities go begging under the weight of ecclesiastical bureaucracies that should instead be enabling them to proceed. Structures should certainly be in question.

Then there are the hallowed buildings. Places to meet are essential, and local churches are centres of identity rich in their associations. But if they were under less pressure to build, strengthen, maintain and insure, might the churches be freer to engage more openly with their local communities in spaces they can share — and thus exist more obviously for the benefit of the non-member?

Standing back from such practicalities, it’s worth pondering what the church might be like if it were to take its central symbol of death and resurrection so seriously that it ruled off and started again. An insight by Irish-American John Dominic Crossan, a former monk, would be an excellent place to start. There’s an essential distinction between Jesus the man of history and the Christ, best seen today as Christianity’s archetype of love, grace and transformation.

Crossan says: "I presume there will always be divergent historical Jesuses, that there will always be divergent Christs built upon them. But I argue, above all, that the structure of a Christian will always be, this is how we see Jesus-then as Christ-now. Christianity must repeatedly, generation after generation, make its best historical judgement about who Jesus was then and, on that basis, decide what that reconstruction means as Christ now." That’s not quite the church in question. But it is the fundamental question for the church.

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