[A quick note on this post: I wrote this a couple of weeks back and have been on the fence about whether or not to post it. I’m aware that it might be stirring up a hornet’s nest, and I’m willing to admit that there are contentious issues here, and I don’t have all the answers. But I’d value your comments as I still don’t entirely know what I think, and I’ve not figured this out yet by any means.
And I’m also aware of the irony of posting something like this on a blog. For that I’m sorry.]
I’m confused by the Church of England at the moment. Not so much confused about its theology, as I can see for the most part how it got to where it is now, but more confused about what I’m supposed to do about it.
Sadly for myself, I can’t buy into the argument that says that the Church of England is an organisation formed out of political necessity and so it must be one that acts in line with that. I know that is the case, but I still don’t think that is what it should be. I understand that the less hardline, more liberal churches are much loved by many, and even providing some useful services. And it’s not my belief that’s troubled by the recent debates about gay marriage, female priests or Rowan Williams’ successor.
I’m more troubled by whether or not I can still face being involved with this church.
Because I’m so tired of it all these days. I want to be involved on the ground – out there seeking to live a life in light of grace, learning how to be more like Jesus and how to see people like he did – and I want to tell a world in desperate need that there is good news. And I appreciate that I need a context in which to do that, a church that is going to keep me anchored and away from dissolving into wild flights of fancy.
But when the church is this divided about the reason that it exists, about what its priorities are – when everything is up for debate in long, tortuous meetings filled with people talking at cross-purposes to one another – is it any wonder that we don’t seem to be achieving much?
I feel like it was probably easier in times gone by, because for all the flaws of the church’s approach, there was still, by and large, a broad agreement about what it was ultimately there for. It was there to tell people about Jesus so that when they died they’d go to heaven. And over time, people like Tom Wright have discovered subtleties in that, writing about how heaven is a redeemed version of what we have now, with God coming down and making all things news, but they’re basically variations on the story that people have told for years. But there are also others out there who have got bored with the old stories, and so they’ve taken those reinterpretations and subtleties as an opportunity to do away with certainty altogether, and now we’re trapped in these discussions that it’s getting increasingly difficult to resolve.
Back when Rob Bell released Love Wins, I happened to be in New York City and so my dad and I went along to his book launch. (I like Rob Bell, by the way. I think his nooma videos are terrific, as were Velvet Elvis and Sex God, and I actually think there’s some good stuff in Love Wins, too.) But what startled me most of all, at that book launch, though, was just how annoying I found him then, because he never gave anyone a straight answer to anyone, I think partly so that people couldn’t stick a label on him and pigeonhole him.
When he started out writing, I think I thought that he was searching for something, truth maybe, and asking all these questions to get there – and then, after a while, it sort of became clear that he wasn’t trying to get anywhere, not really, but asking questions just because that’s what he did. That was disappointing.
If I’m honest, I probably liked Rob Bell quite so much when I first read his books because I became a Christian in a church that had a very firm view of why it existed, and at the time that totally infuriated me. I felt like it could use some space to ask questions. However, that said, as a framework to be able to return to or a place of solid foundations from which you could explore the subtleties of faith, it’s turned out over the years to be amazing. (I’ve only recently realised just how amazing it really was.) It bought into the whole “preach the gospel as much as possible so as many people as possible go to heaven and not hell” approach, and its members were absolutely clear about why they went. Its leadership trained them around that aim, and so the church went out did what it felt called to.
And the church that I interned at after university believed it was called to be a house of prayer for all nations, and so it focussed its activities around amazing times of worship, around equipping people to speak to God in their own lives and developing a foundation of prayer. As a result it expressed itself very differently than the church I became a Christian in did, but it still did amazing things, and it continues to grow and to challenge others now, raising up amazing people of prayer.
They were amazing churches (both of them Anglican churches, incidentally), filled with amazing people. But they were amazing churches because their leaders had wrestled with these issues and prayed through them and worked out where God was calling them, and then their congregations had followed. And I’m not so sure that the level of discussion that the average person in church has these days – the amount of blogs we read, the articles we see linked to on social media, the sermons we hear podcasted and the endless debates in the papers – is really helping us as much as it is distracting us from actually going out and doing things with what we believe.
Not everybody can be a leader, or at least not constructively. It may be tragically unfashionable, but the church is hierarchical, and although everyone has a role, that doesn’t make it a democracy. It’s an organisation, and organisations have management structures (some of which are actually Biblical) and structures of authority, and a wholly democratic church is arguably something with more in common with the ways of political necessity than with the ways of Scripture.
Don’t mishear me. Authority has been tragically abused in some churches. It needs checks and balances; and leaders need to hear other voices, including those of their congregations, if only to help shape their thoughts. Churches need their members to step up when their leaders are doing something that contradicts the Bible (and I know of plenty). I’m not proposing a totalitarian regime.
But listen, our goal as Christians is not ultimately to build the church, no matter how wrong we think it is going. It isn’t. It’s to look to Jesus. You only need to look to Paul’s letters to see that most of them aren’t instructions on how to run churches, they’re about maintaining your connection to Jesus.
You may be an Anglican, but you’re a follower of Jesus first. You may be a Baptist, but you’re a follower of Jesus first. You may be a Pentecostal, or a Methodist, or non-denominational, but your identity isn’t primarily as a member of that church, it’s as a follower of Jesus.
Jesus said that he would build his church, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it, and it’s him that’s going to accomplish it. Our goal is to follow him as best we can, and follow his voice as best we’re able in the community of faith in which we find ourselves and under the leaders that we have over us.
Otherwise when’s the debate going to stop? Will it ever end? Sure, we should be concerned about improving, getting better and being drawn closer to God, but I wonder lately if this debate is really bringing anyone towards Him or whether it’s just distracting us. I hate to say that it’s the latter, but I think it probably is, and that just isn’t the way that things should be.