So what do we do? Clearly…

So what do we do? Clearly we have accepted the absence of the Spirit, and opted for a co-ordination of Church life via canon law, and the hierarchical administration of offices. The alternative seems to be that ‘all we like sheep have gone astray, every one unto his own way’ This represents a kind of factionalising of control into groups, when there is also no effective co-ordination either by the Spirit, or by those holding office in the Church.

Reflection 21-10-12
I was plunged into some troubling thoughts during the reading of the epistle at the Eucharist one Wednesday recently. St. Paul was talking about how the Church runs. He says what we say every Sunday. ‘We are the Body of Christ, His Spirit is with us’. Each member has a role given to them by their giftedness in the Spirit. The co-ordination of these different roles is also a matter for the Spirit, because the spirit is the Spirit of love, and it is love which co-ordinates and works out differences.

This is all very well, but he has troubles. In Corinth, the worship is so chaotic, and there are some people there who think that they are more ‘spiritual’ than others, so that they think that they should govern how things go. It is this scene of disorder and conflict that gives rise to the great passage of praise to love in 1 Corinthians 13 ‘If I speak with the tongues of humans and of angels, but do not have love, I am nothing better than a gong!’ So the picture of the Church is that all the members’ activities are co-ordinated by the Spirit of love.

I remember once telling my friend from Germany about a sermon I once heard. The Priest was talking about the Church as a ship with us as the crew. He said ‘And luckily, we have a good captain, the Pope guiding us.’ My friend said ‘No! Christ is the head of the Church, not the Pope.’

So there is the issue. The co-ordination of the Church has become a completely human affair. We have substituted the Spirit for ‘offices’ in the Church, from the Pope to bishops to clergy. We have turned a ‘Spiritual Body’ into a hierarchy. Where is the freedom of the Spirit in worship? Where is the overflowing of gifts and contributions from every member.

A very early text of the Church ‘The Didache’ (The Teachings) has the sentence ‘Let the prophets give thanks as they please’. The picture here is like that of St. Paul. Many people are making their contribution. It is this Spirit-co-ordinated contribution of gifts from everyone which St. Paul names as the sign of God’s presence which can be easily ‘read off’ the community life.

So what do we do? Clearly we have accepted the absence of the Spirit, and opted for a co-ordination of Church life via canon law, and the hierarchical administration of offices. The alternative seems to be that ‘all we like sheep have gone astray, every one unto his own way’ This represents a kind of factionalising of control into groups, when there is also no effective co-ordination either by the Spirit, or by those holding office in the Church.

Interestingly enough the Didache gives an answer in the previous sentence. It says about participation in the Eucharist ‘If one is Holy, let them come. If not, let them be converted’. This sentence points of a process of conversion which is a necessary part of Christian life. At the time of writing of the Didache, no one was admitted to the Eucharist unless they had undergone a period of training in the faith (in fact, using the Didache!).  This was their answer. Instead of just letting everyone come without being trained in the discipleship of Christ, there was a period of socialisation so that the congregation could be sure that there could be maximum freedom of expression of its members.

This pattern is adopted by some ‘start up’ churches I have read about. They say ‘Everyone who wants to be considered a member here, and given a ministry has to do ‘Christianity 101’. This is a form of socialisation into the ways of that congregation so that two things will come true. First, the people who come will understand that they are not ‘consumers’ who can come and go as they please. Each person has a ministry that results from the gifts of the Spirit. Finding out what that ministry is, is part of the process of socialisation. Second, the people who come are not just accepted willy-nilly, but are trained up so that they will grow in love, and be able to make their contribution in ways that build up the whole congregation, rather than in ways that are destructive.

The Anglican Church has some difficulty with this because it is very confused about the idea of membership. The Anglican Church, as the established Church, had everyone as a member so that the idea of ‘doing something to become a member’ made no sense. It is this picture that has to some extent governed our culture. In fact, many congregations need people to offer their gifts so badly, that people say ‘I do not go there any more because I had just arrived and I was pounced on to do something’. Rather than invite new comers into a period of formation and discovery of their gifts, we tend to accept those who will offer.

This process omits the process of conversion that the Didache speaks of. The Didache does not expect everyone to be holy straight away as if by a miracle. But it does expect everyone to be converted.

This process of conversion can come about in two ways that I think are viable for us now. The first is to let people who come to us settle in for at least a year before they are invited into anything. This leaves them alone to belong to us, before we ‘pounce’ on them to make a contribution. This process of waiting also has the good effect of seeing where people are up to, and what is best for them.

When we underwent training about the safeguarding of vulnerable people, we were advised that because those who prey on vulnerable people sometimes come to Churches, it is wise not to be too keen to accept people’s offers of a contribution until they have been around a year or so. I think that this is good advice.

The second thing that I think that we can do is to have discipleship groups to which people are invited to attend. These are the Tuesday and Wednesday groups that are at present operating. We could say, for example, that membership of one of these groups is a condition of being a Chaplaincy Counsellor or reader, or the condition of performing any ministry in the Church. What do you think?

The other process is the one of faith renewal that two people from our congregation are doing now. One of them is a long term member who is saying ‘I want to deepen my faith’. The other is a newer member who is saying ‘I want to learn more.’ The effect for both of these people will be not only a deepening of faith, but a greater integration into the life of the Church. They will have more of the freedom of the Spirit because they have done ‘Lessons in Love and life with God 101!’

So there’s my best shot at a solution. How much of this is achievable in our present context I do not know. I do know that unless something like this happens, we will be left with either a hierarchy or ‘everyone going their own way.’

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell isnow a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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