Here is a dilemma. I found this quote in a book I’ve been reading recently “If we are going to be a missionary Church we cannot be only people in retreat from insecurity. People must be strengthened to face insecurity –to challenge unreal or unjust sources of insecurity.”
Here is the first part of the dilemma. When I ask people to say “What is it that you come to Church for?”, many times the response is something like “Well, I have a stressful week, and I come to church for some ‘de-stressing’ time. Some times people say ‘I come to re-charge my battery for Christian living for the next week.’
Once, when I was a locum priest, there had been some changes in the parish immediately before my arrival. The people who did not like the changes said ‘I thought that god was unchanging! You know the hymn ‘Change and decay in all around I see, O Thou who changest not abide with me.’
When there is conflict in the Church for some, it is immediately seen as ‘bad’ and so they say ‘I do not come here for conflict, I come here to find peace.’
This raises the question of the relationship between life as a member of the Church, and life as a member of other institutions such as ‘Work’ and ‘Family’.
To get an understanding of this, I wonder how you react to this story. In the country town where I was working, there was a gathering, sponsored by the local council. I asked the organiser what they were hoping to do. They replied ‘We are going around, inviting all the different groups in society.’ The thing that connects all these views is that the bigger reality is ‘Society’ (or ‘Family’ or ‘Work’) Church is seen as a part of these bigger realities, and plays a role within them. My response to the local council organiser was “Church is not a ‘group within society’ but an alternative version of it!”
Here is an example of what I mean from another institution: marriage. When people celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary, a very common thing that people say is ‘Well, we have stayed together for 50 years, and it is a very satisfying relationship, but you have to work at it!’ What are these people not saying? They are not saying the kinds of things that they say about Church attendance. When there is conflict in a marriage, people say ‘We are going through a rough patch, but we hope to be able to grow through it.’ When a person talks about being married, they don’t say ‘I have to work at being married, but I go to Church and get an hours peace, and that gives me strength to carry on with ‘working at’ the marriage. So my point is that being Church has its own purposes for its own reasons and it is a mistake to think of it always as an adjunct to some other reality.
What we do in Church on Sunday is a ritual. A ritual is a repeated set of actions which creates a universe of meaning. So the meaning of life is set by our relationship to God and our relationship to god is given shape by the repeated actions that happen in Church: being opened up, being formed, and responding.
So now, when I think about being married, it is in relationship to my being a member of the Church. If I am not ‘in love and Charity’ with my partner, I cannot very well go into Church unless I do my best to confess and to become in ‘love and charity’ with her. Being in Church brings me into constant relationship with God’s love for me, when I do not love myself. It beings me into relationship with my own failures, and offers me the chance to repent.’
But more, being a member of the Church describes a world for me where justice is described, mercy is a value, forgiveness is possible and growth is possible. Always before is Karl Marx’s critique that the Church, playing a role in society ”… is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” He wanted what the beginning of this reflection quoted. That in religion, we are strengthened to challenge false security and to ‘work at’ our relationships with one another so that they become a witness to the redeemed humanity that is promised to us in Christ.
In Roman society, compassion was seen as a low grade virtue. When one person showed compassion for another, it was mainly in order to create a situation of social debt: where the person to whom compassion was shown then owed a debt of gratitude to the other one. Compassion for its own sake was given status as the Church came to have more influence in roman society.
In the world of work, there were terrible conditions in the factories of the 19th century (Engels wrote a significant book called ‘The Condition of the Working Classes in England.’ It was because a lot of Methodists saw the wrong of these social conditions, from their standpoint as members of the Church, and believing what the Church said about work, that trades unions were formed in order to lessen the stress on workers, rather than to give them a ‘de-stressing’ hour each week.
But it is true that I find my relationship with God and time in Church a very powerful help in other aspects of my life. Mostly it has to do with allowing my to feel and to be how I really am at that moment. This goes for Sunday mornings, as well as for prayer times, and also for during the day when I am mostly singing hymns, either around the house or on the bike. This regular bringing myself before the face of God has an actual transforming effect over time. Recently, there has been an aspect of my life about which I am not happy with myself. So I have brought this to God in prayer. It is on my and God’s ‘radar screen’ most days. So for the last few weeks, when saying the Lord’s prayer, when it comes to ‘save us in the time of trial’ at one point I said, angrily, ‘Save us from the time of trail…which you don’t !!!’ This, after a few weeks enabled me to actually do something about the thing that was troubling me. And there have been lots of other occasions where over time, putting things onto God’s radar screen has actually made a difference for transforming life so that I look more like a Christian.
So I am not saying that being a member of the Church is not significant for other parts of life, or that other parts of life do not impinge on what we need from God. I am saying, with the words of the hymn to the Holy Spirit ‘…like wind and fire with life among us move till we are known as Christ’s and Christians prove.’