In my time as a parish priest, there was always discussion about the value of church buildings. Some people would be committed to repairing the organ, and to retaining and maintaining the beautiful buildings that they had. Other people would be committed to mission and would say “The Church is people, not buildings, if we sold our building for a more modest one, we could fund the ministry and outreach better. In different places one or other of these poles of an argument would win out.
One of the most ironic images of this polarity was in the design of my friend in Germany. He described how the Church was designed to look like a tent, that could be easily moved in response to the Spirit. The problem was that this ‘tent’ had huge concrete beams at its tent poles, and was not going anywhere in a hurry!
This put me in mind of a number of other polarities about which members of the Church coalesce and have debates. Recently I had a conversation with a friend about the reservation of certain days of the year for baptism. He disagreed with me, saying that one day was as good as another for a baptism. I was of the view that in order to invite baptism candidates or their parents into the body of Christ, and in order to keep the significance of baptism, it is a good thing to make baptism days relatively rare (there are four good days a year: Easter, Pentecost, All Saints Day and the Baptism of the Lord).
Then recently, I re-read Margaret Visser’s lovely book about the church of St. Agnes in Rome. There she makes the point that the Church’s job is not to collapse one pole of a tension in favour of another, but to be the place that continually represents the unity of the opposites as part of one picture: the picture of Christ.
This is vital. In Jesus, the gulf between God and humanity has been reconciled. Those who were once ‘far off’ have been included into God’s plan. The relationship between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ has been collapsed into the reality of ‘being in Christ’. This is why at his death, the gospel writers tell us that the veil of the temple was torn in two.
But then, the temptation is to turn ‘Christ’ and ‘Christianity’ into another ‘religion’ or another pole of a dichotomy that has to be transcended.
This happens a lot when people say ‘Well, there are lots of religions, but we all worship the same God.’ The idea of ‘us all worshipping the same God’ is meant to transcend the particularities of any specific ‘religion’.
But this transcendence has already happened in Christ. On Good Friday, God revealed his true nature, in that God embraces ‘not-God’ and brings everything into relationship with Him, in Christ who represents the union of God and humanity: the crucified cursed one is the same as the exalted beloved one.
There is no getting ‘beyond’ this to some higher ‘unity’. There can be no getting beyond the reconciling of ‘God’ and ‘not-God’. The being of Christ as reconciler of God and Humanity is not a conclusion that we come to but the starting point to be proclaimed. From now on, the task of humanity is to be found ‘in Christ.’ full stop.
Christianity as a religion is unique in that it testifies to the death of ‘religion’, since the main goal of religion: to unite us to God, has already been achieved. Our task is to proclaim this new thing, and to participate in the new, reconciled humanity in Christ. This participation will have ‘religious’ and ‘’spiritual’ elements in it, but all of these elements are directed towards helping us participate in Christ.
This is what the Church helps us to do. Archbishop Temple said it when he commented that ‘The Church is the only organisation dedicated to the service of ‘non-members.’ Here he has embodied the unity that lies behind the paradox of Christ and Christianity. This is the paradox of the unity between ‘building’ and ‘mission’, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. We need buildings in order to be an ‘organisation: a body’, but this building is unlike any other, because it exists, not to serve those who are members, but to serve those who are not members. We represent a place that is neither ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’ but a place called ‘the unity of inside and outside’.
This ‘picture’ is shown clearly in places where there are active Deacons. At the Eucharist, the place where Christ is present, through his promise, in a highly focussed way, what picture do we have presented to us. There is the altar, with the bread and wine. But behind, there is the priest who represents ‘in house’ matters, and the deacon who represents ‘beyond the walls’ matters. Both people are necessary to complete the re-presentation of the reality of Christ in the world. The Eucharist is not something ‘religious’ but a ‘re-presentation’ of the reality of Christ. The unity of ‘inside and outside’. The priest presides over the community. The deacon is always there saying ‘do you know what is going on beyond these walls? The ‘beyond’ is brought into the ‘centre’ in Christ, and in the image that is ‘presented’ to the people by having both priest and deacon in the Eucharist.
It is possible to see the same attempt to show forth the reconciliation of Christ in the design of the bishop’s mitre. The mitre has a two-pronged pointy bit at the top (often with red material in between the two ‘pointy bits’). At the back are two ‘tails’ with fringes at the end.
So the two pointy bits represent the ‘flames’ of the Spirit. The Lord of the Church is the Holy Spirit, who brings freedom, and who leads us into new truths about the reality of Jesus for new times. This image is a lively, dangerous, and purifying and full of movement.
But at the back are the ‘bookmark’ tails. These tails represent the ‘book’ the Bible that represents the story of how Christians have responded to the Spirit in the past. Both movement into the new and faithfulness to our heritage are necessary elements in the unity of ‘being in Christ’. The Bishop’s presence in a diocese, with his or her hat is another way of showing forth the unity of the what at first looks like a paradox.
Some in the Church at the moment are trying desperately to defend the ‘Authority of Scripture’, but in doing so, neglect the rule and active, living presence of the Spirit in the Church. Some, who focus on the presence of the Spirit scorn our heritage in the faith and continually want to set up new churches, as if those who have been around for a long time cannot pass on the faith to those who are new to it.
Any thing ‘new’ has to both love the Scriptures. Anything Scriptural, points to the Spirit who ‘makes all things new.’ This is the difficult job of the Bishop.
So I’m happy to be reading Margaret Visser again, mostly because she reminds me that being ‘in Christ’ cannot be treated as something to be transcended, because being ‘in Christ’ has already transcended and reconciled even that which is ‘not God.’