Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Secular Lives, Sacred Hearts

In response to my rash promise to my Bishop, here’s the first of my attempts to reflect on recent reading. Secular Lives, Sacred Hearts works from the premise that
“The traditional sociological view of secular Britain is misleading. The Church would understand its contemporary minsitry and mission better,…if it thought of the nation as “culturally Christian”.”
Hmmmn…..I finished the book a week ago now, and the more I think about it, the more it feels to me as if its main purpose is to make clergy feel better about our failure to evangelise the nation. Alan Billings' message seemed to be “Go with the flow” and, if I understood him properly, this felt to me something more than simply trying to meet people where they are and inviting them to an encounter with God. It was rather suggesting that our concept of God encounters needed revision, so that we softened our boundaries to include much that would otherwise have been labelled “folk religion” and ceased forthwith from making demands of any kind on those outside our regular congregations.
Much of what Billings writes about the contemporary context resonated loudly with me, and he has a lot of helpful ideas about reaching out into the community. What about inviting a local school to provide a series of Advent Stations, for example? That's one that could really work here. I loved, too, his suggested definition of ministry
“Making real for people the grace of God at particular moments in their (increasingly secular) lives”.
But I was worried by his implicit message that if we were failing in the task of mission, it was time to change the nature of the task rather than our approach to fulfilling it. He concludes the book with what he calls 3 “tendencies of the contemporary church”, against which he sets his 3 preferred “Principles for the contemporary church”. Perhaps I’ve been too thoroughly indoctrinated by the system, but my gut feeling was that in following his principles we would be in danger of losing track of the Gospel in an ambient spiritual mush.
They read as follows….
First tendency of the contemporary Church: Make a clear line of demarcation between “the Church” and “the world” and see the over riding task of the Church as evangelism.
First counteracting principle for the contemporary Church: Recognise that not all Christians are members of the Church and see the Church, including its occasional offices,as a spiritual resource for members and non members alike”

(This might sound fine….very much in keeping with “Mission shaped” ideas of allowing people to be church where they are…but a closer reading reveals that he is not expecting these “cultural Christians” to do anything very much as a result of their faith…there is no sense that they will want to gather together, to learn or to pray…no idea that they might benefit from being Church, in whatever expression)

Second tendency: Assume that God wants everyone to become a member of the Church
Second principle: See Church membership as the particular vocation of some Christians for the sake of others

Third tendency: to see buildings as of secondary importance or even of no importance at all in sustaining the spiritual life
Third principle: recognise the vital role played by sacred buildings in sustaining the spiritual life of members and non- members.

(OK…as you may have gathered, I quite like this one! The value of a sacred space at the centre of a community is something I blah on and on about….and I like Billings concept of building as sacrament..the visible sign of God’s presence with his people, though I do worry about those who only expect to meet him there)

Fourth tendency: move away from the parish church towards the gathered congregation
Fourth principle: value and support the concept of the parish church.

This last is, he contends, his underlying principle throughout the book. The church should be there for everyone so that we avoid a situation in which “Ministry is assimilated to mission and those who do not attend but think of themselves as Christians will ask the Church for bread and receive none”

Of course, my reaction to that last scenario is “God forbid”…but while I believe with every fibre of my being that the church exists to serve God in all his children, I believe too that an encounter with God should elicit some response in us, and that it is not unreasonable to expect that response to be articulated within some sort of Christian community. What I'm wondering now,though, is whether it is either significant or alarming that I seem to be less woolly in my liberalism as the months in full time ministry whizz past. Have I bought into the system, or are elements of the system still "right" however startling this realisation may be?


Chris said...

Oh I like this Kathryn - I feel I get to read a book in a minute or two. A sort of theological Readers Digest!

I think your initial reflection is a good one. If the church bends too far to culture, what is distinctive about it any more? What is the point of going along?

The good old C of E seems ill at ease with itself in a post-Christendom era. It is hard to be a state church when the state doesn't particularly want you. It's a hackneyed statement (but true nonetheless) that the opposite of love is not hate but apathy. Apathy is the lot of the church these days.

Now, writing as a Baptist let me be deliberately provocative for a moment(!) What is so wrong about gathered communities? I can remember reading a book that was required reading at Trinity describing congregationalists as having a "ghetto mentality". I would challenge that. Perhaps a "parish mentality" leads to a feeling that the church is there by right and doesn't need to earn the respect and interest of the community it is in. Is it churlish to comment that the Baptists are the only mainline denomination that is growing?

This is not to say Baptists are right, but it is to say that perhaps the Parish structure is too much of a Christendom model to work when the Church can no longer command the attention of society. The suggestion that congregationalism leads to minisrty being subsumed into mission is just plain wrong. The Salvation Army gives the lie to that. Anyway, I'm in danger of kicking my hobby horse into a gallop so I'll dismount now.

So what does the C of E do? I wonder if the answer may be very much along the lines of what your church seeks to do (if unintentionally). There a place for parish churches to become very much 'other' to the society. To be confidently themselves, in all their incense and eucharistic mystery. Almost mini-monastical communuities set in the heart of the wider society. Yes, practising hospitality but not compromising the core of the faith. Being Established in the sense of being immovable. Being mystical places of the awesome presence of God. Above all being confident. Not chasing every wind of societal change.

And mission in that model? It comes by first of all by having confidence in God to call people to the faith. That if we bear witness, we can trust him to do the rest (and not have to wear ourselves out with death by Alpha). And then mission is bringing God into every situation. Being bold, but humble. Sharing faith, but not imposing it. Not selling Christianity, but practising it.

Kathryn said...

That sounds attractive Chris...but I'm still firmly wedded to the idea of existing for the whole community, even if it is only rarely that the community acknowledges this. For eg, I've had some really important an God filled encounters via funeral ministry,- and, as Mark and Maggi have commented elsewhere, a couple a week is quite normal for us. If we focussed on the gathered community I'd tend to hope that there would be rather fewer of these opportunities.
I realise this doesn't in itself provide a justification for the parish system, but it's one of the thoughts that keeps me believing it isn't quite exhausted yet. Even if the clergy are!
btw, as a Baptist did you read Mission Shaped Church? I'd be interested in your reactions if you did.

ron said...

Third principle: recognise the vital role played by sacred buildings in sustaining the spiritual life of members and non- members.

This is was always my huge struggle, " what is the vital role played by buildings." Every AGM, this was like stone around my neck, the number of dollars maintaining the thing. It was like feeding a hungry dog with a ferocious appetite, just when you thought it was full it barked for more. That money would have been nice to have for the outreach projects of the church.

So I think the future will have to be one of a new economy...one where it is less about property and more about what "we" possess. And to be really missional, may mean saying goodbye to some buildings and constructing something less costly and more fuel efficient.

I know the Anglican church in Australia, did a study and report on the " parish model " of doing church...if i can find it, I shall pass it along.

I could go on , but would be repeating some of Chris's thoughts. But also, want to thank Kathryn for such a great idea, and presentaion of the book.

Chris said...

No I haven't read that book. I think the the one doing the rounds at the time was "Building Missionary Congregations" by Robert Warren. I can recall the Baptists on the course being somewhat underwhelmed and also offended that received wisdom was gathered church = ghetto. What the author seemed to have missed was that if, for example, a Baptist church does not do mission then congregations fall. If congregations fall then churches cannot afford to keep going and then close. Thus gathered churches have to be missionary in order to keep going - there is no right to exist! It is this very real danger that means that gathered churches simply cannot be ghettoes. I can remember arguing that, in fact, the established church has a greater danger of ghettoism since it can exist without being relevant! True resources may get stretched, but ultimately the C of E is wealthy (I speak as one who used to manage its Pension Fund!!!).

By the way if this sounds like I'm Anglican bashing, I'm really not. I like the C of E. My wife's uncle and cousin are both Bishops. I was reared Anglican. I just think there is a lot of misunderstanding of what the gathered church actually is. To be honest many Anglican churches in Cheltenham are gathered anyway since they have people attending from other parishes!

As to your point with regards funerals etc, I agree. Out of interest though, how many come direct and how many via an undertaker? In other words, the bulk would still arrive in a gathered model. I have done funerals for people with no connection to my church, simply not as many.

What worries me is that a parish model can impart false hope to people who feel Christianity is having their baby done? In the last census (2001) 72% said they where Christians. Where are they?!

Chris said...

Ron, missed your post - busy typing my comment above.

Perhaps part of the problem is denominationalism. In central Bristol there are Baptist, Catholic, Anglican and Methodist spaces open all day. If we could agree on just one...

Perhaps the problem lies in our loss of hospitality. Each Christian home is a sacred space...

Perhaps the problem lies in our reluctance to grow in holiness and be truly different to the culture around us. Each Christian should be a sacred place....

ron said...

Perhaps the problem lies in our loss of hospitality. Each Christian home is a sacred space...

Chris, this is the future economy I was trying to express in my comment...that you did a better job of clarifying.

the reverend mommy said...

I'm glad you are back -- did you know you were gone? I had such a good comment to post and *poof* your blog was gone. And now the pithy and witty comment has gone *poof*. Maybe with enough coffee it will come back.