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?