Hallo again to all.
As a famous line in a famous movie has it: 'Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night'.
And this may be a bumpy letter. We'll blame it on Cole Moreton.*After a dear friend of his died, he did 'something I had not done in years. Something I knew I could regret. I just couldn't stop myself. I went to church'. (This is the part where you fasten your seatbelts.)
They say more people go shopping at IKEA on a Sunday than go to a church. Who can blame them? I would rather queue in flat-pack hell and eat reindeer balls than go back to St Gabriel and All Angels. I went there that day because it was nearest and because I do like an angel: it was (apparently) seeing one of them that got me into faith, years ago.
I was late, of course. Only five minutes, but it was enough. They had started, so I thought. Fine, I'll just stay in the porch with the notices and the flowers, then sneak in under cover of the music when they start a hymn. Only they didn't. The introduction went on for ages, until I either had to walk away or go in . . . right in the middle of prayers.
Some churches are welcoming. Some have comfortable chairs, subtle lighting, and carpets in nice warm tones. Not this one. My shoes slapped on stone and each step echoed as I made my way through the gloom towards the congregation, such as it was. One old man and two old ladies, sitting among pews that had once held a hundred, muttering 'Amen' with their eyes open. Up in the pulpit, looking down on all this emptiness and me, was Father Insipid. He smiled a watery smile. I smiled back and sat down. The pew and the three fish-eyed septuagenarians turned slowly and stared.
We sang a hymn I had never heard before, to an electric organ played by the vicar. One lady trilled like a songbird lying injured by the roadside, or it may have been her chest whistling. There was a sermon about . . . well, homosexuality was mentioned, and not in a nice way. After the service, when hot water was being added to to the coffee powder in little plastic cups and the worshippers were ignoring me, presumably out of fear, the priest came over and gripped my arm tightly and spoke so close to my face that specks of saliva prickled my cheek. He whispered something urgently. I could only just make it out. 'Help!' he seemed to be saying. 'I can't stand it any more. Please, get me out of here!'
Moreton's book, with wit and bite and devastating clarity, examines just where in the world the Church of England is in the 21st century. But the book becomes a mirror when one reads it. Although he writes about England, the context is clearly that of any Anglican province (or 'national church') in the developed world.
Oh, we can wriggle this way and that in front of the mirror: Our parish is all right, Jack! We've got a reasonably filled church on a Sunday morning. We do liturgy and music to a high standard. We pay our bills and help feed the hungry. It all seems to work. And, thank God, there are parishes flourishing, alive and well and clearly knowing what they're about: building up the Kingdom of Heaven on this earth. Grace reigns. But just a few blocks, a few miles, a few villages away, there are churches crumbling from the outside in, whose members, beleaguered and fearful, do glance gimlet eyed at strangers and pull their tradition more tightly round them. The mirror Moreton holds up in his book (and it's a cracking good read, if wince-making at times) is one we put down at our peril.
Moreton doesn't suggest solutions. In fact, his more devastating criticism is launched at some of our pathetic institutional efforts round evangelism. (See 'decade of'.) We shouldn't see the current 'situation' of the church — call it 'the way we live now' — as a problem to be solved. This is a complex, confusing, frightening, and often seeming quite-out-of-control time, the result of seismic cultural changes and societal shifts over the last few decades. The church could no more have stopped or reversed those than it could return the world to Victorian certainties. But the widening chasm of life outside the church doors and the frowsty air inside our walls does no honour to our God.
We can fiddle round the edges — and we should. With energy, initiative, creativity (and please more boldness and beauty), we ought help our parishes flourish and our dioceses thrive. As the Gospel commands, do good first to those in the household of faith. But we should be equally attentive and gracefully willing to let the structures and the certainties go when it's clear they must.
What survives, Moreton concludes, is the human longing for God, for its expression through prayer, connection, and worship. As Anglicans, we have clear ideas of how we prefer all that to work. But our preferences can become our prejudices, just as our church buildings can become our millstones. It may be, as Moreton suggests, that the entire system of Western Christianity (we'll define that way, even if he doesn't) must irretrievably break down before we can, through the grace of God, rework it into something real. And holy. And full of grace.
We know, if we know anything, that it is a post-Christian world, that what we once called 'The Church' is broken. We can stamp our feet in defiance, we can hide under our dining-room tables, but these childish defences won't serve. It is only in bravely facing the world before us, the world that *is*, that we can get on with the business of spreading the Good News. 'Hell is inaccurate', the blessed Charles Williams once wrote, perhaps the shortest and most profound theological statement ever written. Inaccuracy is holding to that which is not real. That which is knowingly false. That which is wrong, and calling it right. Insisting on one's own way in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Choosing, in fact, hell over heaven. It's a dangerous road, that, and one we don't want to look up on Google maps and 'get directions' for.
If it all must break more before it can be born again, there's hope for us in that. God's church, writ large, doesn't need 'hope'. But we do. We must find our hope again for the church that can be, in this tough and bleak world.
Come, labour on! It's time to get cracking, even if only to help pull down walls.
See you next week.
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