Monday, 6 February 2012

The Empty Church (Part 1)

" Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching."

Hebrews Chapter 10, verses 19-25 

 By and large, the Book of Hebrews is not one of those books you go to in the bible when you're looking for comfort or gentle guidance in the life of discipleship. In this respect it is somewhat akin to the Apocalypse of St John, or the book of Daniel, though much more ignored than either of these. No-one has made a mint out of cartoon versions or a best selling series of books based on Hebrews. To hijack GK Chesterton, 'it has not been tried and found wanting, rather it has been found difficult and not tried". There is hardly an 'easy' verse in it. 
So it comes as a relief in the midst of the unremitting obscurity and apparent harshness of the text - (angels, mountains on fire, no sacrifice remaining for backsliders, and people getting sawn in half not being a staple of Sunday school talks or indeed sermons) - to come across verse 25 in the tenth chapter, 'not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some'. Well at least we get that . . . or do we?

Commentators on this passage note its force. My Greek critical commentary heads this verse 'STAY TOGETHER!' and remarks that failure to meet with our fellow Christians is 'associated with apostasy - though the author does not claim a direct causal link between the two'. To which we might heave a hearty sigh of relief as it seems meeting together is less and less understood as Essential to faith in this day and age. There is little sense abroad in the contemporary western church that we'd 'crawl across broken glass to get to church', or that in failing to make corporate worship our Highest Priority, we are cutting out throats - but we should be and we are.

Yesterday is / Today was 'Superbowl Sunday'. 

[My apologies for mixing tenses, but living in New Zealand has led to me developing a Douglas Adams sense of tenses, it is a little like the confusion caused by time travel. (See "The lighter side of languages" half way down this article if you wish to know more about this).]  

I wake this morning to have found this article on the atheist portal of Patheos. The essence of it is that atheist organisations have hired planes to fly above this culmination of the American Sporting year, trailing banners that proclaim, Nelson Munce like to the gathered Christian fans enjoying lunch in the parking lot,  'HA - HA - football is more important to you than God!'

Now at this point there will be many many readers of this post, who protest loudly that there are a hundred and one Good and Godly Reasons for being at the game rather than being in church. I have been around long enough and read enough material on Contemporary Mission to know them all . . . but I am finding that they are wearing thinner and thinner, and given they've only been around for 20 or so years, that means they're not terribly durable. 

Yes, if some Pastor had said to his congregation last week - Look folks I KNOW that it will feel like a living death to you to be dragged away from the worship of the living God in the presence of the Saints, I KNOW that the sacrament is the very lifeblood of the church - but JUST THIS ONCE can we deprive ourselves for the sake of the world, and go 'pester the hell out of those who think that a game of American football is more important that the worship of the Living God', and what is more we will schedule special services either side of this so that we might be revived after this DEPRIVATION. I might perhaps have allowed discussion of the possibility that their might be some mileage in pursuing this line of reasoning, but otherwise I don't think so.

The sense that Very Regular Church Worship is Essential to faith it seems is at best in rapid decline and the arguments against it are almost exclusively nothing more than rationalising our practise as normative.

There is a lot I wish to say about this, but in order not to turn this blog into a book, I'll tackle it as one would eat an elephant, a mouthful at a time . . .

How did we get here?

In the beginning, the presence of Christ was understood solely as the gathered community - 'where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst'. Most interestingly this verse in Matthew's gospel concerns church discipline and the Risen Christ ( as we must always undertand him when we hear the gospel) says to his church - your authority is mine. It is mind numbingly challenging especially as we have so learnt to dissociate Church with the presence of Christ.

Of course this association between the gathered people of God and the Presence of God goes back to the very beginning in the garden and is then consecutively re-enacted in tabernacle and temple and only finally does the Glory depart as the people refuse to recognise God 'in their midst'. Jesus in saying what he does only restores the link between the gathered people of god and the presence of God.

The Kingdom is among you was the presence of Christ - living and active in his church. Thus Simon Peter and John do what Christ does in healing the lame man. Silver and Gold have I none . . . (yesterday I preached on this). . . the church is present so Christ is present to heal and to save . . .

Then something happened - it may be 'Christendom', but perhaps that is putting it too simply and this isn't the place for exploring what happened - but the result was that The Church became The Thing. Becoming powerful in the worlds wealth. The Glory - the Shekinah - that marked the Presence was superceded by that which is glorious in the eyes of humankind - the Church, empowered by the world outdid the world in Scholarship, in Learning, in building programmes - and in our eyes it looked Very Good (all that we had created).  Funnily enough it was one of the great theologians of the church, Thomas Aquinas who allegedly observed that the Shekinah had departed, that Church and Christ were no longer the same - that the earthly kingdom the Church had built did not correspond to the heavenly one Christ announced - that Earth and Heaven were now separate domains. For as the Pope said 'We can no longer say, Silver and Gold have we none' - he is said to have replied 'sadly neither can we say, In the name of Jesus of Nazareth rise up and walk'. Apocryphal it may be, but it hits the mark.
We had built a wonderful edifice - an Empty Church.

And thus having dissociated Church and Christ in practise, and the tide of the church's power ebbing fast, it was all too easy to begin to suggest that we didn't Need Church, we just needed Jesus (ably abetted by our rapidly growing materialist individualism). By and large, within the older Protestant churches almost exclusively, we have abandoned Church as of the Essence. Yes there are some on the fringes who recognise that the call is to community, that in the community of faith Christ is present and that that is all that is necessary, but they are a small minority. For most of us, we like to think we're Christian and we think we can be so with lip service to worshiping together.

We started with Paul being so bold as to assert that the Church was the Body of Christ, and Jesus asserting that His discipline was directly administered through the Church - to a place where for our own glory we dissociated Christ and his Church and majored on Church - to  a place now where all we need is Jesus and if there is something more interesting or more pressing, church can be dropped, because it isn't the highest Priority.  But I suggest, that in speaking thus we have so lost sight of what the church is, that in effect we are saying Christ and His Life isn't our highest Priority.

In the beginning people faced martyrdom rather than not worshiping Christ in and amongst his people - now we would think it a sort of martyrdom not to be able to go to the football

"Failure to meet with our fellow Christians is 'associated with apostasy - though the author does not claim a direct causal link between the two' "- for most of us in the West, I suggest we think that there is NO link between the two and even if it might be true for some, it certainly isn't for me and my personal Jesus. Apostate because I don't go to church??? HERESY!!! 

Or it may be that the atheists have got us Bang to Rights  . . .


  1. For some reason, I've been thinking about this a lot lately, but before I go any further, let me confess that I am as guilty as anyone of going to a rugby match instead of worship (Ireland beat Italy - it was great). It seems to me that two things have happened in the Anglican Church at least that seem to reflect an unwillingness to recognise that our first priority is to render praise to God, and then, growing out of that, to show sacrificial love to our neighbour. The first thing is, as you say, the separation of Christ and Church. In our context that separation is helped along by the fact that we are (perhaps I should say thankfully) not a church facing martyrdom - yet our brothers and sisters around the world still are. It's also helped along by the welter of distractions that get in the way - the rugby, the garden, the book review due next week, the essays that need to be written or marked, etc. But none of these distractions should ever be allowed to get in the way of what is truly important. The second thing, which I think has been more on my mind lately, is the extent to which the liturgy and the theology behind it have been separated from one another and then diluted, until the otherness, the holiness of God has been all but lost. This is why we need a revival of commitment to beautiful and demanding worship, rich Gospel teaching from the pulpit and in study groups, the daily office. All of these things presuppose a community, of course (even those who are hermits are distantly connected, through prayer and in other ways, with a community); we cannot be Christians on our own. Christianity is not a matter of my personal contract with God, but of witness to God's love in community, centred on the Eucharist.

  2. Thank you very much for this James - very helpful and succinct

    I think the disconnect between theology and Liturgy is a highly pertinent point to make in this regard

    Liturgy I think is increasingly been driven by a desire to connect with the world - dragging down heaven to earth, rather than raising Earth to heaven. Theology is similarly, increasingly world oriented, directed towards confirming us in our perceptions. How long is it, we may ask, since we read some theology which brought us to our knees in worship?

    We are in the year of MArk, which is a radically disorienting gospel - we are faced with a choice of following Christ who is going we know not where, or staying put

  3. Hmmm. I think most vicars absolutely loathe it when people say to them, " you can be a christian without going to church" - and I don't blame them at all!
    This is an interesting topic for me because I did stop attending church altogether about seven/ eight years ago. My faith didn't stop and I continued to pray and read the bible. I was a christian, but I didn't go to church and I was quite sure that just having a personal and private faith would be enough ( I did have some contact with other christians.) However, I noticed over time that it was a lot more difficult to maintain a Christian faith without attending church. I also hadn't realised how central taking communion was to my faith and how I didn't feel right without it. I concluded that maybe you CAN be a Christian without going to church - but it is much more difficult! Church provides a structure for personal faith and also gives a chance to worship - there is also something very important about communal worship.
    Having said that, I don't think it is the end of the world if someone makes a decision to miss church in order to do something "more pressing". You say that such people think, "church can be dropped, because it isn't the highest Priority." I think the pressing question is that of what is our "priority" and if our highest priority is our relationship with God (as distinct from our relationship to Church) what's not to like? Remember, it is quite possible to attend church regularly but to rarely pray or read the bible outside of church.

  4. Hi Suem and thank you for your very thoughtful comments.

    I agree with much of what you say here and I am sure there are many who 'Attend' church week by week, yet who rarely pray or read the Bible outside of that context. I would say that the case is stronger for Bible reading than prayer, which I think is the right way round.

    I think that in a sense you've beautifully highlighted what I'm driving at both with your remarks about how church assists us in maintaining faith and also with your comment: 'our relationship with God (as distinct from our relationship to Church)'. This is Very helpful as it reminds me, were such reminder needed of my sometimes inability to write in a coherent fashion! :)

    What I am trying to argue here is that perhaps this assumption of disconnection, between Christ and his people is largely an historic accident? That perhaps the fact that we do so readily express such matters in these terms is a sign of something which has gone awry?

    I have argued elsewhere that in seeing faith as Primarily personal and only secondarily Communal we have turned our thinking on its head as people of faith, and of course many of us have argued long and hard that church is not primarily something we go to, but a people we belong to.

    The basic movement as I see it is that at the outset the Church and Christ were to use an inadequate word synonymous. Thus the infant church acts as if it Is the body of Christ, quite literally. 'You (plural) will do even greater things than these'.

    At some stage (which came to its culmination at the height of Christendom, the Church stopped living in day to day dependence upon the Life of God and started to stand on its own two feet. Out of this we constructed a large and impressive edifice, The Church which spoke of the power of God, in terms at one and the same time entirely understandable by culture, and entirely misrepresenting the One who comes to us in utter vulnerability. Church became Fully Institution and except for brief sparks suggested little of the Other worldly yet Transformative Life of its Lord. Silver and Gold had we plenty, but we had no words of hope for the paralysed world except 'don't worry - it will all come right in heaven'

    Latterly, as the World has grown weary of this power demonstration, as it does of all such Human Empires, witness Great Britain, Rome, etc. etc. we in the church have tended to look back and rightly see that the Church was only witnessing to God negatively, by its denial . . . and then ditch the church. The problem is not that Church is Wrong, but that it got it wrong. However we had now succesfully uncoupled Christ and His Church. Church was no longer of the Essence of faith - Christ could be known outside of the Community of faith.

    Now, a case may be made that the church now finds itself in the same position historically as the Jewish people following the era of the Kings, but most theologians would argue that Christ came to correct the faith of the people, not to replace it. That the identification of God and people was meant to be, both then and I argue now.

    My Very Sincere apologies for answering with an essay :) Brevity is a gift I LACK! :)

    My Very Sincere sorrow also that we have to have this conversation thru the Very limited medium of text - I always find that these conversations are more fruitful face to face and over a bottle of wine! (I think a certain parish priest of our acquaintance will bear me out in this! :) )

    Grace and Peace to you


  5. Church today is certainly different to the early church, which was network and mission (dynamic and on the move), rather than institution. So the Church now does all the things which institution does, such as preserving its own structures and power base. But I am not sure it is an historic "accident" because it was inevitable that Christianity would become the victim of its own success. Once something grows to that extent and gains huge cultural and social power then preserving the institution per se will become the overiding concern - and that has a deadening effect on the gospel message and Christ is lost. Except - at least so I see it- the Holy Spirit still moves in the church and Christ is still present but not so much in the higher echelons but more in pockets and in people (as always.) Grace is sometimes the Church's best kept secret. :)

  6. Thanks for this Sue
    I think you are right about Grace!
    Of course now the church doesn't have huge cultural and social power. In the UK it still has the echoes of these things but working now in a context where Christendom was transplanted after it had already expired there is no sense that the Church has any public status. I wonder if the movement of the spirit is in fact some kind of revivication?