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I'm a minister of the United Reformed Church and teach theology and church history at Westminster College in Cambridge. Anything I write here does not necessarily reflect the opinions of either the United Reformed Church or Westmisnter College.

Friday, 30 December 2011

In conversation...

Well, I'm pretty amazed at the response to some of this, both on Facebook, and here. Thank you so much folks – this certainly is helping clarify lots of thinking, and generating new things. Good theology can never happen without conversation! Whilst the URC has not always had massive success with efforts to have conversation through the internet, I live in the hope that it could be a great source of good exchange – and thus far this has been!

I’ll try and reflect a little on some of what folk have said – there won’t be time to reflect on all of it.

Thanks Dominic for your really thoughtful musings on John. I think there is much in what you are saying. I would not want to loose sight of the immediacy of martyrdom as it hangs over individuals in the Johanine community, and I would not directly want to say that there is necessarily an institutional reading of what was intended as primarily about individuals. I wonder whether your thoughts on glorification begin to point in the direction I’m feeling towards, though. Whilst the glorification rests in the whole of the unfolding of Crucifixion, Holy Saturday and resurrection (and I would not want to forget ascension either, ultimately – the taking up of humanity into the Godhead and the command to life in the world that reside in the doctrine of the ascension are vital – as in Farrow (who I had not realised had become a Catholic – very interesting!). I think that the glorification does indeed centre on the crucifixion (I’ve never quite known what to do with the reading that places it in the handing over, I confess...I’ll muse more on that). However, the glory which is the crucifixion (and I’m also with Barth in the sense that I’d want to see the crucifixion as the ultimately revelation of Christ’s divinity, and the resurrection as the ultimate revelation of his humanity) can only be perceived and made known and experienced in the resurrection. Without the resurrection the whole thing would never have been remembered – even though the crucifixion is that which stands at the heart of it.

I suspect that, in attempting an ecclesial reading of the Church in the light of this, I would also need to be very aware of what Ryan points out, that there is perhaps never a really, truly human ‘selfless self-sacrifice’. That is perhaps why our convictions about resurrection matter. I think from our perspective as we face death, it is in sure and certain hope of resurrection. In that sense, perhaps I’m not calling for the true death of the church, but an entirely self-interested death that is waiting for what comes next... I think the challenge comes in the fact that we have no idea what does really come next... that is perhaps the step of faith. And as others on Facebook have pointed out, that might well come considerable personal cost for many of us...I’m not unaware of writing this stuff sitting in a rather amazingly large house the Church provides for me free of charge, enjoying having spent a significant chunk of stipend on a rather enjoyable Christmas. If what I’m pointing to is so...how do I earn a living once the institutional URC is not their to pay me, and where do I live. What does it mean to be a ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in that situation? Perhaps it is also to some extent self-preservation that I rather think reflecting on this now is better than being forced to do so by circumstances.... It is vital to underline, however, that a resurrection faith does say that this is not the end...

As to the question that has been raised about whether John is the gospel to use to further this line of thinking about a theology of the death of the church, I share a lot of sympathy with that. As I said, I’m normally slightly too sceptical of some of John , particularly on its own, in just the way that has been said – it is all to neat and tidy and tied up. I think that to think about the dynamics of the way the pattern of death-Holy Saturday-Resurrection and ascension speak into the reality of being Christ’s body in the 21st century probably requires a more complex (and untidy?) reading across scripture. Certainly a more fully worked out attempt at something like this would require that.

I’m grateful to Jane for drawing attention to the pastoral and practical dimension of this kind of thinking. Perhaps I think about these things in a particular way after helping two churches right at the end of their lives during my time in Liverpool – one the church I was called to minister with, the other where I was called in difficult circumstances to be interim-moderator. Liverpool was a very particular kind of ‘case-study’, not only was it facing the kind of decline in the Church that everywhere in Britain has, but it had lost half its population as a city from its most powerful days (which coincided with the days of church expansion...). Quite literally, many, many churches that could remember Sunday schools of over 1000, within two generations were facing a membership of a few and closure. A heft number of the churches that were open in the inner-city when I first arrived have now closed at a spectacular and alarming rate. I suspect that this rather pre-figures what is coming across the board.

I suspect that in many churches extraordinary folk have been giving their all with a faithfulness beyond anything that seems reasonable, to keep churches going for years – only to find that it gets harder and harder, and that they continue to decline. I have had many people in moments of real trust say to me that they feel real guilt ‘that it is on our watch that it died’. I think the kind of good palliative care that you’re speaking of is absolutely necessary, and we should not flinch from it (hard though it is). People need to deal with the grief and the guilt, and be enabled to move on their journey of faith through the end of the place that they have perhaps worshipped forever. One extraordinary moment for me came when someone said of the closure of the church where I was interim-moderator at the end, that ‘we had cut an albatross from around their necks that they had not even realised was there’. That closure meant the thriving of individuals and of other church communities that folk moved to that has brought some genuine new life. Death is not the end. Really helping churches and members to face this, do it well, and move on and thrive in their journey of faith seems vital.

I was very struck at a Synod Lay Preachers weekend I was at, the training officer asked folk as an ice-breaker to line up around the room in order of the length of time they had been in ministry (however they defined it). Of between maybe 35 and 40 people there, only about 6 of us had been ministering in the church for less that 40 years – and of those, most of us were actually on the pay-role of the Church. The same people have faithfully been keeping the show on the road for 3 generations now. I have frequently heard people say of a time they have worshipped somewhere else, that it is lovely to do so and just to worship, as when they are at their own church they find they cannot because they are so consumed by the list of things ‘to-do’. I’m convinced that that needs naming and people need the help to find ways through that, so that they can indeed worship, which is our primary end, even if that means that ‘their’ church is no longer there.

Then there is the big question about whether the church is really dying everywhere, and how this relates specifically to the Reformation traditions and global Christianity and so on. Well...I’m very much speaking in a European sense, and about the main stream Reformation traditions. It is very interesting to hear that Bruce Mccormack is saying very similar things in North America, though. The church scene in Europe, however, is very differentiated. Although everywhere is experiencing massive decline, and attempts to address it. I’ve been part of a group looking at reform and renewal processes across the member churches of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, and they are all attempt reform to deal with it. Many structural reform, many attempts at reforms of worship and liturgy, youth work, fresh expressions and the like. However, this hits in  different places in different ways. In a place like Germany where in most parts there is one dominant church tradition, it hits when people leave the church and no longer pay their church tax. As the church is starting from such a dominant position though, it has further to ‘fall’ as it were. The impact is also different, as the church, through its taxes, provides a huge amount of what in Britain would be provided by the state in terms of care for young and old etc.etc. In Scandanavia the situation is different again, as it is in central Europe where redefining the church in a post-communist era poses yet different issues. The Church everywhere is declining fast though in terms of attendance at worship, and membership. It will still take a very long time for this trajectory to run its course. Christian history shows that there is always ups and downs of church attendance, and in fact one way of reading the present situation is that we are simply returning to the norm after a period of high religious practice (the URC’s David Thompson has made this case brilliantly in his valedictory lecture – and then applied it across the world church).

I think the case of the URC is a little particular, though. This is because of our size, partly. We are not a strong national church. Although in the CofE it may feel a bit apocalyptic if you are the priest in charge of 8 rural parishes, the CofE as a whole is not going to disappear any time immediately. The URC is very small, though, and our demographic is very much on the older side. Equally, I think that the strong congregational ethos within us makes it very hard to deal strategically with the situation we are in. The Church of England can merge parishes and the like with rather more ease than we can. I think that our congregational roots also interestingly play out in relationship to modernity in what I wrote yesterday. We both contributed to it, in pushing for religious toleration the primacy of the conscience (in the process of which we helped redefine the conscience as an individual thing, rather than a social thing), whilst also (initially at least) attempting to embody the notion of the covenant community where our individual identity was formed by being formed into the gathered, covenant community. Something in all of this though, coupled with all the issues that have been raised about the Magisterial Tradition and the fact that most of the reasons it came into being have disappeared, all leave us in an odd place.

Anyway...there are various things that need much more thought. I’m still thinking about Nicks idea of the vocation of a denomination – that requires careful thought precisely because of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ idea that you point to – but may equally have something in it. If our real vocation is visible unity, there might be something for saying that we just head back to mother church, though... Equally, there might be something about us which we need to exist to keep offering – we may need to change out of all recognition to do that, though (something I think is simply so, whatever....). It is also right to pull me up on the question of whether traditions that arrive with migration are ‘real’, or not. Of course they are, and I would not want to say otherwise – precisely because we are indeed a church catholic. I think the failure that by and large we all share in, in not having meaningfully created very many successful multi-cultural, or inter-cultural churches is fairly great. It is sad when a URC survives in part from the rent paid for by another, often nationally defined, church using its premises - that must cause us to reflect on whether we really are one, holy, catholic and apostolic. However, whether the growth is real or not is slightly different. In global terms, if people move taking their faith with them, it has moved around, but not grown. It is absolutely right, though, that the Church is growing throughout much of the world. It is not in Europe where we are trying to be church and live out our vocation. I’m far from persuaded by arguments that say we must do what folk in Africa or Asia are doing and we’ll grow...I think the gospel is far more incarnational and contextual than that. I also would want to take note of another of David Thompson’s arguments that in much of the world where massive growth is happening, it is doing  so following exactly the same social and economic indicators such as land use and the like, that accompanied expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, and therefore one might expect the decline to follow as it has here. It is far too soon to tell on that one though.

 I have no doubt at all that the church will survive (Church catholic) but I do suspect that the very particular situation that the URC finds itself in means that we will not survive as the institution that we are at the moment. I think we might be able to embrace that and explore it, and engage with this moment we find ourselves called to be faithful in, in a way that allows us to live the Holy Saturday experience and emerge into resurrection life.

There is far more to think about in all the comments so far...but here are a few reactions thus far. I’ll get to writing a bit more of something substantive sometime soon!

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The modern problem of the Church, and a quick think about Bonhoeffer....

This is the next bit of thinking about the church and where we are at. It moves sideways slightly from where I started yesterday, and begins to think about the self-understanding of the church in scripture, and the way this has been massively challenged in the last few hundred years. It also then does a little thinking with Bonhoeffer about this. It is all top of the head stuff - hence nothing is referenced. I'm trying out ideas here to see how folk react, to stimulate my thinking more, and just in case anyone else finds it helpful! Do let me know your thoughts...

Biblical visions...

There has never been a golden ear of the Church. Various traditions look to various moments, but I’m not sure any of them really count. Many will, of course, look to the biblical era – but really, if that lot at Corinth were the best there were going, then does that really constitute a golden era? Equally, one can look to the period of the early Church Fathers, but as one dwells on the disputes about who really was the church, and who not, and the struggles that went on for power between folk like Cyprian and Novation, was that a golden era? Or high Christendom when the Church is often seen to have ordered life in its totality and yet was actually experienced by many as an oppressive power? Or the period of the reformation – where Luther went off the idea of the priesthood of all believers once he discovered that Peasants were revolting? Or even my hero Calvin...not even I would have wanted to live in his Geneva, thank you very much. Or the era of great Church expansion and cultural influence in the 19th century – which perhaps bequeathed us many of the problems that we have today? No...there is no golden ear.

All Christian traditions acknowledge the reality that we live in a sinful and fallen world. Different traditions place the Church differently in this context. For the Catholic and Orthodox traditions the Church is holy, because Christ is Holy. The Church per se cannot sin. The members of the Church, even the Pope himself can, and do, sin – and must repent from their sins. The Church does not. In the reformation traditions the Church itself is sinful and can and must confess. You will have noted where I sit in this trajectory already, I suspect...!

The Church is part of creation – as such, it is fallen. Creation is fallen – St. Paul was just so right when he spoke of doing the things that we would not do, and not doing the things that we would! Structural sin abounds – how on earth do we have a bank account, even, never mind a pension, without finding that we have supported some heinous oppressive firm or regime somewhere? It is in the midst of a world like this (which is still a wonderful and remarkable world which is capable of great good!) that the Church exists. I do think it is important, however, that we do not mistake the Church for the Kingdom. I rather like Leslie Newbigin’s description of the Church as a ‘sign and a foretaste’ of the Kingdom – at its best it is. In the New Jerusalem, however, there will be no temple.

As the church lives in the midst of a changeable history that is life in the world, it seeks ever and ever again to be faithful to Christ and to discern its vocation. I think that something has happened in the last 300 years or so that has made that very significantly more difficult – and that one thing we have not really attended to is what this has done in Western Europe to the life of the Church (things are slightly different the other side of the pond for various reasons that I won’t distract us with now). The process that we often call ‘modernity’, or ‘the Enlightenment’ radically changed things for the Church – a process which continues into what we tend to call ‘post-modernity’ – though I’m never quite sure that it really is after modernity at all, or just a working through in a new phase of some of the key bits of what happened in modernity. All of this can seem rather obstruse, and attending to the development of intellectual history can seem desperately boring – but I ask you to stay with me, for I think some very significant things happened that we’ve often entirely not seen the connection with the Church.

First of all, let us just orientate ourselves around some very basic scriptural realities about the Church. One of my favourite essay questions to set students is ‘Does it make sense to speak of a biblical ecclesiology?’ – there are very many ways of giving a good answer to this question, but anyone who says that there is a clear and specific biblical ecclesiology that supports one particular contemporary church polity clearly is not actually reading the texts of scripture! There is not. What we see are various different visions of being the church (the edited volume by Marcus Bockmuehl and my Federation colleague Mike Thompson Visions of the Church witnesses fascinatingly to this – I’m very grateful to them for this work!).

The shear number of biblical images of the Church that the New Testament contains suggests that there is not one, prescribed way of being the Church. Just the big ones, ‘body of Christ’, ‘People of God’, ‘creation of the Spirit’, and so on, witness to this. Never mind the smaller ones ‘salt’, ‘light’, ‘bride of Christ’ etc. etc. (Paul Minear’s Images of the Church in the New Testament is fascinating on this). But one thing that is in common with all of them is the fact that the church is a social entity. St. Paul is absolutely key here – we cannot, for Paul, ever conceive of doing faith without the church.

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave of free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong o Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:27-29)

Baptism, the sign of the beginning of new life in Christ, is baptism into Christ. That is baptism into the body of Christ – the Church. We come together as one community. It forms our identity in a way that displaces and relativises all our other identities. We are no longer defined as men or women, slave or free, Jew or Gentile – or in other words, by our biological distinctions, our cultural distinctions, our social distinctions and so on, but rather we are identified by being part of a new people. We no longer belong to our old people, or at least not in a way that now primarily identifies, us, rather we belong to a new people. This Paul works out elsewhere, in Ephesians (lets leave aside the question of authorship shall we...it is in the canon after all!):

“...you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in who you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God” (Eph.2:19-22).

The togetherness of what it is to be the church is paramount. In fact, it becomes the ‘House where God lives’ (to quote the title of a great book by Gary Badcock on the Church). This forming of a new people is equally a vision that we receive in 1 Peter “Once you were not a people; but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10). This understanding of the church as a ‘people’ actually went so far as for people to speak of a ‘third race’- not Jew or Gentile, but something different. Something not dependent upon what you were born, but what you were by virtue of you baptism and your membership of the body. In the early Church conversion was a big thing – it meant a fundamental change of identity because the people that you belonged to changed. The thing that defined you became different. Living into that was a process that lasted years for those in the chatecuminate on their way to baptism.

This understanding of the primacy of the people of God over the individual rests too, of course, on the entirety of the Hebrew scripture too. Abraham and Sarah – and their offspring – are elect. It is a social election. It is the people of Israel as a people that are God’s people, and called to keep the law and be a light to the nations. And so on...being human was first and foremost to be social.

And for much of the life of the Church this has worked. It has been worked out in very different ways in different periods of the history of the Church. It worked out one way in the very early church where quite literally one changed the people one belonged to and therefore ones identity. In a post-constantinian world where the church had become the same thing as the sate in certain sense (or was the state in its religious and spiritual aspect), this gets worked out in a different kind of way. What is still the case, though, is that from the point of view of the individual, identity still comes from being part of a people, a Christian people who are a Christian empire, or later, perhaps, a Christian nation.

This situation, however, has shifted quite radically in the last few hundred years, and I don’t think we’ve caught up with it yet. We are beginning to catch up with the fact that we are now in a post-constantinian world – the empire or the nation is no longer co-terminus with being a Christian people. However, I worry that although there is some really interesting thinking and discussion going on by those working at this particular observation – what it has not necessarily fully grappled with is that the pre-constantinian era is not necessarily going to guide us terribly well into how to be church in the 21st century. This is because whilst it has taken good account of what has happened in terms of political and to an extent social realities, I’m not sure its taken quite as seriously what has happened in terms of how we understand our human identity.

What modernity has done to the Church...

When Descarte said ‘I think therefore I am’ in his Meditations, the world changed. Perhaps not there and then, and perhaps this had been implied in thought before him – this is not the kind of place for a full genealogy of how this has all happened. None the less, things became different. It is the fundamental concern with the ‘I’ as the thinking subject.

Charles Taylor, in his A Secular Age (a deeply frustrating book in so many ways, but that points to some important things) has begged the question as to what has changed in the last 500 years that has led to religion in the West becoming so fundamentally different in terms of its place within the world. He speaks of secularisation not only in terms of religious practice and in terms of the decline of the way in which religion helps us order life in the world, but in another fundamental sense: whereas we simply used to believe – one was a Christian and basically believed in God and was a part of the Church (even if people did not necessarily go very often...) now we can choose. Religious faith has become a choice – I can believe or not. Increasingly people are choosing not to. Taylor begs the question as to what it is that has happened that has brought about this particular understanding.

The world has shifted in many ways, and charting all of this is beyond the scope of anything I can write here, others have done it far better, see Taylor himself, or perhaps also see John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. What I would slightly warn about these accounts is that although they state the opposite, they do read to me a little like there was something of a golden age – and that we could return to a world where happy peasants danced around maypoles and celebrated Carnival every year and knew their place and that all were happy. That is to parody – but there is a slight tendency in this direction. I must state that I rather like living in a modern world with antibiotics, modern medical science, the general respect of human rights of the individual and so on! They do, however chart something of the intellectual shifts that the world has gone through very well.

But what, in outline, are these shifts? Well, we’ve moved from a world in which knowledge was essentially received from authorities (either authorities within a status structure, or the notion of ‘original’ sources) to a world in which knowledge is that which the individual human being constructs. Here, figures like Locke and Hume loom large – and of course, that preeminent thinker of the Enlightened age, Kant. The Enlightenment prioritised the individual thinking subject – the ‘I’ of Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’. The idea of ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’ then becomes very important. It is almost as if reason is a ‘thing’ that is ‘out there’ that the individual thinking mind utilises. The idea basically was that if only we reasoned well enough, that we would all ultimately end up thinking the same thing – because we would all be being Enlightened and ‘rational’. Of course it never did quite work like that – but it is a great idea.

This led to various responses – some theological and some other intellectual and cultural responses. Theologically, people began to ask what happened to the idea of God when one thought rationally about it – this is a topic that detained Kant in his ‘Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason’ and there is a significant theological response to all of this about the rationality of belief in God, and making religious belief make sense. Liberal theology is in many ways responding to this – it looks, in part at least, for a rational way of understanding the development of the faith in a trajectory of humanity becoming ever more enlightened. It looks to Jesus as an ethical teacher that shows us how to live lives well together. Interestingly, Liberal theology very rarely concerns itself with the Church at all. It is concerned with the individual Christian and how they can maintain a rational faith. The Church is largely studied only in terms of its historical development and as the bearer of ‘doctrine’ that becomes ever more Enlightened.

Another response to this Enlightenment stuff was what we tend to call ‘romanticism’. This was something of a reaction against the rather ‘rationalistic’ view that we’ve been talking about and responded with the importance of the individual persons feeling and emotion. It leads to some of the great literature and art of the period, to Goethe and to Wordsworth and so on. Feeling and emotion become central, but what has not shifted, is that it is the individual’s feeling and emotion that has shifted. This too, led to theological responses, which were often closely related to, but not entirely so, to Liberal theology. One figure that possibly unites both is Schleiermacher, who was the German theologian of the 17th-18th century who began with religious ‘feeling’ as the way in which we can gain access to ‘data’ that we can then rationally examine in the light of scripture and the tradition to make sense of how we speak of God. Church movements are also heavily influenced by this kind of romantic turn – the development of Evangelical movements and awakenings seems to me to be heavily influenced by this kind of turn – they are all about the individuals experience, emotion and feeling – the conversion experience being at the centre of it.

In all of this, we find that the centre of gravity about human identity (and we do need to watch that term, we use it with abandon, but it has particular connotations – to be identified with what, is in some sense the question it begs) has shifted. We are no longer identified (so we think) by our social group, but we construct our own identity as a thinking and feeling subject (and I’m using the word ‘subject’ here in the sense of I am the acting, thinking thing that makes use of ‘objects’ that I perceive in the world (which are also other people) to think about, emote about and ultimately make sense of the world through.

It is very interesting that in this, we see that bits of the contemporary church that are often at odds with one another – liberal and evangelical, actually have their roots in the same kind of era. They are both responses to this shift to the individual human beings being at the centre of the universe. They both, interestingly, often are very concerned with ethics (though in a different way) – they really are siblings. Siblings often scrap with one another...

What we see in what we often call ‘post-modernity’ is much of this going one step further. Kant realised that the ‘limits of human reason’ were our inability ever to know any object that we perceive ‘in itself’ – we could only know it as we perceive it, we could not know it as it really was as a thinking subject (in the case of another human person). However, Kant holds rationality in high enough esteem to still essentially think that we might all think the same if we reasoned well enough. However, post-modernity (and I don’t really think it is that at all) has basically shifted to a position that still thinks that we are individual thinking subjects, but that there is nothing ‘out there’ like ‘rationality’ that enables us all to end up thinking the same thing if only we think well enough. Therefore there is a significant move away from there being any kind of absolute.

That is not quite an adequate definition of post-modernity (and it is complex stuff that I don’t claim to fully get my head around – a good place to start is Stanley Grenz’s A Primer on Post-Modernity). For there is another side to it, which interestingly perhaps begins to move in a different direction. This suggests that ‘reality’ is a social construction. Here, linguistic philosophy from folk like Wittgenstein, and social theorists (like Peter Berger, perhaps) begin to collide in interesting ways. We are all caught up in language games and webs of meanings that get spun socially. We appropriate them individually, but they set the contours and context in which things have meaning and can be understood. There is perhaps some space here for the Christian story to begin to be one of those webs rather effectively. However, I think this is once again to get ahead of ourselves.

What is interesting is how all of this high flown thinking comes to shape day to day reality. I’ve never yet read a decent account of how this happens, but somehow it does. I do not, basically, tend to think of myself as having an identity that is formed by the groups that I belong to, I construct my own identity, thank you very much. We all tend to conceive of ourselves first and foremost as individuals. We express our individuality by what we wear and how we spend our money, by our choices in life. What we are bequeathed is a world which has fundamentally shifted away from the social entity – from the ‘people’ to whom you belong, to one where we ‘opt-in’ to the groups that I wish to. Hence, I can choose to join a political part of not, choose to join the church or not, choose to go clubbing or not, choose to be a Goth or not, choose to have anything to do with my family or not, choose who my friends are. We kind of take this stuff for granted, I suspect.

In all of this massive shift of culture, I think there has been some very significant theological thinking about the way in which we articulate our faith and make sense of it. Whilst it might not feel like it at times in the world of Richard Dawkins, theologically we can and often do give a rich and full account of our faith in a post-Enlightenment world. Huge effort has been expended on doing so – theology has been deeply productive in this period, as we have found new ways of talking of our faith in a ‘world come of age’, as Bonhoeffer put it. What I contend that we have not done very well yet at all, is to think about how all of this pans out in terms of the church. We have been rather better at thinking about it in terms of making the content of our faith – our propositional statements, as it were, make sense in this world. We have found it very much harder to think about how to make the church make sense. Put very simply, if the entire basis of the Church is grounded in the fact that our identity as individual Christians is founded by being baptised into this social group, and taking on a new identity by being part of a new people, how on earth does this translate out in a world where my identity does not come from and social group, but rather I generate it myself? Suddenly I don’t need the Church to be a Christian at all, rather, I am a Christian by virtue of my own decision about my own identity. That leaves really no space for the Church much at all, expect by virtue of the fact that I might want to spend some of my time with people who have chosen to construct their identity in a similar way to mine. And that is to construe the matter entirely without reference to the work of God, which we must not do...but I fear frequently do anyway!

Some thinking with Bonhoeffer

I think perhaps the one theologian who really grasped some of this and began to think, and live, something really rather different is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’m a little wary of bringing him up, not least because I’m rather wary of the ‘Bonhoeffer industry’. However, I think he was on to something – though it never got massively well formulated.

There is an extraordinary moment in his doctoral dissertation Sanctorum Communio where he is thinking about how new emerging understandings of social relationships in the newly emerging field of sociology might help us understand the church. He is talking about ‘neo-Kantian’ conceptions of the person. Basically, this was a world view which was working with the idea that I am indeed the thinking subject, and any other person I only ever discern as an object. What Bonhoeffer does, without ever quite really stating it, is to reject this view very firmly – and in fact characterises it basically as sin. What makes true, in Bonhoeffer’s terms, ethical encounter between two individuals is precisely that I do not meet someone else and that person is simply an object. That person too, is a subject. It is basically the work of the Spirit that means that I can encounter someone not as a mere object, but as another thinking subject. We encounter one another truly, as it were. We are thinking subjects together. We become, if you like, something greater than two people merely looking at one another. True human encounter is possible. The Church, then, becomes the place where this becomes really possible. It also becomes the place where, through the proclamation of the Word and through the sacraments, and through the work of the Spirit, human subjects are united such that the Church itself becomes, as it were, a person – it becomes, ultimately, ‘Christ existing as community’.

We noted above that the liberal theological reaction to everything that had happened in modernity essentially ignored the Church. The church became, if anything, a place that could be the breeding ground of good ethical individuals (again, not entirely unlike classical Evangelical responses too). Part of what is so radical about Bonhoeffer is simply that he writes about the Church – something pretty unheard of. What is even more radical, is that he entirely rejects the received notion of what it is to be human. He does this through paying careful attention to scripture, and finding in revelation in Christ something rather different. He does this, at least in part, through his attention to the early Karl Barth – another vital figure in this story, but someone who always seems to me struggled somewhat when it came to the topic of the Church. In revelation, Bonhoeffer actually offered a very different account of the human being, as being primarily social. Interestingly, he found here support in the emerging ‘secular’ field of sociology. This whole set of thinking he then extends in his second doctorate, Act and Being, where he evaluates much of the kind of thinking about modernity, in terms of idealism, and reinterprets it, again largely in an ecclesiological context.

What Bonhoeffer was pointing to in these early works was, I think, the emerging reality that the huge challenge that modernity left in its wake was about what it was to be the church – not simply what it was to believe. Sadly, for a long while these early works were rather left behind in everyone’s great excitement about the quest for a ‘religionless Christianity ‘ in a ‘world come of age’. Too often, this got translated out as some kind of faith without the trappings of the church which were written off as useless ‘religion’. Nothing could really be further from the truth about what Bonhoeffer was calling for, as I see it.

Bonhoeffer’s context was, of course, ultimately to become a very troubled one. One in which the very essence of the Church was entirely at risk. One in which one can even say (as the Confessing Church did, in a rather troubling statement) that the Church (ie that majority of the German Church that was under the influence of the German Christian movement that was behind Hitler’s transformation of Germany) was no longer the Church. It was no longer ‘Christ existing as community’. One cannot compare lightly the situation that Bonhoeffer and the confessing Church found itself in with the situation that the Church is in now. We are not suffering from persecution, but rather indifference. However, something of the soul of the Church might still be at stake. Certainly, something of how it is we are called to be church in the midst of a world where popular thinking still begins with the individual is vital.

For Bonhoeffer, this began to work its way our in very radical ways. I cannot imagine anyone can read his Discipleship, which is a very literal kind of reflection on the sermon on the mount as a model for Christian Discipleship, and find it easy. I personally find it deeply difficult – and deeply challenging, and sometimes just a little lacking in the joy of grace. However, it is a call to a radical kind of ecclesial existence. In his Life Together one sees that this works out in a radical kind of community of the Church in which each is deeply accountable to the other in terms of the shaping of our personhood (our identity, as it were). This happens in communal worship and daily living together, it also happens in our life on our own. It happens in encounters of deep trust with the other, in moments of individual confession, for example. It is a deeply ecclesial way of being.

Perhaps our final reflection with Bonhoeffer needs to take us to the Ethics, unfinished at the time of his death, and yet deeply radical in many ways. Many people within the history of the Church have called the church to a kind of radical separation and holiness of living that one can begin to see in Discipleship and in Living Together. However, in the Ethics, we see that this kind of separatism is far from what Bonhoeffer is calling for. Rather, his is concerned that the Church be indeed Christlike. And to be Christlike is to take massively seriously what the Church came to teach about Christ at Chalcedon, where it defined Christ as ‘fully human and fully divine’. Christ is fully human – fully worldly, fully engaged in human life within the world. God is therefore fully engaged with human life within the world. The Church is therefore called to be fully engaged with life within the world.

I don’t want to entirely idolise Bonhoeffer and become part of the Bonhoeffer ‘industry’. I think there are theological problems: I think he never really overcomes some of the structural problems of certain forms of Lutheran thinking, for example. It takes a long while for him to recover from a particular Lutheran reading of the Two-Kingdoms understanding of the place of secular rulers as appointed by God, and in the Ethics I’m deeply unconvinced by the idea of divinely appointed ‘spheres’ of human life as if they are unchangeable and immutable in ways that life in the world rather suggests they are not. What I do find in Bonhoeffer, though, is someone who really understood the predicament that the Church is in when it comes to being Church in our world. He saw that the problem is that in a world where we think of ourselves as autonomous thinking subjects, the church simply does not make sense. He also began to find radical ways in which this got lived out, and ways it could be lived out whilst radically engaging with the world, not simply withdrawing from it. There is much here to learn from.

Being Church today

Now is in many ways a really rich moment in the life of the churches in terms of how they are attempting to grapple with much of this stuff. To what extent the grappling can really flourish around the reality of the church as we have received it I’m far from sure. That is why we need to think very carefully about attempts to preserve the church simply as it is.

There are things going on that are interesting though. The whole emergent church movement, and ‘fresh expressions’ and the like provide some interesting thinking and ideas. I worry that ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’ in the very title contains the seeds of its downfall. It presumes that we know what Church is and are it, and can therefore ‘freshly express’ it. I think we might need to do some rather more bottom up thinking than that. And yet also, I want to take seriously some of the strong critique of such movements that have come from people like my colleague Andrew Davison and Alison Millbank, that you cannot simply shift the form of something without shifting the content! There are moments indeed when I wonder whether some fresh expressions really are church. If Church is where the Word is proclaimed and the sacraments duly celebrated, how odd that things call themselves church where these never happen. On the other hand, sometimes they happen in new and exciting ways that breath new life.

One thing that worries me greatly, though – is that there is a simple buying in to the kind of individualism that modernity has bequeathed us. The whole idea that people come to faith in the company of people like themselves may, in one way of thinking be right. What kind of faith is it though? If to be ‘in Christ’, is fundamentally to have entirely relativised your other identities by taking on the identity of the new people who now define you, in what sense can Church ‘for single professional people in their twenties’, or for ‘young mums’ ever actually be Church? I’m equally rather aware of the alternative approach which can appear to idolise received models of Church. Those expressions of Church that are based around the notion of the Parish very often fail miserably to represent the diversity of human life. Parishes, particularly in urban areas, are very often full of people of the same sort and of the same class, never mind the fact that many people in parochial churches don’t go to their local parish church but rather travel to the church which they find more suited to them – which is probably full of people rather like them.

Another feature of many new expressions of the life of the church is that they tend, frequently, to be ultimately about the perpetuation of the institutionalised Church as we have received it. They can be seen as a route into ‘proper church’, and can, if one is not careful, be nothing but an extension of the ‘if we don’t get some new people then we won’t have anyone to do any of the jobs’ syndrome that we’ve already noted.

What we see in much of this though, is the church beginning to grapple with how it goes about being Church is the rather radically different context that we now find ourselves in. In terms of beginning to think further about the URC, and its future – or perhaps, in the light of what I’ve written, what comes after it, we perhaps need to think a bit more specifically about it, and what was happening in its constituent traditions throughout the period that we are saying has been so decisive for the church. The traditions of the URC are coming to be formed in the way in which we know them now precisely through the modern period. In fact, one might even perhaps say that they not only were reacting to, but also to some extent empowering the development of modernity as we’ve viewed it in outline in here. We might well do well to examine in slightly more detail how we came to be where we are more before moving on further. We also need to return to the question of what exactly is the Church, that we’ve begun to feel our way to here. But by what means, or through what practices and forms of life does the Church become this radical identity giving people that scripture points to? That too, is a question we must turn to. In what ways might the church facing its death and ‘turning to Jerusalem’ as Christ did, open up space for something new, radical and Christlike?

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Christmas reflections on death, resurrection and the future of the church.

I've written this this afternoon in a few hours. It is not polished. It is about chapter length, and I am vaguely wondering about it being the first chapter of something rather longer. I'm thinking the final 'book' might look at how we got to where we are, how we might understand that theologically, what it might mean for the church to embrace death, what that might do practically in terms of our worshipping, meeting, witnessing and for our ministry. I'm posting this here to initiate comment and thought that might help me redraft something. My initial problem with what I have here is that it ignores the vital role of the Spirit both in terms of John's gospel, and in terms of the life of the Church. Anyhow - for anyone who takes the trouble to look at it and comment, thank you in advance. All thoughts welcome...!
 Christmas, Jesus, John and the Church

I’m not quite sure why I’ve suddenly been drawn to John’s gospel. I’ve always been slightly suspicious of it – John’s Jesus is just a little too able to walk on water. I’ve always preferred the social and political robustness of Luke. But none the less, this Christmas it is to John I am drawn. I suppose we are surrounded by John at Christmas – one cannot but be moved by the reading of John 1:1-14 from Kings College on Christmas Eve, or in our Christmas services. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The prologue to John opens wondrously the amazing reality of what God is doing with the world in Christ. God making Godself known to us – “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart who has made him known.” In these lines of John, our illusions about God are shattered. Everything we think in our human form that God is, turns out to be subverted. God is like the one who comes as God the only Son. The Church has always found this on the verge of the impossible to believe. In the early Church, the debates that raged around this point were many and varied – but centred around the figure of Arius who thought that Jesus being ‘of the same substance’ as God prevented God being God. God could not come amongst us as a human being, for that was to reduce the dignity of God. The truth of the gospel, however, was not to be determined around human definitions of God. God, rather, was to be determined by the truth of the gospel that is that Jesus reveals to us who God is.

I am, however, somewhat running away with myself. We will need to think more carefully about the ramifications of all of this as we go along. That it is radical, however, we need to take note of.

There are various thoughts that have prompted this writing. Some of them deeply personal, that perhaps cannot be poured easily onto the page, some of them more circumstantial. The biggest circumstantial issue is the death of the Church. The Church in western Europe is dying. Everywhere church membership has plummeted, and average attendance at Sunday worship is falling radically. My own church, the United Reformed Church, seems particularly to be disappearing at speed. When I talk about the church in this essay, I speak particularly out of that context. I suspect that the URC is something of a paradigm for most of the main-stream churches in Europe, and others who read this may find my reflections helpful as they understand their own denominational traditions situation. I can only speak out of the situation I find myself in, though: a minister in a church that will have died, according to the statistics, before I am due to retire. How are we to understand this? What are we to do with this fact?

There are many things I am finding deeply difficult to live with in my own denomination at the moment – and the URC is not so different as such that I would not find very similar things difficult elsewhere. I find it deeply disturbing that a huge number of churches I’ve engaged with in various capacities in my ministry speak of the need to attract new members ‘or else there will be nobody to do the jobs’, or ‘or else we will die within the next few years’. These sentiments are true. However, if that is what is driving our mission, it is no longer Good News that is driving us, rather it is the desire for institutional survival and the fear of death. We are deeply condemned by such statements. One finds a similar thing going on throughout the wider church as a whole. The recent debacle about an advertising campaign for the whole URC seems, in part at least, by a sense in which ‘we must do something or we will not be here’, a sense that we must, somehow ‘save’ the URC. The way this has happened has felt like some to be the most appalling walking all over our basic principles of how we work as a church, and has caused deep offence and division. And yet this has been done by people who genuinely want to make a difference, genuinely want to help the church, genuinely want to stand up for the things that they believe in. How is it that this can happen? Merely blaming people won’t do. We must indeed do something, and yet clearly what we are doing is not working, and stands the danger of actually making all kinds of things even worse.

What I want to do is to think about the death of the church – and what it might mean to be faithful in the context of a dying church. What is personal discipleship – what is institutional discipleship in the midst of this context? How are we to understand theologically the situation we find ourselves in. How, even, might we do the prior thing of even describing the situation that we are in? This is, once again, to get ahead of myself. Firstly, I want to turn to John’s gospel.

Grace and decision

‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God’. The sentence opens up for us on of the most significant theological debates that has raged throughout the life of the church. John blatantly seems to contradict himself in this sentence, in ways that I suspect most of the time we don’t even notice. He speaks of ‘all who received him, who believed in his name’ – this seems straightforwardly clear. We are to believe, we are to receive him. This is a human action, a human decision for Christ and to follow in his way. The human decision to receive and believe in Christ stands central to the call to faith. And yet, he then goes on to say that those who do this, ‘were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God’. So it is not our will, our power as human beings to make this decision to believe in Christ and to receive him – for if we have done that it is clearly not us that have done it, it has come from God. We are ‘born’...’of God.’

How are we to understand this tension? How is it that simultaneously John speaks of the need for human decision and response, and then to say that it is never human decision or response, for our human will cannot take that decision, it is something that only happens in the power of God? The Church has, from the beginning, grappled with this question. It comes to the fore powerfully in St.  Paul, particularly as he grapples with the fate of the Jews in his letter to the Romans in Romans 9-11. God has made promises to the Jewish people, and God ultimately will keep them even when the Jewish people have rejected God in Christ. For, ultimately, it is not our human decision, for Paul, that is of significance, but God’s election of us. That means, God decides, not us. This, in many ways is the only thing that can make sense. If we can decide for ourselves, and God cannot decide for us, we can do something that God cannot – and that is very odd. God is sovereign over all things – including whether we receive and believe in Christ.

Thus the mainstream Christian tradition has always argued. It is not only Calvin who has a doctrine of predestination. One finds it too in Thomas Aquinas’s (perhaps the key Medieval theologian influencing the Catholic tradition) doctrine of election, and one finds it in perhaps the greatest of the Early Church Father’s, Augustine. Ultimately, of course, one finds it in scripture. Abraham is elected to become the father of a great nation for no apparent reason at all in the Genesis accounts. He simply is – and that nation is Israel. Not because he earned it, or decided for God – but simply because God decided for him. This is the logic too of John’s ‘born of God’, not of ‘human will’.

And yet, too, we find in John’s account the ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name’. Human response is necessary – demanded even. And yet, how can that be so if ultimately all of this is the work of God? Jesus calls his disciples of ‘take up your cross and follow me’, the epistle of James (famously disliked by Luther for its dangerous ‘works-righteousness’) speaks of the need of good works, without which our faith is nothing. And parts of the Christian tradition have held this to be central. Wesley got most upset at some of the implications of the doctrine of double predestination as he saw it. Primarily because of the idea of God damning some people out of pure capriciousness, which was not worthy of God and was unjust – and it also meant, of course, that Jesus had not atoned for all on the cross, only for some. And then there was the missionary argument – why would you do mission and attempt to convert people, if their response was irrelevant because God decided anyway?

It is interesting that this debate largely just went away – people stopped worrying about it. This is, perhaps, both a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing because it might mean that we have begun to be willing to live with the tension that scripture gives us. A bad thing, because I suspect it is simply a sign too that we stopped worrying. Full stop. We stopped grappling with some of these tensions which scripture has gifted us. God has gifted us, even. And to stop worrying about them is perhaps to stop engaging with the things that God has called us to grapple with.

So how are we to read this tiny bit of John’s gospel? And does it matter at all for the life of the Church or understanding the predicament that we are in? I suspect it might actually matter. I suspect it might matter because there is indeed a tension in the text. It is a tension between the work of God, and human work. Both seem totally bound up together in this text. John seems to see no either-or about this, there seems to be a total presupposition that it is absolutely fine to write just as he does and imply both the human decision and action, and the divine origin of all of this. I suspect that the Church has lost sight of living with this tension. Some of the great figures within the history of the Church live with this tension very overtly. For Calvin, nothing at all must undermine the sovereignty of God over salvation. And yet, human works mattered massively. He sought to bring about an entire Godly society in Geneva. He set up consistorial courts to maintain discipline. He controlled behaviour and encouraged human learning and godliness to the nth degree. Wesley, on the opposite side of this tension speaks in the most moving of terms about how he did not choose God, and did not choose to do what he was doing and could not do it in his own power. It was entirely God calling him on, something that he was entirely powerless to resist. God is God, and ultimately will have God’s way!

Part of what we are called to do is to live this tension. And I wonder whether the church has forgotten to live this tension. Are we so busy trying to save the church in our own human power that we might have forgotten that God is sovereign over the church too? Have we forgotten that perhaps God is doing with the Church whatever God will, in causing it to die? After all – God has a bit of history on this one. The chosen people were taken into slavery, they were sent into exile. Is that perhaps what is going on with us? Alternatively, are we in certain places being so quietest – so willing to sit and let whatever happen to us, that we’ve entirely forgotten that we must receive and believe in Christ? That we are called to follow? How do we live this tension? How do we live this tension in the midst of the call to be the church in the 21st century?

The Way of the Cross

John’s gospel takes us on a journey. In fact, much of John’s gospel takes place on a journey. I heard a couple of years ago a remarkable dramatic performance of John’s gospel. Someone had memorised the NRSV version of it, and gave a dramatic reading of it. One of the most striking things about this was the fact that at the moments that Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem, a drum beat symbolised the progress that was being made. It made one realise just how much of the gospel in Jesus heading to or from Jerusalem. And of course, in John’s gospel a huge proportion of it is directly Jesus heading to, and being in, Jerusalem prior to the events of the crucifixion and the resurrection. And of course, this is all to do with the all-pervasive sense of what is about to happen in terms of crucifixion and resurrection.

Right from the earliest part of John’s gospel, we find that Jesus speaks of what is to happen. And of course, what we know from literally the first sentence, is something of the one who is doing this speaking and something of the one to whom this is going to happen. This is happening to ‘God the only Son’.

In chapter two, after the miracle of the turning of water into wine (surely speaking volumes to us of what it is the kingdom will ultimately be like – intoxicating and abundant!), Jesus heads to Jerusalem. We see something of the divine passion and anger as he overturns the tables in the temple. In dispute with the ‘Jews’, Jesus has this short exchange, which John then comments on:

“’Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered tat he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken”

From the very outset of his ministry, Jesus seems to know what is going to happen. Throughout John’s gospel (in fact, throughout all the gospel accounts) Jesus seems to know that he is heading to the cross. From the middle of the gospel (chapter 12 where John has the triumphant entry into Jerusalem) we are very definitely heading directly to the cross. Jesus speaks directly about this on many occasions, in such a way that seems to disconcert those with whom he is. When Philip and Andrew challenge Jesus after the Triumphant entry, Jesus says:

‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who live their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour’ (John 12:23-26).

John goes on, however, and in his account Jesus then says:

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I come to this hour. Father, glorify your name’

We are faced yet again with something of a conundrum. Is the cross inevitable? It is a question related very clearly to the tension we identified in the opening of John’s gospel – the tension between grace and decision. Is it inevitable that Jesus would die on the cross? It is an interesting question – but more than that, one that takes us to the heart yet again of some of the tensions that are inherent within the Christian life. Jesus seems very clear that he knows that he is to die on the cross. At the same time we do see something of the human dimension. Earlier, we have heard that “After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did this because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.” (John 7:1). Clearly, Jesus is not actively seeking his death. It may be an inevitability – but he is not going to court it. And we see in the passage above, that Jesus has the instinctive human reaction to say ‘Father, save me from this hour’, even though he recognises that this is actually not the way. Jesus does not want to die, does not want to be crucified. And yet, at the same time he knows that this is what is to happen. In fact, at the time of his arrest we are told most clearly that he knows what is going to happen:

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them ‘For whom are you looking?’ They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, Jesus replied, ‘I am he’. (John 18: 4-5).

Jesus knows, and does not resist. At the same time he has not sought this out.

It is as if there are two simultaneous dimensions to what is going on here. There is the dimension of eternity. The one who ‘in the beginning was the Word’, was always going to come to this moment. If we believe that the cross was of eternal significance, it is, as it were, equally significant to all times and places. The question as to the fate of those who lived before the cross is entirely irrelevant if it is indeed an eternal event.

Eternity is not simply a great deal of time that stretches on indefinitely (though that might well be the best attempt we can often rustle up to think about these things), but if we believe that God created time as well part of all that is, and if we believe that God will ultimately bring all that is to consummation, then eternity is both before and after time, as well as including time itself. We find this almost impossible to think of – that is inevitable as we are part of time as things that have been created. We can’t think of what things look like from God’s place, by virtue of the fact that we are not God. There is a massive and overwhelming difference between being created and being the creator. We might be in the image of God, but we cannot imagine reality as God sees it because we only see it as those who have been created. In eternity – in God, as it were, in the before, during and after of history, the cross stands absolutely at the centre of all of this. It is truly eternal. It was absolutely, therefore inevitable. In this sense, when people speak about such things as God ‘taking a risk’ in becoming incarnate, I become entirely uneasy. God know exactly what God was getting Godself into! God is, after all, God! This stuff is eternal – not dependent of human whim and will! At the same time, though, there is this other dimension going on.

Jesus also experiences all that is going on as fully a human being. Now, at this point one can get totally bound up into lengthy and abstruse theologically conversations about divine and human wills in Christ and so on and so forth. I’m not sure they are going to help us. But simply reading the story of John we see the human Christ who does not go to the places where people are wanting to kill him. We see the one that wants to ask the Father to spare him what is to come. We see history unfolding, cause and effect at work. This is the kind of history from this perspective which feels like it could have had a different outcome. Jesus decision not to turn away from Jerusalem, but rather to head to Jerusalem is significant. Equally, Jesus decision to hand himself up to the authorities when they come along with Judas is significant.

Somehow, both things are going on together. What is going on was always going to happen, in fact, one might almost say that it always had happened when viewed from the perspective of eternity. And yet, at the same time is dependent upon the decisions and actions of Jesus within history who experiences the pain and the fear of what is unfolding. The tension is exactly the same tension as the one we noted above between grace and decision. Scripture speaks of both of them alongside one another. We live, somehow, in the midst of both the entirely free grace of God that has brought us into the midst of God’s story, and the requirement to believe and to respond, just as Jesus lives in the tension of being fully human and fully divine:

I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. (John 17:4-5).

The Way of Resurrection

Of course, to the disciples, all of this as it unfolded must have seemed most extraordinary. How on earth could something that was of God end up in the disaster of the crucifixion? What sense can be made of that? It is perhaps no wonder that Peter ends up denying Jesus – who would not, when the movement that had meant so much ends up in the place of a common criminal. But of course, in the Christian story, the crucifixion is not the end. This too, we see that Jesus is aware of. He speaks of the rebuilding of the temple in three days, referring to himself. Jesus speaks of the unfolding of a reality, it is not simply his own story that will unfold, but a story that patterns reality itself. The passages in which Jesus speaks of such things are frequently complex and difficult – to the point that the disciples themselves often feel like he is speaking in riddles. That, though, is how it seems before the experience of the ending of the story. Who could (God aside...) have predicted the resurrection? And yet, resurrection is the other intrinsic part of the story of the cross. Jesus says:

‘Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”? Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn to joy. When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16:19-22)

Jesus is pointing to the full story – cross, Holy Saturday and Resurrection. This is the pattern of life as Jesus is living it. This is the pattern of God’s ways with the world. And this indeed has a dimension of the whole of life in the world attached to it. Jesus speaks of the consequences of his death, and consequently his resurrection as being for the whole of the world:

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’. He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (John 12:32).

I love the fact that one of the footnotes in the NRSV suggests an alternative reading to the above. Apparently in some sources, it is not ‘all people’, but ‘all things’ that will be drawn to Christ. This is big stuff! This is something which has universal significance – this affects all people, possibly all things.

And when resurrection comes, it comes in surprising ways. It strikes me that one of the besetting sins of the church of recent times has been debates about the resurrection: was it physical or bodily? This takes us to the heart of so much agonising about the nature of scripture and what we are supposed to have to believe in a supposedly scientific age or not. We will need to return later to think about how we make sense of living out and proclaiming our faith in the contemporary world which gives us these challenges, but that is not quite where we are at at the moment. What we need to realise at this point is that resurrection, as we hear about it in this gospel (or the others, or experience it!) cannot be contained by these kinds of categories. As we read the story (in fact, why don’t you go and read John’s account of it now – it is remarkable!), we are struck by so many parts of this story that won’t allow this kind of categorisation. The resurrected Jesus is both entirely unrecognisable by Mary at the tomb, and entirely recognisable by the disciples at the lake. This is a Jesus who appears behind locked doors suggesting a kind of bodiliness that we do not have, and yet the wounds can be touched and felt and who can eat a fish breakfast. This is not a ghost walking the earth, neither is it a body come back to life. I am taken with Rowan Williams’ case that resurrection simply is its own category – it can’t be subsumed into other human categories. And it is about transformation. This is something unlike anything else, and cannot be put into categories like other things. Resurrection brings life from death, hope from despair, and transforms reality beyond anything that previously was imaginable. Resurrection begins to make sense of the seemingly senseless things that went before it.

The Church, the Cross and Resurrection

So, what does all of this pontificating about the cross and resurrection, and time and eternity, and whether or not Jesus knew what was happening to him have to say to the Church and about the Church in its current situation? Well, the thing seems to be to me that the Church is entirely and totally bound up in this story of Jesus. St. Paul’s favourite metaphor for the Church is as the body of Christ. The Church is bound, almost as a continuation of Christ in the world (a difficult thing to say, and something we will need to come back to – we must equally not confuse the Church with Christ). The Church is the body of the one who has set the pattern of cross, Holy Saturday and Resurrection within the life of the world that Christ is lifting up to himself.

Right at the end of John’s gospel, we have the remarkable story of Peter and his final conversation with Jesus before the ascension. I love the character of Peter. Throughout all the gospels he is pretty hopeless. If it is possible to get the wrong end of the stick, he will. If it is possible to be hot-headed at the wrong moment, he will. He is totally and utterly hopeless, really. And yet, somehow or other he is equally the most extraordinary disciple – he really is rock like in certain respects. How I love the fact that if Jesus managed to use someone like Peter (well, like most of those early disciples really, who are all far from being saints), he might just be able to use me too! And Peter seems to function at this moment in this gospel precisely as a representative disciple. Which of us does not fail in our discipleship? Which of us does not protest the most extreme loyalty to Christ, only in the midst of changed circumstances to turn around and deny that we have anything to do with him at all? Peter is, indeed, something of the ‘generic’ disciple. We are all like Peter. The Church, is , in fact, rather like Peter.

And what do we find, in this remarkable exchange between Jesus and Peter at the end of this gospel? Jesus asks three times whether Peter loves him, and tells him three times to tend and feed his sheep. The final time, when Peter is somewhat despairing of Jesus, we get this exchange:

‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you when your were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me’. (John 21:17-19).

Peter’s life too, is going to be cross shaped. Cross shaped to the extent that he too will end up dying, like Jesus, of crucifixion. And is this not, perhaps, a little scary – that this representative disciple, representative of the church as a whole and of us as disciples is told that he is to follow the way of Christ to the extent that he will share in the cross? It should perhaps come as no great surprise.

Jesus sees himself and his disciples as intrinsically linked. The extraordinary ‘farewell discourses’ of the latter parts of John’s gospel before the account of the crucifixion and resurrection are quite amazing. In them we read of the most extraordinary relationship between Jesus and his disciples, and we, of course, are his disciples. We, the church, are called to this relationship. Let us listen for a moment to how Jesus puts this: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you” (John 17:11). Somehow, we are to continue Jesus work in the world. This line of thought Jesus continues a little further on, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world”, discipleship is about being in the midst of the world. But it is about far more than that. For Jesus too, has talked in the most extraordinary way about the relationship between himself and his disciples:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world”. (John 17:20-24).

There is a connection between Christ and the disciples, Christ and the Church – Christ and us, dare we even say, that so fully joins us to Christ that we become him. We are engrafted, as it were into his story, so that the glory that is his becomes ours. We are engrafted into that story such that cross, Holy Saturday and Resurrection becomes our story. It becomes reality.

Just as elsewhere in the gospels Jesus tells his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, so here we see the way in which this relationship with Christ works out. It is for the sake of the world, not simply for the sake of the disciples and the Church. It is rooted in Jesus and his story; his story of death on a cross and the utter transformation of reality that is resurrection. That is the story that we share in. Cross, Holy Saturday and resurrection are not only the story we proclaim – they are the story that we live. We are called to take up our cross, just as Peter, the representative disciples, is told that his journey too will end in the cross. Just as the seed must die to become the crop, just as Jesus must die to bring new life and transformed reality in resurrection – so too the church must die, so too the individual Christian must die. What this means in reality will vary. For some, it has meant very literal death. For others it means death to an old self, and old way of being. For some it means, even, standing against the very church that they have emerged from.

The death of the Church

 The church is dying. In Europe, which is where I am trying to minister anyway, the Church is dying. And yet, so often I am told that I am not allowed to say this. This is being defeatist. This is to lack faith. Well. Enough – I say. I won’t live with that argument any more. To state that the Church is dying is to live in the midst of Christ’s story of death, Holy Saturday and Resurrection. It is to say that death is not the end, but the beginning. The Church is being called to its death. That is absolutely not to say that the there will not be the Church. There will be followers of Christ who together are greater than the sum of their individual parts. There will be the body of Christ on earth. There will be those who do not belong to the world called into the world. Whether there will be a United Reformed Church around to pay my pension, however, I doubt very much. But at the moment we seem to be denying this. We seem to be flailing around attempting anything and everything, and blaming everyone else in horrible ways. It is the fault of Church House. It is the fault of the gays. It is the fault of the Evangelicals. It is the fault of ministers. It is the fault of congregations. We all have our favourite scapegoats. Stop! I say. Stop! “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have send me.” (John 17:20-21)

It is not them over there. It is us. You. Me. All of us. We are a faithless people. We have wandered into the wilderness – we might even have been led their by God. Our sin is collective. We stand accused together. Why is it that our churches are far emptier on Good Friday than Easter Sunday? Can we not cope with the message of the cross? And yet, are we not called to ‘proclaim Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Cor: 1:23). Why do so many people go to church or get involved in church activities because they think someone else is getting something out of it, even though they are not being fed? Why do so many ministers run scared of preaching the gospel as they truly understand it because they are scared of upsetting peoples faith (and I suspect we all have our moments we have done that)? Why do so many people in our churches think that the gospel can roughly be summed up as ‘if I’ve been good enough my soul will go to heaven when I die’ when scripture knows nothing of this message? Lord, have mercy.

What if, just perhaps, maybe, the Church was called to be Christlike as it faces death? We stopped along the way to think about the way in which Christ faced his journey to Jerusalem. He did not seek it out – in fact at times he stayed out of the way of those out to kill him. He did not want it, and desired to ask the Father to relieve him of this (in fact, in other gospel accounts he actually does do this). And yet he equally does not turn his back on Jerusalem. And we noted that strange relationship between time and eternity that runs at the heart of all of this. God is indeed sovereign over all things – over the life and death of the Church even. And yet, the human Jesus in heading to Jerusalem plays his part in the outworking of that which always had been within eternity. We noted too, that incredible tension between standing in God’s grace, and our decision for God. What if our decision for God has to be a decision to face the death of the Church in the sure and certain hope of resurrection? What if that is what is written in the book of life for our institutionalised Churches within Europe?

We seem, somehow, to be living at the moment on one side or another of the grace and decision tension – rather than living with the tension. Some churches and movements within the church are simply leaving this in the hands of God. God will do what God will do, seems to be the feeling. ‘It will see us out’, is sometimes said (Lord, have mercy). Well. It won’t see some of us out – of that there is little doubt. And yet, on the other side are those running around busily trying to save the church. Schemes and programmes galore. New appointments, mission development officers, evangelistic programmes, advertising campaigns. And what is all of that about? – trying to save the Church. Trying, in my own denominations case, to save the United Reformed Church. And the danger in saying all of this is that I end up scapegoating  too. I don’t want to do that, even though I fear I do (Lord, have mercy).

But just imagine. What would happen if we decided to face death squarely? What would happen if our faith in resurrection was so strong that we could indeed walk our own way to Jerusalem? What would happen if we lived that way? What would happen if we embraced the death of the institutional church? What would happen if we truly believed that in baptism we were joined to the story of death, holy Saturday and resurrection that is the pattern of reality that we see in Christ? What would happen if we believed in baptism that we really were joined to God’s people such that we really were Christ’s body in the world?

Just imagine. What would it be like if we found a way to recognise our common collective guilt and faithlessness? What if it were possible to recognise that in so many ways we have been attempting to keep a particular culture of the non-conformist chapel alive, rather than the gospel? What would happen if we recognised that the form of church life we have received and still often live was about giving people something to do in their free time when they had no money to pay for anything to do? What would happen if we recognised our colossal failure to teach a gospel of grace and decision, and had replaced it with fear of eternal punishment of the soul after death if you’ve not been good enough, and that we have often used this as a means of social control? What if we acknowledged that our own existence has become paramount – and often that amounts to keeping our building open? What happens if we acknowledge our sin that so often our church life has indeed been nothing other than an opiate, a pain killer that stops us complaining about the reality of life in the world as it really is, when Jesus seemed to be deeply concerned about life in the world as it really is? What happens if we acknowledge that so often our faith has been a way of allowing us to behave like spoilt little children that believes that everything must be for their benefit from the big Daddy in the sky? Marx and Freud were onto something, you know. And what would happen if we managed to do all of this without blaming you over there, or them over there? What would happen if I said that I was to blame? What would happen if I acknowledged that it was my sin, my desire to place myself in the middle of things rather than God that had led to this situation? What would happen if we were willing to acknowledge that it was us? Lord, have mercy.

What would it be if we were to think that we need now to discern that God’s plan for us is indeed that the institutional church as it is, certainly the URC, is not destined to survive? What if we turned to face Jerusalem and sought to find a good death? It is one of the saddest things I read once (heaven only knows where) that in a survey it had emerged that people of faith (so-called) found death far more frightening than those without. This is often anecdotally the experience of hospital chaplains too. How terrible is that (Lord, have mercy)? Why are we so scared of death? Why can we not die with hope? Why can the church collectively not seek to die well?

And in practical terms, what might this mean? Well...to some extent heaven only knows, but together I think we need to begin to think about it. What if we actively sought to help local congregations die well? It’s possible – people can worship elsewhere. People can feel actively freed from the dead weight of buildings and processes that can’t be sustained any more. What if we gave up on many of our prized structures? Can we really die well with Synods that hold 54 million pounds of unrestricted reserves between them? What if baptism and church membership began to mean something? What if we covenanted together that we wanted to hear the really difficult things about the gospel, rather than seek reassurance all the time? What if we simply shut up shop completely to see what would happen next? Something would. If no URC was open next week for worship – who would be found worshipping elsewhere, or have gathered in a house or a pub and carried on worshipping there? Perhaps there one might find the seeds of resurrection hope.

But let us no longer seek to say that dying is bad. It is not bad. Let us not say that to think about the way in which we manage decline is sinful and lacking in faithfulness. Let us live resurrection shaped lives that believes that quite literally at times the church needs to take up its cross and head for Jerusalem. It needs to realise that in God’s eternity where all things already are possible, sometimes our decisions for death are required for life.