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!