You sometimes find, in my neck of the woods anyway, folk who say they’ve no time for ‘religion’, they believe in Jesus, they have a personal relationship, and they need no other company. We all come to him as he would have it, and I’ve nothing to criticise there, but I am puzzled nonetheless. Religion comes from the Latin word ligare which means ‘to join’ or ‘to link’. We are linked/joined to God, but in that we’re linked to others; we are children of God – not orphans. if we are adopted, we are not only children. We don’t come across lone Christians wandering about in the New Testament – Christians join together in churches and are, collectively, The Church.
We can see what folk who object to religion are getting at. It is usually what used to be called ‘priestcraft’ – the idea that there are some in Church who lord it over the others, and, beyond that, the way in which Christianity was coopted by the Monarchs to bolster their prestige. No doubt to be a ‘Lord Bishop’ with a seat on the House of Lords and lawn-sleeves is a fine thing – but to the way of thinking of some of us, it isn’t a very Christian thing unless it is done with humility. No doubt some folk are so good that they can manage to be a ‘Lord Bishop’ and not become proud, but what a temptation for the poor fellow; we should pray for such.
But just because sinners have, and do sin, and just because some aspects of religion may not be to our taste, does not mean we should reject religion. I can’t make out, myself, how you can be joined to God and not joined to the others who are; to be a Christian is to be part of a joining. I sometimes ponder whether those rejecting religion know what they are saying (I also wonder sometimes if they know what they are talking about at all – but that’s another topic for another occasion!)?
There’s no doubt that priests have lorded it over their flocks, but then there’s no doubt some evangelical pastors have done so too; it is the ones who have not – the majority – to whom we should be looking, and by which we can judge any ‘religion’.
I sometimes hear say that Protestants and Catholics have a different idea of the Church. Happen so, though since the Church is the body of Christ, and though we are many we are one body, I’m not sure quite what the difference is. I believe there is one church – in bits, to be sure in terms of communion with each other, but then, mutatis mutandis that’s what the RCC also holds when it talks about imperfect communion with itself. I’m not a fan of the idea of the invisible church. It would be a convenient way of avoiding looking at the scandal of division, but division there is, and we should be honest and admit it. If it fits with Catholic tradition to say Rome is the fullness of the Church, or with Orthodox tradition to say that the Orthodox Church alone is the one true church, then it fits with their traditions; perhaps they should both take a cold hard look at where those traditions have led them and the world and ask whether that fruit is the fruit of the outworking of the Holy Spirit or the pride of men?
In turn, my lot might care to wonder whether portraying ourselves as the embattled guardians of some kind of Primitive Christianity is not also a sign of the working of pride? Are bishops really so terrible a thing? Is Rome really the anti-Christ? Have we evangelised so well that our countries redound with praise of Christ? If the answer to this is no many times over, then we, too, might reflect in humility on our part in the divisions.
We are bound together. But as a wise man once said, we can hang together – or we can hang separately.