The question of how we communicate Christianity is tied up with the question of what we think the Church is for. Too often discussions of this concentrate on what needs to be done to revive the Church (that is, what actions we need to take) rather than on what the Church is for (that is what God meant in founding it). Here I want to begin with some wise words from +Rowan Williams:
the Church is because God is and acts, not because of what we do or think. We did not invent the Church. The Church, the body of Christ, is given to us as the means of our particpation in an eternal reality .
He goes on to write: “to engage in mission is not to engage in a recruitment or publicity campaign. It is to seek day after day to extend the invitation built into God’s very being, the invitation to share God’s very life”. (God’s Church in the World, chapter 1).
Do we do this? To what extent does the prevelance of what one might call “management speak” in talking about the Church and its leadership get in the way of a theologically-informed approach to Ministry? As Professor Martyn Percy wrote in 2016 about the reform programme brought in by ++ Welby: “If the changes he is augmenting don’t have a theological root and depth, then the risk is that the change is one of mere pragmatism and expedient managerialism.”
It is sometimes said that whilst history does not repeat itself, historians do; the same thing might be said of large organisations. As anyone who has endured “Management training days” in any organisation will know to their cost, large organisations tend to buy into management-speak, with its “key performance indicators” (KPIs) and “performance targets,” often with the zeal of the neophypte convert. That said, it would be foolish to ignore gems of wisdom embedded in such programmes, though when examined they do seem to have a tendency to be statements of the blindingly obvious heavily disguised by jargon to make them sound more profound. When it comes to the Church, no doubt secular strategic theory has its place, but if it is not informed by faith, then it’s hard to see how the Church distinguishes itself from other organisations. If that is thought desirable, fair enough, but if it is an unintended by-product, that is a different matter.
Martyn Percy’s words here ring true four years after they were written:
Our calling is not to heroically rescue the church, or to save the world. God, in Christ, has already done both of these. It is this God we need to hear more about – and less about how people currently claim to be operating in his name.
Theology is not a detached exercise of the Christian intellect – or at least it ought not to be for a Christian – it is the life of the Body of Christ. As Rowan Williams has commented: “the Church cannot be reformed by human effort and ingenuity, any more than sin can be eradicated by good will.” (Gill & Kendall, Michael Ramsey as theologian, 1995, p. 12). If you define the Church as a human society for promoting certain kinds of behaviour or codes of practice as specified by an elite governing class, or if, in practice, that is what a Church becomes, and if your theology becomes, in effect an exercise in submission to one supreme legitimate source for imperatives in faith and morals, then that runs several sorts of risk – as history shows.
A Church which amounts to a supreme authority to which its members must unquestioningly submit runs the risks inherent in any organisation staffed by human beings. When Lord Acton commented that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely,” he was writing about the history of the Inquisition. As he told the then Bishop of London, Mandell Creighton:
There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means.
Three phenomena tend to accompany such a vision of what Church is: outward conformity out of fear or self interest; conformity because of agreement; nonconformity and schism. The fruits of the former are inward corruption in a whited sepulcre; the fruits of the second are intellectual stagnation and want of lively minds; and the latter, well it usually ends up with the leaders of any particular sect doing precisely what they began by condemning the leaders of their old church for doing: rinse and repeat.
But if we define the Church as a Divine Epiphany, that is a showing of God’s love for us as revealed in Incarnation and Resurrection, and a revelation to us, albeit through a glass darkly, of what can be known about the Infinite by the finite, then we build on rock. We are Christians, that is we are “in Christ.” We can abandon the limitations imposed by our nature which makes us see the Church as a project begun by Christ through His Apostles, struggling against the forces of darkness in this world, and which needs the application of human wisdom through (take your pick) the Inquisition, the Reformation, schemes of Church planting, better management structures or the like, to survive; it already exists in its fullness which is the Eucharist. The real unity of the Church is a sharing of that sacrifice offered once and for all.
Theology and history point, perhaps, in this direction. In the recent post on Junia, the question was asked “what did St Paul mean by ‘Apostle?'” The Bishop or priest presides at the celebration of the Eucharist in order to let the Messiah act through him (or, in the Anglican understanding, her). The first Apostles were not there by some decree of Canon Law, or because of some semi-occult belief that they had special powers denied to others, but because they represented Christ. It is in that showing that the Church exists in its fullness.
In its language and actions the Church is an assembly which draws us towards a fuller, deeper understanding that through the Incarnation and Resurrection, God’s love is poured out for us, not was poured out, but is poured out. It is because of this, because the Eucharist is the essence of the Church that we have missed it so much.