Our long-time commentator, Jock, recently wrote “as far as ‘church’ goes – it is the police (gestapo) aspect that concerns me most of all.” That is to be read in the context of a long dialogie about “church” and what it means. Here, some words of Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and one of my favourite theologians, might be called in aid. Commenting that when “we say we believe in the church, we do so only and always in terms of our belief in the God who judges and raises up.” He then goes on to add:
The mistake of ecclesiasticism through the ages has been to believe in the church as a kind of thing-in-itself. The apostles never regardfed the church as a thing-in-itself. Their faith was in God, who had raised Jesus from the dead, and they knew the power of the Resurrection to be at work in them and in their fellow believers despite the unworthiness of them all. That is always the true nature of belief in the church. It is a laying-hold on the power of the Ressurection. And because it is that, it is always on the converse side death: death to self; death to worldly hopes; death to self-sufficiency; death to any security for the church or for Christianity, other than the security of God and the Resurrection. [The Gospel and the Catholic Church].
It is a reminder to us all of what can be so off-putting about the Church – and by that I mean any Church, not simply my own.
In my own Church, as in others, the pejorative description is “clericalism,” which in practice is often no more than the sort of professional camderarderie which can, and therefore does, grow up in any organisation. It is when it gets out of hand, when it appears that what matters is the church itself, not in terms of our belief in God, that things can go badly wrong: it is at the root of all the clerical abuse scandals. It is easy enough to understand how a cleric’s reaction to child abuse, or other sorts of abuse, could be to seek to temper the damage done to the church by “moving on” the suspect, but what is less easily understood, except in terms of clerical group-think is how anyone could have imagined that the longer-term damage would not be more severe; what is impossible to understand is why the first thought of any cleric was not for the victim of the abuse. But, it might be protested, organisations often behave in this self-protective way, to which the answer in the case of the church would be to quote Archbishop Ramsey. Belief in the church as a “thing-in-itself” is ultimately self-defeating.
If the church, any church, seems centred in its own concerns, the chances are that it has lost touch with what, or rather Who, it is there for. Decades of well-meant ecumenism have shown that at national and local level “churches together” can act as one, and the communities where that happens benefit from it. During the current crisis many churches have worked together to help those in need locally. We hear little about that, and much about the supposed failure of Bishops to challenge the Government’s regulations from well-meaning critics who argue one side of a case as though it were the whole picture.
Our faith is in God, and for all the failures of the men who lead it and have led it, the Church is the repository of the dogma and doctrine that has been received from the Apostles. One is at liberty to doubt that, and given the number of churches, it is natural that it should be so. But absent that belief, what have we but a free for all where one person says “x” and another “y” and there is no way of deciding, for example, between the statement that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins, rose again on the third day and ascended into Heave, and that He will come again in glory to judge the living and dead, and statement that he was a very good man who went about doing good deeds and died a cruel, but ultimately pointless death? That was not how the Apostles and their their successors proceeded; it cannot be how we proceed.
If we remember and heed Archbishop Ramsey’s advice, we shall at least not swerve far from where we should be. As Jock, like so many, have discovered, the gap between the rhetoric and the reality can be one down which so many people fall. There have been many during the crisis who have claimed that “church” is more than the building, a response to an allegation no one has ever made, though if someone can supply a source for someone saying “the church is just a building” it would be interesting. We might, however, all with profit ponder on Ransey’s words: “we say we believe in the church, we do so only and always in terms of our belief in the God who judges and raises up.”