What happens to the individual is mirrored in the life of the collective. People and groups can be made to feel threatened by each other, or by something common to all, even if whatever it is they fear has not yet come about.
A nation may turn on itself when faced with imminent bankruptcy. A Church can turn on itself when faced with the spectre of its ultimate demise.
The challenge which is really facing the Church lies in finding a way to halt the knock-on effect of fear. We create such a healthy interruption of the fear syndrome and its destructive side-effects by looking at the unhealthy interruption which exists between the way we pray and the way we live our lives both individually and collectively.
These two sets of human interaction – how we relate to God spiritually and practically and the extent to which we do so as a Church or diocese, as well as in our own personal prayer lives, belong together, of course. But this is something which we perhaps take for granted without looking at the nuances and overlaps which exist between prayer and getting on with life, including that of managing the life of the Church or diocese.
Maintaining the connection, or minding the gap between prayer and life, begins with recognising that, as a Church, we are much in need of love, of being counted as worthy not only by God, but by each other. If we can recognise how much we need each other in this way, we will also find that we are all very much alike. We are together in this vital respect and our greatest strength, our commonality, lies in being fully open to the surprising joys which lie within our reach if we will only relax fully into this obvious truth.
As someone who has spent much of my life either directly or indirectly in a theatre environment, I have sensed this kind of commonality in the way an audience laughs together. This can happen in the context of preaching too. The preacher and the congregation laugh together at something which emerges in the sermon as absurd or funny, and in a single moment barriers fall. We all hear and understand something new together. Prayer that connects with life often makes itself felt when obstructions to human love are broken down, even if only momentarily, so that we can laugh, or ‘rejoice’ together in this way.
In the life of the Church in Wales (and no doubt in that of the Church of England), there are a number of fear areas which obstruct the growth of love and which could disappear if we would only let them. There is the fear which comes with years of unquestioning adherence to outdated rules and clerical customs, the latter including the way some clergy dress. These rules and customs alienate us from one another and put many people off coming to church.
There is the fear, especially among clergy (irrespective of gender), of losing power or prestige. This contributes to a fear of change and to a preoccupation with status. There is the visceral fear which many people have of articulate women (and of women in general), and the fear of LGBT people, both of which continue to haunt the Church and compromise its credibility in the world. Both of these can be traced to misguided notions of ritual purity, a partial reading of scripture and, in the case of LGBT people, to lingering but unquestioned social taboos. Taken together, all of these fears have directly contributed to what has come to be known as decline.
All of this suggests that bridging the gap between prayer and life requires that we create new openings for the love of God to flow into our life together. Creating new openings for God to reach us begins with every person being prepared to be vulnerable before him with regard to their own particular fears. Only then will it be possible for us to encounter him together as his Church.