The ‘nones’ (those who when responding to surveys tick ‘none’ in the box marked ‘religion’ but who might possibly tick C of E if pressed) need look no further for a home.
Bishop David Jenkins, that prophet of our time, once was heard to declare that God was not interested in the Church. God was all about the Kingdom.
It follows that if and when we stumble upon the Kingdom in the context of the Church, we do not need to look very much further to find God. The problem lies in defining the Kingdom, if such a thing is definable. You could say the same thing about the Church. It is not easy to describe what the Church is, still less what it ought to be, if it is to be true to its Kingdom calling.
The original commission to go out and make disciples has acquired a rather hollow tone, given the Church’s history of conquest and forced conversion, not to mention prejudice and plain hatred. But the kernel of truth remains. If the Church is called to be anything at all it is called to offer to the world the peace which only God can bring, the peace of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is even called to embody that peace.
Peace is its garment and peace is the substance of the body it clothes. It is called to give that body to the world, as Christ gave his. The Church cannot simply talk about peace in rather abstract terms overlaid with the clothing of pietism. We need to tend the hurt and resistant body, lest we be accused, like the Emperor who failed to realise that he had no clothes, of being completely naked.
It is the build-up of hurt and the resistance to healing which makes it so difficult for the Church to truly embody peace. As with any physical body, allowing wounds to fester without healing can make them life threatening. Could it be that something like this is happening in the life of the institutional Church? We keep knocking each other’s old wounds without pausing to consider the damage. We are more concerned with allowing our buildings to fall into disrepair than we are about healing the hurts which we have inflicted on ourselves.
At the more traditional end of the Church, we hide complacently behind beautiful but arcane (in the minds of many) liturgy, clerical dress and the kind of managerialism which consists mainly of moving the deckchairs on the Titanic. At the other end, as I have suggested in previous posts, lies a mixture of naïveté and hubris. I do not think that either of these scenarios provides a setting in which the ‘nones’ are likely to meet God in his Christ.
What is needed, before it is too late, is for the Church to take ‘time out’, a couple of year’s sabbatical perhaps, in order to focus prayerfully and pastorally on its relationships, particularly on those which relate to authority and the pastoral care of its people, clergy and laity alike. If the present hierarchical system of governance is to endure, those with the most authority must be subject to those with the least, as Christ was. It is the powerful who must begin this work of peace-making, because peace- making is both the mandate and the sign of true leadership.
Peace-making in the Church will entail the hard practical work of seeking forgiveness and the bridge-building which should follow; hard because it requires that everything that is not of love be burned away. Love must do the burning. This, incidentally, is about as close as it gets to the burning fires of hell. Hell is hell insofar as it is the ultimate conflagration of love vs. hatred. In the life of the Church the gates of hell appear to be impregnable, though, as Christ promised, they will not prevail. The fire of love will ultimately destroy them, even if the Church as we know it is destroyed in the process. The gates of hell are such that they bar human beings from the forgiveness which brings peace, from facing into all the private and collective betrayals, untruths and resistance to the goodness and giftedness in people which it has allowed over the centuries, and still allows, leaving only a hard shell of fear and mistrust, for those who experience the Church at close quarters. This makes embodying the peace of God for the world very difficult for them.
Thankfully, this is not always and invariably the case. There are acts of heroic self giving which pass unnoticed in the Church’s life. Priests who minister in and for the love of Christ, and whose work is largely ignored by the Church’s critics, embody the healing fires of love. Their work endures in the hearts of those whose lives they have touched. Bishops who are true to their calling as peace-makers and as pastors to their clergy do the same.