by Lorraine Cavanagh
from Signs of the Times No. 59 - Oct 2015

A certain frisson comes with holding an unlit match to an already burning candle.

It has to do with the release of pent up energy and the satisfaction which comes with seeing pyrotechnics working in reverse; releasing fire from its own source while at the same time returning that energy to its centre which is the flickering candle.

From what I have heard, two of my blog posts In June (What hope for the Church in Wales? and Minding the Gap) on the state of the Church in Wales seem to be producing a similar effect, which suggests that it does not take much to re-ignite the fire pent up in the hearts of God’s people. It also suggests that the institutional Church (and not only the Church in Wales) needs to allow that energy to re-vision its life so it can become a new creation.

Becoming a new creation is not the same as replacing an existing structure. It requires that the institution allows the new life which is sourced within God to transform and re-ignite the whole, the Church’s body, mind and spirit. This suggests that if the Church’s life is to be truly re-created it must be re-ignited, or ‘re-figured’, from within by the energy which takes us beyond ourselves into God and allows us to see and understand ourselves and the world in a new way.1 Re-figuring makes it possible for vision to inform the way we do things and for dreams to become a reality. Where the energy needed for real transformation is allowed to flow from God to the core of the institution, priorities change and things happen.

This process has already begun in the hearts and minds of many of God’s people, not all of whom are church-goers. It has begun as protest, in the silent protest of those who ‘do God’ but do not ‘do church’ and in the more vocal protest of people who decry the Church’s spiritual and theological vacuity, and its sometimes overbearing treatment of them, while remaining doggedly faithful to their local parish. Both of these protests stem from the need to meet and know God in Jesus Christ, through the Church, and perhaps wrestle with God in the process. The Church’s missional call is, therefore, to be the locus of encounter with an enlivening and challenging God. Such a call, as the comments and email thread which followed my blog posts suggested, has nothing to do with the re-arranging deckchairs on the institutional Titanic.

This does not deny the need for effective management and competent administration, especially where they affect how the people who serve the Church are cared for and resourced. It is a process of re-orientation, throughout the existing hierarchical and (in the Church in Wales) patriarchal system, so God can be released in his people and, through them, re-energise the Church as it is; the match re-igniting the flickering candle. Re-orientation is about repentance; facing outwards not inwards.

Facing outwards changes the dynamic of the Church’s institutionally-tiered life. Dwindling resources and general decline in the Church in Wales are obliging its clerical centre to look beyond and outside the limitations imposed by its own self-conceptions to the circle of faithful witnesses on which it depends for its vocational meaning and viability.2 This is the rarely mentioned theological subtext of its planned ministry areas. The clerical centre will depend on the fire of the people who surround it for its own spiritual and vocational renewal. But that surrounding circle of faithful witnesses also needs to be energised from outside itself. Those who support their churches, in whatever capacity, will be energised through the intellectual and spiritual challenges brought to them from outside their own church circle, from those who do not ‘do church’ and, of course, from children and young people who do.3 Both the inner and the outer circles of the Church, as it exists at present, derive their energy and purpose through the fire already in the hearts and minds of those outside, or on the edge, of its boundaries and from the smaller and quieter voices within them. Part of the re-orientation process involves listening to these voices.

Re-orientation, or repentance, involves actively dismantling and crossing the kind of boundaries which control and constrain God’s people, and so keep them apart and inhibit joy. These are the boundaries of exclusion. But the excluded can also set boundaries within their own interest groups, allowing little room for re-orientation outwards, and hence for reconciliation. All of these boundaries reinforce a management system which is increasingly driven and motivated by the same controlling, empire mentality which governed the Church’s life in previous centuries.4 They need to be dismantled so that the Church’s life in the Spirit can be enriched at a greater depth and through diverse means and sources.5

The monarchical structure, reinforced by management, is essentially materialist. It reinforces existing barriers and creates new ones. But the turning around, the re-orientation to the source of energy which is already in the heart of the other, breaks down all such obstacles to faith by allowing the transforming power of God’s grace to come from those the Church is called to serve. Where boundaries and barriers are allowed to fall, faith begins to flourish. It becomes possible to receive the particular gifts which others bring so that learning and listening become part of the Church’s service to the world and to its own members.

If the Church is to be Church in the fullest sense, it must learn in order to serve. Learning and service are hampered by materialism in all its manifestations. There is a profound significance in the fact that Jesus took off his outer robe before washing the feet of his disciples, because, apart from practical considerations, the gesture symbolised the fact that material things and material concerns get in the way of service and stifle loving relationships. They obstruct the activity of divine love and the healing which comes with it.

We see this happening in the Church when clergy are overwhelmed by a bureaucratic legalism which holds the system together but makes intolerable demands on them personally. Clergy stress is primarily a spiritual problem exacerbated by dysfunctional relationships within the system. Where a priest’s emotional resources are drained and their vocational confidence undermined by inept management and lack of one-on-one pastoral care, it is not surprising that many feel out of touch with God. Spiritual barrenness and lack of proper pastoral care turn vocations into jobs and clergy into unhappy employees. The result is status-driven clericalism (what other incentive is left to them?) and the further damping down of spiritual fire by the dead hand of management.

Management and reorganisation become the overriding priority when the Church loses sight of what it is; God’s people who belong together in Christ, and of what it is about; welcoming others to belong with them in this holy and celebratory fellowship.

In freeing and empowering others, the Church is re-figured or transformed. It becomes the means and the locus whereby all its members are freed into becoming the persons they were created to be and where their gifts are valued. Where we see this happening, we see the Kingdom.

  1. I owe the term ‘re-figuring’, as a new way of apprehending the truth of things, to a central theme of Maggie Ross’s book Silence: A User’s Guide, DLT, London (2014) See especially ch.2.
  2. Although largely a management-led decision, the new Ministry Areas planned for the Church in Wales could, if approached in this spirit, become the means for re-orientation and subsequent renewal.
  3. Some of the most illuminating sermon comments I receive come from children in the congregation.
  4. Roger Haydon Mitchell argues that this in turn derives from within a penal substitutionary theory of atonement, driving the original Roman centrality and sovereignty on which monarchical and hierarchical Church structures are still modelled. The Fall of the Church, WIPF & Stock, Eugene, Origen (2013) p.23ff.
  5. This has been the underlying inspiration behind much of the ‘Fresh Expressions’ movement. See especially Dave Tomlinson Re-enchanting Christianity, Canterbury Press, London (2008) and the Deep Church movement for which see Remembering our Future: Explorations in Deep Church, Andrew Walker and Luke Bretherton (eds.) Paternoster Press, London (2007) especially ch. 2.