The shape of the Church

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 01:17am on 3rd December 2011

I worship regularly in a building which is no longer fit for purpose.  The Church community has outgrown its accommodation.  During the summer, the proverbial change being as good as a rest, I visited my local Anglican church instead.  The experience was warm, welcoming, friendly, informative, peaceful, Scripturally and ethically sound.  So far, so good.  The ministers, powerpoint and printed materials proclaimed: the Church is more than the building, it is the people, the relationships, the activities, the community and its outreach.  However, after the service the preacher told me he wished Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and its local branches would drop the label ‘Churches’ and replace it with ‘Christians’, contradicting the message I’d received throughout the service that suggested the two were synonymous.  The Gospel that Sunday had asked the disciples to consider Jesus’s identity.  My experience prompted me to consider the nature of the Church. 


This is not a new topic, with its roots in Scripture poetically detailed in popular hymns like Marty Haugen’s All are Welcome and Chris Walker’s We are the Church, among many others.  But it’s a topic of significance at the moment, as several respondents to the recent liturgical changes couch their frustration in phrases such as: ‘Church rules now demand’ or ‘the Church teaches’ as if the speaker or writer or blogger is at a distance from the Church being criticised.  Such comments pit individuals against an image of an oppressive authoritarian institution.  Of course, the Church is an organisation, a bureaucracy, a hierarchy, but we’re fooling ourselves to think we play no part in that.  We may not all be Bishops but our interaction with clergy as parishioners, family, and neighbours cannot but affect who they are and the decisions they make.  Many lay people sit on Committees which formulate Church documents articulating doctrine, and these official documents, even when constructed entirely by senior clergy, reflect some expression of the sensus fidei because the clergy are members of the faithful.  Ordination does not remove priests from the people of God – it is their particular vocation within it.  The line between Church hierarchy and Church whole does not separate but it links.  Who we are and what we do is what the Church teaches because we are the Church.  The reality of who we are as individual human beings is mirrored in the Church.  Just as there are aspects of ourselves we may find troubling, whether or not we choose to address them, so there are likely to be features of the Church which cause us discomfort.  Similarly, the wonder of who we are, in complexity and beauty, is amplified in the Church.  Within the Church we become as lovable and desirable to Christ as a bride is to her husband, indeed, in an even more intimate union, we become the body of which Christ is the head. 


Thus we continue to pray, every time we approach the altar to receive Communion:


                Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.


The all-encompassing nature of the term has coined the secular phrase ‘a broad Church’, which persists in general use, even when the Church is criticised as restrictive and narrow-minded.  Thanks to this expansive definition, some recent new expressions of Christianity are reevaluating and repopularising the term.  International modern Christian movement Hillsong calls on ‘the Church’ to sing out when directing congregational singing, and addresses its professionally filmed e-bulletins to ‘the Church’, unashamedly adopting a term that has been rejected in other places as an anachronistic label.    The Church Has Left the Building by Rob and Andy Frost (Authentic Media: Milton Keynes, 2008) details the emergence of the Pentecost Festival in London, annually promoting creative expressions of faith to the wider community across the capital.  The book and the Festival are happy to employ the term Church to describe believers from a wide spectrum of Christian traditions collaborating under one banner in outreach to the media and society.  In this context, the Church retains its distinctive identity even beyond its walls. 


Yet building without walls doesn’t make a home, and fences make good neighbours.  The Church needs to be a good neighbour, and provide a home.  Until the present day, there are examples of church buildings used for unofficial sanctuary for those in danger of deportation.  But restricting our definition of church to the building alone can lead to a fortress mentality, where a clique establishes its own safety and security to the exclusion of all others, and becomes self-sufficient and dependent on its own resources to the extent that any external influence is experienced as a threat.  Discipleship is unsettling – no sooner have we built walls to make a home, a sacred space fit for worship, a community capable of fulfilling Christ’s mission than we find ourselves moved on again, the walls torn down and something new rising up in its place.  Without devaluing efforts in construction and exterior design, Scripture suggests a greater concern with the foundations:


You are built upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, the cornerstone being Christ Jesus himself.  He is the one who holds the whole building together and makes it grow into a sacred temple dedicated to the Lord.  In union with him, you too are being built together with all the others into a place where God lives through his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:20-22)


I think being Catholic constantly reminds us that membership of a Church isn’t restricted to a single location or group of people.  In the daily office at Iona Abbey, morning prayer begins with the dialogue:


If Christ’s disciples keep silent: These stones would shout aloud.


Our surroundings communicate something of all they have witnessed.  So whether we worship somewhere large or small, shabby and dull, or majestic and bright, the church resonates with the prayers of the saints. 


Reproduced from Issue 343, Volume 37, Number 3/4 of Music and Liturgy, October 2011, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory



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