Everywhere, coming from every direction, I meet good
Christian people who go to church, good Christian people who do not go to
church, and many people of good faith and life who are dismayed at The Church.
It hardly begins to meet their deeper needs and hopes, it is seen to be full of
all sorts of holes, collapsing before their eyes. I used to work where the local
church tower could be seen for miles from every direction. A man who never came
once said to me "I know I don't come but I'd really miss it if it wasn't
there"; if he couldn't see it, though from afar. Not any more. The fact is
that The Good Ship Lollipop is going down, the iron-clad Titanic, Invincible
Church, the Church as we have known it, is sinking beneath the waves. Good old
church, always there. Not any more.
The Church in the West of the world is a symbol of a 'rapidly changing world', a euphemism for a declining civilisation. The Church as we know it is dying, even though in many places the local church is getting good palliative care. The hope and the expectation is that unlike the Titanic there will be enough life-rafts and rescue vessels to go round and anybody who wants to get on will be able to, but we shall have to be in for a few surprises at what turns up in the rescue operation. It may be a ship with an all-women crew. The cathedral in Seattle is a mighty place, hundreds upon hundreds worship there every Sunday and through the week and take part in a rainbow of different activities reaching out to the world in need and hope: the Dean, the man on the bridge of this particular ship and recommended by Desmond Tutu the famous Archbishop of Capetown during apartheid to leave South Africa if he wanted to survive, is young white and gay. Or again, take the fairly modern abbey/church and school at Worth Abbey in West Sussex where your heart will be lifted by beauty and kindness and vision.
There are house-churches springing up everywhere, just like the little ships which sailed into Dunkirk in 1940 to pick up a few here, a few there. New Christian communities, sometimes of unmarried men and women living together under one roof: people retiring early in order to minister to the church over an area or just in one local church: people going away on retreats and pilgrimages as never before, a must-have as part of their regular life. There are hermits too, living solitary lives of devotion and prayer, popping up allover, in isolated country places, on housing estates, city centres. And often now the local church is being adapted for use by the community at large for concerts, meetings, conferences, playgroups, soup kitchens, even as places where the homeless might come for temporary refuge, an overnight sleep.
New ways of worship sometimes, new language. There are
welcome signs out, the doors are opening. Or maybe the new 'church'
building will not be a 'church' at all in the old style but a row of
And mercifully the hardworking, ocean going container ships like Cafod, Christian Aid, Water Aid, Oxfam, War on Want, Shelter, The Tear Fund and the rest are now hove to as The Ship goes down with many survivors clambering on board, thankful to be alive. Oh yes! The Titanic is going down alright, not helped to stay afloat by seas of scandal washing across the bows. But thank God a more transparent Church is being given back to all the people. There is a church in the centre of Durham city known as the church in the market place, such a good name for a local church to have. It is important that the present Church is helped to move on with great care and dignity , as we should treat all dying things. One prophecy on a Cumbrian town was that at the end of the next generation there will only be one standard church building left in traditional use where at present there are many, and good churchgoing people are already having to learn with great courage and gentleness not to squabble, like mean relatives over the will and what they want to get out of it, about which churches may remain open. Christians have much to learn from one another.
It's hard when you are living through it, after all it is our life time. These are hard, lean, yet good times for churches for the central fact of the faithful life that Christians have to get hold of (and we are not very good at practising what we believe) is that death is not the opposite of life although we most commonly link life and death together. The opposite of death is - birth. It is a law of nature, a law of the universe. A new and better Church and a new and better civilisation can be born through these our dying days. But of course, as in all things, we can either sink or swim. It is our choice and the God I believe in does not intervene to make it easy. The God I believe in cannot intervene in that way, it is against the freedom we have been given. The God I believe in - and love, yes, passionately - suffers with us as we swim or sink in this life. And that suffering, with us, is our greatest gift.
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