Saturday, March 01, 2008


People sometimes ask me, apropos stuff that I write here, elsewhere or on Ekklesia, "what kind of churches are on this wavelength?" Or "can I find a church that lives the post-Christendom hope?" Well, yes, of course. I list some of them here on FaithInSociety. Often this question arises from some profoundly negative experiences or appraisals of institutional church life or of overbearing authority. Ones that I can very much identify with. Back in 1999 (with some amendments in 2002) I wrote an impassioned piece called Facing back or hoping forth? Based on a lecture, it still expresses my core convictions, though in its evident desire to demolish the negative, the unhelpfully fixed (stuck), the sacerdotal (as distinct from the sacramental), the hierarchical, the exclusively clerical, and the institutional, it may fairly be accused of lacking sufficient attention to preservation and transmission. There is a legitimate conservatism that is part of the overall mix, as well as one which holds us back and refuses the God who is always ahead and beyond.

But in spite of its many lesions and sins, the church - understood as a plural reality with a singular focus - comprises those communities of conviction that convey the Gospel in word, deed and mutuality. Or not, as the case may be. Usually it is a mixture of the two. We are human. As Jon Sobrino says in his wonderful book The True Church and the Poor (SCM), what is authentic within the life of the gathered and dispersed Body of Christ in the world is finally something revealed by God, not something inherent within any particular human institution. Even (perhaps especially) one that claims to be 'of God'. The church is, or is not, what it says it is in its proximity to, or avoidance of, the wounds of Christ in the world. So, though I flinch at some expressions of this (which can be very inward-looking), the notion of church as exemplary community increasingly strikes me as vital in order to give concrete expression to the personal and social transformations we seek.

Church can be a real pain, for sure. But I have little time for the self-loathing and abandonment that some rightful critiques of ecclesial power can lead to - not least because they often end up in acts of misplaced faith: projecting the kingdom of God onto this or that worldly order. I got caught up in that myself in Nicaragua in the 1980s. And while I don't at all knock the social experiments that many of us have been involved in through liberation theology, the broken dreams of Sandinismo ought to tell us where we went wrong as well as who and what we should trust. [Liberation theology after Christendom is a theme to which I shall return]

So what can and should the church-as-witness be, in different ways and in different places? The answer is a vulnerable but hopeful group of people narrated together in the story and life of Jesus, in such a way that we find ourselves linking worship (the right designation of worth-ship), prayer (seeking the grace to live beyond our means), eucharist (the celebration of God in the fleshly and the material), common life (people-at-odds who surprisingly find each other in the face of Christ) and politics (re-rendering power in terms of giving rather than claiming). This doesn't happen in one particular denomination. I know Anglican, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite and other peace churches where it occurs very powerfully. Plus others where it does not. However the project of renewing, re-energising and re-visioning church from the grassroots is for me crucially linked to the struggle for peace, justice and sustainability within the larger world.

This is because the Gospel puts us onto a source and understanding of hope which is utterly distinctive, though frequently betrayed - the power of a love that can undergo and triumph over brokenness because its basis is not our frailty but the endlessness of divine potentiality received as gift. This is the shape of who and what Jesus is in the purposes of God and the fluency of the Spirit. If you can get that down your supermarket, through democratic bargaining, through religious obeisance, or in an adversarial, rights-based order, do let me know. I haven't spotted it yet. Or in the institutional church, very much, sadly. Instead, it often arises in unexpected people and places - not just Christian ones, but among those of all faiths and none. The Spirit blows where she will, as the Gospel puts it. It is these places in which ekklesia, both explicit and potential, named and unnamed, actual and anticipatory, happens. But how? [to be continued]

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