Is this what we are about?

Oct 18th, 2005 | By | Category: Church of Ireland Comment

Extracts from the speech proposing the report of the Diocesan Council for Mission at the Diocesan Synod of Dublin and Glendalough, 18th-19th October 2005.

For many of us the notion of ‘parish’ must be an increasingly difficult concept to sustain; the idea of the church as a community of people in a particular geographical area has become a remote memory. Within the geographical area of my parish, there are many distinct communities, some of which want nothing whatsoever to with others. People’s ties of community are less and less geographical—community is found through work, through sports clubs, through the gym, through leisure activities, through a mass of complex relationships. The idea that they belong to a particular community because they live in the same street as someone is increasingly alien—the only thing that creates ties in many places is when residents group together to deal with grievances

Trying to build the church on the structures of the past, when such structures only make sense within church circles, is increasingly difficult.

There are times when the work I try to do feels as ineffective as the Poles defending their country in 1939. Faced with the terrible onslaught of the Nazi invasion, all they could do was to use the organisation and the equipment they had, and so at one place they charged armoured vehicles with cavalry.

Perhaps I’m in a minority of one, but I feel I am fighting a losing battle against the overwhelming onslaught of what is happening in our society. I do not understand how to respond to the challenges of 21st century south Co Dublin and I despair of finding an answer.

What is reassuring is that Christians have been in this place in the past and that through the power of the Spirit, the Good News of Jesus has spread and flourished.

In the early days of the Church, Christians, as we know from the New Testament were very much part of the Jewish community. They would have shared the shock at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

Read through the pages of the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Paul, and you see Christians and Jews come to a parting of the ways. By around 85 AD the “Curse of Minimâ€? had been introduced into the prayers of the synagogue, a curse against heretics, particularly Christians, and the Christians found themselves put out of the synagogues.

The Christians found themselves standing alone in a society that was alien and frequently hostile. Read the letters to the seven churches in chapters two and three of the book of Revelation and you get some sense of the depth of feeling.

The landmarks with which they had identified had disappeared; the traditions to which they had belonged were no longer available. They were thrown back on their commitment to following Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

Christians were prepared to live as pilgrim people, with a sense that they were no more than sojourners, no more than transient people in a hostile land. It is amazing to follow the growth of the Church in the second and third centuries; it was on fire with life.

There were no structures to work with, no organisation to fall back on, there was simply faith in Jesus.

As we look around us at 21st century Ireland, I think that perhaps we are facing a similar challenge; that we must face a hostile world and regard ourselves as no more than a people passing through.

Christendom, the old established order that endured in Europe for a thousand years, has collapsed; try as we might we are not going to turn the clock back.

There is the temptation to try to stay where we are; stay put and hope that something will turn up. There must have been Christians who stayed in the synagogues; even when it meant reciting the Curse of Minim, they stayed on because they did not want to let go of their traditions and their past. They disappeared from history.

Churches are faced with that situation, unless we are prepared to go out into an uncertain and threatening world, then we will die.

The past has gone and what has taken its place maybe not what we like, but it’s all there is. Our society is unrecognisable from twenty years ago.

It is bewildering trying to think about the mission of the Church when the Church is visibly crumbling. Reflecting on our situation as a Church, and on the society in which we live, the Diocesan Council for Mission felt that the most important task for Christians was not to try to do everything. Our task, we felt, was to look at how we might better do the one thing the Church is asked to do: to go out and make disciples. How do we go out and tell the story of Jesus in a world that needs the Good News? How can we be better witnesses for Christ?

I don’t have any easy answer. If I had, I wouldn’t be struggling to keep my church going in the face of falling congregations, an ageing church membership, and indifference and apathy amongst the majority of the parish. Through the diocese I’m hoping to find new ideas, new inspiration, new hope.

I was ordained in former times, possibly the last year before the new ordination service was introduced; in the old ordination service, the bishop read the following warning to candidates for the priesthood,

“Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his Spouse, and his Body. And if it shall happen that the same Church, or any Member thereof, do take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensueâ€?

I have no desire to stand before the Throne of Judgment and be charged with negligence.

We are negligent if we fail to engage with our world in our times; if we fail to appreciate what a great treasure has been committed to us.”

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