Holy, holy, holy

Feb 12th, 2007 | By | Category: Ministry

We read chapter 4 from the book of Revelation at church yesterday.


It’s a passage of Scripture that sounds odd to 21st Century ears, but one that points to how the Church might recover is lost ground

I was at theological college from 1983 to 1986. It was a time when the Church of Ireland seemed deeply committed to building programmes and to organisations. The parish in which I lived, and in which I trained, was very much in the Church of Ireland mould. There were numerous organisations using the parish facilities morning, noon and night and there was a building programme in hand to extend the parish hall. The parish seemed to be thriving. Similarly, when it came to applying for a position as a curate the attractive parishes were those with a great list of activities. Busyness was seen as a sign of success and, presumably, faithfulness.

All through the time there was a voice of disquiet in the background. It came from Pat Semple, our lecturer in adult education. Time and again he pointed out that the Church with the highest level of its members attending was the Greek Orthodox Church, people in Greece went in huge numbers, young and old. Close your parish halls, he said, close down your organisations. Do the things you are meant to do.

Most churches at the time were trying to provide a complete culture in which their people would live. Churches provided a community. They provided education. They provided social and sports activities. They provided welfare and health facilities. People, in turn, played their part by coming along on a Sunday.

This way of doing things worked well until the last decade when the whole thing started falling apart. The roots of the slide in church attendance are probably very material. People became wealthier and, greatly influenced by the media, they became much more secular.

People could find their own sense of community without belonging to a church. They would use church schools where these fitted in with their approach to life, but they would shop around far the best ones. If they wanted sports or social activities they would go to the best available, not to what the church had to offer. When people need welfare and health care, we now have a range of state services. The whole structure to which we had devoted so much time and resources began to fall apart. The Church of Ireland has been caught in a downward slide.

The Church cannot compete with secular attractions, even if it was right to do so. The only response to a society that no longer needs the church for material things is for the church to listen to Pat Semple’s advice, do the things you are meant to do.

The church’s task is to share the story of Jesus Christ. We drifted from that role because we lost confidence in the story, we no longer believed in the way we had believed in the past. We sought to hold on to our members by doing all sorts of things that weren’t our concern because we thought that people were no longer interested in the story of Jesus. Our efforts to hold on were in vain because as soon as people found a better option than what we were offering, they disappeared.

The problem lay not in the story of Jesus, but in our way of telling the story. We have presented people with a dry and formal religion instead of a sense of the holy, a sense of mystery, a sense of wander, and even a sense of fear, in the face of the most high God.

Leave Comment