Speech at the diocesan synod on Wednesday, 15th October at 5 pm(assuming that the surgeon at the clinic in the morning releases me)
The financial turmoil of these past months resulting in yesterday’s emergency budget is a reminder, as if we needed one, that there are no processes in human history that are inexorable; even things lasting centuries can come to sudden and unexpected ends. The collapse of financial institutions has exacerbated an already perceptible trend towards questioning the neo-liberal capitalism and modernist secularism that has shaped our societies in recent decades. Anyone who has followed the election results across Europe in recent months will have noticed a shift towards hard-line nationalism and scepticism towards institutions and governments. The rise of the Far Right is something that must be a cause for concern.
Crises, though, are always opportunities; times of questioning the passing of particular phases of our history are an opportunity for those of us who have a timeless message, one that endures in all circumstances. These days are ones of opportunity for the church to point people towards real riches, towards a wealth that does not depend on stock market indices. They are particularly days of opportunity for traditional churches like ourselves because traditional churches are those that have endured the cycles of history; those that have come through the Shakespearean slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. In times of uncertainty, the church speaks of communities who, through the grace of God, have come through dark days and uncertain days, and days when the world as we knew it seemed to be coming to an end.
At meetings of the Diocesan Council for Mission we have been mindful that the need is for a strengthening of the church where it is because where it is, in towns, in villages, in communities, pointing towards eternal things, is where it needs to be, and we have looked around and we have said, “What is going on? What good news stories are not being heard? What resources are on our own doorstep that we haven’t even noticed?” What became apparent, when we looked, was that God was doing all sorts of things, that the Kingdom was being built, but that we weren’t telling anyone about many of the things that were happening.
Perhaps we need to be more confident about who we are. To be dismissive towards history and heritage would be to be naïve in our understanding of the world and neglectful of our ability to speak to communities in a way that no other body can. In her book Journeying Out, the mission writer Ann Morisy says, “The fact churches have been present in a community for decades, if not for centuries, counts for something. No other agency will have the voice and depth of history that the church represents, and the local church must harness and be allowed to harness, this asset wisely and generously because it cannot be easily replicated”.
Morisy says that only the traditional church can provide ceremonies apt for particular moments. Ann Morisy says that incidents such as the Soham murders in England challenged the church to do what only it could “to give the community access to the church’s substantial repertoire of high symbols in order to provide succour in their intense distress”. I think we saw that here in 2001 when the national day of mourning for the victims of the September 11th attacks was an occasion when only the high symbols of the traditional church would have sufficed.
We have been given the privilege of receiving a heritage that places us at the heart of communities, of having a profile that is often far, far bigger than our numbers would merit, but that privilege brings with it the responsibility—the responsibility to be truly parochial, to be churches in and for places, and not to be congregational, not to be gatherings of people unmindful of our localities. We have the responsibility to be churches that are communities for all the people in our care, not just the people who are like us, not just the people we like.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, preaching at Loughlinstown last year, said, “When we speak of community we should remember that the church is the community not just of the saints, but of those who are struggling, of those who fall and fail. Community is the place where people are welcomed and are carried and where we can learn from one another without any prejudice”. This is the fullness of the mission that Jesus describes and this is the sort of church that as a council for mission we must try to support, in our sometimes fumbling, hesitant and uncertain ways, by whatever means we can find.
Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees about the people with whom he associated, their concept of holiness demanded separation from such people, Jesus responds in simple terms, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Archbishop Martin’s vision of community is one that includes those who are struggling, those who fall and those who fail. Such a community is only possible by the church embracing society, including its sinners. Where people must choose to join the church, the very people most in need of the Good News, those furthest from God, may feel that the church has nothing to offer them and that they have no place in the church.
Our church would be arrogant if we did not acknowledge the diversity of our society and there is space for diversity within our church, for the church to seek to express itself in new and creative ways, but at our heart we must be the community of God’s people drawing other people into the life of that community. If our church is not God’s community embracing the whole community and engaging with every aspect of society, then what we offer are just choices amongst the many choices available; then our values are just the values of one group amongst many groups, each with its own set of values. We are in a market place, where competing interests scream for attention, if we believe in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, then we do not serve his claims by being winsome.
Being a community that accepts those who fall and those who fail means we fall short of the ideal church of the New Testament. There is a danger in being parochial that our community becomes an end in itself rather than as a means of pointing people towards Jesus Christ; a community that has sinners as well as saints is not perfect. Yet if we are a community that draws people into its life, if we are a community focused upon Jesus rather than ourselves, then we have the opportunity that otherwise simply does not exist, to fulfil Jesus’ commission to make disciples of all people.