“I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:22
“All things to all people”, one could hardly suggest that the Church of Ireland has attempted to follow Saint Paul’s example, instead we have run the church in such a way that it seems to mean few things to fewer and fewer people. When we ask the question as to who runs the church, it is an important question because it is a question about for whom the church exists and it is a question about where the church is going.
Who runs the church? We hope the Holy Spirit is guiding those who take the decisons, but sometimes there is cause to wonder whether there is any space allowed to the Spirit.
Trying to explain the workings of the Church of Ireland to someone unfamiliar with it is not easy, the idea of a church for an area called a parish that has its own priest is simple enough, but then it begins to get complicated. Some parishes have more than one church, some priests have more than one parish, some parishes are independent but grouped together, other parishes were separate but are merged into something called a “union”. The person in charge of the parish is ordained as a priest, but is called the “rector”, or, in some places, the “vicar” and might have some other strange title as well. If you were a newcomer, it would be very confusing.
Who runs the church in the parish? Even the words we use are not simple – the select vestry elected at the annual general vestry meeting – how many people outside would understand what those terms meant? – is in charge of finance and property. Many select vestries have found themselves frustrated by how little power they have, everything concerned with worship and with pastoral care is at the discretion of the rector. Furthermore, the rector has “freehold”, it means that it is almost impossible for a rector to be removed, even if the person stops working. When we look at the churches to which Saint Paul writes and we look at the average parish, do we see any resemblance?
The parish exists within the diocese and some bishops imagine that it is the diocese that is the basic unit of the church and that the parishes just share in the ministry of the bishop. Parishes elect members of a diocesan synod who meet together with the clergy and the bishop to discuss the affairs of the diocese. The diocesan synod elects a diocesan council to run the diocese between synods and the council appoints various committees. Anyone who has been a member of some of these bodies will be aware of how frustrating they can be, they tend to be bodies that block rather than facilitate progress; places where people will question and criticise, but not where they have imagination and initiative.
Above the dioceses, we have the church at the national level, the diocesan synod elects members of the general synod, clergy and laity gather together with the bishops for the annual “parliament” of the church. General synod members elect members of the standing committee, which runs the church between synods, and members of the representative church body, which manages property and finance, and there are appointments to all sorts of boards and committees, some of which imagine that they speak for the whole church.
If you went to the Church of Ireland website, you could find the constitution and you could read through it chapter by chapter and you could find yourself wondering what it is all about, how did we go from a wandering Galilean preacher to chapters, sections, paragraphs and sub-paragraphs of a constitution?
I think our way of doing things has had its day. It is a nineteenth century way of doing things, running the church as if you were running a parliamentary democracy. Running the church by having elections and using parliamentary procedures, even the measures proposed at general synod are called “bills”, as if synod members were politicinas passing laws. Running the church by having a bureaucracy that functions like a civil service.
We are very attached to our structures, to having our own vestries, having our own dioceses, having our own bishops; we are very attached to holding onto what we have; no-one has explained to me how simply preserving structures is a reflection of the church we meet in the New Testament or the church of the early Christians. Parishes will fight for their independence ,but will never have shown how using that independence might allow them to follow the example of the early church.
Since the 1990s, the Church of Ireland has increasingly failed to work as a parliamentary structure. When parades became a violently contentious issue, the church authorities discovered there was virtually nothing they could to prevent a parish acting exactly as it wished. Other parishes watched what happened over the parades and realized that power in the church was at local level, bishops and synods might speak strong words, might pass resolutions, but without local consent, nothing would change. We have reached the point described in the final words of the book of Judges, in Judges Chapter 20 Verse 25 we are told, “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
Our structures no longer keep the church organised, more seriously, they no longer serve the mission of the church. While we continue with this great big superstructure, the church at the parochial level is crumbling. We have dioceses that penalise initiative and effort, where attempts to encourage growth bring demands from the diocese for financial support for parishes that are dying. If we keep running our church on this basis, we will simply run it into the ground.
When look at the church in the New Testament, when we look at the church in those first centuries of vibrant growth, we see from the Acts of the Apostles and from the letters of Saint Paul that the church was a network of independent churches, that there was no centralised authority, that churches were free to respond to their own situations without interference from the outside. Saint Paul has disagreements with churches, he expresses his disapproval of things, but he always seeks to persuade because he does not have the power to compel. The bishops in those early centuries were leaders of local Christian communities, they were not managerial figures in a large bureaucracy, their authority came from the local church, not from a large and remote institution. It was in such a church that the Holy Spirit had the space and the opportunity to work; we need to learn from those experiences.
The question about who runs our church is a question about whether our church is going to survive. The world has changed, the ways of the Nineteenth Century are not adequate in the 21st Century where all authority is treated with suspicion and where the idea of doing something because that is always the way it has been done is no longer accepted. If churches are to survive, they need to adapt to the world in which we live.
We have a great opportunity. We have a presence in our communities, we have the confidence that tradition brings, we have resources, but we have to learn how to be a church in the times in which we live, not a church in generations past. Who runs our church? We can run it – but we need to know why we are running it, and where we are going with it. If Saint Paul were writing a letter to the churches in Laois, what would he be saying to us? Do we dare become all things to all people?