An evangelical Christian I knew in the North once said to me, “Ian, there are two sorts of people in the world, there are sinners saved by grace and there are sinners.” It is a distinction that has never found its way into the life of the Church of Ireland because the Church of Ireland seems never to have fully accepted the notion of grace.
In the Church of Ireland, being a member of the church is about belonging to an organisation, a community, a tradition; it is about ethos, about buildings, about institutions; but grace? Where would there be an expression of grace? Why would there be an expression of grace?
Grace is about God loving us for nothing; it is something that is not easy to accept in a church known for its respectability and work ethic. Grace challenges the natural pride of those brought up on a catechism that tells them they can shape their own lives and become “successes”. Grace makes us think about our faults and failings. Grace says that if we are not worthy of God’s love in our own right; that if we haven’t earned it, that if it has to be given to us for nothing; then our whole Protestant ethos is under challenge. Grace is not an easy thought for those convinced that they live upright, decent and respectable lives.
The average member of the Church of Ireland would be troubled by the idea that the only question they must answer is not how often they attend church, nor how much they subscribe to parish funds, and certainly not how long their families have been members of the parish, but that they must answer the question as to whether or not they accept grace, whether or not they accept free gift to us. In a church where the work ethic is all and where respectability is our brand, the idea that we cannot earn our own salvation, that it comes only by grace, runs counter to everything our tradition represents.
The majority of the Church of Ireland people simply do not believe the words of the prayer used at each service of Holy Communion, the collect for purity in which the congregation says, “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden . . .” People who believed that God knows what we are like, would behave differently. People who believed God knows every thought and every action, that he knows ever word and every deed, would behave differently.
Hearing of a colleague who feels no longer able to celebrate the Holy Communion in a church, because there is no spirit of penitence or humility among the people, confirms the conviction that we are a graceless church.