“Master, it is good for us to be here.” Luke 9:33
The Church of England is visibly dying. A learned friend recently compared it to the final days of the Soviet Union, the bishops being like the Politburo gathered at Lenin’s mausoleum, unable to stop the crumbling of their empire. The death of the old ways may open the way for the emergence of a church that is recognizably Christian, instead of the moribund institution the Church of England has become.
A perusal of advertisements for clergy for parishes would reveal that churches have confused busyness with holiness. To have a list of activities, all of them well-attended; to have a multiplicity of buildings; to have the best equipment and the best technology; to have numerous members of a ministry team; these things have been seen as signs of being faithful, but where in the Gospel are such signs to be found?
Does the Gospel ask for churches where each tried to outbid its neighbour with what they have to offer? Does the Gospel ask for noise instead of silence? Does the Gospel ask for frenetic activity instead of stillness? Does the Gospel ask for boasting instead of humility?
From the late Nineteenth Century, busyness became the purpose of the church. Churches tried to provide a complete culture in which their people would live. Churches provided a community. They provided education. They provided social and sports activities (Manchester City Football Club began as the team of Saint Mark’s Church, West Gorton). Churches provided welfare and health facilities. People, well, some, at least, played their part by going to church.
But as people became wealthier, they made their own choices, and 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 for 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. After the Second world war, when people needed welfare and health care, there was a range of state services. The whole structure to which churches had devoted so much time and resources began to fall apart.
What response can the church make? The only response to a society that no longer needs the church for material things is for the church to do the things it was meant to do. The church’s task was to share the story of Jesus, to seek holiness and not busyness.
Perhaps the church lost confidence in the story, it no longer believed in the way it had believed in the past. It sought to hold on to its members by doing all sorts of things that weren’t its concern because it thought that people were no longer interested in the story of Jesus. Its efforts to hold on were in vain because as soon as people found a better option than what it was offering, they disappeared.
The problem lay not in the story of Jesus, but in the church’s way of telling the story. The church has presented people with a dry and formal religion instead of a sense of the holy, a sense of mystery, a sense of wonder.
The Scripture readings present us with this mystery in unmistakable terms. Moses meets with the Most High at Mount Sinai, one who is shrouded in mist and whose presence is terrifying. One whose presence appears to people as being a consuming fire.
Paul realises how this sense of the most high can transform people. He writes in his second letter to the church at Corinth, “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” This transforming power sends people out to change the world, Paul says “by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”
The present times are not new times. The Church of England has been here before. At the beginning of the 18th century the Church was dry and formal and dying and there emerged the Methodist movement with its emphasis on personal faith and lively worship. At the beginning of the 19th century the Church had again sunk into a trough and there emerged the Oxford Movement with its concern for holiness and beauty in worship and a sense of the greatness of God.
The Church does need need anymore strategies or slogans or mission statements, it does not need bishops or archdeacons, or all the other functionaries. What it does need is to recover what has always been there, the story of Jesus in all its fullness. The story of the Most High breaking into the world and being with people. All the Church has to offer is this story. If it has not the confidence to tell it, then it has nothing, and it is poor indeed.
“Master, it is good for us to be here,” says Peter. To be filled with a sense of that mystery is to be filled with the courage to go out to face the world, to face a hostile world, with the story of Jesus.