Sunday, 16 June 2013

Worship Club or Missionary Movement

Here's a brief extract from "Winchester Churchman" by the Bishop of Winchester, John Taylor, in 1975, in which he makes some interesting points about the place of the church in modern society. If anything, his words probably have more relevance today, although there are significant changes.

The most significant of these is the rise of the "New Age" and the modern Pagan movement.  John Taylor speaks of the missionary movement not as mass rallies (something I personally have little time for) but of joining "the great English pilgrimage that streams on Sunday morning to the beaches and the forest glades in order to find some imaginative opportunity for telling our stories to people who are never likely to hear them in any other way"

Back in 1975, religion was seen as something that would wither and die in the "secular state"; indeed in 1977, the book "The Myth of God Incarnate" appeared. A confused muddle of the word myth throughout the book led to a furore about it, but the general impact was to confirm to the general public that even Christian academics were regarding Christianity as false, in that sense of the term "myth".

But the New Age movement has seen a rediscovery of the power of the mythical, even if the term itself is not used, and alongside this the re-enchantment of the natural world. Far from being in the ascendancy, the atheism of Richard Dawkins and his fellow travellers is increasing resembling a fortress under siege, who are largely fighting battles against Christianity, but losing the battle against the modern turn to spirituality (as documented by Paul Heelas and others).

Modern pagans seek inspiration from the beaches and forest glades, and the connection to nature. But this are still the old traditions in Christianity which look at the time when there was a more agricultural and sea-faring community in Jersey. There is the Blessing of the Waters, Plough Sunday, Harvest Festival, Clipping the Church - fragments of ancient Christian culture that Ronald Hutton details in some depth in "The Stations of the Sun". And there are the ancient Celtic roots of Christianity in the Island. These could well be events on which the foundations of a new missionary strategy could be laid, more attuned to speak to the New Age sensibilities, and the modern focus on spirituality.

Worship Club or Missionary Movement
by The Bishop of Winchester, Dr. John Taylor (1975)

I AM CONVINCED that God is teaching our Church in these days how to recover the attitudes of a missionary situation, and our survival as an effective Church of the nation depends upon our readiness to learn that lesson. Perhaps my many travels in Africa and Asia have helped me to see this more clearly-For that is the greatest difference between most of the Churches there and ourselves.

We still assume that Christendom still exists, and it doesn't. A Christendom situation is one in which the Church is one of the dominant institutions in society, so dominant that one can take it for granted that `the man in the street' knows the basic stories on which Christian faith is founded and subscribes to the ethical standards that the Church sets for personal behaviour-subscribes to them even though he may fail to come up to them.

The Churches of Africa and Asia don't assume any such thing about the human populations to which they belong. They know how to accept the fact that they are a minority, sometimes a diminutive minority, without losing heart. They tell the stories on which their faith is founded, and they live, through the power of the Holy Spirit, by standards that are quite different from those of the majority. As a result, those Churches have an influence in their nations out of all proportion to their size.

When a great Hindu or Muslim procession streams past the doors of their little church building, it never enters the heads of those Christians to try to persuade the pilgrims to turn aside and enter the church. If they are a lively, confident congregation they may go along with the crowd, to tell their Christian story round the camp fire at night. That is what I mean by the attitudes of a missionary situation.

But we, on the contrary, often seem to have nothing to say to our fellow-countrymen except "Come back to church!" That word "back" betrays a favourite illusion of some of the clergy that every person they
pass in the High Street is a recently lapsed Anglican. That is the attitude of a Christendom, and Christendom has gone. But there is no reason whatever why we should be more dismayed by that simple fact of arithmetic than the Christians of India or Nigeria are dismayed. If we were lively and confident in our faith we might be led by the Holy Spirit to join the great English pilgrimage that streams on Sunday morning to the beaches and the forest glades in order to find some imaginative opportunity for telling our stories to people who are never likely to hear them in any other way. That could be a more appropriate response to our missionary situation than being in church ourselves.

We should, in that case, have to find a different time for our own regular worship, and we might come to it with a keener sense of why we needed it and what we were bringing into it.

The enormous changes that have taken place in every aspect of our lives compel us to ask ourselves what we actually mean by "the Church."

Do we want to belong to a worship-club or to a movement? To think of the Church as a worship-club is not merely derogatory. The ancient Romans, especially the army officers of the legions, often formed worship-clubs if they took their religion seriously. And a club is a much more accurate description of the way many people think of their local church than we realise. They like to come together with the same familiar fellow members to do something they all have in common, and for this purpose they contribute for the upkeep of their own premises and for the services of a paid official whom they expect to keep the organisation running and, if he is keen, to recruit new members of the right sort. That is all perfectly comprehensible. It precisely describes a tennis club, and just as precisely describes what a lot of people expect their local church to be.

The alternative is to be a movement, a mission, which exists not for itself but in order to bring a new element into the life of the world. A movement may also need its premises, but they are dispensable, it can get along without them, for it will use whatever is available as it spreads out through society.

There is, or course, much more to it than, and I don't wish to over-simplify. But I submit for your consideration, as individual Christians or as members of a Parochial Church Council, these two models-worship-club or missionary movement. Which do you really expect your church to be?

1 comment:

James said...

That word "back" betrays a favourite illusion of some of the clergy that every person they
pass in the High Street is a recently lapsed Anglican.

It's unfortunate that English law - which maintains an established church - would actually view the Everyman in exactly the way that Taylor's strawman clergy do.

Taylor was a man of considerable vision (his book, The Go-between God, is still well worth a read forty years on). It is regrettable that the Church of England has largely gone in the opposite direction and has put up the barricades; experience suggests that the situation in Jersey is rather worse than in England.