I have just finished “The Invisible Church” by Steve Aisthorpe. For those who think that they might get any comfort for the established Church out of its pages, I’m sorry, don’t waste your time, you will find that probably that the institutional Church will continue its gentle slide, if not to irrelevance, a peripheral position in Society.
For those however who have drifted away from the institutional Church or who are uncomfortable with it, here is hope, here in fact is the ringing declaration that Christ still calls people to follow him, just that it may not be in the well-known institution and certainly that worshipping him does not necessarily have to take place on a Sunday between certain hours.
When I was being interviewed for my first Congregation, in reply to one of the questions about looking after the members or the wider community, I asked whether they saw a Church as a sheep fank? Over the years this imagery has broadened out to include ideas of whether Jesus told his disciples to be fishers of men or to be keepers of the aquarium. The problem is that no matter how we put forward these images, we are making the fundamental error to confuse the people of God in the community with the institutional Church. Even the most basic knowledge of words about God should mean that we distinguish between the two. The problem is that we haven’t. Ever since the Constantinian Compromise (when the Christian Church became the Church of the Roman Empire) the institutional Church had the franchise. For the next 1200 years they could even kill people for the good of their souls. Even after the Reformation, Christians killing Christians in love was still practiced. The Church was (and very largely still is) seen as the building to which never more than a minority of the population went willingly on a Sunday.
Now while it is understandable for people outside the institution to think of the presence being marked by a building, those inside the Church also have difficulties in seeing past the institution. They may not see their physical building as representing the totality of the Church, but for them the Church is at least the people who join with them of a Sunday and if they are being especially open minded they will also include other people who worship at a similar time and in a similar building. Those who are physically outside the Church are lost.
The question which “The Invisible Church” asks however, recognises that there are a large number of people who for one reason or another would see themselves as followers of Jesus but who do not have any relationship with the formal Church. It also examines, and rejects the ready-made – and all too easy answers which the Church gives itself for the people who while claiming a relationship with Jesus, are not attending. If you believe in the old traditional line of “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” and you seek to limit the Church to the people who have some kind of formal connection to some denomination in some God box, those who don’t come to your club are not really part of your understanding of the Church, no matter whether Jesus died for the elect or not.
The answer which Aisthorpe gives brings little comfort to those who seek the continuation of the institutional Church as it is presently known. Yes, that version of the Church will continue for those who like that kind of thing. It might even have the odd spurt of growth but the fact is that many more people will find their understanding of their faith in other forms of devotion. We could well find ourselves in a situation where a thousand flowers can bloom, which may well reflect the situation which there was in the early Church before the Council of Nicene set out what being a Christian was.
It is here that I see real problems. Just what are these thousand spiritual flowers about? One of the major developments in current spiritual/religious development is the question of the Spiritual but not religious (SBNR). I have talked with some who would see themselves essentially in this group. I have a concern that their belief is effectively Syncretic. Here we find ourselves asking questions about just what Christianity is. In the book we are reminded of the distinction between what is effectively the Parish Church, rooted in a geographic community and the fact that the expansion of the Church through Europe was basically accomplished by monks. I am not convinced that the present model of Monasticism is one which actually points to a mobile Church, rather than one bounded by rules and Property. If however we go back into the Celtic model we find that we have Peregrinatio. This may well be a concept which we need to explore.
One of the big problems which I have is with people doing the non-institutional Church, is how they do what Christ has told them to do, which is baptize and celebrate the sacraments. Just exactly where do these come from? I am entitled to Baptize and celebrate communion because I believe that I have been called to do this and my call has been tested and upheld by the National Church. While I can accept the local congregation independent of those around is the nearest to the model of the Early Church around, there are problems about the institution from quite a small stage. How do you legitimize both the Kerygma of the institution and the Charisma of those called to preside at its offices.
In a funny way the model is a bit like Home Brew against the products of the commercial brewers. Done well home brew is very good, but the commercial breweries give a standardized product. With the Good News of Jesus, just what is the message? Theology once was the Queen of the Sciences, but with people walking out of the established Churches where actually are their boundaries? Is the theological wheel going to be reinvented? The whole basis of the earliest understanding of the Church which we find in Acts gives us the expectation of an almost immediate Parousia. Now let us assume that, while the essence of the Christian Faith is that the Parousia will happen someday, it is also that we live as if it is coming tomorrow, and work as if it is never coming.
It is here that I find the major problem. Yes, I too have effectively walked out the Church because it no longer meets my spiritual needs. I simply could not resonate with the last celebration of the Eucharist which I attended at a liturgical or theological or even an emotional level, so I have packed my bags, and quietly left the local institution without telling them secure in the knowledge that they will never miss me, but what now? I seek fellowship, but either I wasn’t in class that day, or it was never taught, what do we do in the situation where the Institutional Church no longer says anything to us, no longer in its widest sense proclaims Christ Crucified? Yes, I could have celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday, the congregation held, in connection with the local Rotary club a great celebration, but is that the role of the Kirk? I remembered when I was the Queen’s well beloved and trusty, that I didn’t take an oath of loyalty, because my loyalty was to Christ alone.
Then I remember preaching in one of Scotland’s great Churches. It was the first Sunday of the epiphany. I remembered that 461 years earlier, George Wishart had stood in that very place, and, according to Knox who was there, Wishart was disappointed by the poor attendance in the Kirk, and prophesied that Haddington would suffer plagues, be occupied by strangers, “Because you have not known the time of God’s merciful visitation.” Within 2 months of preaching in Haddington, George Wishart was burnt at the stake in St Andrews and in April 1548 the 18-month siege of Haddington began, the people were occupied and it was a grim time. Out of events like these and the struggles of the next 20 years came another, Reformed Scotland, one where the understanding of the Church was not one of stability or peace at any price, but a Church which had the concept that the Church having been reformed, must always be being reformed. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda!
The Church of Christ which appeared after the Reformation was one which spoke to the people of the time. It communicated the Gospel, or at least a form of it which resonated with the people of that time.
What has happened is that people have been too keen to think in terms of Orthodoxy, rather than Orthopraxis. In the Reformed tradition we have thought in terms of Sola scriptura, Sola fide, Sola gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. But so much has failed to come over in the translation. We have forgotten what we do discover in our readings of the Scripture. We have forgotten our God given Faith. We don’t think about the Grace which we receive from God, through the intercession of Christ. We don’t even really know what it means to live to the Glory of God. However, despite this, we are called to live lives which reflect what we have been given. We have been given nothing less than a Mission and that is living lives which are guided and enriched by the gifts of God.
However ironically Orthopraxis also involved correct worship, so we find ourselves in this circle, People walk away from the institutional Church and its worship because they do not find in Orthodoxy or even the more charismatic forms the praxis and at least as important the real fellowship which they crave. In other words, in their concern for the survival of the institution the members of the institution are killing it by failing to open it to the dangers which both threaten and enliven it.
The one thing however which we must remember is that God will not leave himself without a witness, just that it may well not be the manifestation of his Church which we are used to in the Community.