Why Church?

Sunday 27th December 2015
Year C, The First Sunday of Christmas
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of the Word
[passage=1 Samuel 2.18-20, 1 Samuel 1.26/]
Luke 2.41-52

All his life, from the time he was committed to the care of Eli the Priest by his parents in thanksgiving for his birth to a previously barren mother, Samuel was definitely a Temple person. Even when he was ordered to perform duties for King Saul, he wanted to get back home to Shiloh whereas, it could be argued, Jesus was just the opposite. His three days at the Temple around the time of his Bar Mitzvah was the longest he ever spent there; and once he went home with his parents it was almost 20 years before he came back again, other than for the annual ritualistic visits. If anything, Jesus was more hostile than simply indifferent to organised religion. He was emphatic about The Law but one gets the sense that he was much more committed to the moral force of the Law than to the processes of priestly involvement, the ritual and the sacrifices; and if that is the case, as I think it is, we can see Jesus at the end of a long line of prophets inveighing against the Priesthood..

But one of the forces which has made the Christian churches so powerful is the combination of moral force with the priestly function. In the Middle Ages, as the theology of Transubstantiation developed, a theology which said that at the Consecration of the bread and wine the Holy Spirit, through the Priest, transformed these elements into the very body and blood of Jesus, this amazing power of Priests gave them authority over the private lives of people, particularly through the Sacrament of Confession. And if you ask the man in the street today what Christianity is all about, the chances are that he will say that it is about the enforcement of a moral code, dominated by private sexual behaviour. And it is interesting to reflect that even where Christians have left established churches to form their own free-standing worshipping communities, even though the rubrics have gone, the moral code has not.

Which leads me to ask whether there is a necessary connection between The Church and the enforcement of moral codes concerned with private behaviour. In the first instance, it is important to remember that the early Church, up until somewhere around the Fifth Century, regarded sin as public. It was only with the development of a tariff system of penances for sins that the scope was widened to private behaviour. Secondly, much of what we think and say about behaviour is limited to outcome rather than to motive or circumstance. Only God knows about the sum total of our resources and temptations. Thirdly, and following on from this, the development of the discipline of psychology in the 20th Century has taught us all how complex are the workings of the human mind and it leads me to ask how we draw the boundary between sickness and criminality. Whether we are thinking of Adolf Hitler or Fred West, the question is the same: how culpable were they for their atrocities? And, finally, as we have so far failed to understand the dynamics and relative strengths of nature and nurture in human development, what do we actually mean when we talk about individual guilt?

I am asking these questions not because they are intellectually fascinating - although, of course, they are - but because they go to the very heart of what Christianity should be like in the 21st Century. In spite of revivals such as that generated by the election of Pope Francis, it is difficult to argue against the proposition that in conventional terms, Christianity is declining: its influence on politics and culture is more nostalgic than dynamic; congregations are rapidly declining; knowledge of festivals is becoming increasingly sketchy; and the idea of a moral code is becoming ever less straightforward. But, perhaps above all else, the world knows quite enough, in its collective heart, about its shortcomings without needing any lectures from us who equally fall short. We were established as a church to bring hope and all we seem to manage nowadays is lectures, usually about marginal issues such as the form of prayers to be said at the recognition of a same-sex relationship[i]. We have also suffered, deservedly, I think, for sticking to the establishment in a world that is increasingly anti establishment. We are now part moral advocate, part heritage curator, part peddler of nostalgia and only in small part a source of protest and a well spring of hope. We have become too wedded to churches, to different labels for churchmanship and to the particularities of doctrine and ritual and have forgotten what we are here for which is to bring the good news of Jesus to all people but particularly to the poor and weak. We are, when it comes down to it, supposed to be primarily pastoral, not doctrinal; our fundamental reason for being is to recognise God in each other which makes a nonsense of all kinds of social, political and doctrinal distinctions. But, more fundamentally, if love is not indiscriminate it belittles itself into the exercise of preference.

From the standpoint of the average Christian, this is all very depressing. Our Church might be in a state of decline but there is still plenty to hang onto and plenty of good old tradition to fight for; but there comes a time in the history of people and institutions when we have to face up to fundamental choices and it seems to me that we are here, right now, confronted with the choice between being a church for its own sake or being the church which was the gift of Jesus to the world. By this I do not mean a facile choice between idealism and worldliness but, rather, a choice between comfort and commitment which will inevitably involve sacrifice.

Over the years, for example, I have come to recognise that much of what I really like about what we do in church is much more to do with my childhood than it is to do with essentials. Change, even the loss of quite small bits of tradition, hurts me much more than it should, but I have to recognise that it is spreading the Good News that counts and that if this means a loss of comfort for me then that must be a price worth paying.

Do we need a church and what is it for? The answer to the second question will give us the answer to the first.

[i] As marriage celebrants do not actually marry but simply bless, what is in dispute is the form of words for a blessing of, as opposed to celebrating the marriage of, a same sex couple in church.