“Have the Christian churches got it at last?” asks Andreas Whittam Smith
(THE INDEPENDENT ~ Wednesday 22 January 2014).
Do they get it that Western Christianity is in deep poo and that something is missing and has to be found? Apparently we do…
The issue is discipleship within the church – not so much what form that may take, but what following Jesus is in essence. Though his article (abridged below) is geared toward the UK / European scene – especially in its clergy-centric view of things – there much of value for us in what Whittam says – at least as a starting point while we work out what Covenanters looks like in our little corner of the vineyard. The same goes for Stephen Cottrell’s paper with its more developed suggestions for where to from here – well worth a click and read over a coffee…
The new Pope, Francis, has just published a truly remarkable document, “Evangelii Gaudium” or “The Joy of the Gospel”, in which he asks the Catholic Church to embark upon a fresh chapter of evangelization, and where he describes in great detail how this should be done. And more quietly, but no less insistently, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is engaged in the same task.
Just a word, first, about where one should direct one’s gaze. It is natural to bracket the Pope and the Archbishop together, but so great are the structural differences between the two Churches that this can mislead. In the Roman Catholic Church, everything flows down from the top, whereas in the Church of England authority is widely dispersed. So Popes issue lengthy documents, often of a high quality, in this case an “apostolic exhortation”, and set a new direction. Whereas in the Church of England, archbishops, bishops and the clergy just get on with things. To see what this means in practice, listen to Bishop Stephen Cottrell addressing the Chelmsford Diocesan synod last month. His speech, Back to the future – understanding the past in order to own the future, cannot match the breadth, nor the wonderful biblical language of Pope Francis’s exhortation, but it is directed at the same purpose in a very effective and practical manner.
The Pope first looks with an unforgiving eye at the barriers to missionary ministry that the Church itself erects. In his exhortation, Pope Francis says “I do not want a Church… which… ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” Surprisingly, he rails at the “excessive centralisation” which, rather than proving helpful, “complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach”. He warns that “mere administration can no longer be enough”. Pope Francis despairs of “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness”.
He calls this “A tomb psychology”, which slowly transforms Christians into “mummies in a museum”. And in a thrust that could as well be aimed at the Church of England as well as at the Church of Rome, he notes that in some people we see “an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few.” Ouch!
Instead the Pope dreams of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world. Because he casts care for self-preservation aside, he also emphasises the need to act without “hesitation, reluctance or fear”.
The rest of the article is largely a load of tripe frankly – “fresh expressions” is the way forward (yeah right) etc., etc. The encouraging thing though, is that Pope Frances, no less, seems to be saying the same things we are – or at least has the same yearnings.
“Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church”? Read Cottrell’s Back to the future and let’s explore this further when we next meet.