Is it OK for a retired Bishop of the Lutheran Church to say that she is losing faith in ‘the Church’? Maybe it isn’t OK, but I am going to say it anyway. I have begun to lose faith in ‘the Church’. Sometimes it reminds me of the wonderful story Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP tells:
One Sunday a mother shook her son awake, telling him it was time to go to church. No effect. Ten minutes later she was back: ‘Get out of bed immediately and go to church.’ ‘Mother, I don’t want to. It’s so boring. Why should I bother?’ ‘For two reasons: firstly, you know you must go to church on a Sunday, and secondly, you are the bishop of the diocese.’Timothy Radcliffe OP, Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist. Bloomsbury, Kindle Edition page 1.
Except, actually, I don’t find Sunday services boring, and the drama of the Eucharist or Holy Communion never fails to involve, to move, to enlighten and to reaffirm the sense of unity with other people who have celebrated communion with God and with one another over the centuries and across the world. The problem for me, at least, lies not in local churches and congregations. Those truly wonderful experiences of worshipping: these days, mostly with my small, local community of people wounded by life, by disability or age for whom the greeting of peace truly means a touch of God’s grace; in the great cathedrals of England, where the prayer-soaked walls resonated with the Alleluias and Amens of centuries past; with the wonderful diverse, inclusive parishes in both London and Riga; Saturday prayers in the Soup Kitchen, praying together with people of different faiths, with those who were unloved and excluded; preaching in Canterbury, just feet from the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket; baptising a baby in the Tanzanian countryside, in a church building lovingly created from stray bricks, corrugated iron, table tops and benches; sharing in a magnificent service in Lübeck Cathedral at the election of their new Bishop. None of that was remotely boring, and neither was the privilege of serving as Bishop to Lutherans in Great Britain, and being able to share in the Christian Way being walked by so many people, in such very differing but equally profound ways.
No, it is not there that the problem lies. It is not usually congregations, communities, Gemeinde, ‘kopienas un draudzes’ as it is in Latvian, and their day to day walks with Christ, however slow and limping that might be. It is the capacity of ‘the Church’ or churches, and indeed sometimes congregations and communities, come to that, to get things spectacularly wrong. Not that this is anything new, of course – Christians in the 3rd and 4th centuries were already pretty nasty to each other during the time of the Arian controversy But the ability of organized Christian groups to build up a dynamic of their own and to absolutely pervert the central message of Jesus Christ is so very difficult to read about or to observe.
This was brought home to me once again by reading a fascinating (in a watching a car crash sort of way) paper about the development of a ‘heresy of peace’ in Puritan New England in 17th Century USA. The English Puritans believed that they were a faithful remnant, and therefore that God was with them in everything they did, in every battle they fought to claim the land from the tribes who had inhabited them from time immemorial. This, in their eyes, was scriptural justification for the bloodiest and most violent actions that amounted, arguably, to genocide. Writing of the Pequot Massacre of 1637, Dominic Erdozain says:
The slaughter was no different, [Captain Underhill] said, from scenes in the Old Testament in which David ‘harrowes’ and ‘sawes’ whole peoples, under God’s instruction, putting them ‘to the most terriblest death that may bee’. Indeed, ‘sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents; some-time the case alters: but we will not dispute it now. We had sufficient light from the wordThe Church of America and the Heresy of Peace, Dominic Erdozain, Emory
of God for our proceedings.’ ….. Emboldened by Scripture, Underhill could marvel at the efficiency of the English weapons against the ineffectual arrows of the Indians. Mocking the indecision of the natives, ‘changing a few arrowes together after such a manner’, Underhill said ‘they might fight seven yeares and not kill seven men’.
University Studies in Church History 57 (2021), 364–385© The Author(s), 2021.
Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Ecclesiastical History Society.
And more (probably this should come with a warning about potential nightmares):
It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave theWilliam Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation: Sixteen Twenty to Sixteen Forty-Seven (New York, 1952), 296.
praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy
From the relative comfort of Europe in the 21st century, this casual invocation of God’s word to support the slaughter of men, women and children appals us, and rightly so. But ‘the Church’ (and I realise there are very many ways of defining this entity, and of translating the Greek term ekklesia from which it springs. For some time now a group of us has been working on a revision of the new translation of the Bible into Latvian, and ekklesia has been an endless source of discussion. Thankfully, no bloodshed. Yet.), ‘the Church’ in its various embodiments has done some terrible things much more recently, too. The ongoing, slowly unravelling horror story of sexual exploitation, mainly within the Roman Catholic Church, but also within the Church of England, has been truly horrific. Make no mistake – this is not just a question of individual priests committing crimes, but it is institutionalised sin. The churches have been complicit, have covered up terrible things AND ARE STILL DOING IT. Apart from anything else, this has wounded ‘the Church’ at its very foundations, because people both within and without ‘the Church’ can see the huge chasm between the requirements of confession and absolution that are preached, and the reality of avoidance, cover-up and victim shaming that abound in the real institution of ‘the Church’.
That is just one example, but there are many others – the complicity of various church bodies in massacres and ethnic cleansing (in recent history Rwanda, Serbia, and – long ago – the Albigensian Crusade with its ongoing echoes in the history of France all spring to mind. It’s interesting to note that Timothy Radcliffe’s own Order, the Dominicans or Order of Preachers, was born out of this time, as a response to the Cathar heresy).
On a different level, but still very hurtful, is the understanding that church politics can be just as devious and manipulative as any party political gathering. The smaller, unkind sins of rumour, backstabbing, sarcasm and being economical with the truth tend to creep into all kinds of church bodies, from the parish council to interchurch dialogue, and, I dare say, the corridors of Lambeth Palace, Geneva and the Vatican. Some time ago, a church body I represented in dialogue with another church body made itself vulnerable by offering to open itself to a process of truth and reconciliation. The rebuff it received could easily have emanated from Francis Urquhart.
The thing is – this hurts. It clouds the message of the Gospel, so that people are less able to hear the grace, the truth and beauty contained in it. All this makes me question how it is possible that a body which is, as Scripture says, the Body of Christ, can behave in ways that are so very unChristlike. Fr Timothy’s book is wonderful, and paints an inspirational picture of what all Christian churches should and might be. But he himself notes that:
Perhaps the hardest claim to swallow is that the church is holy. It is evident that members of the church have often been corrupt, cruel, mendacious and cowardly. This cannot be denied, ‘facts bein’ stubborn and not easily drove’, as Mrs. Gamp says in Martin Chuzzlewit….Confessing that the Church is holy, we claim that Christ’s victory over sin on Easter morning cannot be undone. However corrupt and sinful members of Christ’s Body may be, love has anticipated our failures and forgiven them.Timothy Radcliffe OP, Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist. Bloomsbury, Kindle Edition, page 90.
I believe in God. I believe in Jesus Christ who lived with us and died for us. I believe in the Holy Spirit, without whose presence my whole ministry would have been a greater shambles. I believe, too, in the ministry of Christians to each other, and the transcendent beauty of both service and worship at its best. I know, too, that love has anticipated my failures and forgiven them, but I repent of them, and of my part in rendering ‘the Church’ less than it should be. But the question remains – for those who stand outside ‘the Church’ today, have they forgiven us? Have my failures, and those of the institutional church, made it harder for them to hear the clear voice of Christ calling them to the kingdom of heaven?
Which gives me an excuse to repost one of my very favourite poems. A happy and blessed New Year to all of us.
BC:AD – UA Fanthorpe
This was the moment when Before
turned into After, and the future’s
uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
happened. Only dull peace
sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
could find nothing better to do
than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
when a few farm workers and three
members of an obscure Persian sect
walked haphazard by starlight straight
into the kingdom of heaven.