Invisible Church

by Elias Blum

For many, Sunday is just a day like any other, dedicated to the unholy trinity that rules us: capitalism, consumption and car parks. I have rejected that. The injunction to ‘honour the sabbath and keep it holy’ is one I take with growing seriousness; in a society such as ours, dedicated to business and busy-ness, it is perhaps the most radical of all commandments.

Yet, on Sunday mornings, like millions of others, I often find myself anywhere but church. My decision to not go to church is a conscious and deliberate one, and it means breaking old habits; for most of my adult life, going to church was a regular part of my Sunday routine. It started in my late teens, and continued through my twenties and sporadically into my early thirties.

Only rarely, though, did I find church-going to be a ‘spiritual’ or uplifting experience. I liked some of the singing, and communion, and the sometimes the sermons would be interesting, but most of the time, I found church frustrating and even stressful.

The way it works is like this. One person, who may or may not wear a special outfit, stands at the front. He (or sometimes she, which is usually a good sign) gets paid to talk, and they want folks to get their money’s worth. “So sit down, listen-in and shut up, pew-warmers!”

You cannot get away from the words. Sometimes the words are challenging, inspiring, enlightening and encouraging. At other times they are objectionable nonsense, or just mumbled patterns of sound. But they are always the thoughts of another, speaking only on ‘transmit’; there’s no room for discussion, and there is no space to digest them. There’s no time for silence, beauty or reflection. Just a barrage of wordy words wording their way into my life, crowding out my already busy mind. There’s an hour to fill, and filled it will be.

Afterwards, you have cliquey tea and coffee in the grossly-misnamed ‘Fellowship room’ (or it may be ‘Church hall’, or, if you are very unfortunate in your choice of church-house, the ‘Rev. Arnold J. Rimmer III Memorial Agape Hall’). There the ‘insiders’ pretend to be holier and more fixed than they are, and the ‘outsiders’ pretend that they are not feeling completely awkward.

For most of the time, I was a perpetual outsider. I was on the inside a few times, but found the pressure to conform intolerable. It was easier to stand around looking lost, not speaking to anyone, or making polite weather conversation with an old lady in a pink hat, than to try to fit in with the churchy-cliquely in-crowd.

So now I’m more likely to spend ‘sabbath time’ in God’s only true temple: Nature. I do it because I have learnt, through experience, to appreciate the sacredness of time. Sacred, that is, in the sense of behind ‘set apart from common use’. Sunday is a special day, because setting a day apart from the ordinary cares and business of life is a healthy, balanced and wise thing to do. The point is to stop ‘doing’, and to set apart time and space for just ‘being’. Time to sit. Time to contemplate without having to think about things like work, car insurance and overdraft fees. Time to write without deadlines. Time to walk without any known destination. Time to linger in a deep bath, sipping sherry, listening to Bach, or to sit on a rock, sipping tea, listening to the waves crash below.

This contemplative ‘be’-ing, this reflective state of creative non-doing, is about as close as I can get to a post-theistic definition of ‘spirituality’. It is both restful and playful. It discharges concern and recharges energy. The word for ‘spirit’, in many languages, including Hebrew, is related to breath and breathing. For me, spirituality is about finding space to breathe: space to reintegrate the split-ends of life, to reconnect with the world more profoundly, and to reawaken oneself to the mysterious wonder of existence which we call God.

And yet, having erased myself from all membership rolls, I still consider myself a member of the invisible church. As Robert Barclay put it in 1678:

The church [is] no other thing but the society, gathering or company of such as God hath called out of the world and worldly spirit to walk in his light and life… Under this church … are comprehended all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be, though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts…

This invisible church needs no clergy but one’s own conscience, no buildings but the forests and the sky, no Scriptures but nature. It needs nothing more than the ‘holy light and testimony of God in our hearts’.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the institutional church, perhaps in a radically different form, has no purpose. There is much to be said for meeting together to encourage and sustain one another, and to serve the community through acts of charity and justice. It must be said that I have never seen an institutional church which comes close to this vision (they seem far more interested in ‘religion’ than growth, healing, love and transformation), but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Besides, every great transformative movement requires some institutionalism, if it is to bring together diverse people, sustain difficult activities, and outlive its founder.

It does mean, however, that any church claiming to be the ‘one true church’ is wrong to make such a claim. Any church that claims to have a monopoly on truth or salvation is wrong. Any church that tyrannises over its members, or persecutes its non-members, is wrong. It means that the church is a human, not divine institution – and that therefore it should be open and democratic in its structures, accommodating of diversity, and willing to be challenged and called to account when it makes mistakes.

Ultimately, it means that membership of the invisible church is not dependent on being associated with an institutional church: just because one does not go to a church, does not mean one is not a member of the church.