Let’s Go Back to Church
by Elias Blum
You drank the wine but it tastes like water. You broke the bread but it had turned to stone. Your sacrament it lay scattered on the pavement The covenants you kept have all been stolen and sold. Let's go back to church Let's go back to church So damn long since we sung the song Let's go back to church (Rev. Dr. D. Wayne Love)
I. Relational Thinking
I am currently doing an online course entitled ‘Biblical Foundations for Public Leadership‘, offered by the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge, England. It consists of guided readings, web seminars and reflective essays, with modules applying a ‘Biblical perspective’ to economics, politics, law and justice, family and sexual ethics, science and technology, and the arts.
The course draws heavily on a concept known as ‘relational thinking’, developed by Michael Schluter. The Old Testament law, Schluter argues, was in essence about ‘right relationships’, based on justice and reciprocity: relationships (between Israel and God, people and land, borrowers and lenders, buyers and sellers, masters and servants, men and women, etc). Schluter’s essay ‘Beyond Capitalism: Towards a Relational Economy‘ is well worth a read. In its criticism of usury and debt, and in its concern for good relationships rather than the maximisation of either growth or profit, Relational Thinking attacks neoliberal capitalism at its very roots. It questions the Hobbesian concept of man as a rational egoist, and goes some way to restoring the concept that we thrive not as acquisitive individuals, but as people in society, sustained by a network of supportive relationships.
Relational thinking, as a theo-ideological foundation for public policy and for Christian engagement in social action and political life, has its limits. It places rather too much emphasis on Old Testament Biblical Law, and not enough emphasis on how the teachings of Jesus and the example of the early church challenge, supplement and in some ways supersede the law. It ignores insights from the Social Teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, developed in encyclicals such as Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno. It overlooks the contributions of Christian Democrats, Christian Socialists, Liberation Theologians, and others, in bringing Christian ethics and principles to bear on public policy, and, in particular, in providing a Christian response to the problems of capitalism.
Yet, although it might be an insufficient or incomplete basis for Christian engagement in public affairs, ‘relational thinking’ does provide a useful lens through which to see one’s own personal decision making. My response to the idea has been, perhaps ironically, to shift my focus a little away from the social and political, and towards the personal. Am I relationally poor? Should I be investing more in relationships, not just for my own sake, but for the sake of the small scale change that such relationships might bring about?
II. Not Giving Up Meeting Together
There is one relationship, in particular, of which I am very neglectful: a relationship with a local church. I have not been a regular member of a local church for some time – about five years, I think.
There were good reasons why I decided to separate myself from a local church in the first place. In part, I just find the 16th century way of doing things, with one person standing at the front talking and everyone else supposed to sit down and shut up, so crushing and pointless. I also got sick of all the wrangling about incidentals. I saw the church I had been a member of torn apart because the preacher and the worship leader had a disagreement about the colour of curtains – or something of similar magnitude.
What began as a sort of principled boycott of the institutional church became, once the emotions had cooled, a habit sustained by inertia; I just got used to not going to church anymore. I tried other churches, and visited from time to time, but never felt sufficiently comfortable to risk getting more involved. Neither did I feel that it was worth getting up on a Sunday morning to be part of something that I had learned to live quite well without.
I remained, however, an active and committed member of the universal church, and tried to stay plugged in to sources of spiritual sustenance in different ways. I listen to sermons on podcasts, have conversations on online Christian forums, sing worship songs into the sink while I’m doing the washing up, that sort of thing. And of course I make an effort to actually read books on theology, Christian ethics, church history and so forth. In some ways, I have found this self-service approach far more nourishing of my intellectual and spiritual development than the local church ever was.
Maybe it was not wrong to separate myself for a season; absence from the local church has done wonders for my own spiritual growth and maturity, so maybe I just needed that space for a while. But now I think the time has come to get stuck back in.
Online ways of interacting are relationally cheap, easy and shallow. They might encourage the development of one’s own mind and conscience, but they do little or nothing for the development of personal relationships. The universal church cannot consist solely of isolated individuals listening to podcasts and reading their bibles at home; it has to be incarnated, substantiated (in the literal sense of ‘given substance’) through physical gatherings of the local church. In particular, while teaching might take place online, the physical church is necessary in order to have a sacramental presence. I think that in the last five years I have taken communion no more than a dozen times – and that’s something that I definitely feel the lack of in my life.
So perhaps, despite the Nomad Podcast, online sermons, and the abundance of N T Wright lectures on the internet (all of which are Good Things, no doubt), I do still need some sort of local church connection.
This is not necessarily because it is good for me, but because it is good for the relational fabric of the church as a whole. Maybe, for example, there are small acts of relational service that I should be doing, but which I am not doing because I am not plugged in to the community which brings those things to mind and co-ordinates them.
III. Denominational Blues
Part of the problem, though, is choosing a church to go to. Local churches are inevitably affiliated to a particular denomination (except for ‘non-denominational’ churches, which as everyone knows is code for ‘conservative baptist with a silly name and a trendy website’). By joining a church, one is also aligning oneself with a denomination.
I find this very difficult to do. There is much that I admire, but also things I dislike or find difficult to accept, in every denomination I’ve encountered, from Unitarians and Quakers, through Baptists and Presbyterians, to Anglicans and Catholics. All of these make up different aspects and elements of the universal church. All bring something to the whole, but all have their failings, limitations and shortcomings. How would one possibly choose between them?
Ultimately I think the challenge for the universal church is to hold tradition, scripture, reason and experience together in a creative balance. These are represented by catholic, evangelical, liberal and charismatic impulses, all of which, I have come to realise, have something to teach the others. I’m looking for an expression of church that is catholic (with a small-c), evangelical (with a small-e), liberal (with a small-l), and charismatic (with a small-c). But it is hard to find a church – either a denomination or a local church – that incorporates all four of those elements in a healthy way.
This is aside from the fact that there are important distinctions – in stances taken on particular issues, in liberal vs conservative orientations, and in styles of worship and elements of focus – which denominational boundaries, reflecting the disputes of the 16th to 19th centuries, do not really capture. The sign on the door is no guarantee of what one will find inside. That might make the choice of denomination easier: one could argue that less is at stake, and all that matters is whether the particular local church is a good fit. But it doesn’t make the process of finding a church to join with any easier.
On the other hand, perhaps none of this really matters – or at least it doesn’t matter as much as I once thought it did. For present purposes, perhaps it is more important for me to get connected to a local church than it is to split hairs on details of denominational affiliation. In the past I’ve been too picky about churches, with the result that I’ve often made small differences into an excuse for not connecting with the local church at all. Perhaps, from a ‘relational thinking’ perspective, it is better to find a church that’s an imperfect (but acceptable) fit, rather than not attending at all. I’m trying to make an effort to be less of a critic and more of a fellow-worker.
With this thought in mind, I decided last week to do something about it. I felt an urgent, burning need to take communion (that last time I had done so was more than a year ago, I think). So I found a church, simply on the basis that it was close to my office and did a quick lunchtime communion service, and off I went.
IV. Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands (Union of Utrecht)
That church happened to be part of the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands (Union of Utrecht). This was unknown territory for me – a denomination I had never considered, or even heard of, before. But it felt strangely like finally coming home.
This is what I’ve been able to find out so far, mainly from the church’s own official online sources:
- The Union of Utrecht is a communion of independent national ‘Old Catholic’ churches. The Dutch church separated administratively from Rome in the early 18th century due to jurisdictional disputes. It was joined the late 19th century by those catholic bishops in Germany, Austria and Switzerland who disagreed with the manner and substance of the First Vatican Council.
- Their basic theological positions are set out in the 14 Theses of the Bonn Conference, 1874 and the Declaration of Utrecht, 1889.
- They are basically Catholic in their theology and practice. They affirm the traditional creeds, and the teachings of the first seven ecumenical councils.
- The look and feel is unmistakably High Church: They structure their services liturgically with the Eucharist as the focal point, follow the church calendar, wear vestments, invoke the saints, and pray for the dead. Although the vernacular is used throughout – no Latin.
- They deny papal infallibility and reject the Pope’s universal jurisdiction. The historical status of the Bishop of Rome as primus inter pares is recognised, but not any claim to be the ‘supreme pontiff’ or universal ‘Vicar of Christ’.
- They take the view that it is possible to be Catholic without necessarily being Roman: that the Catholic tradition is bigger than Rome and the Papacy, and can exist independently of them. They particularly look to the undivided church of the first millennium for inspiration, but also allow individual national churches to adapt to the times as they see fit.
- They are led by episcopate with apostolic succession, but are synodically governed, with decision-making in collegial bodies of bishops, clergy and laity. Bishops are freely elected by the clergy and laity of each diocese.
- They acknowledge seven sacraments, but affirm the primacy of baptism and the eucharist as the two sacraments instituted by Christ.
- They use the apocrypha, but recognise it as less clearly authoritative than the other books of the Old Testament.
- They maintain a Marian devotion, but reject the Roman dogmas of the immaculate conception and the assumption.
- They recognise that the ‘authentic tradition’ of Christ and the Apostles is ‘an authoritative source of teaching’, but also assert the primacy of the scriptures as ‘the primary rule of faith and practice’.
- They have no rule of clerical celibacy and allow clergy to marry.
- They ordain women equally alongside men to the diaconate, priesthood and episcopate.
- They affirm the Real Presence, but do not insist on transubstantiation as the only dogmatic interpretation of it.
- They are not opposed to contraception – although they take a traditional line on abortion. Their position on homosexuality is inclusive without making a big deal out of it.
- In some ways, the Old Catholics embody a continental European form of the via media of high-church Anglicanism – but without the baggage that comes with being a ‘state church’. Indeed, they are in full communion with the Anglican communion and have been since 1931.
That’s a very attractive combination. It reminds me in some ways of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Of course, there are still some things that I’d struggle with. One big stumbling block is that I hold to believer’s baptism, whereas they practice infant baptism. I was baptised as an adult in a baptist church, and I think that is the scriptural and logical position. Another is that I am a convinced believer in Universal Salvation – that ultimately God will redeem all of creation. I have no idea what their take on this is, but I suspect (since they come from a Catholic tradition, even if they have broken away from Rome) they subscribe to something purgatorial. Also, liturgical eucharistic worship only gets me so far before I want to sing with my hands in the air and have a bit of Holy Spirit ministry time.
But maybe none of that matters right now. I think I have at least – and at last – found a place that I can make a connection to – maybe not actualy join, but perhaps become more than just an occasional visitor. If so, that will be a big step forward in my spiritual life in 2018.