Scott Robertson asks how we avoid the hardening of our church arteries.
When Lesley-ann Craddock was licensed as the first Ordained Pioneer Minister in Glasgow & Galloway diocese, it was a landmark day in more ways than one because she was the first such person in any Scottish denomination to train as an OPM. It was a joy for me to join the congregation of St Oswald's, Kings Park, Glasgow, and Christians from around the area to preach on such an historic occasion.
One of the things I wanted to highlight was the fact that the church, like any other institution, is perennially susceptible to a hardening of the arteries. It can become, in Hebrew Bible parlance, 'hard-hearted' – as well as clogged with self-indulgence; theological apathy; a bloated sense of its own importance or even delusions of relevance. There are those who argue that the structures of the church; the liturgy of the church; the music of the church; the politics and the general ethos of the church are now so wildly out of tune with the times in which we find ourselves that we must radically alter who we are and what we do in order to regain some credibility.
And, of course, as you might expect, there are others who would scoff at this iconoclastic approach, accusing those who hold to it of cultural vandalism and harbouring an unhealthy, worldly desire to be 'trendy'!
Both of these approaches are symptoms of a church that has already hardened its arteries and both are as misguided as each other. Why? Because the common denominator of both of these chunks of ecclesiastical cholesterol is the assumption that we start with the church. That's a bad place to start. Better to end with the church than to start with it. So let's 'finish' with the church, with the self-indulgence, theological apathy; bloated sense of our own importance; delusions of relevance – and instead let us start with something else.
Let us love one another.
Christianity began as a religion of letting go. So much so, that it didn't even have the name Christianity. Those brave souls who made up this strange group were instead called People of the Way. They had no name, no God tags, you might say. As People of the Way, they could never be established, they were on the move. Like the one they followed, they had nowhere to lay their heads. They lived a liminal existence. They were in the world but not of it.
But somehow, imperceptibly, insidiously, the church was tempted to get a name for itself. It gained a certain status. It found it had an increasing place in the grand scheme of things. The church which had held all things in common now had treasures of its own. The church which originally found its strength in weakness now had a weakness for power. Slowly but surely, the church had moved from a religion of letting go to a religion of holding on.
And I wonder whether we have, at least in the West, now come full circle. I wonder, in the language of the writer of Ecclesiastes, whether we have had our time of holding on – our time of embracing those things which we believed brought security and status – and we are now on the cusp of letting go again. Such a letting go doesn't mean, as some would suggest, jettisoning our traditions, liturgies or structures. That misses the point and risks hardening the arteries once again.
No, it means letting go of our very selves.
How do we do that? We open ourselves to others. And that starts in our dealings with one another. At the height of the church's letting go, the prevailing cry of those who came across these strange People of the Way was, in the words of Tertullian, 'See how they love one another'.
It is so easy for us to become preoccupied that we end up not being able to see the wood for the trees because it seems to me the principle of letting go includes letting go of our own pet projects; well-meaning agendas; well-crafted, or not so well crafted, sermons. Of anything and everything that would constitute what we assume the church ought to look like, which as often as not is simply a church made in our own image. We must avoid partisan piety.
So the question for us is, 'What are you prepared to let go of?' What are you today prepared to sacrifice for the sake of somebody else?
The church makes a big mistake when its primary public posture is to protect itself and its own interests. It's interesting that the definition of a pioneer is a person who carries out important work but does not have a role of authority in an organisation. It's not about status, it's not about power. It's about a willingness to let go of those things which have the tendency to harden the church's arteries and incapacitate it. It's about throwing the seed of God's mercy and love into the world not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others.
Why? Because the mission of the church is nothing less than becoming nothing. And it is this becoming nothing which means everything to the God who has called us to comfort the fallen, to strengthen the weak, to heal the sick and to raise the dead. And that, that is the end of the church.