What is the Church for?
The Rectory - October 2003
'What on earth is the Church for'? Some of you may remember that as the title of a Lent Course about fifteen years ago, which was run by the British Council of Churches in collaboration with the BBC. It was run ecumenically as part of the process that tried, in a sense, to re-launch the ecumenical process especially as the Roman Catholic Church added, in a formal way, its commitment to the search for Christian Unity.
The question, though, remains as relevant today as it did then. There are still many people within our congregations, I guess, who are ambivalent in their attitudes towards the church as an institution. Most people will use the term 'church' most often to describe firstly the building to which they have a sense of belonging and loyalty and secondly the activities, mainly of worship and pastoral care that are sourced from that building. The fact that the phrase 'going into the church' still persists in our vocabulary, referring to the ordained ministers of the church betrays very clearly also that we still generally think that the Church is an institution that is staffed by clergy (and occasionally by trained lay people), and that is there to minister to 'us'. The connection may then move vertically to an extent - the diocese is 'head office' - expensive, distant, possibly a necessary evil because we're Anglicans, and led by a chief executive/bishop who we know exists, and who appears from time to time to encourage us (or not, as the case may be). If this identity with a 'wider church' goes any further, it may just recognise the Archbishop of Canterbury as a sort of father figure at a great distance - how many people in the pew have any real sense of identity with the Archbishop of York, who is actually primate of the Northern Province in which this diocese is situated? - and it will be aware of Anglicans existing in other parts of the world (mostly poor ones), because we send money to them from time to time.
I have over-simplified the issue, but there are times when I feel that our understanding of what it means to be 'Church' is wildly and depressingly introverted! And it is deeply worrying for the future of the Church, because it suggests that for many people, the sense of belonging, of being integral to what the church is and what it is for is very superficial, so that when things get a bit tough - as they have been for the Anglican Communion in recent months - the first thing people do is wash their hands of it. The Church is 'them' not 'us'.
Over the summer there have been a number of baptisms - the sacramental welcoming and commissioning of new members of the Church, the Body of Christ. It has been enjoyable and encouraging, in a parish that does not have many baptisms annually, to welcome so many families both in our main services and also at special afternoon services. At each and every baptism, we give the child a lighted candle - a symbol of what a Christian is called to be and to do: to be Christ's light, and to carry that light into the world. It is a powerful symbol. That is the first task that each and every person who is baptised is commissioned to do. We are incorporated into Christ's Body, and we bear equal responsibility for how Christ's body appears to those around us. So a church fighting with itself is a deeply unattractive image of Christ. A church that is concerned only with what goes on in its own life is a deeply unattractive image of Christ. 'The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace'. A church community that is spirit-filled will reflect those gifts in its own life, and will be offering them to the world in which it is rooted. And a church that is not missionary in that sense is not church at all. To be 'in Christ' is to be called to service of the world in which Christ lived and loved, and for which Christ died and rose.
As a parish, as a city, as a diocese we share in difficult times. The challenges are many both internally and externally. St Peter's and All Saints' is in a privileged position in many ways, and with privilege goes great responsibility. Our outreach into the city in many different ways is at the heart of what we are and who we are. The Malt Cross Project, about which there is an article elsewhere in the Magazine, is just one example of how we, with other parts of the Christian community in Nottingham, are seeking to express that responsibility for building 'love, joy and peace' in the city. That is what the church is for. That is what we are called to do. There are plenty of other examples - the coffee room, the Women's Welcome Project, the Commercial Chaplaincy, our outreach overseas etc.
Any other element of our life as a community is to equip each one of us, according to our gifts, for the task to which we were commissioned at our baptism. We cannot wash our hands of it, or walk away from it without walking away from Christ.