I’m often prompted to blog when I seem to have the same discussions coming from several sources. Tomorrow’s class reading is about territorial ministry and whether the Church of Scotland can, realistically, continue to call itself the national church. Wrapped up in this is the issue of responsibilities to the parish/community and David has written about the burden of parish funerals. Related to this, I have just finished an essay looking at the church’s response to postmodernism and whether Emerging Church offers an answer. And close on the heels of this was a related discussion on ‘entertainment-driven church’ over at Internetmonk. And Stewart is asking related questions about keeping congregation going.
Now these might seem somewhat disparate subjects but they are in fact closely related in many ways. Let’s take the first issue of the Church of Scotland as a national church. The 3rd Article Declaratory (part of the church’s ‘constitution’) states that the the Church of Scotland is “a national church representative of the Christian Faith of the Scottish people”. Now, there are many, many problems with this statement. The first is that there is an assumption that Scotland is a Christian country. The nest is that the CofS should presume to represent that. But I think that a bigger issue is that it its emphasis is all wrong. If we (the CofS) take that responsibility seriously then the implication is that we are to be driven by how the faith of the Scottish people is made manifest. And therein lies the heart of the problem. Scotland is not a Christian country. In fact it’s debateable whether it ever was. And what Christianity can be found is often a bizarre mix of superstition and eclectic practices borrowed from different denominationas, old-wives’ tales and pop-culture. Funerals are a case in point. Joe Public wants their beloved relative given a proper send-off, but all too often they don’t want too much of that ‘God-stuff’ because Beloved Relative wasn’t too keen on the church. But we dress up the justification for performing the funeral in theological language. It’s a opportunity to evangelise, or show God’s love, or express a sense of hope which may be badly needed at that time. Now I know that we cannot determine how anyone will react or respond to what is said or done at a funeral (or indeed any other setting for ‘religious ordinances’) but is this just a way of painting another rose-tinted layer onto the glasses we look at society with?
So we compromise, letting schmaltzy poems be read at funerals, allowing ‘sponsors’ to bring a child for baptism and so on. And in our willingness to be accommodating we also look to embrace popular culture. Church has to ‘change’ to make itself more attractive, more appealing to an audience who can’t/won’t engage with straight Biblical teaching. We’ve got to ‘explore spirituality’ where multi-sensory worship ceases to be a way of worshipping God through our different senses but is about making us feel ‘touched’ through our own sensory experiences. The focus has shifted from God to us.
And we cry that we are in a postmodern world that we need to engage with in the same terms. Moral relativism, the value of ‘experience’, the search for ‘icons’ (defined as ways of helping us focus on God). The problem is, rather than engage with this cultural context, we have embraced it. The Bible no longer has authority, after all, truth is relative. Worship is only worthwhile when we get something out of it. And God is to be found in many things, nature, creativity, relationships and Jesus is sidelined or, at best, simply a good example.
Of course there is then the backlash to this. Fundamentalism rears its head and from the pulpit there are condemnations of culture and calls to return to the truth only found in scripture – “the full and final revelation of God” apparently!
Christianity is, and always should be, counter-cultural, and that also means the culture that exists within the church. It must engage and question what happens in society and in the structures of governance and religion. It must be the example of the ‘other’ in its social context. The other, of course, being the kingdom of God being made manifest in the here and now and all the while pointing to its greater promise of what is yet to come.
Stewart also wrote recently about ‘exclusivity’ and how it’s not always a bad thing. And that leads me towards a conclusion, of sorts. The CofS wants to be a national church and attempts to do that by inclusivity and responsibility, but I’m not sure this is the best approach. On the class blog for the tutorial about territorial ministry, I made a suggestion. A simple change to one word in that part of the 3rd Article would make a world of difference:
“a national church representative of the Christian Faith to the Scottish people”
The whole focus changes. We continue to be a national church in the sense that we commit to a national presence. But, first and foremost, our duty is to represent Christ, not the people. There is still freedom to engage creatively. But there is still the duty to be faithful to scripture. We can still supply ‘religious ordinances’ but they are no longer to be driven by people’s expectations.
After all, the church is not meant to be all things to all people, but is meant to be Christ to all people, in all contexts.