What is Church? Part 1

I heard a great joke the other day that seems very relevant to our current topic ‘What is church?’: what do you get if you cross an Anglican with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on your door but doesn’t really know why…

 

But joking aside, the Church of England is often criticised for being ‘woolly’: you know, you can believe anything or indeed nothing at all and still be a good Anglican…. Well, no doubt there is some truth in that caricature but what I want to do now is explain why I think that’s not such a bad thing…

 

So, last week we looked at two very different answers to the question of what a Christian is and in the same way there are two very different answers to this question of what church is, two different models of the church. Well actually there are lots of different models of the church; one of the set texts at my theological college was called Models of the church and it had 5 of them, with grand-sounding names like mystical communion, sacrament and herald; but I want to keep it simple so I’ve just got 2 and these two models correspond to the two views we considered last week about who is and isn’t a Christian.

 

So, one model of church is what we call the gathered church. Now this is a phrase that comes from the reformation era, the time of the puritans and of course the whole point about the puritans is that they wanted a pure church. So it wasn’t just about getting rid of statues and robes and all the other papist paraphernalia, it was about ensuring that the church consisted only of ‘true Christians’, which as we saw last week means (to people who think like that) those who have had a conversion experience or been born again. So, if you wanted to join one of the puritan churches in New England, you had to be interviewed by the elders of the church and only if they were convinced that you were truly saved would you be admitted as a member.

 

Now very few churches would be so hardline today – even in America. Although if you look up Landover Baptist Church on the internet you’ll be greeted by a banner saying Landover Baptist Church: Where the worthwhile worship. Unsaved Unwelcome. Now I should stress that that is a joke website, a spoof. However, as with all satire, there is a reality on which it is based and lots of denominations – presbyterians, Pentecostals, Baptists – still take the gathered church approach to a greater or lesser extent. So, while anyone is welcome in a church like that, full membership is only open to those who can sign up to a fairly rigid constitution or statement of faith. Eventually, you either get with the programme or you get on your bike…

 

The alternative to this, the model against which the puritans were rebelling is called the broad church and as we all know that’s what the Church of England is and indeed, always has been since its inception.

 

Now there is a certain amount of confusion about how the Church of England came into existence. Most people including many of its members, possibly some of you, think that it was because King Henry 8th wanted a divorce and the Pope wouldn’t give him one; so he said ‘OK, well I’ll just set up my own church then’ – and that is kind of true. But in fact, after the death of Henry and of his son Edward, the sixth, his staunchly catholic daughter Mary reversed all the legal changes that they had made and apologised to the Pope on behalf of the whole country, thereby making England catholic again. And it was only in the reign of Elizabeth, Mary’s sister, that the Church of England as we now know it came into existence; and this time it was for theological reasons not just political ones. There were no doubt political ones too but I have neither the time nor the expertise to say anything about them and what’s relevant for our purposes is Elizabeth’s vision which was for a single church for all English people regardless of their churchmanship, that is regardless of whether they were high church Catholics who wanted all the pomp and circumstance of traditional worship or low church puritans who wanted to get back to basics and indeed back to the Bible which, from their perspective, had been abandoned by the mediaeval church (and of course there  was a significant amount of truth in that perspective).

 

So that’s where the book of Common prayer comes from; effectively Elizabeth said: I don’t care where you are on the theological spectrum, how high or low you are; all I ask is that you all use this book because if we use the same liturgy then we are a single church; and that was the context in which she famously said, I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.

 

Well, I feel the same: a) I like the idea of a single church for all people, both generally and here in Wye specifically and b) I don’t like the puritanical approach favoured by the fictitious Landover Baptist church and their real life counterparts; I don’t want people to have to pass a test before they can join us; I want to welcome them just as they are because that’s what I believe God does to us. As the prayer we often say after communion puts it: when we were still far off, you met us in your Son and brought us home…

 

So, the banner on the website at St Luke’s, the church I was based at before coming here, said almost the opposite of Landover Baptist church’s unsaved unwelcome; it said Everyone seeking to know Christ and to follow him is welcome. And I think that that strikes exactly the right balance – and I’m not blowing my own trumpet here; that slogan predated me by some time. But it’s entirely welcoming while also gently reminding people what this is all about; because we aren’t here for a purely social occasion – although of course it is and should be social too. But ultimately it’s about God: getting to know him through his son Jesus and being transformed by his holy spirit.

 

Now in the fulness of time, we want people not just to be transformed but to become agents of transformation themselves; to take their place within the body of Christ, to discover their unique calling and gifts and to use them for the benefit of others and the advancement of God’s kingdom. But… that process takes time and, as I said, we need to meet people where they are…

 

I’d like to close by sharing with you a vision of what church should be, can be, that I’ve lived with for many years. So, imagine a beach with lots of people swimming in the sea. Probably most of those people are still quite close to the shore: many will just be paddling, and even most of those that are actually swimming will still only be a few feet out; only one or two will have gone any further. Meanwhile, there’s a lot more people still sitting on the beach who really don’t want to get in the water at all.

 

Well, in this analogy, the sea is God and the church consists of the people in it and this is why the gathered church model doesn’t work for me because what about those who are only paddling: are they in or out? And why would it be such a problem if they never progressed beyond paddling? Not all of us are cut out for swimming the channel.

 

At the same time, as one who has swum out a fair way myself, I want to encourage all the paddlers and indeed those swimming in the shallows to try going out a bit further because there’s some amazing things to see out there and, more than that, I want to say to all those sitting on the beach ‘Come on in the water’s lovely…’

 

And that’s another reason why the broad church model is superior to that of the gathered church in my (on a good day) humble opinion: imagine a super-fit person who’s just finished his channel crossing striding out of the water and up to someone lying on the beach and saying ‘Come on in – but it won’t count if you only paddle; paddlers aren’t even proper swimmers; so dive in or don’t bother ’ – well, I think they’d scare them off; and you could say that the paddlers are better placed to tempt the beach-dwellers in than anyone else cos they’re less threatening…

 

So, returning to where we started, with the accusation that the church of England is woolly – well, compared to the Jehovah’s witnesses or Landover Baptist church we are; and of course that apparent wooliness is the inevitable consequence of being a broad church – and more than that, a welcoming church which gives people time and space to grow and to discover God for themselves. And of course we can always encourage people to swim further by doing so ourselves…