Last Thursday’s Oxford Faith Debate at the church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford was a timely reminder of the fact that there are other things at stake, when it comes to the future of the Church of England, than those which have occupied its attention in recent years. In the time scale of eternity these divisive issues will, in any case, be ultimately consumed within the unfathomable depths of God’s love. What is really at stake today, however, is the credibility, and not just the viability, of the Church of England. In this respect, there are only two things which matter: a passionate desire to know and be known by God and a corresponding desire to know and understand others and to take responsibility for the deployment of the gifts which they bring to the Church, and hence to the people the Church is called to serve.
This is not as obvious, or as easy, as it may sound. If, for the purpose of argument, we restrict these two essentials to the life of the Church, we find, as I did for quite a bit of the discussion about how Anglicans of all kinds could be engaged in the Church of the future, that they become occluded by peripheral considerations. Questions of church attendance and how to get younger people there on a Sunday, questions of representation and management, especially where this has to do with authority, are all important, as they would be for any organisation. But few of these considerations have any direct bearing on the central question. While they may serve as checks and balances against which the Church can measure its viability in the present, and have an idea about its longer term future, they do not inspire. They do not draw people to God.
The Church is not an organisation like any other, although there are things which it can learn from the organisational model. The Church is contextual. It is shaped by a particular story and exists in a particular environment for a reason. It needs to be able to communicate what it is about, which is all things pertaining to God and to his purpose for the world, in ways which make it meaningful to those it seeks to reach, not all of whom are shaped by the same cultural context.
The idea that the Church of England is still viable enough to be thought of as the national church begs a number of questions. Is being the national Church a cultural precedent? Is it national because it is established, thereby linking it culturally to England and to English history? What culture is it representing in the multi-cultural, ethnically and religiously diverse society of today (a question which might well be asked during the course of the next Oxford Faith Debate on November 20th)? And what of the people to whom the specific cultural connections which make for a national established Church mean little or nothing? These are people who the Church needs to reach but who often feel alienated by arcane traditions rooted in the tangled web of its English history and legal system.
During the course of my ministry as a university chaplain and in the context of rural parishes in Wales, I have learned that many people ignore the nuances of establishment vs. disestablishment. They assume the Anglican Church to be the Church of Wales, rather than the Church in Wales, a subtle but important difference. The Church in Wales is neither established or national. It is simply that part (or province) of the Anglican Communion which exists primarily to serve the people of Wales. But like the Church of England we, in the Church in Wales, are not really in touch with those we are here to serve because we are unsure of what we are about, what we have to bring to them from the store house of our particular treasure, from all the gifts which we are given in people, and from the gift of God himself. The Church in Wales is not a bearer of meaning for many people. It is like a frame hanging on a wall minus the picture. It is not saying very much.
I was reminded of this at Thursday’s Oxford Faith Debate. At the heart of the discussion was the unspoken question ‘What is the Church of England really for? What is it about?’ The question pertains to the whole Church, the whole body of Christ, but it also needs to be addressed separately, by each of its individual parts, all those different denominational limbs which make up the body.
Perhaps the question needs to be placed within the framework of another more specific question, as one of the panel members so eloquently stated, ‘How does the Church identify gifts and experiences?’ She went on to remind us of the fact that low morale, among clergy especially, has to do with their particular giftedness not being recognised or used. Gift is more than talent or aptitude. It is not a ‘skill’. It is that particular aspect of a person which is unique to them and vital to the missional life of the Church. Their gift is what makes them the person they are. That person is called to minister to others as Christ. To ignore their gift is to ignore, or refuse to know, that person.
We only become persons in the fullest sense when we are in communion with other persons, those we know and those we have not yet met, all of whom God would like to know through what the Church calls its ministry. Where the Church erects barriers of gender or status (to name only two), the particular ‘treasure’ which many people bring to its life is lost and the Church, along with those it is there to serve, is the poorer for it with the result that the meaning which people hope to find when they join a church is somehow absent.
The search for meaning is really a search for God. It is a search for holiness. When people come to church for the first time, they are like the two men who approached the apostle, Philip, with a simple request, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus”. Those who remain on the edge of the Church’s life, who perhaps only set foot in a church at Christmas or for the occasional wedding or funeral, would also like to see Jesus. They would like to meet him on other Sundays as well, and in every context in which the Church plays a part. Making this possible is the Church of England’s purpose and its hope for a future.