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Metaphors are cheap… but often no less right 15 January 2011

Posted by Dr Moose in Church, Faith, Ponderings.
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A Facebook Friend and fellow blogger yesterday drew to his readers’ attention a good blog entry regarding the lack of 20-30 year olds in our churches (although I’d rather extend the age range to 12-55 on personal experience, but that’s by-the-by) and although I now can’t find the phrase in the original item it did bring a metaphor to mind about how so many of our changes in church are like “re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic”. (If I’m confusing my references please excuse me, it was one of those days yesterday!)

Nevertheless, it remains true that so much of what we do inside the fellowship, and even more often the fabric, of the church is just that. Petty, irrelevant and quite possibly doomed. And if pushed I probably would say that the Church of England is a sinking ship of faith. It hasn’t hit an iceberg, it just suffers from so many minor leaks that all the energy that should be spent achieving forward motion (mission, service, pastoral care and evangelism) is being slowly but inexorably channelled into simply staying afloat. We are in danger of being left with a habitable, but unseaworthy vessel, more akin to a prison hulk at worst, or house boat at best, than the aircraft carrier we should be.

So the news today, that Anglican Bishops, the Rt Rev’ds Keith Newton, Andrew Burnham and John Broadhurst, are to be ordained as Roman Catholic priests at Westminster Cathedral brought the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns” to my mind. As is so often the case as I write blog posts my thinking evolves in the very action of the writing. I had been intending to dismiss this as no more than window-dressing at best, or poaching at worst. Certainly at the one level the future of Roman Catholicism in the UK looks distinctly wobbly, although I’m not sure whether “burning” is quite right.

Likewise it is worth bearing in mind that in “crossing the floor”, to use a political analogy, and being ordained RC priests, Bishops Keith, Andrew and John are disavowing their ordinations in the Church of England and accepting the Roman Catholic line that they were never priests, let alone bishops in the first place. I remember the words of one former Chaplain and friend to the effect that although most of his Theological College colleagues had “gone to Rome” he would not do so exactly because it would mean admitting that he hadn’t been a real priest for 13 years!

So at the one level this can be viewed as nothing more than an internal re-alignment. I do find myself wondering whether it will have any positive benefit whatsoever to the mission of God’s Church. I can’t see the creation of this “Ordinariate” doing anything more than create hot air, hurt and comfort, in equal measures.

Nevertheless astute readers will notice said that “I had been intending to dismiss”… Reading the news article, expressing the concerns of other traditionalists that “the bishops’ departure will jeopardise the future of the Church of England as a broad Church able to balance its Protestant and Catholic traditions” might actually be something positive in the long run. I frequently get tangled up in the intricacies of marriage law in my function as a legal registrar and found myself pondering whether we should really be following the French model of Civil Marriage and Religious Blessing. Maybe it would further chip away at the Anglican establishment, but add that to the legal constraints of infant baptism, and maybe that would be no bad thing? Disestablishment might well mean salvation rather than destruction.

As Kester Brewin noted in his challenging book “The Complex Christ” a few years ago, many church leaders and activists look for a “revival” – but fail to notice that revival is what happens on the crash table or at the crash site. It is the process of bringing the freshly-dead back from the brink. It involves pain, anguish and uncertainty. It is not guaranteed. And it’s where none of us in our right mind would really wish to be.

And yet… and yet, maybe that is where we need to be? From the still relative comfort of the Church of England’s via media, to the most-entrenched bastions of congregationalism, where 90% of members need to agree to bring about change, and at all points in between and way, way beyond, perhaps we really do need what the world of Science Fiction terms the Singularity, the point of radical change where, from this side Transcendence is identical to Apocalypse. To die that we might live. To be shaken from our familiarity into a place where our mission matters, where each person counts and can no longer hide behind the minister, but be enabled to minister. To be able to say “The Church is dead! Long live the Church!”

After all “there’s sunshine after the storm” and don’t get me started on silver linings…

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