Faithful and Free
9 - Belonging in the Church
In chapter two we summarized many people's objections to religious belief in terms of unreasonableness, irrelevance, immorality and hypocrisy. These same objections can be, and often are, levelled at religious practice in the Christian churches.
To this day, in New Zealand and worldwide, there are churches where things are said and done that offend against common sense; where irrationality is made a virtue; where little connection is made with the living of our life in society; where racism is sanctioned; where the injustice of our existing social order is not only tolerated but affirmed and blessed; where particular classes of people are consciously or unconsciously discriminated against - women, the unmarried, the handicapped, the young or the old, those who do not measure up to a narrow and conventional standard of sexual propriety. Add to all that the memory of the folly and shame of the church's ambiguous past, and we are compelled to acknowledge that there are some very good reasons indeed not to belong in the church.
We would even go so far as to suggest that where you find a church that talks nonsense, or which is antiquarian with little relevance to your life in society today, or which is careless of its own history, or which continues to sanction injustice, discrimination, exploitation, and pollution of our natural environment - then, in the name of faith itself, you are better off not belonging in that church.
The majority of New Zealanders have already voted with their feet. A 1985 survey revealed that only about a sixth of New Zealanders attend church regularly. Those in their twenties attend only half as much as those over 60. (Perry and Webster: The Religious Factor in NZ Society, Alpha Publications, 1989). If you are not a churchgoer, we have to admit you are in good company.
First, we human beings are social animals. Our reality is a social reality and, like it or not, our thinking is inescapably shaped by tradition mediated by language. We have argued that no tradition should be accepted uncritically. But we ourselves are grateful to the Christian churches for handing on to us the tradition of Christian faith which we have found to be so liberating in our personal experience. We too have had bad experiences in Christian churches. But we continue to find stimulation in faith and life in that company of fellow believers which is the church. The church, after all, has the capacity to put us in touch with two thousand years of Christian tradition. That totality is far greater than its institutional and doctrinal expression at any one place and time.
Secondly, the church, with its living tradition of faith, allows us at least to hope for a community that carefully and critically explores the values implicit in the diverse activities of our world. Such a community would draw these out, and express them - in relation to the ultimate reality, God - in beliefs that are clear, consistent, and compelling. It would symbolize them in story, myth, and ritual. It would act them out in order that our life in society might be shaped by the best of our values. We have said that faith is an inescapable response for human beings to make to their world. Only a religious community brings that faith out into the open. This seems to us to be a very good reason for belonging in the church. Where else could we go that would perform this task for us half so well? Not to belong in the church seems to leave only two options. One is an ineffective and isolating individualism. The other would be to participate in some group or organization that would function for us as a substitute church, and would give us only a tiny part of what the church can provide.
Thirdly, to leave the church would be an admission of defeat. Being Christian, we have said, is a response to the amazing grace of God. To walk out on the church, even as an act of integrity or courage or protest, would be an expression of despair, an admission of failure, an act of resignation that declared the church to be beyond the reach of the grace of God.
And fourthly, we stay in the church as an act of faith in, and an expression of commitment to, our Christian sisters and brothers. We trust that, together, we can keep on developing our Christian understanding and reforming our Christian living, so that our witness of faith may be embodied in the church in a truly credible way.
So we find ourselves at one with the Catholic theologian Hans Küng in his answer to the question, "Why stay in the church?"
Because, despite everything, in this community of faith, critically but jointly, we can affirm a great history on which we live with so many others. Because, as members of this community, we ourselves are the Church and should not confuse it with its machinery and administrators, still less leave the latter to shape the community. Because, however serious the objections, we have found here a spiritual home in which we can face the great questions of the whence and whither, the why and wherefore, of humankind and the world. We could no more turn our backs on it than on democracy in politics, which in its own way is misused and abused no less than the Church.
(On Being a Christian, 522-3)
While it has seldom succeeded in this, the church at least intends that its life should be shaped by the New Testament's memories of Jesus. Paul, in his letters, speaks of the church as the body of Christ, continuing the work and witness of Jesus in the world, in the inspiration and power of God's Spirit.
Christians give the experience of God present in the church, to inspire and empower, the name 'the Holy Spirit'. If this were to bring with it the developed catholic doctrine of the Trinity - that God has the eternal three-fold nature of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - we would have misgivings. This kind of doctrine, these days, creates more problems than it solves. Very few of today's Christians have the special philosophical background required for its appreciation. It too easily leaves the impression of a crude tritheism - a belief in three gods. We stand firmly beside Jews and Moslems in our witness to one God, and one alone. And yet we are ready to defend talk of God as Holy Spirit, God-with-us here and now, the Spirit that gives life and energy to the otherwise dead corpse of the church as the body of Christ in the world.
The agenda for the church is set, in part, by its understanding of itself as the body of Christ. Just as the Jesus-tradition focuses Christians' belief in God, so it focuses their life together in the church. It invites them to shape their common life in ways that foster openness, and are prepared for novelty and the unexpected. This means, of course, that the church is open to new inspiration and the enrichment of new encounters in every generation. That openness is itself a witness to its foundational encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.
The church, as the body of Christ, is challenged to be an inclusive community, and to present in word and deed a convincing witness to a non-hierarchical vision of freedom, justice, and fulfilment for all. From Jesus it learns that to challenge the existing social - and ecclesiastical - order will invite opposition.
Our discussion may have helped to clarify for you some tests you will apply if you are looking for a church to belong in. We ourselves are NZ Methodists, Whether we entered this denomination by accident or design, we have found in our Methodist congregations space and freedom to grow in faith. We have found ourselves in fruitful dialogue with other people who are also engaged in the courageous experiment of being Christian.
Some of our reasons for choosing to be and remain Methodist Christians will become apparent in the following MISSION STATEMENT of the Methodist Church of Aotearoa-New Zealand . . .
Our Church's Mission in Aotearoa New Zealand is to reflect and proclaim the transforming love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and declared in the Scriptures. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve God in the world. The Treaty of Waitangi is the covenant establishing our nation on the basis of a power-sharing relationship, and will guide how we undertake mission. In seeking to carry out our mission we will work according to these principles:
To the extent that the Methodist churches in which we belong actually shape their life together according to this Mission Statement, we are proud to be Methodists.
We do not at all wish to suggest that only within the Methodist Church can you find congregations in sympathy with the understanding of Christian faith that this book presents. Nor, unfortunately, can we promise that the first congregation you approach, of whatever denomination, will be effectively expressing in its life the priorities in Christian witness that seem important to us. You may have to search for a while.
From the very beginnings of the Christian church, the common life of Christians has exhibited the following six activities:
1. Bible reading.
We return again and again to the faith-story of the people of God. The Bible gives us our only access to the events which originated the Christian community as it evolved out of Jewish faith. The Bible continues to shape our Christian life and thought.
Just as the Bible is the original Christian witness, so it is the central inspiration of Christian witness in every generation. Preaching, and also Christian education, relate the Bible to the questions, challenges, and answers posed by our contemporary experience and reason, in a way that is life-transforming.
Public and private prayer, and much of our hymn-singing, have the function of focusing our best values in relation to ultimate reality (God). In prayer and in song we express our highest hopes for our world, and we offer ourselves to God so that our prayers become the making of reality. Prayer is not a substitute for action. At its best it can focus, inspire, and sustain Christian action.
4. The sacraments (baptism and the eucharist or holy
Sacramental acts symbolize or re-present the gift and the challenge of God's love. We shall say more about them shortly.
This is a quaint Christian word for being together as Christians. It is not to be underestimated. The church is one of the few places where a sense of extended family can be experienced, with genuine communication between generations. We learn from one another how faith can shape our life, and we enjoy the company and the support of others who share our aspirations and values.
As we explained in our chapter on 'Being Christian', mission has two aspects - bearing a credible witness to the reality of God; and co-operating with God in Christian action, so far as we are able, to enable every creature, in its social context, to achieve its full potential.
All six of these characteristics of Christian life together find expression in the Sunday worship service. Accordingly 'going to church' is crucial to 'being the church'. And 'being the church' goes hand in hand with 'being Christian'.
The church, traditionally, has performed an important social role by marking particular key transitions in the life of an individual. Birth (baptism), puberty (confirmation), forming a long-term relationship (marriage), and death (the funeral) all call for some sort of religious ritual. The rituals of the church remind us of who we are and to whom we ultimately belong.
Baptism symbolizes the love of God which creates and redeems us, and from which nothing can separate us. It is the rite of initiation into the church. It reminds us that from the beginning of our lives we belong to God, and we belong in the community of faith in God.
Confirmation marks that point in a person's life when she or he says "yes" to God and to the church, and acknowledges the belonging symbolized by baptism. Confirmation commissions the person to active participation in the church's mission.
Holy Communion (the eucharist) symbolizes the all-inclusiveness of God's love. The bread is broken and the wine poured out for everyone, at the table to which all are invited in memory of Jesus who turned none away, but ate and drank with social and religious outcasts. We remember that Jesus was executed at the hands of both civil and religious authorities. Thus communion also symbolizes the costly sacrifice that may be demanded if we too choose to be faithful and free in our witness to that all-inclusive love.
In marriage a man and a woman contract, in front of witnesses, to take each other as husband and wife. The contract is registered by the civil authority. Holy Matrimony (the marriage service) is the liturgy with which the church is ready to surround marriage. The declarations are made as the State requires. The union is blessed, and is set within the context of the loving purposes of God.
The Christian funeral is still the way people in our society prefer to farewell those who die. The service reminds us that the love of God embraces every moment of our lives.
The more creative and adventurous of the churches may also offer some liturgical recognition of other important life events - blessing relationships other than marriage, giving thanks for the birth of a child, blessing a new home, acknowledging the end of a relationship in separation or divorce. They may help people to mark significant anniversaries, or express their coming to terms with particular events - the loss of a child stillborn, retirement, personal trauma.
To recognize, affirm, and symbolize significant life events helps people achieve wholeness and integration as those who know that Reality itself is on their side, and that they have a community to belong to and draw strength from.
We have produced this book as an introduction to Christian believing. We have tried to make it reasonable. The approach has been to show that faith is an inescapable feature of human existence. We have offered our understanding of Christian belief as the most clear, consistent, and compelling account known to us of that basic faith which we all share. Now we can only invite you to experiment with living according to just this understanding of your life - that is, in relation to the ultimate reality we name 'the God of Jesus Christ'.