Reading an interesting interview with Paddy Ashdown in the current issue of Fabian Review, now that he has returned from his extraordinarily difficult task in Bosnia, I was struck by his comments on how Global governance has changed, particularly in the light of the considerable disaffection around the world with the present US administration. He said “Something immensely powerful has happened: power has migrated outside the structures we created to control it, the structures of the nation state, and is now on the global stage. And there is a rule of thumb – when power migrates, governance must migrate with it, and until governance does migrate with it, you will live in a period of chaos.”
The chaos in political terms is obvious at this moment, as we sit on the sidelines and watch the tragic disaster in Lebanon and Israel unfold. It is perfectly obvious that there are no global institutions with anything like the authority to control things and to create a context for peace and justice in any particular locality around the world; and the United States and her allies will never have that authority. They may appear to have the power, the military might, but as Iraq and Afghanistan unquestionably demonstrate, that sort of power resolves nothing.
It may seem inane to make any comparison with what is happening in the Church, but there is no question that we are, to use a funny word, in a new paradigm. In other words, the changes in the world have been so dramatic and so fast that faith communities (that have never been the fastest or the best at coping with change and evolution) frankly no longer have either the structures or the strategies for managing the new situation. Even the Anglican Communion, the most flexible and laid-back of communities, finds itself in chaos, because we have assumed too much about our ability to stretch and reshape the boundaries to contain the changes that are happening; but we have failed to see that the changes are actually 'root and branch'. They are fundamental changes to the ways in which the world, and the world of faith, have existed in the past. So either we change, evolve into something different from what we have been for a very long time, recognize that all our assumptions of what it is to be Church are being challenged, and with fortitude and faithfulness, become ready for new ways and new challenges - or the institution we know and love (?) is in for a very tough time.
And what is true at international and national level is also true at local level. We are now well on the way to unifying our two parishes, but that is only the beginning. That in itself is convenient, and probably goes some way to meeting the challenge of fewer clergy. But if we are to begin to discover the new paradigm, to find 'fresh ways of expressing church', the changes are going to have to be much more fundamental. And squeals there will be, I have no doubt. I sometimes squeal myself as I contemplate the change that seems to be necessary. But it is usually much worse thinking about it than implementing it.
Firstly, it is no good anyone saying 'We will continue to go it alone, and ignore them down/up the hill.' We are going to have to work together and not just two parishes/three churches, but with all churches in the city centre and beyond. What we are looking for is not structural unity. That is a trillion years away at the moment. It is something different – much more about recognizing one another as valid and valuable communities within the one network of churches, with whom we do not compete, but rather encourage and support one another in doing what each does best. It is about trust. It is about humility. It is about a new vision. And that needs to be more than a casual nod. It needs to be firm commitment from us all.
Secondly, it is no good saying we are going to protect what we do come what may. This is especially so in liturgy, because liturgy is the touchpoint for us all with the life of the church.. Liturgy develops. It always has done, and always will do. If it does not it calcifies, stagnates, because liturgy both offers glory to God and also expresses something of who and what we are at any given time. Liturgy is not the possession of a few, it is the work of all the people of God. It is not a performance by clergy, or clergy and choir, which everyone else watches with admiration (or not). It is the corporate voice of the Church in prayer and praise. That is why the Church of England moved away from referring to 'The Celebrant' – we all celebrate the eucharist; but to hold it together and direct it we need one person to preside, whilst others have specific roles in assisting the worship – but no-one is an onlooker. We are congregations (gatherings) not audiences.
We have an opportunity now to continue to develop what we offer, to ensure that within our churches the best possible worship is offered in the most inclusive way, and to communicate what we offer in the most effective way possible. I will therefore be asking the Joint Worship Group to consider some proposals which will begin that development. And, in the meantime, I am proposing to offer a celebration of Holy Communion at St Mary's according to the Book of Common Prayer, to coincide with the Heritage Open Days (Sunday 10 September), as a reminder and a teaching opportunity for us all about how liturgy does develop.
Thirdly, we must understand afresh the meaning of the word Church. Church has nothing to do with a building or an institution, even though over the centuries, that has become its adopted meaning. The Church is the body of Christian people. It is not the clergy – we did not 'go into the Church' when we were ordained, leaving everyone else, by implication, outside. Although at various times and in various traditions our buildings have contained 'Holy of Holies', and the Victorian rood screens in St Mary's and St Peter's are symbols of that theology, we do not divide the Church up into hierarchies of holiness. That was one of the fundamental reforms when Christianity was founded. Everyone who chooses to be is an equal member. We don't go for 'pew fodder'. We each may have different skills and experience to offer to the community, and for the purposes of the institution we may, unfortunately, have developed a sophisticated (and 'set apart') hierarchy. But we all begin as the people of God, together. No-one who commits themselves to Christ in baptism is simply a consumer. But for me, the most potent image of the people of God in the Bible, is of a people on the move, tramping through the wilderness, free from possessions, prompted and led, in faith, by a God of Promise, a people with a vision of how God wants the world to be, and who, together, are determined to live that vision, invite others to join in realizing the vision, and infinitely forgiving when our human failings get the better of us.
The challenge is to all of us. And as we begin to propose substantive changes at this moment of opportunity for our life together, unless we all enter into this time of vision-building together, with these basic principles at heart, it could become quite acrimonious. And part of the problem so far has been just that – there has been a lack of corporate vision. The people of God have assumed that to remain static is good enough, or that someone else would build the vision, which they/we could then adopt or reject. But that is not Church, and it won't fit the reality of where we are now.