Rev’d Jonathan Gale
The hilarious juxtaposition of Holly’s comment in Day One about the Patronal Festival meal, with the picture of St Peter contemplating the animals God told him to eat (Acts 10) got me thinking about Peter. What a conservative fellow he was! Cutting off the High Priest’s servant’s ear and much later not wanting to be seen with Gentile Christians. And yet it’s to Peter that God gives the revelation the Gentiles should be included in the church. Can you imagine had Christianity remained a small Jewish sect.
But Peter was flexible in this instance and the church was blessed immeasurably.
THE CHURCH A LIVING ORGANISM
When you read the New Testament it is plain that the church is not an organisation but an organism, at least it was so for the first 300 years of its existence.
Organisations tend to be rigid and resistant to change, whereas organisms are flexible and able to adapt.
Unfortunately when you look at the history of the church, particularly in the Middle Ages, it is very apparent that the church had grown into an institution that was concerned with power. The church was of course concerned about a great many very good things too, but ever since the time of the Emperor Constantine secular power was very much the concern of the church.
It suited the church to become a bureaucracy that controlled people and all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton famously said.
The church’s solution to how we related to God was a one size fits all solution. Like Procrustes with his Procrustean Bed, the church is often guilty of forcing everyone to conform to one approach. (In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a rogue smith and bandit from Attica who physically attacked people by stretching them or cutting off their legs, so as to force them to fit the size of an iron bed. Hence the term Procrustean Bed.)
ONE SIZE FITS ALL
Our approach to God should be rooted in the principles of Scripture and given expression through the medium of our culture. The principles of Scripture are eternal but our methods of giving effect to those principles are not, because style, and symbol have meaning that is culturally derived.
Every now and again a church will realize that its methods are out of date and it will meet to alter these. In the Roman Catholic Church Vatican 2 is a prime examples of this.
Pope John XXIII announced the creation of Vatican II in January 1959. It met from 1962 to 1965 and addressed relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world. Pope John said this: What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.
In other words, the principles are eternal but the way these are given expression to is cultural and therefore needs to change.
What we know about organizations is they tend to last some time beyond their use-by date. Vatican 2 was a shock because there had not been a council of that nature for nearly 100 years. What this means for the church is that many of its ways of approaching God tend to be hampered by stasis.
One way the Anglican Church in New Zealand attempted to be culturally relevant was in May 1992 to split the church into three tikanga – Pakeha, Maori and Pasifika. Each cultural grouping could then worship in a manner that was culturally relevant to them. Today in the church calendar we celebrate that. It is Te Pouhere Sunday. Te Pouhere is the term for constitution.
Being culturally relevant is more important than most realize. If God had not been concerned about that, Jesus would have gone about speaking the holy language of the Old Testament: Hebrew. He didn’t. He spoke the common language of the time, Aramaic, so that the common people could relate to him.
God then made sure that the New Testament was written, not in Aramaic, but in the language common to the Roman Empire: Koine Greek. You may have wondered why it wasn’t written in Latin. It was the official language of the Roman Empire. God wanted his message to reach as many people as possible so it was written in the Greek of the time because more people understood it.
In the Diocese of Auckland is a new church plant. The Priest in Charge invited me to attend a service there so Faith and I went along one Sunday afternoon to experience it. Most of the people there were in their late twenties to early forties. I’m a flexible person (I like to think) and there were aspects of it I found very meaningful but it made me realize just how old I was. Faith positively did not enjoy it.
I then read an article on Facebook that was aimed at that very kind of service, showing why it was outdated – in the sense that there was no way it would cater for teenagers and people in their early twenties. Did that make me feel all of my 63 years!
Recently a Vicar, who is almost exactly my age, said to me, “Boy, am I glad we’re no younger than we are.” I asked why. The response was, “I don’t see how the church is going to exist in ten years’ time.” I was shocked. But it was a good shock. Because the more I thought about it the more I realized how true it was. Churches are shutting all the time. In fact many involved in Local Shared Ministry quietly refer to it as “smoothing the pillow” as the patient dies. Some of the major churches involved in Paul’s missionary journeys no longer exist.
What we do at St Peter’s in our services will be relevant for a decreasing number of people. Recently a group of us went through the parish Role for the prayer project. I was amazed at how many people had died since I’d been here. We need to think seriously about other forms of worship, if we are to survive as a parish. That doesn’t mean we have to do away with what we do now. It may well need revising somewhat because time and cultural shifts affect us all, but no revision will cater for generations younger than us. Altogether different services, probably lead by altogether different people, will be needed for the church to survive.
You see Jesus died for people, including those much younger than we are. He didn’t die for an institution.
If Te Pouhere Sunday says anything to us, it is that it is not all about us. There are other, equally important people (some who may not be in the church of Christ yet!) who need to be accommodated.
One of the most valuable things about studying history and theology together is developing an ability to understand just how things have changed over time. If we don’t have that ability we make two errors:
- We think that what we do is the pinnacle of thought and practice, forgetting that most generations thought the same, and we find changing what we do of little value.
- We tend to see less value in the spirituality of others. I have to confess that my experience in the new church plant made me judge them somewhat, but then I realised I was judging a whole generation of people.
It’s not all about me. It’s not all about you. If the church is to survive (and thrive) it needs to be flexible. That means we need to make room , as did the Anglican church in establishing the Three Tikanga structure, for others to give expression to worship in ways that are relevant to them.
Of course God is never static and the Holy Spirit is constantly at work growing the work of God. The question we need to ask is whether it will be us involved in that growth or not.
The irrepressible work of the Spirit continues. That is hugely encouraging. If it’s not all about me, I need to be very careful that my actions do not encourage God to look elsewhere to give effect the work of the Gospel.