Thought for the Week 17 July
Image and Reality
In just ten years ‘some extrapolations’ show the Church may not be ‘functionally extant’ according to a speaker at the weekend’s meeting of the Church of England General Synod. More bluntly, the church will no longer exist because its existing members will have died and no one is replacing them. It has been said before. The death of the church has been promised many times and we are still here.
However, the survival of the Church here is neither promised in Scripture nor guaranteed on other grounds. In spite of the Decade of Evangelism, in spite of sloganeering even such as our own diocese has engaged in, the age profile of the church rises and the numbers at Mass decline, not everywhere but in most places. What is to be done to make the church more popular? They include changes in presentation, even changes in core beliefs, both so as to accord more with the social mores, on the one hand, and on the other, a presentation of difference, a lifestyle and forms of worship deliberately different from the way of the world, a niche market if you will. In secular terms this is the choice between seeking primarily to increase market share by selling whatever will sell best (and abandoning old lines) or concentrating on the quality of a well tried product only seeking to improve it.
Doubtless matters are never quite that simple. On the other hand, there is always something to be said for concentrating on our central task. In spite of organisational issues – administrative structures, personnel, buildings, image, money – in spite of irritations, in spite of human weakness, self-centredness and the desire to control, all worship is to God only. Though the Church may fall, this is not negotiable. It is His will not the survival of the Church which matters. If the Church is the means by which the will of God is proclaimed, well and good but it has to be this way round. No doubt what we do is done outwardly – with our buildings, in our exposition of scripture, through our liturgy and our music – but these depend for their meaningfulness upon our inner devotion to God. It is, to use a dull but vital word, a matter of attitude, a way of looking: seeing ourselves as children of God, our lives focused on gratitude for what we have, love for those around us, humility before his will, determination that right should prevail, a penitent and forgiving heart. These will take many forms but they cannot be assumed in our efforts to promote ourselves. The hollowness of the pretensions of powerful institutions has been unveiled in recent days whose proper purposes have been undermined by their conduct. The less we talk about the character of the Christian life, the less it will seem to matter, and the less the Church will matter. On the other hand, an institution with some understanding of the true nature of human purposes may have something irreplaceable to say to the world in which it is set.