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The Emperor Has No Clothes

The ‘nones’ (those who, when responding to surveys, tick ‘none’ in the box marked ‘religion’ but who might possibly tick C of E if pressed) need look no further for a home. Bishop David Jenkins, that prophet of our time, once was heard to declare that God is not interested in the Church. God is all about the Kingdom.

It follows that if and when we stumble upon the Kingdom in the context of the Church, we do not need to look further to find God. The problem lies in defining the Kingdom, if such a thing is definable. You could say the same thing about the Church. It is not easy to describe what the Church is, still less what it ought to be, if it is to be true to its Kingdom calling.

The original commission to go out and make disciples has acquired a rather hollow tone, given the Church’s history of conquest and forced conversion, not to mention prejudice and plain hatred. But the kernel of truth remains at the heart of its true calling. If the Church is called to be anything at all, it is called to offer to the world the peace which only God can bring, the peace of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church is called to embody that peace. Peace is its garment, and peace is the substance of its members, the body it clothes. The Church is called to give that body to the world, as Christ gave his.

The Church cannot simply talk about peace in rather abstract terms overlaid with the clothing of piety. We need to tend the hurt body lest we be accused, like the Emperor who failed to realise that he had no clothes, of being completely naked.

The build-up of hurt, the collective betrayals, untruths and resistance to the goodness and giftedness in people, and its resistance to healing, make it difficult for the Church to truly embody peace. As with any physical body, allowing wounds to fester can render them life threatening. Could it be that this is what is happening in the life of the institutional Church? We keep knocking each other’s old wounds without pausing to consider the damage. We are more concerned with filling our churches and with preventing them from falling into disrepair than we are about healing the hurts which we inflict on ourselves.

At the more traditional end of the Church, we hide complacently behind beautiful but arcane (in the minds of many) liturgy, clerical dress and the kind of managerialism which consists mainly of moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. At the other end lies a mixture of naïveté and hubris, a blinkered reading of scripture which often goes with an implicit sense of superiority in regard to other faiths, or even other Christians. Neither of these scenarios provides a setting in which the ‘nones’ are likely to meet God in his Christ.

What is needed is for the Church to take ‘time out’, a couple of years’ sabbatical perhaps, on order to focus prayerfully and pastorally on its relationships, especially on those which relate to authority and to the pastoral care of its people, clergy and laity alike. During this sabbatical, those with the most power and authority would be subject to those with the least. In the current hierarchical and still patriarchal system, such a reversal of order could help to break down existing power blocks and help us all identify where true authority lies. So it is those with authority and power who must begin this re-structuring work of peace-making in the Church, because peace-making is both the mandate and the sign of true leadership.

Peace-making in the Churcb will entail the hard practical work of seeking forgiveness and the bridge-building which will follow. It will be hard because it will first require that everything that is not of love be burned away. Love must do the burning. This, incidentally, comes as close as it gets to a definition of hell. The fire of hell is the burning fire of love. Hell is hell insofar as it is the conflagration of consuming love, love burning up all the petty hatreds of life in community.

But the institutional Church as we know it is not all bad news. There are acts of heroic self giving which pass unnoticed in its life. Priests who minister in and for the love of Christ, and whose work is largely ignored by the Church’s critics, embody the healing fires of love. Their work endures in the hearts of those whose lives they have touched. Bishops who are true to their calling as peace-makers and as pastors to their clergy do the same. It will, nevertheless, take time for the Church to be transformed in such a way as to make the ‘nones’ want to tick a different box, but I am convinced that it will happen. Such is the nature of the faith we proclaim, that we will be changed ‘in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye’.

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