Friday, 24 June 2011

'It's the Church, stupid.'

The minister of the Baptist Church we used to belong to in Leeds came back from attending the ordination of a friend into the Roman Catholic priesthood in Rome. He told me that he'd enjoyed his time there, meeting Christians from a different tradition and finding out more about how Rome ticked. He'd found it pretty cold and austere, though, and, unsurprisingly perhaps, had felt, as one of these upstart schismatics that the answer to every question he was likely to ask would come back, 'It's the Church, stupid ...'

Us Prots have never been that good at ecclesiology. Sort yourself out some kind of relationship with Christ, read your Bible and the church thing would look after itself. Other than a series of sessions over three consecutive Sundays, there wasn't much taught about the Church in our Baptist setting.

There was a distinctive ecclesiology among the Baptists, of course, in the way things operated - with the congregational structure and the 'Church Meeting' where decisions were made.

Further back, in our restorationist days with the so-called 'house-church' or 'new church' movement, ecclesiology was very much on the agenda. We had it sussed. We had the Ephesians 4 ministries - 'apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.' We were restoring the Church to its original purity and power, and some of us believed that we would exceed those halcyon early days because we'd sort all problems out entirely. Hardly surprising that we were soon disabused of that one ... well, most of us were anyway.

I was reminded of both our restorationist days and the Baptist minister's comments at an Orthodox conference I attended yesterday. Someone had dropped out so my Orthodox priest pal kindly invited me along. I only attended the one day but I heard more ecclesiology than I had in years. No more surprising in an Orthodox setting, of course, than it would be in an RC one. If you believe that yours is the One True Catholic and Apostolic Church then it's going to feature pretty strongly in your programme.

'It's the Church, stupid.'

But wait ... seeing as how the theme of the conference was The Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church, there was an added dimension, one which the Orthodox Church as the Ark of Salvation feels itself robust enough to handle ... without the timbers igniting and the vessel leaking or capsizing.

Our local Anglican parish church is moving in a more charismatic direction, and I was surprised to find quite a few people at the conference who'd been involved with charismatic things. Not that they'd call themselves charismatic in the Western sense, of course. The Deanery which held the conference is a missionary one and many of the clergy and conference delegates were either disaffected Anglicans or former charismatic evangelicals.

Once I'd got over the impression that I was at a Lord of the Rings convention - Saruman led one session, Sauron a second and Gandalf a third - I found that they don't do things that differently to the rest of us. They use PowerPoint (for lectures, not worship of course), they have coffee breaks, they have break-out and discussion sessions, Q&As ...

And there's a lot more lay involvement than outsiders might think.

The Orthodox Church claims to be pneumatic, of course, and would argue that it has never ceased to be charismatic in the true sense of the term. But the mileage seems to vary as to what extent they would regard the authenticity of spiritual gifts and 'workings' outside the parameters of the Orthodox Church herself. Some clearly took a harder line on this than others, although they would all acknowledge that God the Holy Spirit does work within all Christian traditions and indeed beyond the faith and out in the world. Certainly, the former Protestant and Catholic charismatics I met at the conference all had stories to tell, whether from Brazilian favellas or ordinary parishes in the North of England, of things they still considered to be genuine and extraordinary workings of the Holy Spirit. Although, like me, they were very sceptical of many contemporary claims.

High spots? Well, meeting the Belfast contingent was one of them. I warmed to them and their unfeasibly young priest straight away. 'Och, it's grand being Orthodox so it is. As we're neither Cat'olic nor Protestant, so we aren't, we've got something different tae offer tae both sides of the communidee ..'

It was one of the Belfast bunch who gave me one of the best laughs of the day (and there were a few). I was relating the story about my Baptist minister friend to one of the delegates as we stood side by side in the urinals (as you do).

When I ended with the quote, 'It's the Church, stupid,' the Belfast deacon emerged from the loo cubicle in his black cassock and funny hat. 'How's that? It's the stupid Church?' he quipped.

For me, though, the high spot must have been the pregnant stillness as the faithful gathered in the gloom of the conference centre chapel for Vespers. A silence so tangible you could have stacked it on top of itself. Andrew Walker, the Orthodox sociologist and honorary Anglican canon-theologian, once wrote that he considered the Orthodox silence as the missing note in Western worship. There may be echoes of it among the Quakers, perhaps, who knows? It's not an empty silence, it's a reverent silence full of expectation.

We say a lot. But there are times when there is nothing that can be said.


  1. My £100 bet on your conversion is looking like a better and better investment!

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  2. Who's going to pay your £100? You're not getting a penny from me ...

    And what is this G+ of which you speak? I've not had a chance to look up any Thomas Oden yet ... I'll have a quick look at your blog.