A Reconciling Church for a Wounded World
We are living in a wounded world inhabited by wounded people who are wounding the planet. We can all give many examples of the ways in which our world and planet are wounded but the media has, quite rightly, been dominated by the thousands of refugees forced out of their homes and desperately trying to find shelter in Europe. In addition, we frequently meet with wounded people in our ministries. And, of course, each of us, too, is wounded in different ways. Henri Nouwen highlighted this in his book The Wounded Healer, a term he coined from psychologist Carl Jung.
In this session, I want to explore how we as Christians, with reconciliation at the heart of who we are and what we do, can be faithful to our calling and influence the world beyond the walls of the church with this message of reconciliation.It goes without saying that we can influence those within the Church and we can open ourselves up to deeper reconciliation, but how can we influence those outside.....and I believe the ecclesiology of the Anglican church places us in a powerful position to do so, though the message is received even more powerfully when we are seen to be working alongside other faith communities, both Christian and non-christian?
Let me first say something about the nature of the Church.
The Church is called to be what the world would look like if it (the world) were in touch with God through Jesus Christ. This understanding of the Church makes the link between church and society clear. The Church is called to model a new and radical form of society. As the Bishop of Kondoa said today, it is called to be a transformative place. The Church’s role is to strive joyfully and assiduously towards this calling. St. Paul saw reconciliation as being at the heart of this calling, as he wrote to the Church in Corinth:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us, we entreat you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Paul’s central concern was to inspire reconciling communities of Christ to illustrate and proclaim God’s reconciliation to the world.
As we have already seen, the Church needs to recognise that while there will be glimpses and foretastes of glory which will be encouragements, it is on a journey and it will not reach fulfilment in this world but needs to be always open to being renewed and reformed.
That’s the reason I have called this talk ‘a reconciling Church’ because, in that paradoxical way that I explained in my first talk, the Church is both reconciled and reconciling, it still needs to work at its own reconciliation. It is not the finished product. Furthermore the renewal that it constantly needs, will come from outside the establishment: while the Church may be able to manage itself, it cannot renew itself. One of my concerns for the Church of England today is that while it does look outside of itself and expresses concern about events in the world, it is, at the end of the day, too concerned about its self-preservation and its centre of gravity/equilibrium makes it more inward than outward- looking. There is the danger that with the focus like this, we miss those signs of the Kingdom coming from outside....but that’s another discussion.
Having said something about the nature of the Church, I want to suggest 3 areas (and there are more) that can help us gauge whether the Church is being faithful to its calling of being a reconciling church to a wounded world.
1. Relating to the Other.
2. New reconciling communities/movements.
I will give my own examples in these areas, but I hope you will add your own. I am not just plucking these areas out of the air, but I am drawing them from the experience of St. Paul, in particular in his working with the rather troublesome and infuriating church in Corinth. I also want to remind us that the Church is not just those who gather in church buildings, but there are also churches, christian communities, who gather in hospitals, psychiatric units, schools, universities, armed services, airports, prisons and shopping centres all of which are called to be communities of reconciliation.
1. Relating to the Other
St. Paul had a real struggle with relationships in the church in Corinth which was made up of men and women, the wealthy, uneducated slaves and dock workers, educated slaves and house slaves who worked for the Roman administration. One group thought that it was socially superior to everybody else because they were wealthier. The educated believed that they understood the scriptures and the faith better than those with no education. Whereas those with no education claimed that God spoke directly to them through dreams and visions by-passing written documents. Some claimed that one form of worship (ie their form of worship) was better than others and that some songs were more spiritual than others. On top of this, some wanted to reject Paul’s authority as a Christian leader. To hold this diverse, quarrelsome congregation together (and of course, none of us have quarrelsome congregations), Paul used the image of the body which we find in I Corinthians 14 as we just heard. By using this image, he wanted to show them that even though they were different and had their disagreements, what held them together was greater than what separated them and that they could rejoice in their differences, their otherness rather than fear them
Relating to the other is key to the understanding of the Jewish and Christian faiths and it is key to process of reconciliation: it is not by accident that one of the components of the Greek word for reconciliation used in the New Testament means ‘other.’ It is not necessary to like the other, nor to agree with the other, but it is important to respect and even welcome the other (hard as it may be) in the process of reconciliation. But the most challenging part of embracing the other required of reconciliation is the embracing of our enemy who may have persecuted, struck, abused, stolen and even tried to kill us – and may have killed others close to us.
But all of this is counter-cultural. The word ‘otherizing’ is gaining momentum in the USA. Otherizing is placing people outside the circle of ‘us’ which often means regarding or treating them as threats or even enemies.......the very opposite of Paul’s image of the body. The extreme of ‘otherizing’ a person is viewing them as inferior and sub-human. The language that is used of various groups will tell us whether we are, in fact, otherizing people. Calling people terrorists, psychos, animals or fundamentalists is distancing them and their humanity from us.One consequence of ‘otherizing’ is an accumulation of fear. Fear towards the other which, in turn, builds up fear within the other. When the ‘other person’ is regarded as a threat, so too other ideas, attitudes and customs are viewed in a similar way. German essayist and poet Heinrich Heine wrote, ‘Where the burn books, at the end they burn people.’ The extreme of this can be seen in genocide and even the holocaust, during which Heine’s books were burned. Heinich’s comment has been reproduced in Yad Veshem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. All of this is swirling around as we face the refugee crisis: do we regard them as members of the body of humanity or do we ‘otherize’ them?
In our debates in our churches, do we regard those whose views we find difficult, those with whom we profoundly disagree as members of the same body – or do we otherize them?
How we agree or disagree makes a statement about mission. Church of Scotland theologian Elizabeth Templeton highlighted this as a speaker at the 1988 Lambeth Conference when the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood was being debated. She reflected on the debate in this way:
The world is used to unity of all sorts, to the unity of solidarity in campaigns, unity in resistance, communities of party, creed, interest. But it is not used to such possibilities as this: that, for example, those who find the exclusion of women from the priesthood an intolerable apartheid and those who find the inclusion a violation of God's will should enter upon one another’s suffering. Somewhere in there, authority lies.
New reconciling communities and movements
Paul saw the establishment of and relationship with new reconciling communities as part of his calling. It is the earliest form of church planting. But today new reconciling communities can be understood more widely. There are many more reconciling communities/movements that have been established as a result of Christian influence or there may be other reconciling movements which would flourish with the Church’s encouragement. I can think of a number in our diocese. The Kenward Trust in Yalding which works with those struggling with alcohol and drug addiction and its aim is to break through this dependency making it possible for people to lead new and productive lives. This helps bring inner reconciliation to people. In a similar way. The Pilsdon community at Malling offers a safe place for those wanting to rebuild their lives after a crisis and a safe home for those wanting to work through depression, addiction, divorce or bereavement.
Another reconciling movement for reconciliation arose out of tragedy. Eighteen year old Rob Knox was an up-and-coming young actor who played the part of Marcus Belby alongside Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Less than six months before the film was released in November 2008, Rob Knox was stabbed to death in Sidcup after his younger brother had been threatened by a man wielding knives. Rob Knox, a sports lover, was a member of the same rugby club as Jimmy Mizen, a sixteen year old who had been fatally stabbed two weeks before in nearby Lee. Jimmy, a much loved brother and son, was also with his brother when his jugular vein was severed by somebody threatening his brother.
The response of the parents was remarkable. They could have turned in on themselves with grief. But both sets of parents set up foundations in memory of their sons. Both were established to promote the good in young people and to draw out their potential. The community has been mobilised in support of these aims. In addition, a Peace Cup tournament was set up in memory of both Rob Knox and Jimmy Mizen. The tournament is unusual in that points are awarded for good sportsmanship and removed for bad. The Peace Cup, like the foundations, is aiming to draw together young people and create a safe environment where the best in young people is encouraged. There are programmes where the message of the parents are taken to schools and other institutions where young people gather. These are both movements for reconciliation. Although they are not church organisations, they are movements for reconciliation with which the Church engages.
Getting the worship right was a constant struggle for Paul who recognised that without reconciling worship everything else falls. I was intrigued by National Mission and Evangelism adviser Rachel Jordan’s survey results indicating that the second most significant factor in bringing people into regular church attendance was their experience of attending a church service. All worship should be acts of reconciliation but the Eucharist is the sacrament of reconciliation. At the Eucharist we are able to receive Jesus Christ, the embodiment of reconciliation, in word and sacrament. It is at this meal, which provides a foretaste of the Kingdom, that we view each other as people reconciled to God and each other. Here I want to draw on examples from our sisters and brothers in our partner dioceses in Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
In my travels in Kondoa where the christian population is very small, I have attended worship in villages where Muslims attended and were welcomed. I have attended worship in Kondoa town where the sheik, the chief Muslim of the area, was attending and he told me to take back to the UK the fact that Muslims and Christians live together and work together in Kondoa. Of course there are tensions and difficulties in places, but hearing those words from a muslim leader at the Eucharist was very powerful.
You all know the struggles faced by our brothers and sisters in Harare when, for four long years they were forced out of their churches. Anglicans were not violent in their response and took every opportunity to negotiate and dialogue with the police and those in power. Without their buildings, they had to worship in marquees, borrowed premises and under trees. There were occasions when Anglicans from across Harare worshipped together in the square (Africa Unity Square) in the city centre.
On all these occasions, the joy and thankfulness within the worship could not be quashed or subdued by the fear of beatings or teargas.
Over this period when Anglicans were exiled from their own buildings, many joined the church when they saw the way that the people were witnessing to their faith in their reconciling worship. A number of police, so moved by the attitude of the worshippers, also decided to worship with the Anglicans. The numbers grew so much that they were concerned that when the time came for them to be allowed back into their own churches, their buildings would be too small. Reconciling worship mediated through the attitude of forgiveness, reconciliation, joy and openness and all displayed though worship, attracted many followers. Through conflict and vulnerability they were a people whose reconciling worship encouraged and attracted others.
Whether our worshipping communities are large or small, does our worship reflect the reconciliation that is at the heart of our faith and ministry? Does our worship and worshipping community attract and encourage others – and the worship experience begins the moment a person enters the church and concludes after coffee? Once there, do people feel included? Have they entered into a welcoming space or somebody else’s domain? Newcomers do not need to understand everything but the spirit of authenticity, commitment, love and joy in our worship may make visitors want to stay and discover more. Research has shown that it is not the rite or form of worship that draws people into worship, but it is the quality of the community which is shaped by their relationship with God through the worship.
I began my sessions with the cross. I want to conclude with the resurrection.
Orthodox representations of the resurrection, to be found on icons and wall paintings, do not show Jesus emerging from the tomb but his descent to the realm of the dead. Orthodox artists know that they cannot depict the moment of resurrection, so, instead, they represent the effects of the resurrection. All orthodox representations of the resurrection have the same theme, although there are variations in the ordering of the figures. Jesus, in the centre, is identified by a ring of light and he is trampling underfoot the gates of hell –smashed padlocks, chains and even the devil himself are in evidence. In all the depictions, tombs have been broken open as a result of Jesus’ conquering death. This painting is in the apse of the Chora church, Istanbul. There are a number of ancestral figures whom he meets. Abel, David and Solomon and John the Baptist. In this painting, Jesus is grasping the hands of Adam and Eve, reuniting them both as they emerge from their tombs. Jesus frees them from the darkness and alienation of death and leads them into the new life and light that he brings at the resurrection. This is a powerful illustration of reconciliation: Jesus reuniting alienated humanity and drawing them into a bright and transforming presence providing new possibilities.
To God be the glory.
Rochester Diocesan Clergy Conference - University of Hertfordshire - 10th September, 2015. Lecture 3.