Friday, 28 October 2011

A symbol for the church – solid historic building or transient camp?

The 400th anniversary of the King James Version, as it seems we must now call it, has reminded us of several aspects of the translation. Not least of these was the production of a version that would support the Church of England against dissenting forms of church. (Also, strangely given the love of the KJV by conservative Christians in the USA, support for the divine right of kings.) Thus, the Greek ekklesia was translated as ‘church’, which people associated with the structured, hierarchical Church of England, rather than its root meaning of assembly or gathering, as often used by other Christians. The word church won out and now appears in most modern versions which makes it very difficult to think of Jesus or St Paul speaking about anything other than a particular organisational structure in a building.

The surrounding of St Paul’s by the Occupy camp makes me ask which is the better symbol for the church – the wonderful historic building or the messy transient camp? Now let’s be clear, I’m not making any claims for either to be truly representative of the Gospel so it’s not about a tick list of values and actions.

The church sometimes appears to be trapped in its buildings, historic or modern. They seem to have an infinite capacity for consuming resources. They can distort our priorities when we become more concerned about them than what we believe to be God’s mission. They can offer an illusion of protection. Yet they give a sense of seriousness and presence, and sometimes we do use the space creatively.

A protest camp is transient by its nature. It can be moved, either at the will of the participants or the force of the authorities. It can easily spring up somewhere else it is needed. It is vulnerable – not a weakness for those who believe in a God who becomes human. If there is permanency, it lies in fundamental values rather than physical structures.

Our tragedy as Christians is that we only seem able to see church in terms of buildings and organisational structures. We need to recapture the sense of ekklesia in terms of an assembly or gathering of people – more a camp than a building.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Have faith in the city?

In the course of the massive project that is tidying and rationalising the study (partly in order to make the spare ‘bedroom’ fit for purpose – ie not filled with books), I came across my copy of the 1985 Church of England report ‘Faith in the City’. The focus was on the urban priority areas where people were suffering deprivation and the churches were weak. Popular interest in the report was built up by the anger of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government. These urban areas are still the most vulnerable, especially in a time of reduction in national and local government spending. We still need to be considering the presence and role of faith in the city.

However, having faith in the city, in a different sense of the word, also raises the question posed by the occupation that has led to the temporary closure of St Paul’s. The Occupy protest is a cry against corporate greed. We are all against corporate greed. Except that it is the generosity of corporate greed that funds many of our church buildings and projects. Every employee of the churches has faith in the city (in the sense of the activities of the square mile) that the stock market will rise and large corporations will pay good dividends. Our pensions depend on it. And with all our pension funds in alarming deficit we need to have a lot of faith.

So it’s not just an issue for St Paul’s whether they put the financial support of their building and their mission above that of the wider challenges of the gospel. An issue that has caused the resignation of Giles Fraser as canon chancellor. It is one for all of us involved in the church. Are we so hopelessly compromised by our buying into a particular economic system that we have no grounds for singing the song that heralded the birth of Jesus – bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, sending the rich empty away?

Or are we about challenging the city with such values? We can’t expect them to pay for us to undermine them. (That’s an issue we are exploring in the MA module I’m tutoring – whether chaplains who are employed by secular bodies are expected to offer individual sticking plasters or a questioning of employment practices.) Are we prepared to take the hit ourselves in our pensions and savings, for past economic success has been clearly related to the effects of corporate greed?