Right since the beginning, well at least since they were kicked out of the synagogues, the gatherings of followers of Christ have tried to organise themselves, and often made a bit of a hash of this.
I’m always cheered up to read the New Testament Epistles, full as they are of advice to badly behaved elders, confused and nervous leaders, and argumentative groupies… whether it’s what to eat or wear, or how to organise a gathering and a Eucharistic meal; quite often through the epistles it’s basic reminders we read, that the Gospel is all about Jesus Christ – his crucifixion and resurrection, and our salvation through him… and not about more rules upon rules upon rules.
Fast forward two thousand years and we’re in the same place. The Church has quite a few organisational groups, with a variety of ministries in each, and a lot of rather anxious people in charge, trying to remember that it’s all about Jesus.
In a few months time, I will reach the point of my curacy where I can begin to start looking ahead to where I and my family are supposed to go next. I’m already spending a lot of time soul-searching and trying to separate things I rather fancy myself doing, from things I’m really gifted for.
‘You need to be thinking about where do you want to go?’ so said a diocesan advisor.
But the trouble is I’m no good at all at vaguely ‘wanting’ things… until I see the thing I did not know and know I am meant to want it wholeheartedly… I don’t project any desires or plans into the future, I just wander along in the moment, considering the problems thereof sufficent unto the day, and spiritually following my nose, until like that lovestruck cartoon skunk, Pepe le Pew, I happen upon my desire. Then I’m unstoppable.
If I wanted to be a bit more biblical I suppose I could refer to the Song of Songs… ‘on my bed night after night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him but I did not find him – I must arise now and go about the city; In the streets and in the squares I must seek him whom my soul loves’…
I certainly don’t think I’m going to get a clear vision that fits with the modern advertisements for roles within the church: ‘I think my beloved is waiting for me to go to a small town in Werthingtonshire with a large modern rectory, enthusiastic team of lay assistants and an Average Sunday Attendance of 135 people’… that’s not going to happen. I’m never going to look at an advert for a church and think – ‘there’s a hole the shape of me – I’ll send them a CV and tell them why I’m right for the job.’
Because I’m not! I’m a sinner who relies upon Christ and who is impelled by the love of Christ to simultaneously go searching for him in the streets and in the squares – even if it gets me beaten up by the watchmen… and also who is drawn, by a sense of kindred-spirit and mercy, to share with fellow wanderers and sinners – the good news that the lover whom they seek has a name, and that name is Christ.
I am more than faintly suspicious of anything that smacks of ‘successful ministry’ – though I admire immensely those many friends in ministry who work bloomin hard and who manage to do a reasonable amount of stuff to the glory of God, and without giving up or being disgraceful. But I admire most, those many revered and saintly people of years gone past who were misunderstood and even rejected by their contemporaries, for not ‘keeping with the programme’.
But I’m not stupid – I don’t think that I’m special in feeling this way… in fact pretty much all the ordained people you talk to (including some brave bishops) will admit that being officially in the Church – is perhaps the greatest test of faith in Jesus Christ you’ll ever have – and sticking it out is… well… the way of the cross.
Well in my experience – you never face much spiritual resistance and trial unless the thing you are doing is worth doing, and the time you are tempted most to chuck in the towel, is probably an important moment to stick it out and stay put. So the church must be doing a lot of things right actually… it’s been ‘dying’ since the very beginning, ‘For your sakes we are killed every day’… but it has also been resurrected in every generation… because though we may not all speak the same language, and we may have some pretty wacky turns of phrase or traditional forms… we may at times and in some places be out of step or limping (we are a company of sinners in need of redemption after all)… still in our heart of hearts we are in love and we’re not going to stop being in love, or trying to follow in the dance, even though our Lord and Lover has lighter feet than we do.