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What is ‘church’ for?

May 8, 2012

This is a question that I have often asked myself and others in recent months. I think that it sometimes seems like an exclusive club where you are supposed to believe certain things about God and Jesus and where you go on Sundays to participate in rituals that are old and don’t seem very relevant to your life in the modern world. What happens in church services is often dull and unexciting and the mind has a terrible tendency to wander. When the preaching is good, you might feel like it was worth attending, and when the music reaches sublime heights of beauty, you might feel a sense of transcendence. If the building you are in is architecturally beautiful, you may experience an uplift somewhere inside you that you cannot quite locate. 

In the past ,when I was a believer, I frequently had a disappointed feeling, such as you might get from a meal that did not quite satisfy. Something missing: either not sustaining enough or not seasoned or spiced enough. And the thing that I felt I  was supposed to take out into the world in the service of God was elusive; any uplift I might have received from the worship experience seemed rapidly to dissipate once I set foot again ‘outside’ where the messy world rumbled on around me. It all just seemed a bit hollow and flimsy and not quite what I yearned for it to be and sensed that it ought to be.

Years and years of this unsatisfactory church experience, and the even more unsettling realisation that a lot of people who shared my worship space on Sundays were not ,frankly, very ‘christian’ in their attitude to others and not specially caring of the environment either, eventually tipped me out of the doors in disillusion and considerable distress and disgust.

About 15 years later, having cut myself free of all things ‘church’, I read ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins, and far from convincing me that religion was and remains the root of all evil, it left me with some big questions. Was there some use in religion? Did ‘church’ have an important role in community life? Could atheists still get something of value from church membership? What do we mean by ‘spirituality’?

At about the time these important questions were preoccupying me, my husband retired from work and the massive life change that this created for me was similar to a volcanic eruption. I was shocked by the amount of resentment and negativity this churned up within me and recognised this as some kind of spiritual dis-ease which I needed help to overcome. All my own efforts to talk to myself reasonably and to appeal to my own sense of fairness, just failed. I was unable to control the anger and hostility that continued to surge up. In some respects it was like grief – I was mourning the loss of a life I had found quite pleasing to me, and the changes that had been thrust upon my reluctant head by life and time, I found overwhelming. Inside I was becoming a mess.

And so, a sort of desperation led me to join an Alpha course run by our local Baptist church. Having discarded the metaphysics of Christianity some time back, and now self-identifying as an Atheist, the invitation on the poster of ‘No Question Too Hostile’ proved irresistable. The lure of an evening away from the home and the now ever present husband, was, however, the chief attraction.

I found the discussions at these sessions very stimulating and enlivening, and the welcome and free food offered so graciously, extremely heartwarming, and when the course was finished, I was sorrowful and wanted more. It led me to approach two other local churches, to ask if there were any discussion groups I could join. There were not, so I joined a bible study group run by the Baptists. They seemed to be the only church doing anything much at all in my area.

So, what is ‘church’ for? What should it be for?

My journey for the answer to this, has led me recently to a Unitarian church and , at last, to something that looks as if it can provide that answer, for this is a  church like no other I have ever encountered – a place where atheists are welcome and where, having come through the door, you don’t have to ‘put up with’ or ‘go along with’ a lot of theology that you cannot resonate with; you fit nicely, because what is on offer is an inspirational and challenging and uplifting experience which does not require you to believe the impossible and often absurd-seeming doctrines of much of mainstream religion.

Since reading ‘The God Delusion’ I have discovered and eagerly read many books written by progressive Christian writers and find them to be a source of great hope for the Church. It strikes me that there is very little difference between the theology of Karen Armstrong , Marcus Borg, Jack Spong, John Churcher and many others too numerous to name, and the ethos that prevails in Unitarian churches. We are talking about ‘orthopraxy’ as against ‘orthodoxy’ here.

For me,  the Church can only have a future in our multi cultural and increasingly secular world if it switches its focus to something similar to what  currently seems only to be  offered by Unitarians and Quakers.

I am currently reading ‘Doubts and Loves’ by Richard Holloway, and I shall end this blog with a quote from it:

“We ought to switch the emphasis in Christianity from belief to practice, from Orthodoxy to Orthopraxis; from believing things about Jesus to the imitation of Jesus.There would be …….a resolution to love rather than condemn sinners; to seek to understand others rather than to rush to judgement. The second element would be an active pity for the wretched of the earth that worked to change their lot. Finally…a mistrust of power and violence, both personal and institutional, and an active opposition to them. This was the programme that got Jesus crucified. Following it today……would be a more creative response to the confusions of the human condition than the endless disputes over doctrine that have so disfigured Christian history”

And here I want to clap this man, because he says so eloquently what ‘church’ should be for. 

I am persuaded that there is a role for ‘church’ as a sort of bonding agent in any local community, but that , in order to accomplish this, ‘church’ can no longer be seen to be ‘for’ those who believe in a certain way and must evolve into that space where all are embraced, without condition, and helped to become more caring and compassionate towards each other and those in the surrounding neighbourhood. 

To quote Holloway again “Jesus did not found the Church, nor appoint office bearers with clearly defined job descriptions, nor codify a set of official teachings.”

What is ‘church’ for? Who is it for? Where is it heading? Why should anyone care if it ceases to exist?

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