‘On Loving the Church’ by Scott Cowdell

in Tom Frame & Geoffrey Treloar (eds) Agendas for Australian Anglicanism:  Essays in Honour of Bruce Kaye (ATF Press; Adelaide, 2006)

“He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”   – Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer’s wisdom, recorded from the prison cell where he was sent for speaking this very message to the church in Nazi Germany, is so incredibly relevant to the institutional church in an era of transition.  As the cultural ground shifts beneath our feet, will we hold on to our notions of the way church is ‘meant to be’ or open ourselves to a new work of the Spirit?  Equally challenging, will we create an idealised image of ‘postmodern church’ or open ourselves up to the full-on demands of Jesus.

Scott argues that an openness to church beyond ourselves, once intuitive within historical Anglicanism, is being ruthlessly undermined by expressive, consumer individualism.  That is, as uncritical captives of our culture, western christians are unwittingly committing the sin which Bonhoeffer speaks of.  When we expect church to suit ourselves (or any group whom we can name); when we expect ‘worship services’ to always be spiritually uplifting and fulfilling; when we expect the faith community to be the perfect friends/parents/lovers/soul mates we yearn for; we are in danger of loving our dream of community rather than the Christian community itself.  This warning is particularly important for those of us wanting to defend ‘fresh expressions’ or ’emerging church’, etc.

American sociologist Robert Bellah has identified  the consequence of individuals focusing primarily on themselves – it creates a need for personal intimacy beyond what the community can sustain and distorts its very purpose.  Hence, Scott writes:

“The natural human version of religion is thus exposed as equivalent to magic, seeking to enlist sacred power to our own ends – our wellbeing, our happiness, and our sense of purpose in life.  Bonhoeffer, however, and before him Karl Barth, saw the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the critique of this typical human religiosity.  God goes to human beings, embracing their cause in jesus Christ, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves by religious let alone secular means.  God places the divine cause in our hands, calling on us to take-up and further that cause.  This is ‘the road less travelled’along which Bonhoeffer’s poem leads us to a God who shares the threatened condition of human existence and supports us in it, not to give us a quiet and untroubled life, but empowering us to live by faith.  And this faith is about discipleship – not standing-off from God in attitudes of private satisfaction, but caught up in God’s purposes as disciples of Christ…

“All this represents today’s religion of expressive individualism in characteristic guises.  It is impatient with the actual Christian community, seeking either to restrain its uncomfortable  demands for discipleship, in one manifestation, or else transform it into a purer, more ideological version of itself, though correspondingly culturally attuned in its relentlessly personal focus, according to its other manifestation.”

So how to respond?  Scott suggests there are two pathways.

1.  A spirit of despair in which our options are fleeing – fawning – fighting.

Fleeing is self-explanatory – just stop going to church!

Fawning and fighting are much more complex responses and I think Scott convincingly argues they are in a co-dependent relationship.  Both are actions taken within institutional church.  Some fight the institution under the guise of revival, but really are committing the Bonhoeffer sin of striving for an ideal made in their own image.  It is a fight because the outcome is too tightly held, it’s protagonists too enmeshed in it’s success or failure, too committed to a particular defined agenda.  Others hold too tightly to the institutional forms they inherited with a conservative conscience and a love for a particular form over and above a love for God.

2.  A spirit of hope necessitates trust in God rather than any human endeavour.

Citing the Orthodox Theologian John Zizioulas as his inspiration, Scott remembers that Christ in-stitutes and the Spirit con-stitutes the Church.  When in Canberra I gathered for prayer on several mornings with a group of parishioners where I was staying.  In the presence of lifelong pray-ers, it struck me that all theologians ever do is give coherent explanations for the experience of living with the Spirit.

What I think is striking in this wisdom, is that allegiances in the twenty-first century ‘church wars’ are not drawn along established party lines.  Indeed, it is easy to identify both Emerging Church Christians and Institutional Church Christians (of conservative, catholic, liberal and charismatic varieties) swimming in the spirit of hope and drowning in the spirit of despair. Frequently, it feels really lonely in the river of hope – how can I foster relationships with other hope-ers?  How should I conduct my relationships with despair-ers?  How do I protect my hope?  These are challenges I am hopefully prepared to embrace.

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