What so we mean by “Church?”

What Do We Mean By “Church”?    2nd August 2022    Madingley
1 Chron. 22:1-19               Hebrews       12:18-24        Luke 21:5-9
Our recent experience of being under lockdown has raised many questions in all areas of our lives, and if one answer has come out of it all it is that the “church,” (whatever we mean by that,) will not return simply to “business as usual.” It has been a time not only of difficulty and struggle, but of surprises and encouragement. You will have been aware that other parishes who rejoiced in having a priest with more technological skills than I, have been streaming on-line services, thinking to continue the support of their regular congregations that way. The remarkable thing is that they have been watched by far more people than usually come to that particular church on a Sunday. Yes, some of those watching have been the frail or elderly or many others who find it difficult to get to church, and would if they could. But there were many more besides who watched those services.

That raises the question, what do we do for these people now? The answer appears not to be to simply broadcast the Sunday morning service. People have commented that they have appreciated seeing the priest much more closely; they have felt an affinity which would not, I have been assured, be replicated by the simple broadcasting of the usual service. For clergy in those parishes, they are faced with a major conundrum. Providing these special on-line services is a major time constraint; to do that along with the Sunday service in church is probably a demand too far. But there is a hunger out there that needs to be fed.

When the local clergy were discussing whether they would be able to offer services in church immediately that the government’s restrictions were lifted, it was interesting to hear their congregations’ responses to what would be allowed. In a couple of parishes the consensus was that if they could not sing and meet for coffee afterwards, they did not want to come back to church until they could! Others have desperately missed not being able to receive Communion; many have missed the beauty of worship and of the church building. Still others have missed the sense of community.

This all raises questions about what we mean by that word, “Church.” What is it? What is its purpose? Why is it? How do we recognise it? 

The function of the church has not varied much over the 2,000 years of its history. Four major actions define it: it confesses the faith; it celebrates the sacraments; it preaches the Word; and it serves. All of this is achieved through the koinonia – the community, communion, or partnership. In other words, relationships are an integral, essential part of what constitutes the church. Not only is it our connection to other members of our own congregation; it reveals our relatedness to all other Christians throughout history, and above all to God himself; there is a tremendous vertical and horizontal interrelatedness which covers all time and all space, and which we are part of. So the church is in itself like a sacrament: a visible sign of God’s invisible presence in the world. Indeed, we refer to the church as the Body of Christ in that place; a calling which is quite a challenge for us to fulfil.

All of this is summed up in our creed: we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. The unity in time and space whatever may appear on the surface; the holiness which is revealed by its worship showing that it belongs to God and it is set apart for a particular purpose; and the additional fact that it is world-wide, allowing us to learn from each other.  

So the church is a living organism with Jesus as its head. And that explains why you may hear the screams of outrage coming from my house when the media refer to the Queen as head of the Church of England. No, she is Supreme Governor; Jesus is the head. Jesus is in charge as he has been since the beginning of the church.

That all has been an attempt to explain what the church is and does, but do we really need it? Is it possible to live a Christian life without coming to church? Well, if we look at the definitions of its functions I have already spoken of: the source of true teaching and confession of faith; enabling the growth in holiness; the community of participants showing the rich variety of relationships; and finally and importantly the place where we obey Jesus’ command to baptise, and to, “Do this,” in other words, celebrate the Eucharist, we realise that it is not something we can do, or be, on our own. And if it is to be anything like its Head, the church must serve, not just its own members, but everyone we come across.

There is, of course, one definition of “church” that I have only given the briefest of mentions to up to now, and that is the building. For many, not being able to enter the church even for private prayer during most of the lockdown was a terrible wrench. Obviously, the community has to have somewhere to meet, but it is far more than that rather pragmatic approach. The church buildings are full of symbols of the faith, and also reminders of the past centuries covering the community’s history and the faithfulness of all those worshippers. It is almost as if the very stones are imbued with all the prayer that has been offered. Besides this the buildings are also repositories of personal memories of current members. And for everyone, but especially those living in more deprived areas, they are places of beauty, representing the best that we can offer in our worship of God.

The whole church will be struggling with some profound challenges in the next few months and years. There have been differing experiences from diocese to diocese, but for many, including this one, the financial losses during the lockdown have been enormous. I should hasten to add that, thanks to the faithfulness of this particular congregation, this church has come through the crisis remarkably well. But cathedrals which are dependent on the contributions of visitors, and many churches whose congregation members have suffered catastrophic loss in earnings, are being faced with unpalatable questions. 

We may feel that there is not a lot we can do about this. But there are a couple of other things to reflect on which have been the result of recent experience. At the beginning, I mentioned those hundreds if not thousands of people who have been tuning in to church services when they would not have considered doing that before. What we are to do for them, to encourage their growth in faith, is something for us all to pray about and not be afraid to offer our suggestions.

The other thing I have often been aware of in past times, and it has happened during the lockdown too, is that in some time of national difficulty the media will say, “Where is the church in all this?” Well, “the church” is always there, hosting and serving in food banks, looking after neighbours in need, providing debt counselling services and so on. The problem is that we are very diffident about saying, “I am doing this because I am a Christian. My faith is what guides my attitudes and actions.” It may even be that, day to day, our behaviour is so automatic that we haven’t really considered what is the driving force behind it.  Maybe that’s something we can practice doing; we don’t need to be, as they say, “In your face” about this, but if people ask why we’re doing it, the door is opened for us to explain.   As the cartoon on the front of the order of service says, the building may have been closed, but the church is always open, present and active.