Death of the Church Part II

Twice before leaving for the USA last year and twice whilst there I heard different people pronounce the church dead. Knowing a little about each of these people and their journey I know they were talking about the death of mainstream church as we know it - the so-called Christendom church which takes its place at the centre of western power structures and is concerned about membership strength and institutional conformity. Each of these people related the death with some joy, not in petulant ways ("the mean old church is dead, hooray") but in ways of some depth ("how does the passing of church as we know it open opportunities for a new depth of spiritual development?"). Each of these people was practicing lament in what I think is its true sense.

I hear the call from time to time that "The death of the church is to be lamented." But usually what is meant by that is that we are to mourn the passing of previous structures of faith as if they were the only way for faith to be developed. Oh we of little faith! How can people of a religious tradition that has death and resurrection as a central tenet experience the passing of previous structures in this way? Surely what Christianity teaches us about death and resurrection is that life and death are not opposites? Death (the passing of old structures) is part of life (the development of the new). Lament then is part of a process of allowing something to "die well" - to allow something to be ushered from present reality to deeply cherished memory - and to allow that ushering to happen graciously, gracefully and with deep thankfulness for what was added to our lives. And hence it is a process of great joy. Not joy as cheap bliss but joy as appreciation for the eternal given-ness of God - that every passing carries into a new presence. I know that is not the way we have come to understand either lament or joy but these are understandings I think we need to develop.

I sense we will be helped in our process of lament if we can better come to understand the concept of tradition. Most understandings of tradition focus on "how" something has been done in the past rather than "why" it has been done. We can better let the exacting nature of "how" go (or even re-adopt it with new life!) if we begin to understand the "why." Christian researcher and author Diana Butler Bass speaks in her book The Practicing Congregation (and Dr Butler Bass is also the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us) about a process of fluid re-traditioning. I think this process has at least some resonance with what I am saying here. In calling for a continual process of re-traditioning I suspect Butler Bass is calling from a movement from "how" to "why." A couple of examples from my recent experience may highlight something of this movement.

Example 1: Let's say an early Christian community develops a particular prayer process which helps them, in community, to settle themselves to "experience" God. The practice requires a particular physical posture - comfortable but not too comfortable - and a particular mantra. It seems to serve that community well. Seeing how well it seems to serve that community, other communities take up practice, sometimes contextualising it appropriately, sometimes not. In certain streams of "tradition" the practice allows communities to deepen their connection to God. In others it becomes a rote action, bereft of much meaning.

Fast forward one thousand years or so and in an early, modernist review of the practice experts have identified that there is a slight chance of long term back injury through repeated use of the practice. They have introduced a set of warm up exercises to lessen the chance of such injury. The purpose of the exercises is purely functional, not spiritual.

Fast forward another sixty years to "The Church on the Hill" and note that they are using an adaptation of the technique, including warm up exercises, in their weekly liturgy. No one can tell you much about the original meaning of the practice and no one can tell you at all that the warm up exercises are indeed that - warm up exercises! But three stalwarts of the worship committee vehemently insist that the practice must be repeated exactly as it was done when they arrived at the church in the 1960s. "It is important to us and to God" they insist.

Tradition as "fluid re-traditioning" would have kept "the Church on the Hill" (and all of the earlier communities in the path of this tradition) aware of the "why" behind the tradition. It would also have kept people questioning the appropriateness of the tradition to their context rather than blindly adopting. And if you think this example is far fetched, I do know of a Christian community where the meaning of a health and safety practice became lost, and it became lodged as an insisted-upon spiritual practice in their weekly liturgy.

Example 2: I have been reading and reflecting significantly on the Christian understanding of Trinity recently. The topic will receive more attention in this blog in coming times. However my reading and reflection has led me to understand a deep wisdom in Trinity. This is about the wholeness (the holiness, the divinity) which is experienced through the inter-relationship of more than two entities. Early Greek Christian reflected on Trinitarian God as the "dance" of more than two entities. Specifically for me, I have a sense that "communities of wholeness" are formed where a sense of vocation/ purpose dances with a sense of contextualisation/relationship and simultaneously dances with a sense of practice/discipline. As I have travelled in the USA, reflecting and speaking of this concept, others people (both from Christian and non-Christian perspectives) have come to me and said "That's interesting Adrian. We have been reflecting on something similar." Then they have produced their own three pronged perspective. Different words - same concept.

As I say, this will need more explanation in future. For now the point is that, both in early Christian times and in the present, there is some experience of Trinity as a relational reality rather than a set of intellectual concepts about a "God hierarchy." The tradition has become "do you believe God is in three persons?" which is a "how to connect to God" sort of question. I believe the tradition should be "do you experience God in the dance?" which is a "why does Trinity help us experience God" type of question. Fluid re-traditioning means recovering that relational reality (with the added bonus that it has meaning beyond a narrow belief-centred Christianity and into a broader, experienced spiritualty, Christian and otherwise.)

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