One of the spin offs of the Coronavirus pandemic is that I have seen in a new way why it matters to belong to a big church structure rather than an independent one. Struggling to get my head round the latest government advice and how it applies to my churches I have not been on my own. The value of a national church has been direct – better brains than mine, ones with medical expertise, have worked out the implications, especially when government doesn’t always appreciate the nuances of what we do. This means I can harvest the fruit of their labours and adopt it – that responsibility remains mine along with the other leaders in the church (the churchwardens and Parochial Church Council), but I don’t have to invent the wheel from scratch.
The value of the Church of England is that it is an umbrella for the 42 dioceses, and no parish is an island entire unto itself, to misquote John Donne. The Anglican Communion gives it an international perspective. I have benefited from the Church of England’s digital training, which got me live-streaming right at the beginning of this pandemic. The training was excellent. They have provided musical resources in partnership with the Royal School of Church Music and St Martin-in-the-Fields, which meant that my meagre offerings online benefited from hymnic soundtracks, lifting the praise into song while congregations and choirs locally were silent. And they introduced me to the wonders of Zoom, which has been the staple of enabling meetings to take place so there could be shared governance, planning and praying, and we were able to innovate with a Zoom Bar after church council meetings, enabling the social and therefore human to breath.
These practical benefits are what happens when our structures function well. The New Testament scholar Tom Wright, when he was Bishop of Durham, once referred to these structures (actually General Synod) as being like looking after the drains. When they function we don’t notice them, but we sure do when they get clogged up.
Behind this is our ecclesiology, our theology of what we think the church is. The church is more than an institution, a gathering, a club to which we belong, or even an historic building. It is what happens when God calls people to live in harmony with the Kingdom, to live the hope of Christ’s resurrection, and be ignited and inspired by the Holy Spirit. And it is a team sport not a solo performance. Inevitably it stumbles from time to time, but you have to hope that it will pick up and keep on course.
There are lots of churches, different denominations and even independent ones. At their core is a group of people who are trying to live their lives in union and harmony with faith in Jesus Christ. The shape they take has some direct outworkings and we only really notice these when things don’t go well or we stub our toes on a stone that has become a stumbling block rather than a cornerstone. All of them have their cornerstones and stumbling blocks.
I have my criticisms of some of the ways the Church of England has been progressing in recent years – if you want an example, see the latest press release from the House of Bishops with its dull management speak about workstreams strategising what should be a love-song. It is a poetic dead zone. This decade feels a bit like a lost one and the most recent available stats of church allegiance are not encouraging for all this strategising. And while I tear my hair out at it at times, during Covid the national response group and the digital training team have come up trumps. This is when belonging to a national church shows its benefits – the plumbing worked.
Gathering round a bishop, strengthening the sense of belonging to the Body of Christ, the church reinforces its universal nature. Its sacraments are not its own, its bible shared and its reflecting on how these live today draw on so many disciplines and experiences that shape the view. The divisions are a wound we inflict on one another and ourselves. They are to be lamented because we need one another and to see God’s gifting of one to another. Jesus prayed that we all be one, that we love one another as he loves. Individualism is the curse of our age. There are frustrations – as we struggle with different opinions and how these oppress when handled badly. When channelled well, they open up new possibilities and flourishing. It is much worse to be alone.