From the Archive.
“The church is not an institution, the church is not a building, the church is not a programme, the church is people”.
It is often said in various forms, in different contexts, with different intentions. People however are a problem, a problem for which Christ is the solution, but that solution is very much a work in progress.
My own faith journey could be read in a number of ways. Baptised in secret as a baby (something I discovered in my twenties), grew up in a non-practising home but in English Christian Schools where we prayed and worshipped every day, a vocational call at 13 (although I had no idea then what it meant), commitment and adult baptism at 16, five years in a Reformed Charismatic congregation, then a few more in something more Pentecostal.
And then people happened. I had seen it before, the church I was part of in my teens had a break down in relationships between the eldership, but by then I wasn’t involved enough to be hurt by it. In my mid-twenties it was different, I was involved. What happened isn’t so important, the why maybe more so.
I suspect that often in church we get caught up in an unhealthy Parentalism. Expectations are placed on those in positions of responsibility that are unrealistic and in turn unrealistic demands are placed on others by those in positions of responsibility. Relationships become parent-infant, and when one party falls short the relationship can become toxic. Children rage at their pastors, parents emotionally discipline their congregation, pastoral colleagues fight over the children’s love. Sadly I have had folks tell me they want to be treated like children at church, I have heard ministers describe their flock as children, and I have seen congregations mercilessly turn on pastors when they admitted their mistakes – breaking the illusion of parental perfection.
I wish I could say that it was a problem only in churches with strong leadership, a charismatic spirituality, or an evangelical theology, yet although more hierarchical church groups can sometimes be insulated against it, they are not exempt. Jesus confidently said to his disciples ‘I have called you friends’, we find these words a far greater challenge.
So in my twenties I found myself hurting and cast adrift from the church that had sustained me for years. I wandered into somewhere very different, an ancient building, one with pews, robes, bells, smoke, standing and sitting, ritual and liturgy. I slowly fell in love with the richness of ancient shapes and forms of worship. At the time I hadn’t read the early Fathers of the Church hadn’t had the change of perception to see the liturgy of the ancient church crying out in the pages of the New Testament, and I hadn’t come to any theological conclusions. It was very much a shift of experience.
The table was at the centre of this new experience, this new way of worshipping. Holy Communion, the Offering, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, call it what you will. It was Jesus’ table that he shared with his friends. The depth of this was brought home to me one night in the Garden of Gethsemane, the garden of betrayal and pain.
Every Holy Week, the 7 days before Easter, the journey of Christ’s Passion was shared. On Maundy Thursday evening we celebrated the Last Supper as if we were there with the disciples, the ministers washed people’s feet and we shared Christ’s presence in bread and wine. Then with Christ we would go to the garden. The garden was just a side chapel, a table with a few flowers and plants. The bread and the wine blessed at communion were placed here and we were invited to watch and pray, just as Jesus had asked his friends to do. In John’s Gospel the Last Supper is described starting with the bread shared with the disciples and ending with the blood and water pouring from Jesus’ side on the cross, the last cup. So the bread and wine set aside in the garden, the body and blood of Christ, would be shared again on Good Friday as we gathered around the cross.
The strangeness of this practise for one whose experience of worship had been worship songs and uplifted hands was significant. But in a spirit of exploration, I gave it a go. I sat in the garden that Maundy Thursday night. ‘Just one hour’ I thought. At the end of the hour I intended to leave.
Over the years I had been in some fairly remarkable meetings. I had seen the Toronto or Father’s Blessing break like waves over the British church. I had experienced laughter, floor time and tears. I had expounded that this was a bursting forth of the Fruit of the Spirit, Love, Joy & Peace. But like others I had also grown suspicious, noticing the similarities between the supposed manifestations of the Spirit and the work of skilled hypnotists, unsure of the evidence of transformed lives. Faith may be emotional, even ecstatic, but we must never confuse a human experience with the Holy Spirit.
There in the garden there was no space for laughter, for shaking, for lying on the floor. There was no-one to blow on us, to lay hands and pray, to cry ‘more Lord’. There was just the table, the bread and the wine, Christ present. After the hour I went to get up and I could not, I am unsure if I could even move. The sense of the intimate presence of Christ was overwhelming in a way I had never touched upon in even the most charismatic of meetings. But it was also simple, free of hype, judgement or expectation. Whilst others came and went, Jesus had me wait and watch.
This was not the end of the story; eventually I was ordained in this small corner of the global church, the Church of England. Here too I have seen people hurt as I saw before, seen people struggle with faith and I almost lost my own. I am still in the Garden of Gethsemane; where we let one another down, betray one another, and tears of blood are wept. Yet at the centre is not building, institution, not even people as we have sometimes understood it, but rather the table.
The table were Jesus met with his friends and shared his body and blood, the table where he meets with us still and shares his body and blood when we gather around Him.