For some months now, the Benefice where I work has been in an interregnum, following the departure of my old friend and colleague, Dick Farr, for pastures new. My role since July has thus been supervisory but intense, involving, amongst other things, overseeing the drawing up of the parish profile and currently chairing three PCCs as well as trying to ensure nothing goes obviously wrong. (Please don’t e-mail your ‘three PCCs —luxury!’ anecdotes. Anything above two is, I agree, a challenge.)
Although I haven’t applied for the incumbent’s post myself, the experience of the last few months has inevitably made me ask ‘incumbent-type’ questions about the strategy we should be following. This is particularly so since we are earmarked as an area for substantial new housing —anything from 500 to 3,000 dwellings.
Just the other day, therefore, I was musing on what this would mean for our strategic planning and on what it would look like if the church were successful in its outreach to new arrivals. “What,” I asked myself, “Would a whole community look like if it were significantly influenced by the presence of the local churches?”
And then I found myself asking if this were actually the question we ought to ask about church itself. A lot of our own time and energy is put into working out what we should do —specifically, what kinds of programmes we should run, whether that be applied to youth work, Bible studies or ‘Sunday church’ itself.
Recently I have received a complimentary book (as yet unread) which seems to be suggesting that our focus should rather be on individual people. But would a more useful starting point be to ask ourselves what a Christian community should look like, and then to seek to apply this to the church and, through the church, to the wider community within which it is set?
To some people, this might seem an obvious question with straightforward answers. Surely, they will reply, all our efforts within the church are aimed at building a Christian community, and surely such a community will be, first and foremost, one of Christ-like love and acceptance? Those are the Christian ‘trademark’ qualities, and the only problem is in seeing them developed and applied.
But in fact I do not think the answers are anything like that straightforward. For a start, ‘love and acceptance’ are surely not uniquely, or even specifically, Christian qualities. It is like the person who sums up Jesus’ teaching as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. All well and good —but as most readers of this blog will know, the sentiment is from the Old Testament, quoted, but by no means invented, by Jesus.
In fact, working out a Christian ethic is quite a challenge! Obviously it must, in some way, engage with the ethical framework of the Old Testament. Yet, as the Sermon on the Mount shows, it consists neither in slavishly following, nor outrightly rejecting, the Law. Nor does the life of Jesus provide a Christian ‘sunnah’, to be learned and applied by his followers, like Muslims following the example of Mohammed. The question, “What Would Jesus Do?” is hardly helpful if the answer is, “Walk on the water,” or “Raise the dead man to life.”
A Christian ethic is not a regurgitated Old Testament ethic, nor is it a blanket adoption of Jesus’ ‘example’. Rather, I suspect, it derives from engaging with who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us. And this would produce rather radically different answers from those usually offered when we think of the life of the ‘community’, particularly when it comes to the influence of the church within the wider, mixed, community.
One of the most crucial —and least explored in my view —points of Christian uniqueness is the relationship of Christian ethics with the law. Almost the entire assumption of social thinking is that the law is fundamental to community life. By contrast, the New Testament is quite clear that the law, far from being central, is a practical irrelevance. The ‘law’ to which it refers is, of course, the law of Moses, but as is increasingly recognized, this cannot be simply and arbitrarily divided into ‘moral’ and ‘ceremonial’ aspects and then partitioned between the bits we keep and the bits we don’t.
When Paul writes in Romans 7 of the law to which we have died and from which we are therefore freed, he uses as his example, the tenth commandment against covetousness. Now this is clearly a moral, not a ‘ceremonial’ command. The Christian is clearly not thereby entitled to covet. But equally the Christian is not under the ‘law’ against covetousness. Time and space preclude elaborating this further, but my conclusion would be that a Christian community would be marked by a minimalist resort to law. (It would also, incidentally, be one where suing one another was almost entirely unknown —1 Cor 6.)
This abrogation of the law as an instrument of personal control is precisely one of those ‘community consequences’ which I would argue flows from the ‘person and work’ of Christ, who fulfilled the law and is the ‘end of the law’ (Romans 10:4) for those who have faith.
However, there must surely be much more. In a Christian community, for example, divorce would also be unknown. But what about care for others? How and why is a failure to care for one’s relatives a ‘denial of the faith’ (1 Tim 5:8), and what are the communal consequences?
One of the challenges to the church is that it is very difficult to live as a Christian community —much easier just to ‘go to church’ on Sundays and to keep your distance from one another the rest of the time. Yet it is also difficult to know what a Christian ‘community’ means. I’m therefore inviting readers of this blog to contribute their own suggestions and comments. Remember, though, if you have ideas about community you need to show why they are specifically Christian.
Revd John P RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
20 January 2010
20 January 2010