The Future of the Church or Choruses from the ‘Rock’ Part III: Whitterings, December 2006

Choruses from the ‘Rock’ Part III

In my last article we examined what we as a church have to offer the modern world. We have already seen that we offer a life lived with meaning and we offer loving communities as a home and a family. We have not yet explored our greatest gift.

I believe our chief ‘product’, to use business language, is not meaning or community but holiness. We offer a path towards truth. We offer houses placed apart for the beauty of holiness and the stillness of the Presence of God. We offer liturgies that seek to approach the unapproachable.
“The higher Christian churches – where, if anything, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.” Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

We offer a place outside of the chronos of time that echoes with eternity. We offer houses and communities of prayer and transcendence. A way to hear, a space in which God can do ‘more than we can ask or imagine’. We offer the continuation of thousands of years of patience and perseverance in prayer. We offer hope.

“We thank Thee for the lights we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight
And lights directed through the coloured panes of win-
And light reflected from the polished stone,
The gilded carven wood, the coloured frescoes.
Are gaze is submarine, our eyes look upwards
And see the lights that fracture through unquiet water.
We see the light but see not whence it comes
O Light Invisible, we glorify Thee!

We are children quickly tired: children that are up in the night
And fall asleep as the rocket is fired; and the day is long
For work or play.
We tire of distraction or concentration, we sleep and are glad
To sleep,
Controlled by the rhythm of blood and the day and the night
And the seasons.
And we must extinguish the candle, put out the light
And relight it;
Forever must quench, forever relight the flame.

And when we have built an altar to the Invisible Light, we
May set thereon the little lights for which our bodily vision
Is made.”
T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock Stanza X

Eliot makes clear that if there is no such place and family of holiness there will be no real community. In his view true community is made up of those who are committed to something greater than themselves and not those drawn together for mutual gain or support. For example, a true Christian marriage is not a relationship in which each focuses on the other. Rather it is a relationship in which both focus on God and vow to walk the path towards Him together. So it is with a true Christian community. We await the coming of Christ in our midst, revealing Himself in one another and in the Sacraments. Often he will come, as Albert Schweitzer puts it “as one unknown’. If we are not looking for Him we will not see Him when he comes amongst us.

“I have loved the beauty of thy house, the peace of thy sanctuary,
I have swept the floors and garnished the alters.
Where there is no temple there shall be no homes,
Though you have shelters and institutions,
Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid,
Subsiding basements where the rat breeds
Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors
Or a house a little better than your neighbours;
When the Stranger says: “what is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “this is a community”?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

Though you forget the way of the Temple,
There is one who remembers the way to your door;
Life you may evade but Death you shall not.
You shall not deny the Stranger.”
T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock Stanza III

So who are we, we who seek a way to witness to a darkening world? What do we have to offer? How are we to begin to rebuild His church?

“Why should men love the Church? Why should they love
Her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard and hard where
They like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be

But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.
And the Son of Man was not crucified once for all,
The blood of the martyrs not shed once for all,
The lives of the Saints not given once for all:
But the Son of Man is crucified always
And there shall be Martyrs and Saints.
And if blood of Martyrs is to flow on the steps
We must first build the steps;
And if the Temple is to be cast down
We must first build the Temple.”
T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock Stanza VI

I do not know the answers to the problems facing the church in today’s society. I do not know how to proceed. And that is perhaps as it should be. As Archbishop Oscar Romero said “we may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

What I do feel is that we must return to our primary purpose: to worship God in the beauty of holiness and to become communities of loving disciples witnessing in our own generation to a life lived with meaning and the hope of transfiguration. We need to first of all return to the work and remember the holiness of our calling and pray continually that the lord may send ‘workers into the vineyard’ to continue our work in their several generations. If we do this first and in faith I believe a path will become known. The Spirit can enter into us and guide us when we remember Her presence and ‘wait upon the Lord’. It is also time to “lay aside all anxious thought and imagining”. The church is journeying through the desert at the moment and our own international community is threatened. There is panic and anxiety everywhere. Now is the time to be quiet, to trust, to relax. The church will not fail, of that we have been promised: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. She will survive and rebuild. So with patience and perseverance we must begin the work of discipleship again. We must attempt yet again to hear the word of God and become Holy.

“Much to cast down,
Much to build,
Much to restore;
Let the work not delay,
Time and the arm not waste;
Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone,
Let the fire not be quenched in the forge.”
T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock Stanza II