Custodians of the Gospel or Planting Trees: Whitterings, January 2008

The church today must perpetually strive to keep the difficult and frightening balance between duty and freedom. Let me try to explain. The church is one of the civilising structures of society. Civilisations strive to elevate the higher aspects of humanity above the lower animal desires. In a civilisation there is a higher goal that the community is seeking, and it encourage the traits that lead to its fulfilment. Civilisations look to the long term goals, and instil discipline, sacrifice, and duty. They foster exploration of the world through science, art, poetry and political justice. Lord Clarke, the Author of ‘Civilisation’ says simply “civilisations plant trees”. A dark age occurs when these goals fade and are replaced by a society that emphasises the individual above the community and puts their personal desires first and then they, as a result, seek comfort and consumption. You will know you are living in a dark age when, not only are the baser aspects of humanity not fought against, but they are actively encouraged.

The church has traditionally been part of the structure that tries to steer the human race towards long term goals and self sacrifice. As a result it is conservative by its very nature and changes very slowly because she naturally distrusts new expressions of society as she is constantly on guard against any collapse of civilisation. It is perfectly understandable, after all, that a community that has seen the rise and fall of thousands of different empires, governments, and societies would not tend to be quick to embrace the values of any particular one. The church knows that when all else fades she will still remain.

I therefore often sympathise with those in the church that hold to the old ways and beliefs out of a deep conviction that they are trying to protect the modern world from its own destructiveness. They hold to the wisdom of the ages and see that what they have always fought against is gaining in strength and the battle is becoming more fraught. They are performing their duty to be faithful in their own generation and many of them are convinced that they are doing nothing more than trying to protect people from themselves. There is truth in this goal of the church and it is honourable and praiseworthy. This duty requires great sacrifice on the part of those who seek to perform their duty.

The paradox is that the very church that has been called to shepherd God’s people, to rebuke, and encourage in the name of the Lord and to call all people to turn away from the paths of destruction, and seek the Gospel of Life (the imposition of Ashes sentence from the Ash Wednesday service) is also called to preach radical freedom to the world. The freedom of the knowledge of salvation, forgiveness and love is the heart of the Gospel. It is a freedom that breaks all chains including those of death itself. This freedom knows no fear and produces an awe, an openness to the created order and to life. In the end this is the Gospel the church exists to proclaim.

This means that the church must always be open to the Spirit and to adapt her views to embrace recognitions of the work of the Spirit in every generation. She is not to do so lightly and without deep reflection and discernment. This is a difficult and painful process. The conservatives must hold the church back from becoming entranced by modern society and joining in with faddish doctrines. Equally the liberals must challenge the old view and proclaim vigorously the new discernment of God’s work within the church. The striving between the two sides helps everyone and is necessary. The liberals are saved by the conservatives from rushing unreflectively and recklessly into heresy while the liberals challenge the conservatives to keep moving and reflecting on their own assumptions. In the long run the result is, idealistically, a mature and balanced and consistent growth towards deeper wisdom about the working of God in his creation.

What troubles me about the church during our present wrestling is the amount of fear and divisiveness that is present. I had assumed that the roles we had to play in our communal discernment was a given and that the unity we have as a family would not be called into question. This is, of course, not the case. This is the real tragedy of our present situation, the possibility of divorce – of schism. Schism is never the will of God and the history of our community has shown it to weaken everyone. What has happened to the trust that the Church will balance herself given enough time? What has happened to the patience and perseverance that has marked the church adapting and renewing the preaching of the Gospel in every generation? Most of all what has happened to the freedom of the Gospel that releases us from anxiety and fear? We should remember the wisdom of Gamaliel,
“So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” Acts. 5: 38-39

Surely we have learned that every stage of out deepening understanding of God has been marked by conflict and then growth. The current situation is no different. Surely we have learned that the spirit works though the messy process of church councils and long term wrestling. We must remember that the Holy Spirit has opened the eyes and many who thought they understood fully and given them the freedom to repent of their egotism and either return with humility to wisdom or join enthusiastically in the new expression of the Spirit.

In the end it is this paradox of the church that keeps me in it. I trust that no matter how much we try to control the Gospel as its custodians, no matter how much we try to enshrine it in structures, discipline and duty, it can never be controlled. We as the church are born out of and stand upon the very same Gospel that mistrusts and destroys all structures and controls. We can never succeed in keeping our treasure under lock and key as it will always break forth anew to lead us to repentance for our own lack of wisdom and our own blindness. The Church will continue because at its heart is the Freedom of God and this freedom can never be suppressed, even by the church.

The Gospel does not want us to just do the loving thing, to act is a loving way, to preach love out of duty. The Gospel calls us to join in with God’s love and let all of out actions be directed by Him alone. We are not to do love, we are to be love.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for all who love are born of God and know God. Those that do not love do not know God, for God is love.”