Looking East from Hilltop Farm towards Gladstone South Australia

The Fear of the Minister

There are mornings when it all seems rather impossible.

Busyness, tiredness and pastoral impossibilities combine and crush me.

My faith is that a life which looks for the best for all people, that lives compassionately, that will not bow to the ruling powers, is the best we can do. It is transforming, and brings people into joy.  Ecclesiastes 2 says ... “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (2:17)  But it also says, in verse 24, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.”  Love and Compassion build this for people, and have the ability, at times, to move us beyond the restrained enjoyment of Ecclesiastes’ author into sublime joy.

Our living of compassion is imperfect. Any freedom and comfort we have usually means we are compromised by some corporate exploitation of those who are still poor.  But compassion is the only path I find worth living.  I found that the stories of Jesus, particularly in the gospel of Mark are a guide in this living. They have been life giving.

My heritage and way of understanding the world has intimately bound this faith to the notion of the Christian-Hebraic God, who is a kind of disembodied person, although vastly superior to us. More subtle theologies decry this notion of a disembodied person, but it is how we have been taught to think. When all is said and done, explained and qualified, it is what the liturgies of the church use as their basic metaphor. It is the inescapable image you need to find real if you are to be a part of corporate worship which is not intensely frustrating. Or an elegant pretence.

Using the word God, it is almost impossible for me to escape the idea of the disembodied person. I do not believe in this God. It may be that the struggle toward compassion, joy, and love which can unite people rather than build boundaries of exclusion between them, leads to “something” greater that is worthy to be called Divine. I do not know how it can be described. Sometimes I think I feel it. With or without God, all I can do is seek to live compassionately.

For me there is a question.

Is it my duty to leave the church because I do not believe in its God or,
since I am part of the church, is it my responsibility to remain and help church to find a new way of being the people of Jesus? Am I to be part of a remodelling of God which may help the church survive, even though many of my companions in the church would plainly rather continue in the enslavement of their imaginations to the old God which is beginning to fail.

Clearly, the easiest thing is just to leave.

This is also hard. The church is my people. It is the community to which I belong.  To leave is like going to live on the other side of the world; perhaps even worse, because I will not join a church when I get there. It is, effectively, to announce a judgement on my friends, saying they and their hopes are beyond saving.

But, there would be no constant internal translating of liturgy to something I can live with, or the inescapable saying of public prayers that are simply wrong. There would not be the constant stress of trying to move the community to new understandings without plunging them into destructive crisis. I could simply get a job and live comfortably.

I don’t want to leave.  This is my home. Not wanting to leave is not about having the mental toughness to say God does not exist (I already said that), or the courage to try and live without pie in the sky. I know that’s not there.  Clergy sometimes know that more clearly than other people, despite the fact that some clergy also clearly do think there is pie in the sky. Not wanting to leave is about the concrete reality of what the church has; which is a vision for, and a partial living out of, fulfilled human life which is as good or better than many other systems. James McGrath recently reposted the following words:

Why am I a Christian? Because I prefer to keep the tradition I have, rather than discarding it with the bathwater and then trying to make something new from scratch. When we pretend that we can simply leave the past behind and start anew we deceive ourselves: just look at the way China worshipped its 'Communist emperor' Mao with all the devotion and spectacle they offered to earlier ones. Even an atheist is in dialogue with the past, willingly or unwillingly. That is why (as Mary Doria Russell helpfully notes in one of her novels ) atheists differ depending on what sort of faith they have cast aside.

I concur.  But I want to say this is a much more positive thing that once may think on the first reading. Church, modelled on the compassionate Jesus tradition, is an awesome place. The past with which the church has to dialogue has some disgusting and terrible incidents which we should utterly decry.  But it has also been saving of people’s humanity, building them up, and a place of the greatest humanity.

The very nature of a Christlike compassion combined with an honest approach to reality makes a remodelling of church difficult. Compassion says we accept people of all stages of faith; those who are naive, those who are mature, those who are injured, and even jaded.

Reality (and compassion) says we need to aspire to mature faith for all people, if the church is to survive.  We need to be able to explain our faith in the power of Love and Compassion which Jesus has shown us, in terms that make sense, and are intellectually defensible in today’s world.  We need to be free of infantilising notions of God. We need to discard exploitative notions of God which are used to abuse parishioners into submission.  We need to abandon ideas which lead back to the impossible old man in the sky. In fact, such actions are an act of compassion toward church members who have outgrown such notions of God, and find them abusive.

If I recall Fowler correctly, he thought most people did not come to a particularly mature stage of faith. This could certainly be said of the church system, which works strongly against change to any of its basic metaphorical foundations. I don’t want to leave, but the pain of staying and challenging a system which does not want to change is frightening.

I’ve seen models where the patient, mature and deeply compassionate minister and elders slowly guide those of lesser faith along the path to deeper acceptance. Such models assume the minister and elders cannot be deposed, and that they will win the day. Otherwise, inevitably, the lowest common denominator will win. Some people will not move from their favourite image of God, and will not tolerate such movement even being spoken of. I’ve been in such situations where the minister did not win. People’s self preservation is swift, and pays no heed to compassion, ethics, or decency.

If the minister and elders, and maybe it is just the minister, are not to be abusive and ride roughshod over people’s belief needs, there has to be one other thing in place.  And that is the willingness of the minister and elders to be crucified. They must be prepared for the utmost rejection as they try and show people a more healthy service of and belief in Jesus.

Finally, I don’t have the answers to a new vision of the Divine.  I can say, “I don’t believe in God,” and explain that.  I cannot, however, provide a neat replacement structure for church and worship.  We are not talking about new curtains here. We are wondering if we will even have a building in this new church!  We need a deep exploration together as Jesus’ people about how we will live in our town.

In the mean time, and while some people do not even want to hear the need for such an exploration, there is church to prepare for next Sunday, and some people want me to ask the man in the sky to fix things for them. Do I tell them this is ridiculous, and walk out? Or do I try and stay, and try and show what freedoms and insights I have found?

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