‘The problem with the church is that we stay inside our building and occasionally come out and say “Why don’t you come to our church, it’s cool and funky”. To be honest, it’s not. I would love more people to come at 10am on Sunday and I would welcome them to All Saints. For Christians this is the most important day of the year. All life and all hope flows from it. But there are plenty of ways to celebrate without coming to a draughty Victorian building. So why not stay at home, have a lie in, have sex and eat some chocolate.’
Fr. Ritchie has said that his comments were meant to be light-hearted and some of his congregation have defended their ‘wonderfully witty’ vicar. The coverage his comments got shows the continuing appetite the media have for anything slightly naughty said by someone in a dog collar.
Boring and irrelevant?
So is the Church just a boring and irrelevant institution which meets in old, cold buildings?
Well often it is, especially when Christianity becomes ‘Church-ianity’. When the core message becomes shrouded in rituals that only hold meaning for those ‘within the club’, churches do become boring and irrelevant. This kind of church is not worth getting out of bed for.
The problem is that Fr. Ritchie’s comments sound cynical and resigned to the decline of the church. Why not speak about how these challenges are being overcome? Surely it’s the task of all Christians, and especially church leaders, to connect people as well as possible to our message.
Surprised by hope
Over the last few years Easter has come alive to me in a deeper way than previously. One key reason was reading Tom Wright’s seminal book ‘Surprised by Hope’ where he attacks the idea that Christian hope should focus on going to heaven when you die. Wright unpacks a far more radical and biblical concept of resurrection into a New Heavens and a New Earth. Our hope is not in floating around in clouds but in a creation which is fully restored, renewed and ‘put to rights’. The resurrection of Jesus at Easter is the start of this new creation – Jesus is the first to be resurrected and offers everyone the hope of new life.
This has led me to taking Lent far more seriously and consequently grasping more deeply the significance of Jesus’ death and especially his resurrection.
The best illustration of this new life is the baptisms which take place in churches all over the country on Easter day – like the 6 that took place at my church yesterday. As ever, baptism is the most exciting example of transformation and hope because people publicly declare their new life in Christ.
A healthy church?
The Guardian on Saturday had an interesting double-spread feature on both the challenges and the opportunities for the Church of England as people search for hope, meaning and a sense of transcendence. The article ended with this summary about the current state of the Church:
‘Away from the synods and all the archaic brittle grandeurs of establishment, it still seems to be alive, and even putting out fresh strong shoots’
The death of Church-ianity
The church is not in terminal decline. Churches which have passion, commitment and faithful energy to share the ‘full message of this new life’ (Acts 5:20) will continue to grow whether in size or impact.
On the other hand, congregations which embody ‘Church-ianity’ will continue to fade. This will mean more empty church buildings and whole denominations coming to an end. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing and it does not necessarily signal a decline of authentic Christianity. It is more a necessary rationalisation – for there is too much institutional structure, too many grand buildings and too much religion. Perhaps pruning will help us be more fruitful.
Focussing on the message
God’s Church needs to travel lighter so it can focus on its transforming message. We have a story to live out and share with others. It’s a truly inclusive story which everyone can participate in and in which they can truly find themselves. It’s what the world is waiting for.
Going back to Fr. Ritchie’s controversial comments – all Christians and especially our leaders need to ensure that what happens in church buildings reflect the life and hope that flows from the resurrection of Jesus. When we do that, we really do have a message that is worth getting out of bed for.
Related posts: Tom Wright For Everyone by Stephen Kuhrt