Rediscovering The Lost ChurchUpdated 16:27PM, Friday January 11th, 2013 by Sam Hailes, Christian.co.uk Be the first to comment!
People tend to think of those who are Christians and those who aren’t. Are you coming from a different perspective to that?
"I think we’re very bad in the church of making binary distinctions: you either believe or you don’t, you either attend or you don’t.
A very big minority of people - if not the majority of people, don’t fit in easily into these categories. Their beliefs are not necessarily strong, coherent or consistent. Over time, most people who have beliefs are going to be a work in progress rather than something that’s settled and fashioned for all time.
As far as attendance goes, they are not attending all the time. 'Pick-and-choose' would be a derogatory way of putting it. They attend churches and services on those occasions when it makes sense to them or when they need something.
Likewise, if the church is able to recognise the existence of these people then they can respond appropriately and minister to them. The book is an argument for that. Recognise these people, understand who they are, then we can minister to them we can help them."
Who is this 'Lost Church'?
"It’s the traditional Anglican Church. Many Methodist and Roman Catholic Churches have been similar. The Church we’re in danger of losing is the open, welcoming church.
I went to the cathedral last year, at evensong, and I saw an old friend of mine and I thought was an atheist. I said, "What are you doing here?"
He said: 'I’m an Anglican atheist. I get a lot from the services and I feel uplifted. I can’t say the creeds and I still see myself as agnostic.' That seems to be the Church we’re in danger of losing."
Some would say it’s up to people to change, not the Church.
"I find that a puzzling depiction of Jesus who seems to me to be extraordinary, open, sympathetic and understanding of difficulties people have."
But Jesus did say: 'Follow me.' That was a command not a suggestion.
"He does say follow me, and people in their own particular way struggle to find and to follow. It’s this business the Church has of saying following can only mean one thing, and that 'one thing' is what we say it is."
So following equals attending church, when people may be following him in other ways. Is that what you’re saying?
"There are those people. Sir Andrew Motion, the poet, comes to church 'as-and-when' because, he says, he has faith that flickers on and off like a badly wired lamp. You could say: ‘Tough. We only want you to come when you’re a proper lamp and your light burns brightly all the time.'
I would say: "If your faith flickers on and off then come when you can and we’ll be helpful and welcoming to you. Because that way, further on in your life or whatever, maybe it will be burning more brightly." But to turn people away now, seems wrong."
Does the lamp need to be fixed?
"I want the church to have room in it for those who, perhaps all their lives, will have faith like a badly wired lamp, and I’d include myself in some of these descriptions. None of us will know what we’ll be like in 5 or 25 years time and the idea that the Church will only be there for people of a certain kind, is wrong.
Is it good that the Church has a reputation for being counter cultural – especially in its refusal to adopt women bishops?
"People who believe the Earth is flat are counter cultural, but I don’t think that’s anything to commend it. As far as the Church is counter cultural in its attitudes toward women, it needs to learn something from the secular world which is understood in the aspects of the Christian gospel, more than the Church itself.
I’m a great believer in opening the ordained ministry at every level to both men and women. I think that’s very important and that’s what the gospel now demands. Unless we do that, it makes it very difficult to say anything to the secular community on human rights and how men and women treat one another, in any context."
What elements of Church are people still holding onto?
"The occasional services of baptism, marriage and funerals; that’s a very good example of where people come and still want something from us, even though they’re not necessarily regular attenders.
If you look at infant baptism, for instance, we’ve got very difficult about baptising infants of those who are not regular attenders or believers. So we try and force them into attending and making statements of faith before we will consider baptism.
That causes great offence among these people; they are puzzled by it. After all, we’ve had 500 years of doing the opposite. So to suddenly turn around and say the rules have changed, causes great resentment and they’re walking the other way from us."
What’s the best Christian book you’ve read?
"I’ve taught theology all my life so I’ve read hundreds of them. But if I’m allowed two, one of them was Karl Barth’s Commentary on Romans that he wrote at the end of the First World War which asked the question of why the liberal protestant churches got it wrong and we're all cheering for the Kaiser and cheering on the war effort in one of the most awful wars in history.
The other was a book by Niebuhr called Moral Man and Immoral Society. He was asking the question how was it that you could have individuals who led very good lives but as soon as they were part of a collective - it might be a family church or nation, they could behave in brutal ways."
What has God been teaching you recently?
"I do Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 on the Today programme - just a very short, brief thing. I just had a letter, which must have taken three weeks to get here, from someone in mainland China who listens to the broadcasts. She didn’t comment on the main part of the thought, but an off the cuff remark. You never know how what you say may affect someone and there’s no legislating for that, God moves in a mysterious way - even to mainland China. - Sam Hailes
Sam writes news, features and reviews exclusively for Christian.co.uk. The job involves meeting influential and interesting Christians from across the country and beyond. Most importantly, he never talks about himself in the third person.
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