“Christ created in himself one new humanity.”
“All who believed were together and had all things in common… Day by day…they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,”
Isobel keeps on reminding me that many years ago one of the older ministers in our denomination declared that “John de Gruchy would destroy our church!” I can report that I failed. But it is true, I was an ecclesiastical “opstoker”. After writing three newspaper articles for the Natal Mercury on the need for renewal in the church, a senior Methodist Church leader called me to his office and gave me a stern lecture and demanded that I desist from criticising the church. Yes, I was something of a upstart back then, raising awkward questions, speaking out on political issues, and generally causing grief. In doing so I had little support from my fellow ministers, though my bewildered and long-suffering congregation was always loyal. For that reason, when disillusioned priests, pastors and ministers, or disillusioned lay folk, arrive on my doorstep these days to talk about their problems with the church, I have some empathy.
Much of this disillusionment with the church derives from the fact that the church too often seems trapped in its own self-interests, petty squabbles. and raising enough money to exist, rather than serving the world. It seems to be part of the problem rather than an agent of transformation. But apart from this, it has become the victim of of secularization and modernity, which has radically changed the way in which many people understand themselves and the world. So why spend a life-time serving and trying to change the church, why not simply abandon it? This is not a new question, and it begs a more fundamental one, for what is the church we wish to abandon? Our denomination, local congregation, and if not, then what? After all, Christianity began as a community of believers, what the New Testament writers called the ekklesia, the word we translate church
This was understood by them in two ways. The first was the audacious claim that the church is a “new humanity” that Christ has brought into being through his death and resurrection, an inclusive “new humanity” born of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As such the church transcends all natural boundaries, for “in Christ” all races and classes of people are reconciled in the “one body of Christ.” The second understanding was that this “new humanity” is embodied the communities of people in many localities who share a common life and faith, who gather to worship and pray, to learn from the teaching of the apostles, to share in a thanksgiving meal, to care for one another and serve the wider community. These communities are “the body of Christ” in each place witnessing to God’s healing, justice, reconciliation and peace in the world.
So what do I say to those who are disillusioned with the church and want to abandon it? First I say that they are right to be critical if their criticisms are fair and just, because this is necessary if the church is to be true to its character as the “new humanity.” something that will never happen without people challenging the church when it fails to be the church. Then, I say, that the Christian ministry will always be a tough calling because not everyone in the church really wants to be part of the “body of Christ” serving the world in terms of God’s love and justice. This was already the case in NT times when Paul wrote his letters to the churches. I also remind them that the church is not a community of saints, but a community of forgiven sinners who, at the best of times, are struggling to become saints. The church is a work in progress not a perfect product, a laboratory-experiment that often fails but every now and again surprises us all, and restores our confidence in God’s grace. And then, for good measure, I remind that St. Augustine referred to the church as our mother without whom we would never have heard the gospel and come to faith, in short, we would not be here today, and neither would the Volmoed community.
Given the failures of the church and the cultural changes in society, it is not surprising that many people, who might in the past have “gone to church,” no longer do so. What is surprising is that the church has not only survived for so long, and that there are millions of people who still “go to church” across the world. Some might go out of habit or for reasons of social convention, but many go because they experience the church as a healing community, a community that cares for the vulnerable in society, a reconciling agent that brings hope in times of despair, a prophetic voice speaking truth to power. There are many local churches across the globe that a vibrant with life, and signs of hope in a despairing world. All of this is a sign of the “new humanity” that God is seeking to construct, a long and difficult task because the building material is not perfect.
But in any case to we really want to abandon the church? It’s like abandoning one’s family. Imagine if tomorrow all the churches in Hermanus decided to shut up shop! Imagine if tomorrow all priests and ministers across the country resigned. Imagine if tomorrow Pope Francis abandoned ship. Imagine if tomorrow we sold Volmoed and it became a golfing estate, I think even the golfers among us, especially Barry would be reluctant. Imagine if we all abandoned the church. Imagine the world without the church. The truth is, the church is not an institution, not a building, not a bench of bishops, the church is people we know and love, the church is us. We may despair of it at times as we do of our families. but then so does God, perhaps even more so. Yet God does not abandon us, he works with the material he has and seeks to make us whole. God does not abandon the world for all its faults, he works to redeem it and make it more loving and just, truly a “new humanity.” And the remarkable fact is that he uses a very fallible community we call “the church” to help bring that about. God help us!
John de Gruchy
Volmoed, 16 November 2017