Religion on the Level: #4
What is the use of the Church?
The title of this lecture is, "What is the use of the Church?" If we
happen to be members of a particular Christian denomination we'll
almost certainly apply the question to that body; so there will be as many
answers as there are churches; and that brings us up against our first real
The Church (in spite of the claims that individual churches may make
about themselves) is a plural reality and was so from the beginning. The
Church is not and never really has been a single identifiable system with
one set of distinguishing characteristics. One classic way of talking
about this is to point out that speaking sociologically, "church" by
definition means plurality and inclusiveness whereas "sect" means
singularity and exclusiveness.
It is an inescapable human fact that some people want only to belong to
groups of the like-minded, or sects, however tiny. Indeed, the perfect
sect is probably a solitary individual with no one around to disturb his
absolute sense that he alone is right. Most people recognise that there
are many competing answers to the problems that obsess us and the issues
that occupy us, so they instinctively organise themselves into
larger groupings that allow diversity and the winnowing effect of
controversy on their struggle with truth, and we call these systems
churches or assemblies.
So far I am not using the distinction in a particularly religious way.
It fits many institutions. You will sometimes hear politicians describe
their party as a "broad church" because it represents a wide range of
views in contrast with, for example, some of the tiny political sects on
the edges of politics in this country. But the church/sect typology is a
useful place to begin to think about the dynamics of the Christian Church.
Until fairly recently, I used to live opposite a living example of the
sect dynamic. When I was a priest in Edinburgh in the Seventies, I lived a
few yards from Princes Street. At the foot of the Mound, next to the Royal
Scottish Academy, we have a sort of Speakers' Corner and I used to spend a
few minutes looking on and listening in during my Sunday afternoon walk,
when most of the action took place.
One man fascinated me. He was virulently anti-Roman Catholic and spent
his time proving that the Pope was the Anti-Christ. Like many soap-box
obsessives he was a brilliant debater. When handling hecklers he was quick
with historic facts and illustrations, all proving how evil Rome was and
how unbiblical were its most characteristic doctrines.
I used to wonder what kind of life he led, this man who was so clearly
obsessed with the institution he hated. What did he do the rest of the
week, I used to wonder? Did he spend all his time studying the material
put out by those dismal Protestant Protection societies with their endless
conspiracy theories, or did he lead an otherwise normal life in the bosom
of a happy family?
I got the answer a few years ago when I moved into the flat I live in
now. I noticed that he lived with a large dog in a basement in the
crescent opposite. Several times a day I would pass him in the street with
his dog, walking swiftly, head down. He lived alone, spoke to no one,
seemed to be visited by no one. On my way to the early morning Eucharist
at the Cathedral I would pass his lonely figure.
It was a triumph when I got him to return my good morning greeting with
a grunt although there was never any eye contact. He has moved on now, I
think. I certainly have not seen him for months. For me, he encapsulated
the almost psychotic imperative of the sect mentality, ending up on his
own, hidden away in an anonymous basement flat, nursing God knows what
fantasies about the dangers that swarmed above his head.
The main characteristic of the sect and the sectarian mind is fear,
whether of pollution or ultimate damnation. Most of us know that there are
many weird people out there with strange opinions, but we are usually
undisturbed by their monomania unless they manage to take over some
institution that is important to us and drive it in their own direction.
It is, in Yeats' phrase, the worst who are filled with passionate
intensity while the rest of us are enjoying our ordinary lives. Many
obsessive sectarians are probably also psychotic, but I do not want to
trespass into the area of mental health tonight except to point out that
at the root of much religious sectarianism is a kind of ultimate fear.
Religious anxiety goes back a very long way and is probably behind the
ancient sacrifice system with its detailed placation of angry gods. The
sacrifice system is itself almost extinct, though William Dalrymple found
remnants of it in Eastern Orthodoxy during his travels in the Middle East
when researching his book From the Holy Mount.
The language of placation, however, is very much a part of the
Christian tradition still. George Mackay Brown gives us an entertaining
example in his book
An Orkney Tapestry.
"We'd do weel to pray," said a North Ronaldsay fisherman to his crew as
another huge wave broke
over them. It had been a fine day when they
launched the boat. Then the sudden gale got up.
Willag was a Kirk elder. The skipper told him to
start praying. Spindrift lashed in and over.
"O Lord", said Willag, "Thou art just, thou art
wonderful, thou art merciful, great are thy
works. Thou art mighty."
Willag faltered in his litany of praise. The boat
wallowed through a huge trough.
"Butter him up", cried the skipper, "butter him up."
It is easy to figure out the connections between the sometimes
overblown language of praise and worship in the Christian liturgy and
ancient styles of address of the sort that is now applied only to the
Queen in Britain.
The presence of sectarian anxiety has a less straightforward background
but I would like to suggest one possible explanation for its survival in
Christianity. We'll encounter this anxiety increasingly as we get to the
end of this, the last year of the second millennium and the newspapers are
already providing us with interesting examples.
For instance, the Israeli government has already deported some members
of a Christian sect that had gone to the Holy Land to wait for the end of
the world. They are quite clear about the cataclysmic side-effects that
will accompany the end, such as passenger planes plunging to earth because
some pilots, members of the elect, will be caught up by God into the
Rapture that will precede the end, while the rejected passengers plunge to
a fiery death below.
You can see how the anxiety about the millennium bug in our computers
plays right into this kind of religious paranoia. The Scottish newspapers
published an article recently about a family from England that has moved
to a house on a remote hilltop in the highlands to wait for the end of the
world because they want to be as far away as possible from Heathrow when
all those planes start dropping from the sky.
Behind this anxiety there lies an ancient human response to oppression,
There is a lot of apocalyptic material in the Bible because the people
in Palestine, existing as they did in the narrow corridor of land between
opposing empires experienced great oppression in their turbulent history.
The social and political system of biblical times was a complex domination
system that required for its maintenance not only a peasant class, poised
permanently between poverty and destitution, but an expendable class who
were totally outside the system and lived in the margins and shadows of
Apocalyptic is the projection onto the future of the longings of beaten
people. God will come and smite their oppressors with a sword and
establish a reign of peace and justice on earth. If you know the Old
Testament you will already be hearing some of these great passages in your
head. Apocalyptic was one of the great themes present in Israel in the
days of Jesus, and it protagonists contributed an important strand to the
complex religious situation of the time.
John the Baptist probably belonged to this tradition. His baptism was
an act of preparation for the great cleansing that was to come, when the
land would be purified with fire. It is also pretty certain that Jesus
went through an apocalyptic phase. We know that he was baptised by John in
the Jordan, but his work took a radically different turn.
He moved from an eschatology of supernatural intervention to an
eschatology of challenge and discovery. The longed-for dispensation would
not come as a sudden visitation from above, as though the new society was
to be magically substituted for the old one, but was already there, latent
in human relationships of love and justice, and was realised by living
intentionally in its presence.