Robin Blount: ecumenical notes, cruise ship chaplaincy and lots more

Church buildings

14 August 2023

This has been on my mind for some considerable time, ever since I noticed during lockdown that the parish church up the road was displaying a 'Welcome!' sign saying that the church was open, but in fact the doors were locked. I'm guessing that one reason is that there were insufficient people available to ensure the security of the building - a good enough reason. But that still doesn't excuse the false invitation.

Why are congregations in all Churches falling so noticeable? Part of the reason chimes with the beginning of the Industrial Mission movement, which I'm told was due to the Bishop of Sheffield noticing that following the end of world war two, congregations in the city were smaller than they had been before the war. Apparently he sent some clergy into local factories to try to find out why this was happening, and the result was his commissioning some clergy as chaplains in local industry. That's the story I inherited when I became the second minister to be appointed chaplain in the Black Country Urban Industrial Mission team.

But there is another reason, and that is to do with the message of the Church, and the language both verbal and visible, in which it is contained - or perhaps constrained. Ever since Constantine coerced church leaders at the Council of Nicaea to elevate Christianity to be the preferred religion for the Empire, Christianity has been a system of belief rather than a way of life. The Church expects its members to believe the unbelievable that tries to express the inexpressible. Small wonder that the Church is not increasing its membership, except in those churches that don't expect their members to think for themselves.

The reason the Church is losing members, however, is not just its ancient rituals and traditions. The real reason is its buildings, those majestic shrines that bear silent witness to past ages when most people did in fact attend Church more or less regularly. In today's world of myriad choices, the church building is where you "do religion." Yes, of course the church building is where you can fulfil the rituals of life - baptism, marriage and burial - but why else would you go? The majority of folk living in the UK have little or no experience of belonging to a Christian faith community, and it is most unlikely that they would be attracted to a Sunday service out of curiosity.

Matthew's gospel ends with the Great Commission, with Jesus standing on the mountain. It's the inevitable climax to his presentation of Jesus as the new Moses. "Go and make disciples" is the message. So we have to do the Moses thing - help people come to terms with the mess the world is in, and in our own way, live as those whose lives have been touched by the divine, given a glimpse of a world in which there will be justice and peace. Being a Christian is not about believing but of being - what Marcus Borg called beloving. Being filled with love and compassion, with a sense of community and genuine acceptance of others.

By all means go to church on Sunday. Enjoy the worship and hope to come away with something new to think about. But don't expect to see strangers and inquisitive newcomers. After all, the mission of the Church begins as you leave the church building.

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