Once again I’ve been involved in a conversation with several for whom church had once been a place that promised truth in a world that does not know truth, safe haven in a world that has been darkened by sin, and saving from the wrath of God that would condemn them to the eternal punishment of hell but for the grace available to them from God by way of Christ through their church. But as they matured in faith and grew bold enough to become curious, ask questions, express doubt, and discover a world of God’s love and light that exists all about them in every day life that same church became a place of oppression, filled with untruth and from which escape was essential for their own well being. They crave God’s presence in their lives, they have nothing against Christianity in principle, and most of all they desire authentic, supportive fellowship with others.
As a priest and pastor I am ashamed that their experiences in church have not nourished their souls, but that is what church is supposed to be about about, and in ways more profound than fellowship, even at its best. The church is nothing more than ecclesia, a gathering of persons for a particular purpose. Fellowship is important for success in whatever purpose is at hand, because it is through fellowship that the gifts and talents of those gathered can be recognized, developed, organized and utilized. Fellowship has the added advantage of providing the ground for friendships to develop between persons who would otherwise have no reason or desire to get to know each other. But the particular ecclesia that is church is to engage the gathering in a purpose that transcends ordinary time and space.
We are called to gather together in God’s name to, with deliberate intentionality, enter into holy time and space. In the best Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church, which is also consistent with the tradition of the early church, it means to be in direct, physical and spiritual communion with Christ through the Eucharist. In the moment of the Eucharist we depart from human time (chronos) to enter into God’s time (kyros). In that time we are fed with the holy food and drink of new and unending life. It becomes a time and place to be refreshed, healed, fed, restored and sent out to do God’s work. Being sent out is to be sent in to the world of chronos and into all the opportunities for fellowship that confront us in every sort and condition of human being. It is not God’s wrath but God’s love that we are sent out to proclaim, not our depravity but our creation in God’s image that we are to celebrate. We are God’s beloved children, and if children then heirs through Christ in his eternal kingdom. The world is certainly filled with sin and depravity. We cannot ignore that, but we are called to be agents of light, love, and life in every place that we go and with every person whom we meet. In a most curious way, doing that also reveals the beauty and goodness of all creation, or, as the psalmist said, “in your light we see light.” There are other traditions within the Christian faith that share the same understanding but express it in different ways, so I’m not claiming anything that is exclusively Episcopalian.
What I deeply regret is that it is not the way of all churches that claim the name of Christ. It means that those who have had a bad experience and escaped from it are very hard to convince that they should return to the ecclesia where they can be more fully nourished than ever they could imagine and their great gifts and talents could be joined with others to do even greater works in God’s name. Even someone as great in faith as Bonhoeffer had some of the same feelings of almost despair over the failures of some churches and expressed them well in his “Letters and Papers from Prison.” In them he wondered if we did not need a religionless religion of some kind. In the end he would not give up on that central moment of Holy Communion with God in Christ physically present in bread and wine and shared with one another in love.