Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A radical rebirth?

Yesterday was All Saints’ Day – the day when Christians the world over are expected to build on the faithful witness of generations of good people who have lived out the Christian message. What a good day, then, to visit St Paul’s Cathedral, and see the protest that has caused so much trouble to the church in the last few days, and see what the current good people of the church are doing.

I’m an Anglican, albeit a liberal one. And the way the church has behaved has been a deep embarrassment. 

Now whatever we think of the various parts of the protest (and to be frank, there are an awful lot of seemingly professional protesters, people who do it for ‘lolz’, anarchists and extremists, together with people who genuinely have a cogent argument), there is a central idea – the idea of human rights, and of an end to poverty in the UK, particularly with reference to unbridled capitalism, the rich getting richer and the poor poorer (and I would suggest it should be world-focussed on the poverty side, with children the world over unable to even find clean water to drink). These, from any Christian perspective, are things which should worry the church; but they just don’t seem to.

The church has been a monumental waste of space on issues like this for years. This, of course, is the same ‘church’ that supported slavery and prejudice against people on grounds of race (and still does on gender and sexuality). But this is a wake-up call; and if our Anglican leaders don’t answer (the Romans have always been far behind in some ways – God forbid that people are put above an institution – but there is a lot of ground work going on that is simply obscured by sex scandals and homophobic ranting), then the church is in crisis.

I suppose the real problem is that the church has been caught unawares. One moment it is doing what it’s always done; and the next there’s a protest on its door step, posing all kinds of questions about poverty, capitalism and exploitation (together with a million causes that far left extremists cannot stop themselves from stapling all over their agenda, many of which are far more controversial and simply don’t garner public support). And what has the church done? Been pretty pathetic, if we’re honest.

When I was a younger and less cynical student, I remember a priest saying to me that university is the time that people should be radical about religion. Well, if this isn’t the time, then when is? I think he was pushing me towards becoming an evangelical; well maybe Christians should be more evangelical, but not in the classical way of shoving the Bible down people’s throats, but instead genuinely showing the good news in their lives.

So has St Paul’s woken up to the call to arms that this situation has proven to be? All that seems to have happened is that a Canon has resigned, and then the Dean, in a fit of nerves and perhaps one might uncharitably suggest, in a fit of peak, has resigned. We have been warned that, if protests like this continue, the Monarch might not make it to St Paul’s as part of her Jubilee Year – shock horror. So I suppose we should simply be brushing issues under the carpet, and rooting the camp out right now – we certainly can’t have our Queen having to deal with real day to day issues. The problem that the church is having is that it’s too late on these issues; it’s missed the boat, and all it can do now is appear on the side of the protesters, or on the side of the city. And neither is really being authentic to the voice of the Gospel. But it’s fairly obvious which side Jesus would have been on – and I’m not sure that he was a huge fan of pin-stripes and braces.

Rather than waking up, let me tell you what St Paul’s has done. If I might us the words of a priest sat near me tonight, what was preached from the pulpit – the place of moral argument – last night was ‘the worst sermon I think I have ever heard’. It seems that St Paul’s has decided to become deeply introspective and protectionist – to place the church in a place of separation and difference – and to completely ignore the issues which it is being forced to address.

Let me briefly tell you a story, told to me by a senior clergyman of a country cathedral. On Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem before the crucifixion, a lady of the establishment left the cathedral, and noted to this clergyman ‘what a lovely day, Father. I wonder if our Lord had such a lovely day on his ride into Jerusalem.’ It’s at times like this that even the most rose tinted amongst us must look at people who profess to be Christian, and wonder if they have really got the point. Even her husband mentioned ‘I think he probably had more important things to think about’. And this is exactly what St Paul’s, and the wider church, is missing. St Paul’s is an institution first, and a place of Christian worship second. Rather than putting the institution first, we should be putting the communities and people of the earth first. Which we categorically fail to do each Sunday, and which is a huge sin for the church.

But back to the ‘sermon’ we were subjected to. We got the standard platitudes about God (albeit performed in a somewhat Gilbert and Sullivan way), but it was the rest of the content that followed which was most offensive. We were told that the church was acting with ‘courage and certainty’, ‘making known the good news’, and were reassured that those professing to be Christian both ‘know and are known by God’. We were also told that we must ‘live the eternal now as revealed to us in Jesus Christ’. So far, it seems pretty sensible; that church goers must live the life as given in the gospels, from the Jesus who says ‘love your neighbour as yourselves’. In fact, the gospel for the day included the words ‘Blest are the poor’; a call to action for those of us who have much to give, if ever there was one. However, it was the preacher’s concentration on Jesus’ words that ‘blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you’ that was most disturbing. Because he seemed to think the church needed some sympathy.

He claimed ‘it’s not our job to justify ourselves’. Just let that sink in for a moment. Because, St Paul’s, yes it is. The church has failed. It has failed in its basic goal; to reflect God’s love in its actions and deeds. You can tell a million people about how great a man Jesus Christ was, and about how to get happiness, but if you fail to tell the whole story, or fail to make those words into actions, by speaking up and acting against poverty, corporate greed and exploitation, and making that one of the major, if not the major, parts of your mission, then every time the Lord’s Prayer is uttered, ‘thy Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven’, you lie to yourselves. The church just becomes a bunch of men in frocks talking about the rules that God wants us to follow.

In the same sermon, he said we should ‘look death in the eyes’. The church looks death in the eyes every single day, when people die because of hunger, and the church doesn’t seem to care, doesn’t seem to speak up, and lets any good message on world peace and equality get smashed down by something far more irrelevant and minor, whichever it is that week that ‘threatens to break the Church apart’. The Church is just a group of Christians – the institution is a distraction, and any obsession with it is harmful and damaging. Focussing on love for humanity would be a good start.

That’s not to say that St Paul’s doesn’t do some things about poverty; the work on corporate greed, for example, that the foundation has done – but then it hasn’t released it, in case it was bad PR. And that is the problem with the church’s seeming obsession with PR – they don’t want to look on the side of the protesters, in case they upset people. Someone who was quite happy to upset people, including the officials and religious authorities, was Jesus Christ. The church isn’t agreeing with everything the protesters are saying; but by blocking a report, and refusing to engage with the issues (they are engaging with the protesters, provided that it’s a well-media-managed situation) they are making the church into an irrelevance. How pitiful it is that we have barely heard from our leaders, who almost obsessively jump about when gay marriage, or female clergy, or threats to religious power are mentioned.

The sermon ended with ‘this saints day is business as usual’. Well, what exactly is business as usual for the Church of England at the moment? And does the business as usual really leave so little to be desired that the church need not justify itself because it is so perfect and does so much good?

The reality is that the church has been caught unawares, and from its point of view, these protests are an unfortunate, but timely, reminder that they should have the moral high-ground here, but don’t. It shouldn’t have come to this, but it has, and it’s time that the church got off the fence, stopped worrying about what it looked like, followed its founder Christ, and created real life, modern saints, ones who do genuine good in the world, rather than some in the dubious list, who have fought valiantly against other Christian denominations, killed at least a couple of hundred people, and been canonised.

It’s time for a radical rebirth for Christianity, and this is the chance for the Church of England to redefine itself as a church for the next era. If the state doesn’t like it, disestablish. If some wealthy parishioners don’t like it, Jesus has an answer – sell all you have and give it to the poor. The Church is an institution first, and a communion of people second – it’s time to turn the tables, much like Jesus did in the temple, and leap forward in faith like never before.

We’re lucky – Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Anyone who professes to be Christian in the western world carries the collective sin of the church, both now and across the centuries. So let’s take this call to arms, take the true message of the Gospel to the streets, speak up and act against greed and poverty, and be the prophetic voice that our world badly needs.