Your donation helps keep the Cathedral open to God, open to all

No, I'd prefer to donate another time


Talk: Being Church - Church as Community

Education is a central aspect of the Cathedral’s mission.  We offer opportunities for learning, dialogue and engagement with issues of public debate.

At the Cathedral, people of all ages can learn about faith and discipleship. We run a Sunday School and are developing work with young people; there are occasional study groups and Lent Lectures.

The Cathedral is a theological and educational resource for the Diocese, supporting the work of clergy and parishes. The Cathedral works with the Diocese in planning and delivering an annual summer school.

Working with other institutions in and around Stag Hill, for example the University of Surrey, the Cathedral is committed to engaging with issues in the public sphere (including social responsibility, science, ethics, the arts and inter-faith dialogue).  There will be an annual series of talks alongside seminar based groups.

Transcripts of these talks are, where possible, included below.

For details of forthcoming talks, please see the Cathedral Diary and What's On 



Thursday 21st February 2013
Lent Talk
1 Corinthians 12:12-27
John 15:1-7

Lent Talks 2013 - 1 - Church as Community: the people we are called to be. 

Over the course of the next five sessions, we will explore what it means to be the church.  I’m not offering a blue print or an idealised model; but rather an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of our corporate life.  I hope we can share questions – and ideas; thinking around a generous church.

Tonight we will focus on the place of worship in shaping our common life – in terms of clearing some space for more detailed reflection over the coming weeks. This will include how worship and teaching shape our relationships; the church’s vocation in relation to the world; how we use our gifts for the common good – and finally how the Eucharist draws us more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, for the sake of the Kingdom, which is our ultimate purpose.  [The Cathedral’s dedication is to the Holy Spirit – virtues and pursuit of wisdom; fostering relationships; igniting conversations that are generous and transformative; for the common good; for the sake of the Kingdom; a way to go!]

1.1                Early experiences of Church – good, bad, impact?

Why do churches always have to be arranging bazaars and jumble sales? One would think that was the only reason for their existence.  So comments the charming Rocky to the narrator of Barbara Pym’s “Excellent Women”. Her observations about the church in the 1950s are still recognisable to us: the rhythms of prayer and different patterns of Sunday worship; the wrestling with Lenten disciplines and the cultivation of Christian character or virtue; the cultivation of flourishing relationships and the petty jealousies about leadership; a commitment to mission and engagement with the world... maintaining buildings...and jumble sales and if you’re at the Cathedral, Winter Fairs.

We know that our common life is a complex as Pym suggests.  Over the last decade there has been a lot more talk about mission and we have found imaginative ways of engaging with our community.  Yet we also face pressures to care for buildings – alongside growing in spirituality and in numbers. 

Robert Warren’s work on “Healthy Churches” helps us with this: not only does he remind us that the church is not the sum of the following equation – building + vicar + services. Rather we are a community of faith and action.

I won’t soften Warren’s challenge but we do need to recognise that our buildings are sacred places, where people come seeking inspiration or solitude; places of prayer and worship. In fact our very architecture can communicate something of the good news we proclaim (e.g. Hampton).  But, we need to recover something of the dynamism of the church – it is a particular concern of mine, to think of the church not just as embodied, but as moving in the world. These themes of common life/individual discipleship; worship, mission and Kingdom will lie at the heart of our discussions. But we begin by reflecting on the kind of people we are called to be.

We are a people.

A people called to do more than organise bazaars; that is not the reason for our existence.

Take a moment to consider your own experience of the church:   the good, the bad and the indifferent.

Take a moment to consider the impact that those experiences have had on your life.

Perhaps our views have changed over time – in relation to personal moments of crisis and celebration, our own involvement and the vision and work of the church we participate in.  Sometimes we find ourselves on the fringes or caught up in the intensity of ministry.

I grew up in rural Herefordshire. There was no such thing as a youth group so my sister and I joined in with the Bible study group hosted by our parents; we were the only people under the age of 50 in the congregation most weeks.  There were times when we were marginalised or patronised. But in that study group we were welcomed by a diverse group – age, gender, denominational and theological mix.  They took faith seriously and puzzled and wrestled together over God’s word.  We were welcomed and encouraged by a young curate – who took our questions seriously and who made space for us to participate in worship in the face of opposition.  The Church isn’t perfect; but the Gospel is still proclaimed; faith is still nurtured. 

Our perspective on the church might also be shaped by the quality of relationships, and the kind of leadership within a particular community.  In my first incumbency as a worshipping community we had to grapple with real challenges as we moved towards a pattern of ministry which was something more collaborative; managing change can be extremely difficult – it has to be rooted in our attention to God, our abiding in him; and it has to have as its main concern, a vision of the Kingdom and a desire to be sent out into our communities in love and service.

Our experience of church life is shaped by frustrations with the “institution” at large – the national church. In some ways, we can draw parallels with the NHS – grumble at “the organisation” but positive experiences of the care at a local level.  Now that there have been times when I have either felt uncomfortable wearing a dog-collar because of the assumptions I think people might make; there have been times when I have been on the receiving end of other people’s hurt, anger or bewilderment; Daily media digest can really skew my perception of church life (it is dominated by complaints about faith schools, the latest new atheist blog, the extremes of perceptions about the church).

However, it is important for us to take seriously our engagement with the church – commitment to a nation; to every inch of land and every person regardless of background. That is Kingdom stuff. We also have to take seriously how we wrestle in public with the things that are hidden away in other institutions (In Sarah Coakley’s excellent edited collection ‘Praying for England’, the sociologist Grace Davie describes the CofE sewage system for the UK: we work out in public issues which are hidden away in other spheres for example football/homophobia; diversity/equality in secular employment).  We also have a responsibility to prophetic witness – Faith in the City, critiquing Government redefinition of child poverty.  There is a question that we’ll come back to about how our handling of difference might be prophetic and healing: I don’t want synod to be the elephant in the room, but perhaps we can approach it differently.

That experience of welcome, puzzlement and encouragement alongside frustrations, misunderstandings and exclusivity is perhaps not uncommon.  I have never been daunted about crossing the threshold of a church – because what has been important to me as a student, visitor, pilgrim or member of a congregation is that I will be joining the people of God in worship.  The style might be familiar or outside of my comfort zone (the challenge of liturgical hospitality is one that faces us all) but the longing to draw near to God – in attending to his word, in fellowship with our brothers and sisters and in receiving the sacrament – remains the same.  We abide in God; but we are also sent out in peace to love and serve.  I will return to that dynamic of abiding and being sent later on; but as we reflect on worship and our common life I want to hold that before you at the outset.    We abide; we are sent.

1.2        Church as a community

There are many activities that preoccupy us in the life of our church communities: some of them common to other institutions (managing teams of staff and working with volunteers; trying to communicate effectively; having a clear strategic plan; balancing budgets). But we are not just another institution we are a church – we are an ekkelsia.

Literally, we are “an assembly or congregation”.

We are called out of our various networks.

We are called out in response to God’s love revealed in the Gospel of Christ, living in relation to the Holy Spirit.

We are called out; but we are also sent out.

Think of the Eucharist as the gathered interval in the scattered life of the church (an idea developed by Dan Hardy).

This emphasises the importance of worship – our abiding in God in praise and prayer, word and sacrament, confession and blessing.  It also emphasises both the embodied nature of our common life – our fellowship; as well as the dispersed nature of our vocation in the world – our dismissal.

Perhaps sometimes we say that we “were baptised” as if we are describing a past event; an interesting part of our personal history.  Try saying instead “I am baptised”.  In baptism we are incorporated into the fellowship of the church: in responding in faith to God’s “yes” to us, we are to renounce evil, repent of our sin and turn to Christ.  And we do that together. It is a lived reality.  As we will see as we explore some biblical images for the church in a little while, are individual gifts and personalities are set within a corporate identity – fostered in worship and lives of service.

Being part of the church affects every area of life. Being church transforms our way of relating to one another. 

Here is a snap shot of life among believers, taken from Acts chapter 2:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

What strikes you when you hear that passage?

Does it sound idealised or impossible?

Are there elements of church life that you identify with or recognise?

Where do we find challenge or inspiration?

It is a passage which reflects core aspects of what it is to “be the church” today.  It isn’t easy! Nor is it something we do in our strength – we are not just an organisation or institution, but the body of Christ.

Acts talks about worship, fellowship and mission: the focus is exactly the same concerns that we have today. We don’t need to think that the early church is an ideal; as we see when we engage with Paul and the challenges he faced!

Day by day, week by week, the believers met together for prayer and worship - both in the temple and at home (persecution, engagement with non-Jewish cultures and eventually the conversion of Constantine impact upon this; house churches – to basilicas; Eucharist becoming central). However, the model is still one that finds expression across the diversity of our traditions. We spend time together worshipping God; we break bread together.  We pray in public and in our homes (and that includes attention to Scriptures).

‘Being church’ was characterised by glad and generous hearts.  Sometimes it is easy to feel weighed down with the pressures and frustrations; yet we are called to live moment my moment giving thanks for God’s gifts to us – food, provisions, security.  We can’t extricate ourselves from the pressures of 21st century life – we have to negotiate the demands of our employment, mortgages, and pensions, families (caring for the old and educating the young).  And as we shall see over the coming weeks – we live in God’s world; we are part of it; that is part of our mission.

What is to be distinctive is how we as a church live in relation to those demands, and how we seek to transform the places where we live and worship and work. Some of that at a personal level is about incremental shifts towards habits or virtues that enable us to bear with one another; some of it is about how we engage in mission – being with the people in our communities, recognising their concerns and finding ways of transforming them.

It is in worship that we become God’s holy people. We abide in God who calls us and who shapes us.  Worship is profoundly relational. We run the risk of our worship becoming a routine ritual practice – but it is the means by which we are drawn near to the holiness of God, and are transformed by that encounter.  In worship our human freedom is shaped in responsibility to the other in self-giving.  It is a foreshadowing of the Kingdom God.  How often do we approach worship with a sense of anticipation – that we will encounter God and be refined by his presence? How often do we live in a way that enacts that holy trust – in words and deeds, in ministry and mission, in relation to the strong and the weak?

In Acts, generosity makes the church distinctive and compelling.  Do we see ourselves as holding things in common? How does that principle of radical generosity relate to our individual stewardship and to our support across diocesan structures. My own deanery wrestled with those challenges – but in prayer and fellowship there was a building up of trust and understanding and generous support.  To learn to live in relation to the other with whom we disagree is potentially the most distinctive witness and challenge to the world.  Mutual affection and trust – shaped by worship are fundamental to us learning how do to this.

The church is made up of people called to live in relation to God; and also to relate to one another and the world in a distinctive way.  Our assurance of salvation is not a possession – or a source of complacency or judgement – it is a gift that impels us to be agents of God’s Kingdom.  How we live and worship and work are acts of witness; but it is the Lord who adds to our number – and as we shall explore in more detail in a later session the relationship between the church, world and kingdom of God.  For now let us remember that:

-           Being part of the church would radically affect every area of life: our relationships and resources.

-           Being part of the church is rooted in attentiveness to God in worship: scripture, teaching, breaking bread.

-           Being part of the church means everyone has a role to play (spirit on all flesh earlier in Acts) with generosity and gladness.

-           Being part of the church means being gathered out of and being sent into the world.

1.3        Two pictures: a body and a vine

              -            1 Corinthians 12:12-27: back ground

We have already talked about the church as ekklesia. From Paul’s letters we get pictures of congregations who know something of the Hebrew Scriptures, who share in bread and wine at a common meal, who are unclear about food laws/whether they can eat together; we know that there are tensions about the status of men and women, rich and poor; they are concerned about spiritual gifts – and troubled by immorality.  They know that they are supposed to love one another.  They are gathered around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  And Paul struggles to get them to make connections between this message of good news – and how they are to behave and what they are about. In a fundamental sense – their meetings together are encounters with Jesus. This reality in the Spirit means that human relationships have to be considered differently.  Jesus’ death overcomes sin, his risen life makes a claim about his rule in this world – the remaking of his people in actual fellowship and the hope of transformation in this world.

Paul makes clear to them there is a power at work in their lives.  In God, the Corinthian ekklesia are to show God’s character in their common life.  They are to be ambassadors of reconciliation; they have the treasure of God’s glory in fragile earthen vessels of their own lives.  They are to witness to healing and forgiveness – what they have known of God must deepen their ordinary human solidarity.   Abiding in God they are transformed; in this sense Rowan Williams talked of the church as an “event” before it is an institution. In some ways, our church life is about recovering something of the power of the event within the structures and systems of an institution.  Rowan also speaks of the need for a robust defence of God-initiated side of our church life– and in subsequent weeks we will reflect on that in relation to word and sacrament.

1 Corinthians 12 is a consideration of what it means to be one body, with many members.  There is something about church life which means that it is the lived encounter with Jesus in the company of those who are different from us: age, back ground, experience, gifts and opinions.  Huge responsibilities come with such a diverse community of faith. How are we to speak and act – if we truly believe that we are gathered together where Jesus is active in the power of the Spirit?

All are members of one body – baptism is the entry point.  Baptism is inclusive – Paul writes here of the way in which Jew, Greek, slave and free all drink of the same Spirit.  We can probably extend that range of diversity when we think of our own congregations and experience of church.   Baptism changes the relationship between individuals and the body – in the preceding verses Paul reminds them that their gifts are to be used in the service of the common good. His concern is with ecclesial unity – in the Spirit, in their common life, in the ritual actions, in their engagement with the world.  As Paula reminded us last month, that is an interesting reversal for our contemporary mind sets, of thinking of the individual first and the community second.

Paul is also concerned however with the relationship between the strong and the weak.  He affirms that difference is important – we need hands and eyes and feet; we can’t function as a body if we were a single member saying to the others ‘I have no need of you’.   We all have something to contribute to the diversity – worship perhaps is an example of that (including the Cathedral – representing diversity or adding to it is a fine balance).

When Paul talks about the ordering of the Lord’s Supper, and the divisions faced by the Corinthians, he is concerned for those who have nothing being humiliated by the wealthy. Their behaviour is undermining the event of the Lord’s Supper as place of encounter with Christ.  In that act of worship, in the breaking of bread so central to the church community in Acts, the community of believers (the ekklesia) are drawn into the very ground of their being.  They abide in God in such a way as to be refreshed: to cite Rowan to be refreshed in its sense of what it is called to be, and what indeed it already is in relation to God’s action.  It is, as theologians and hymn writers have repeatedly said, the presence of the future here and now in history, and so the seed of conversion and renewal for individual and group alike.

Paul gives us an image of the church – meeting together in the company of the risen Christ.  Being called into such a fellowship reshapes human relationships.  That reshaping not only equips us for our work of ministry and mission in the world; but is also prophetic – it foreshadows the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God.  For Paul says, the weak are indispensable.  He writes of how we give honour and respect to different parts of the body.  Treating individuals in this way is for the sake of the whole body.  God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.  

Therein lies both encouragement and challenge. 

There is encouragement in knowing that we are valued and that we have something to contribute to the whole: in prayer, fellowship, wisdom acts of service.  It was not an infrequent conversation in the parish that people who had been active, holding positions of responsibility in the church, found it hard to see themselves as contributing as they grew fragile.  Yet, their gifts of prayer and wisdom were vital.  Likewise, perhaps we think of the care we can extend pastorally to those in need within our fellowship – the single parent, the bereaved spouse, and the chronically ill. We suffer together; we also rejoice together in the gift of new life, in the celebration of commitment and faithfulness, in the flourishing of gifts.

There is also challenge: how do we relate to the weak that we find extremely difficult?  Those who perhaps feel defensive as a minority voice; who are fearful of change; whose grief makes them awkward…

You are the body of Christ – and individually members of it.

How does this relate to our own discipleship, to the mission of our parishes, to life of the Church of England?

This is not the only place where Paul voices concern for the treatment of the weak by the strong. In Romans he challenges the church about the way in which they deal with disagreement.  He is absolutely clear where he stands on the dietary issues at stake. However, he uses the same language to the Romans as to the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper – do not despise or condemn one another.  The way in which we address one another shapes our relationships and determines the outcome.  Paul is always speaking about bonds of love and mutual affection – but he does so in contexts where the life of the church is as fractious as it is today.  How do we continue to relate to and engage with the other with whom we disagree? It demands a patience beyond our human capacity, in order that we receive the other as a gift.

If the strong exercise an illiberal and impatient liberalism, how can trust ever be rebuilt?

If the weak are fearful and defensive, how can we ever move forward together?

It is here that language of abiding and being sent is extremely useful for it reminds us of our common purpose and our common calling.

-            John 15:1-7

When we are thinking about the church, it might be helpful to pause for a moment to think about what Jesus says to the church – reflecting on the farewell discourse in John’s Gospel.

In John, Jesus uses several “I am” sayings – the light of the world, the bread of life, the good shepherd. All of those images enrich our understanding of the relationship between God and the church – enabling us to think about how we are nourished and guided and how we are called to live as those sent into the world.  On the night before he dies, he speak of himself as the vine – and of his followers as the branches.  The language he uses is concerned with fruitfulness.   The vine grower prunes and removes branches to increase the fecundity of the vine. 

Jesus invites his disciples to abide in him – we can’t bear fruit apart from him; we can do nothing without him.  We are branches on a vine bearing fruit.  Let’s first broaden our perspective – by looking at what Jesus says to the church in the farewell discourses. These words might help us think more deeply about the church.  Words of washing feet, untroubled hearts and belief; of abiding and bearing fruit; of being called appointed friends; of being guided into truth and sent out in peace; of testifying and forgiving.

-           If I your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

The master and teacher reverses the order – challenges our systems of management and control; the expectations of service and subverted – attentive dignity to the other. Intimate face to face encounter (Ford) upon which we are called to improvise.  Not just a symbolic action – way of life to be followed.  Needs courage to obey it; courage to follow Christ’s example and seek out the shunned, the abandoned, the rejected.

-           Let not your hearts be troubledBelieve in God, believe also in me.

What do we place at the heart of our lives?  What is centre stage in our church life?  Believe says Jesus. These words are uttered on the night of his betrayal and arrest, knowing the pain that lies ahead and his disciples’ fear and grief and confusion – he invites them to believe. To not let their hearts be troubled.  They are to believe in the one who dwelt with the Father from the beginning.

-           I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son

We are to ask in his name:  it is not a caveat to all our “whatevers” nor is it a magic formula. It is a deep deep attentiveness to the will and purposes of God. 

-           Abide in me as I abide in you… those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

I would commend to you Ben Quash’s Lent book on abiding.  Abiding with God is to be our core purpose.  Apart from that all our business and agendas come to nothing.  Our abiding shapes our relationships and our vision and our priorities.  If we are preoccupied with what might be – creating amazing plans which aren’t fulfilled we turn in on ourselves, our people and God. If we abide in him – we discern order and purpose. We balance prayer and activity.  We will bring forth lasting fruit – it takes time, but it is sustainable.

-           This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Love: at the heart of our Gospel, of our church life, of our hopes for the Kingdom.  Love is cultivated in our worship – attending to the generosity of God’s love for us; becoming conduits of that love in our lives. Patiently staying with the difficult – cultivating virtues; impatiently longing for justice.

-           You are my friends if you do what I command you… I chose you and I appointed you to go and bear fruit.

-            You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning…

We who relate in such an intimate way to God are called to testify to that reality.

-           When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.

We do that by relying on the Spirit.  It is the Spirit who works in us – revealing things yet to be discovered and discerning the activity of God in the church and world. Naming those things which are of God.

-           Peace be with you. As Father sent me, so I send you... receive the Holy Spirit… if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.

We receive this gift and are sent out in it; Send/sent is used more often than abiding in John’s Gospel – the Father sends the Son, believe in the one who is sent, doing the will and teaching and testifying of the one who is sent; speaking and relating in the one who is sends; now we too are sent… as agents of healing, peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.

Peace – send – forgive

Abide – love – fruit.

How do we respond to being called friends – chosen and appointed?

If obedience to the command to love is generative, what kind of lasting fruit do we see or long for?

Balancing trust and justice; equality and diversity; growth/success and fragility (Colin in Rev).

We live as a gathered community – abiding in God in worship – and as a dispersed people – in the world in service.  We are called not to “churchy” vocation but to discipleship – moving from encounter to encounter, situation to situation.  To be the church in the midst of life.

1.4                Nature and purpose of the Church?

Are jumble sales the only reason for the church’s existence?

-      The church is about people not buildings – people called to faith, love and service

-      The church is called to be a movement in the world – making connections, being with and  walking alongside.

-      In the church the contribution of each member is important – there is both diversity and a common purpose

-      The quality of relationships important – between the strong and weak, we are to be generous

-      The church exists in relation to Jesus (head of body, vine)

-      Church doesn’t exist simply for the benefit of its members (Temple: the church exists for the benefit of those who don’t attend)

-      The Body of Christ – is commissioned to share in Jesus ministry on earth.

-      The church is formed by worship and mission. Our common life is rooted in God. Abide/sent