Wednesday, August 13, 2008

When Church Inhibits Community

As the Lambeth Conference fades into history and as clergy and laity enjoy the waining weeks of summer and gear up for the beginning of the program year, I am thinking of how often the institutional policies and processes that are designed to define and defend the Christian community from outside threats sometimes end up choking the life out of precisely what they are designed to protect. I've often likened the church to an aircraft carrier--incredibly tough, durable, and very difficult to sink but has a very difficult time turning and has an incredible amount of momentum. Like the United States during the Cold War, the church has built up defenses over the centuries to large scale threats to its institutional life. However, in this post-Cold War (and post-Christian) world, there is more call for speedboats than for aircraft carriers. In other words, things like the emergent church movement and other ways of deconstructing the institutional church and replacing it with a more agile form of Christian community seem to be more effective in the 21st century ministry context.

I say that because I was very interested to read Andrew Gerns's reflections on Lambeth in 'The Lead' section of the Episcopal Cafe, where he begins by writing:
In many ways the Lambeth Conference had dual personalities. There was the listening, engaging personality of the Indaba groups, along with the Bible Studies, the worship. Then there was the organizational side where the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Communion Office and the Bishops attempted to find a structure by which the Communion could hold together.
I would assert that what emerged from the Lambeth Conference was a highly relational understanding of church, with bishops engaging one another face-to-face and, in many cases, finding that while their official institutional churches were on opposite sides of the sexuality debate and other issues, they personally got on well together. It was when they attempted to find a structure to reflect and protect those relationships that they seem to have reverted to previous win/lose and us/them institutional polarizations.

As I see this on the international scene, I'm also preparing for a church board program planning retreat this coming Saturday and reflecting on the interrelationship between people and programs. My hope and prayer is that, partially as a result of this retreat, we come to a fresh appreciation of our identity as brothers and sisters in Christ and members of Christ's body, the church. There is a great temptation to resist taking risks, leaps of faith, in order to protect the institution from failure. Yet if the church (locally, nationally, or internationally) simply sees itself in a defensive way--as an defense against "the world, the flesh, and the devil" and not as a network of care for those both within and outside its walls then we will simply rot from the inside and all that will be left will be the walls and stained glass windows protecting a "faithful remnant" inside.

I hope that as the Anglican Covenant process unfolds in the next year that it will find a way to support and uphold the face-to-face relationships that are, after all, the true foundation of the Anglican Communion.

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