Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The anarchist church

In my politics, I come closest to the kind of anarchy Gandhi advocated — peaceful self-organisation. It is idealistic, and I feel it is probably biologically impossible to achieve; our animal nature seems to involve territorialism, acquisition and domination to an extent stronger than we can overcome on a broad scale, even when we're trying.

So I don't hold out hope that the human race will be unrecognisably transforming any time soon into one big kindly and generous family committed to sharing and lifting up the vulnerable. But hey, you never know, and when election time comes round I cast my vote towards the best fit; whatever I perceive at that juncture gives the most people the best chance most of the time.

But then today I was thinking about church, and how we organise it, and how well that serves us as a community. I've met some fine and loveable people in the church over the years, people I'm grateful to know and glad to walk alongside. Gentle, humble, forgiving, discreet, forbearing — wonderful, really. 

These qualities are lovely to encounter and experience, but they can also tend to create a certain vulnerability to unscrupulousness. Over several decades I've had a number of opportunities to watch narcissists use confidentiality and discretion as a weapon to isolate and take down individuals who are in the way. I've watched people in power who are plainly out of their depth do a bad job at the expense of those delivered into their care. I've walked into a number of scenarios that made me think "Hmm . . .", a few where I had to stand my ground battered with insults and aggression, and one or two I simply had to leave.

And I now believe we have a small number of large things that make the church intrinsically different from my personal vision. These would be: paid clergy living in occupational housing; charitable status; hierarchical organisation; buildings; and the great big unwieldy clumsy thing our Safeguarding has become.

My vision of the church is not one of the punters in the pews who do as they're told, hand over their money and listen. Just the simple organisation of our buildings runs counter to what I am imagining. At the moment, most churches are organised into lines of seats facing a central podium where the speaker stands and the electronic screens are situated. The congregation can either look at the speaker or the back of someone's neck.

I'd like to toss out the podium and serried ranks, and rearrange the seats into a circle, so that what the people see as they gather for worship is each other's faces. Instead of an organ with its inherent fixity and dominance, I'd like the people who play instruments to bring them along and play from their places in the circle, keyboard included. I'd like all the worship to be all-age, and the children to be alongside their family members, so that all these police checks would become unnecessary. I'd like the ministry of the word to be participatory and responsive, working together to reach an understanding of how to keep faith with the scriptural truths of our salvation. I'd like space to allow expression for the now word of the Holy Spirit in the lives and hearts of the people. I'd like leadership to be locally formed and expressed. At present, our church is weakened by having leadership centralised, so that the church congregation is always pastored by strangers and the most visionary of its members are removed and sent away to work as strangers among strangers. I'd like our meetings to be housed in either public spaces such as village halls, or in our own homes. I'd like the way we organise ourselves to be so simple that it requires hardly any money at all.

In short, my vision is of an anarchist church.

I believe in peace, in respect, in listening deeply. I believe in the power for good of really knowing one another. Like George Fox, I believe that Christ has come to teach his people himself, and does not require an intermediary. I believe in openness, and in the power of the circle.

And I think, though the realisation of this is deeply unlikely, it could happen.


Tony Collins said...

I love this idea. It's filled with possibilities. One implication is that it does away with the concept of ordination and returns both power and responsibility to the individual Christian. Most churches in the UK are struggling to maintain a historical superstructure, of which our ecclesiastical property is only the most visible part. This superstructure absorbs an enormous amount of energy and money, and can only be justified if it delivers more than it takes. This is true of both buildings and authority patterns.

Pen Wilcock said...

I agree. Plus the charitable status may require a focus not of either our choosing or our calling.

Fiona said...

Thank you for this very timely post, Pen. This topic is much on my mind at the moment, and I share your desire for change in the church and your vision of what it could become. Please keep writing on this subject! xxx

greta said...

house church. that's what i would love. simple and peaceful. a bit of singing, some scripture to ponder, thoughts to share and prayer - both spoken and silent. that would do for me. where, oh, where can we find that? guess that means we have to do it ourselves, huh? drat. and here i was thinking someone else would do it for me . . . .

Pen Wilcock said...

Fiona — yes, I too have been turning this over in my ind for some time.

Greta — yes, that's the thing — the courage and determination and perseverance . . .

Rapunzel said...

When I was a teenager our small LDS congregation could not afford to build a church, so while we scrimped and saved we had our meetings in our homes. It was a bit crowded cramming eight or nine families into any of our houses, but it was a wonderful experience!

Your anarchist church vision sounds like my home church of yore, and also like Quaker Meeting for Worship and Baha'i Devotional Meetings.
All are a lovely way to learn and to serve each other.

Pen Wilcock said...

I went to Quaker Meeting for a couple of years, and loved it — but I missed singing, and teaching and the scriptures. It also is important to me to participate in Christian worship — open and inclusive, but Christian; which I have found Quaker Meeting may not necessarily be.
Many households now would not find it practical to host worship — renting a room in a public building feels like the right way to go, to me.
I have read about the Baha'i faith, and met one Baha'i friend, but am not sure how it works.


Nearly Martha said...

A couple of observations. When the Rev Richard Coles first became a Christian, he struggled with chuch - after coming out of a hedonistic lifestyle. Turning to a bishop for help - he was suprised to be told "Of course you must start with the truth that the church set up is demonic" which he found very helpful
On safeguarding - when I worked as a church administrator in a large church we were visited by a police officer. He told us that there would almost certainly be predatory paedophiles in our congregation and no safeguarding in the world would help.Helping children and those who cared for them to develop an instinct about when they felt uncomfortable had been much more effective apparently.
My fantasy church involves small, open friendship groups with things in common - fishing, book clubs, dog walking who do community service as friends and worship as friends on Sundays.

Pen Wilcock said...

I love your fantasy church!!