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.