Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Earlier today I came across this i had written...even though it's a year old, i think it's interesting enough to throw into blogland...
I did something the other day that I’m not prone to do very often, and forgive the way this may come across, but I read the Church Times. Quite a confession I know. My reason for this extreme act of indulgence? The Church of England’s latest endeavour to nurture the emerging community of faith: Cyber Church. New conceptions of the church have been a central component of contemporary Protestant mission in the West. This plurality of ideas has led to many different types of church communities. Consequently we now have cell churches, alternative worship services, youth services and seeker services. These changes appear to have arisen from the conviction that some aspects of traditional churches are themselves a problem. Many have come to believe that, if the Christian faith is to become a viable alternative within a post-modern culture, then the form of the community of faith must be re-evaluated and reformed.
One of the wisest voices emanating from Christendom at present, Bishop Graham Cray, prudently observes that, ‘If Christianity cannot be inculturated successfully within the post-modern context, there will be no Western church.’ And so it is that the Church of England, through ‘i-church’, is attempting to provide a Christian community for those who wish to explore Christian discipleship but who are not able, or more to the point do not wish (or struggle to) belong to a local church. This is not a new concept of community, a friend of mine, Rabbi Niles Elliott Goldstein, has pioneered such a spiritual expedition already. He has served as the voice behind “Ask the Rabbi” on the Microsoft Network, discovering a movement which is culturally relevant, creative and community based. He says that, ‘the interweaving of religion and the internet and technology are wonderful tools for outreach, for attracting those on the margins who would never think of stepping foot in a church or synagogue. On the other hand – and paradoxically – it also distances those people from one another. Printed words will never be able to replace the feeling of singing with other human beings, or being embraced by a fellow parishioner when one is in pain or mourning.’
So, can i-church embody mystery and sustain the kind of community that creates the kind of belonging Jesus had in mind? Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in his work ‘Liquid Modernity’ explores the changes in contemporary culture, distinguishing between what he calls solid and liquid modernity. Pete Ward, who teaches theology at King’s College, London, has taken this observation and applied it to the church. Ward urges us to move away from the traditional notion of church (which he defines as solid) and embrace a more liquid form of community. It is a provocative insight which I believe brings more to the table than philosophical hope. Many of the Jewish Christians argued that the new Gentile believers must submit to Jewish law in order to be bona fide Christians. Paul had none of it and the issue had to be cleared up at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15: 1-29). I don’t think I’m pushing the point too much by suggesting the lesson for us to learn here is that the struggle to contextualize and re-contextualize the Christian faith in different cultures is of crucial importance.
There are two points here we need to take seriously when analysing an Internet Parish with a Web Pastor; Incarnation and language. For many people on the ‘fringes’ Christianity is seen as a legitimate religion for those who are in it, but having no bearing on the broad movement of culture or human evolution. Perhaps we have underestimated the discontinuity evidenced by the incarnation. When God decided to dwell within humanity the emphasis moved from separation to involvement. Jesus introduces a radical understanding of community. Whether i-church can nurture and maintain this, as Rabbi Goldstein has alluded to, I’m not sure. Language though, is one of the main reasons those ‘outside’ faith stay outside. Many (and there are many) of those ‘fringe’ people just can’t find a home in our churches because there is no language spoken that enables them to communicate and connect with the mystery called Christianity. I get this with contemporary worship. Some are worried that I am no longer ‘worshipping’ – the truth is, it is a foreign language to me that these days is quite empty and no longer enables me, in a way that the Psalms certainly do, to offer my thankfulness, frustrations and love to the God I pursue. This is surely part of the responsibility of ‘incarnation’ that we speak the language of those we are trying to love.
i-church is a risk, but sometimes to be stuck in our rigid frameworks of certainty is a far greater one. I suppose the problem is one of security. As German ecologist Rudolph Bahro says, ‘When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.’ So I commend the courage of those involved with i-church, though I remain ambivalent about how it will embrace holistically those whom it is trying to reach. My hunch is that it should supplement religious communities, not replace them.