Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Spirituality for our times: Church in a Pub?

In truth, I always thought that Jesus believed storytelling was nebulous enough. What I mean by that is that He spoke in parables, which by nature are hazy and call upon us to peel off their layers - the consequence of which is that they tend to stick around our souls for a long time - they journey with us, sustain us and nourish our hungry hearts. All the songs and stories I loved as a boy I still love, those my grandparents told about anonymous people; miners, steel workers, farmers and builders really interested me. I loved hearing tales about the struggles and hardships of the labourers, the pioneers, and I loved the old gospel spirituals that my grandfather adored so much – songs with tragedy born out of hardship but that looked forward to a better day and a more redemptive time – they echoed his own struggle, a struggle I am proud to be connected to in some way to this day.

I was remembering today a conversation I had with His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. Over a drink he said that he saw ‘the failings of the Church in very stark terms’, and that, ‘the Church must always be reformed.’ Moreover, he stated that ‘the Church has nothing to lose by admitting its faults.’ Cormac is a remarkable man, and I find his humility intoxicating.

What impressed me most about him when he stayed in Guernsey was that even in his position he had lost none of his compassion for ordinary people. I found him to be at his most influential when he was out of the limelight - perhaps sharing a beer at the bar with those everyday folk he seems to have a real pastoral heart for. I say this with good reason.

The passive majority expect the church to be guardians of the Christian tradition. Most do not attend church themselves, primarily because they wish it would change. Few sit back and expect the church to perform various tasks on their behalf. Most post-Christian people no longer describe themselves as religious, but they do feel the need for a place of community that allows an articulation of their spiritual impulses. The wave of interest in spirituality from our post-modern culture has caught secularists by surprise. It’s as if (using evangelical language) we are in the midst of a revival.

As John Drane notes, ‘it is fashionable to be green and spiritual.’ We must stop castrating the emerging culture and become the incarnate community we are called to be, and so live among it. Too much Christian spirituality contains Hellenistic dualism of body/spirit. Mike Riddell suggests that the result of this is, ‘a spirituality which is disembodied, disengaged and ill at ease with normal human existence.’ If, as His Eminence suggests, the church should be willing to reform, it will need to find both the spirituality of physical life, and the physicality of spiritual expression.

I have friends who pioneer a remarkable church in Belfast. What is so extraordinary about it is this - it is a pub. I would describe it as a place specifically for those on the fringes of, or dropped out of, church for whatever reason. ‘Ikon’ aims to provide opportunity for expression of and enquiry into the Christian faith in a relaxed pub environment. It opens its doors to all comers. It is for those on the edge. It has attracted those who are hurting, those who have lost their way, and those who are unsure where they fit.

It has aimed to provide a forum that fosters friendship, listens to questions and strengthens frail faith. If anyone is now feeling a little uneasy it might be helpful to return to the life of a God-man who roamed this planet a couple of thousand years ago. Whilst Jesus was certainly someone who learned to let go of everything (including life itself) he also gained a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard. Now, ask yourselves how one earns that sort of reputation.

The truth is public houses have always been a focal point of community – a place of conversation, of feasting; in short, a place of celebration and belonging. Sure they’ve had their problems and dark days, but what hasn’t? To celebrate is to transform, to make the ordinary special – or maybe to recognise the extraordinariness of the everyday. Maybe, even today, as people sit around a bar, suddenly there is another punter, another voice, another presence…just maybe.

For those who are looking for a rhythm of spirituality that has roots but is not too ‘churchy’ Ikon seems to be a helpful signpost pointing on beyond itself. I would describe it as an excellent idea for connecting and relating to those who feel threatened by traditional church, and for those who have a had bad experiences and been let down. It also brings credibility to those who think that churches today have lost touch with modern times, and are stuck in the past. Ikon is an encouraging example of reformation, and those precious humans who nurture it are to be commended in encapsulating dynamic vision whilst holding a fresh vitality lacking in many churches today.

Quite naturally we judge the authenticity of the church by experiencing the community and mystery within it. What is it that people experience within church, and does that differ with what people share in the public house? Do both provide a sense of security and inclusiveness? Is one characterized by a concern for boundaries and controls, where most of the people are very much the same? And is the other characterized by its embracing of diverse types of people, who might be at different stages of their journey, but who are bound together by their commitment to one another? I am not suggesting any answers here, but merely provoking questions.

We often describe church as the community of faith, but all too often (because of inherited definitions of institutional membership) it is the one thing that many people fail to find. Douglas Coupland alludes to this in much of his work, but particularly in Shampoo Planet, where he suggests that church community has ‘too many experiences but no relationships.’ Ultimately the search for an authentic spiritual life is to discover and feel part of something greater than ourselves. Whether that is found to a greater or lesser degree in church than public houses I’m not sure. I suspect it may be found in both. Maybe the most important discovery here is that we have much to learn from one another?

Oh, ps, for the record I won a gammon joint at the meat draw last week……I guess there is a God


Society's Elite said...

hey man... great post... my friend marc brown and jay bakker (yes, the son of jim and tammy faye) are here in NYC and they meet in a bar... and it's not like a "hey we're cool, look at us, we meet in a BAR!".. it's just that's a place where people won't feel threatened and can learn about grace without the extra shit....

having said that, i'd like a sam adams please... ;)

Society's Elite said...

i forgot to post their link....

bjk said...

You do provoke, stimulate and agitate......scary as it is for me....I NEED it...THANKS

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

cheers buddy
i like samuel adams - all i drank on my visits to boston

...grace without the extra shit - ah, there's a theologian in you!

thanks for journeying with me....

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

sorry bjk, seems i we were commenting at the same time - 'provoke, stimulate and agitate' hmmm, i do it selfishly - i like my feathers ruffled - safe easy and polite christianity is so far removed from the christ i follow - Rich mullins used to say that if jesus was as civilized as many christians make him he would be useless to christianity.......amen i say

Awareness said...

Do you think Jesus will show up to buy a round? that would be nice, because I have many questions I would like to ask him concerning those parables you refer to. I think I'd also like to ask him if he could tell me what a gammon is. I'm assuming it's some sort of tasty leg? :)

I havent been a regular church goer for years and years....endless reasons why, which I seem to be plugging away understanding through my own writing presently. I shut the door on my faith until just recently, and as much as I am reaching a point (I think) where I want to start attending again, I'm not seeing where I fit.

Your points hit a home run with me, as does the church you describe in Belfast.

There is an obvious upsurge in interest.....a sign of the times, perhaps, or a sign of an aging population looking for Guidance and reassurance.......who knows..... the Christian community (leaders, interested folk, people who care about this) need to take stock and take a new route.

Community works best in informal settings....whether it's in a pub, or in someone's living room. If we are striving for deeper conversations, deeper interactions and more meaningful worship, let's pour ourselves a round and invite all others, including Jesus to join us.

thank you for this, Paul. your thoughts have helped put my own writing back on track......i was stalled.

bjk said...

Well......good for you.....I'm just now entertaining the thought of who Jesus really is and how He may LIKE me disturbed and agitated...but that doesn't mean I'm liking it....but...I WANT to...

Anna said...

Wow, this is wonderful. I am reading your comments thinking....didnt God make me this way? He wants me to live within His laws but be uniquely me....His child.

Do you know that I have had people comment about my recent post about worship (with picture of worship) on my blog and then the next post was a pint? They were questioning my faith...interesting I think. I would think there are bigger fish to fry.

And didnt Christ meet people where they were?

Anyway, great post Paul.

Carmi said...

"Ultimately the search for an authentic spiritual life is to discover and feel part of something greater than ourselves. Whether that is found to a greater or lesser degree in church than public houses I’m not sure. I suspect it may be found in both. Maybe the most important discovery here is that we have much to learn from one another?"

Wonderfully put. If only more people followed your excellent example.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

not sure he'd buy a round as he had to make money appear from fishes mouths - he'd probably do that water thing again!
I think he would love to sit and have a few jars and listen to all our questions - to which he would probably answer them with questions of his own or little stories with big meanings....

ps, we all get stalled - look at how few posts i have had of late

it's a double edged sword, liking it on the one side of the coin and loathing it on the other - i just don't think following the carpenter was ever meant to be easy and far too often all i hear is come to jesus and all will be well - i think that's rubbish - it complicates life further and makes it harder - but i guess that's what makes it great!
let's keep talkig...

I did notice that and was going to comment, perhaps I should have. I sometimes think people don't really read their gospels, because the jesus i find there is dangerous not meek and mild - if you haven't already read Philip Yancey's 'The Jesus I Never Knew' will turn everything upside down and reveal a remarkable saviour.

ps, i agree about the bigger fish - like a child dying of extreme stupid poverty every 3 seconds - somehow i think that might be higher on his list!

thank you my friend - your words are kind and encourage me - thoughi am not example just someone who thinks too much and stumbles after a carpenter who roamed this world 2000 years ago