A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
A Funeral for the Church
June 1, 2003
A man was called up to see his boss. He stood in front of his employee's desk for several long minutes before he was asked, "Do you believe in life after death?" "Yes " replied the employee, nervously. "Good," said his boss, "Because after you left early yesterday to attend your grandmother's funeral, she came in for a visit!"
Today I want to talk to you about life after death. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the sad but inevitable loss of the Church. We will hear eulogies presented which will show the wonderful deeds of the Church over many centuries, the good it has done for individuals and for society. You have just heard a bell toll for every century of the Church's existence. We will come again to realise that the Church can take credit for some significant social and moral reforms. Some of you here today will bear testimony to the benefits of the Church. Some of you will have been baptised and married by her, some will have been counselled by her, inspired by her, even nourished by her for daily life. Her worship and fellowship for some of you will still be profoundly important. This is a sad occasion indeed!
However even those of you present who benefit from the Church are here today to mourn its passing. You know that your children and their children simply don't need her any more. They have no need for her worship or her counsel. At the most they find moments of connection, by using her for baptisms and weddings, or attending the occasional Xmas service. But their lives are full without her, they find fellowship in other places now. The public comments of the Church are worlds away from their experience of reality. So you will hear eulogies which explain why the Church has to die for the sake of your children and their children if it is to have lived for a purpose.
With honour we will leave the Church at rest in God's care, certain in the hope of resurrection to eternal life. After we have heard eulogies, we will look forward, as the Church would have wanted us to do. The Church would not want this to be a mournful occasion, rather a celebration of happy memories and a looking forward to the way a resurrected Church will function in the future; so you and your children and your children's children will have something to be proud of and to participate in for many years to come.
There have been so many good times. We honour the contribution of the Church to literacy and to understanding of classical culture and language. We give thanks for the education systems provided by churches, for welfare agencies run by churches. We remember social reform; the Church's role in emancipation, women's liberation, even in some places global conflict.
I look back at the life of the Church, and wonder when it was she became so ill. I wonder if we had seen it, could we have done something for her? I wonder if it was even in the first century, when the disciples closed ranks and waited for the end of the world. I wonder if it was the self righteous piety which even then re wrote the whole Jesus story to fit their insecurities. I wonder if it was the way they domesticated such a radical and earthy story and made it about personal salvation and righteousness. Could that have been the beginning of the end for the Church?
But enough of that, lets reflect on the good times. The first tribute comes from a great friend of the Church. Within three centuries of the common era, the Church was officially recognised by Constantine, who was one of its highest profile converts. Riding on the back of Constantine's reforms, the Church built itself into an organisation which parallelled the Roman state. Yet on reflection was the role of Constantine all beneficial? The Church faced less struggle because of him, so lost some of its fighting character.
In any case the sudden rise of the Church was an impressive achievement. Many cared so much for the cause that they gave their lives to gain the Church this position in society. This was the age of councils and creeds, organised religion. The creeds were reflections of their time, but not of course reflections of our time. Part of the sickness of the Church is the maintenance of creeds which say little or nothing to our age, and fail to recognise the scientific and theological understandings of the past centuries and the present.
However I digress. The Church was on the move at this stage, spreading beyond the cities, and beyond Judaism. This advance spread to the conversion of the Barbarian peoples from the 5th century. The Church was so successful, against the odds, in the face of all manner of persecution. The Church brought literature to the Franks and the Vandals (of course, it was Christian literature.) The Church became bigger than any one nation, a strength which carried it through the Middle Ages. Of course, through this time the Church also developed a tendency to convert people out of their culture as a form of imperialism, and tended to indoctrinate through education. I wonder if this was when the rot set in. Was this the precursor to the Church's role in genocide and stolen indigenous cultures in later centuries? Was it the wealth which they attained out of the conquests which set the Church on the wrong path? After all this was the Church which called for lives of poverty while it amassed enormous wealth for itself. Or was it the dogmatism they established in the face of many new and different ideas which set up its narrowness? Was it the hostile resistance to paganism which locked the Church into a tragic dualism between sacred and secular, sinner and righteous? Was it the mediaevel world and the missions which confirmed that the Church had a terminal illness?
But not to get negative. By the 11th Century Europe had become almost completely Christian. The Church now enjoyed great wealth, a hierarchy and good numbers of educated men as clergy. It had a liturgical structure and canons to keep people accountable. The impact of the Church in the Middle Ages was tremendous; the spectacular architecture and amazing Cathedrals, the pilgrimages to holy places, the relics, icons and popular movements. It was also a time when the Church became entrenched in a clerical system, a subjugation of the masses, controlling language, literature, salvation and morality. There were large numbers of heresy trials. I wonder if this was where things became terminal. What was intended to be an open and socially radical system was becoming a centralised and controlled system. The edges were being pushed out of bounds altogether. In effect the Church was losing its origins. Its pioneer, Jesus, who never came any closer to the institution than its edges was now being hidden from view.
Let me break now and have a funeral reading.
How To Hide Jesus
by Steve Turner
There are people after Jesus.
They have seen the signs.
Quick, let's hide him.
Let's think; carpenter,
disturber of religious comfort.
Let's award him a degree in theology,
a purple cassock and a position of respect.
They'll never think of looking here.
His dialect may betray him,
His tongue is of the masses.
Let's teach him Latin
and seventeenth century English,
they'll never think of listening in.
Man of Sorrows,
nowhere to lay his head.
We'll build a house for him,
somewhere away from the poor.
We'll fill it with brass and silence.
It's sure to throw them off.
There are people after Jesus
Quick, let's hide him.
The Renaissance offered the Church some hope, with its optimistic intellectual, scientific and artistic revivals. Yet the Church resisted this rebirth and freedom and squashed some of its great hopes, including Copernicus and Galileo. These scientists niggled away from the edge of the Church, their theories never allowed into the centre of the life and thinking of the Church. The Church appeared particularly frightened of the Copernican revolution that suggested that the sun was the centre of the universe, and not the earth. After all if the earth was not the centre of the universe then it threatened the order of Church doctrine, with God intimately involved in the daily events of earthly life. Exonerating Galileo in 1992 was just a little late for the Church. A Jesuit Priest Bernard Lonergan once said, "The Church always arrives on the scene a little breathless and a little late." Maybe it was the fear that humanity was not just part of creation, able to be controlled by a supernatural and controlling divine force, but now able to intervene in nature and create its own future which was most challenging to the Church.
Newton offered the Church another opportunity to understand that there were natural explanations for what had to that point been declared by the Church to be God's mysterious providence. The Church rejected the opportunity out of fear.I recall here the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God and commits suicide."
Was it when the Church resisted humanism and Greek Philosophy and artistic pleasure for fear of having its systems of control unravelled that it committed suicide? I wonder if it was this other worldliness which killed the Church. I recall the comment of Dante "My home is the world" and only wish the Church had taken this on board.
The creeds recited in churches today still seem to ignore the Copernican Revolution, let alone outer space travel. Issues such as evolution and euthanasia still are kept at the edge, as if they still might threaten a controlling all powerful God. The question in my mind; how big is this God if science and progress can be a threat? The Church's limited response leaves me with a heavy heart.
Of course the Church wouldn't want us to be too heavy today. She would want us to celebrate life with a bit of a laugh as well. Listen to these actual high school student essay quotes, written about some of the historical periods I have mentioned.
"In medieval times most of the people were alliterate. The greatest writer of the times was Chaucer, who wrote many poems and verses and also wrote literature. Another tale tells of William Tell, who shot an arrow through an apple while standing on his son's head."
"In the Middle Ages the Magna Carta provided that no free man should be hanged twice for the same offense."
"The Renaissance was an age in which more individuals felt the value of their human being. Martin Luther was nailed to the church door at Wittenberg for selling papal indulgences. He died a horrible death, being excommunicated by a bull. It was the painter, Donatello's interest in the female nude that made him the father of the Renaissance. It was an age of great inventions and discoveries. Guttenberg invented the Bible. Sir Walter Raleigh is a historical figure because he invented cigarettes. Another important invention was the circulation of blood. Sir Francis Drake circumsised the world with a 100-foot clipper."
Coming back though to my reflection on the life of the Church, I pondered the Reformation. Was it here that the illness took a turn for the worse? Was it the ultra-conservatism of the Reformation which stated that God rather than the Church would control events, which marked the end? Its just so sad. The Church moved from clericalism to a superstitious God, and neither way offered a path to health. The Church became locked now into a literalistic reading of the Bible which became the precursor to so much hatred and violence, with wars fought over different interpretations.
The Baroque intellectual revolution offered such hope. The Church would have found such freedom in exploring the questions of the day. I look back and see that the instilling of emotion in religion, the rise of mysticism gave the Church some life. However the overall trend was a further separation of Church and scientific progress. The rise of the Jesuit order with their radical social justice programs was a sign of life, but even they were side lined. It seems that whenever the Church has been given a life giving transfusion of energy it has just isolated the threat, beginning with the story of Jesus life. Maybe that's the cause of the illness.
Industrialisation and social movements were another opportunity in the 19th century. Again the Church preferred safety and established itself as a safe middle-class haven, refusing to take up the causes of the working class other than to offer charity to poor people. Of course there were exceptions to this trend, throughout history. The Church did a great deal to further music and art, as well as providing many scientists and missionary aid. Churches were heavily involved in the civil rights movement of the 20th Century. The Liberation movements in Central and Southern America offered a lasting legacy in their challenge of unjust structures. The death knell for the Church seems to have been the inability to affirm the work of these activists, and instead sideline them. Controversy has always been a problem for the Church.
So there is a very sketchy and brief history of the illness to which the Church has now succumbed. The time of death I place somewhere between the ascension of Jesus and the current day. It has been a long and painful death with some moments of relief along the way. The cause of death I suggest is fear and boredom; fear of the unknown, fear of progress, fear of controversy. The tragic irony I suggest is that the death has come about not through the unknown or the controversial but through the lack of embracing the various enlightenments which history has offered as an opportunity. The cause of death is boredom, as modern people no longer have interest in an anti-science, anti-progress structure. The Church's God in the sky, the Church's centralised and dogmatic control is too narrow for globalised citizens. The Church's literalism is too stifling for enquiring post modern minds.
And there we have it. Christian Church you have had your moments. For those we honour you today. You've also missed your opportunities. Today we grieve this death.
However there is something about the teaching of Jesus which comes to mind here; resurrection. One of the features of the Church which I haven't mentioned is its ability to survive. It survives struggles, even death and recreates itself. So there are no need for tears today. For today we usher in a new possibility; the resurrection of the church …again. There is light at the end of the tunnel, although in Auckland that light is about to be switched off. Woody Allen said, "I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens." It's a little like that for those of us left behind. Those of us who care about the future of the Church will at times fearfully help to usher in a new way of being Church.
I now want to tell you the stories of some inspirational people, some of them unlikely people. They are stories of real people who have resided only ever at the edge of the institution, and may offer signposts for the rebirth of the Church. The first two are both now dead. Socially insignificant, they both received paupers' funerals. Yet these men showed me more than any others what the Church can be. They might be part of our model for future Church.
The first was Brad. Brad was a homeless man in inner Sydney who 'doshed down' on the doorsteps of the church I was running. He was known as the 'Bear' for his big cuddles and gentleness towards local street people. Brad was clearly running, from family, from his bikie past, from debt and just plain running scared. He lay at night alongside some of the most desperate men and women I have encountered; people who would do anything to survive. Yet Brad was different. He had a gentleness which belied his appearance and his past. He befriended me and opened doors into the street world of that place so that I became accepted as friend of Bear. I learnt more from Brad about faith than I have from any church going person I have encountered. Finding Brad dead in the church one day with a stick of heroine in one hand and another syringe empty beside him was for me a profound moment of grief and for the street community a day of despair. I wouldn't wish Brad's life on anyone. Brad was no saint. If the Church would just discover some of his acceptance of all sorts of people it would be a new start for the Church.
Then there was Dennis. Dennis was one of the last products of the lobotomy procedure because of his mental illness. Dennis lived in a small boarding house and spent his days tending the 'little English flowers' as he called them in the church grounds. The day my family moved into the vicarage in inner Sydney suburb of King's Cross, Dennis was our first visitor. He walked, or more accurately he goose stepped, straight through our front door, brushing past us as we carried belongings in. Without saying a word he disappeared into a back room, and then reappeared with his pants off, and tucked under his arm. He walked straight to my mother and presented her with the pants. The zip was broken. We wondered what we had arrived into. From that day forward Dennis and my mum were great mates.
Dennis loved church. He came every week and sang, off-key at the top of his voice. He had a habit at the end of services of walking up to random people and reaching his hand across conversations to greet people. One Sunday night volunteers were called for to help with the communion. Dennis put his hand up, and we held our breath wondering what would happen. In a profound moment I remember receiving the bread from Dennis, with his fragile voice and callused hands. He mumbled the words 'The bread of Christ'. I wouldn't wish Dennis' life on anyone. Yet if the Church could learn something from his humility and openness we would be making a new start.
Then there was the woman who rang me this week. An elderly woman from the North Shore, a churchgoer. She rang to ask me why clergy these days are so closed to new ideas, especially the young clergy. We bonded and I felt here a soul mate at the edge of the Church, someone with whom I could see hope for resurrection, an enquiring mind, a restless spirit, a woman dwelling in endless possibility. So we look forward today with great anticipation.
The hallmarks of this new Church will include a move away from an unchanging object; an all powerful, all knowing God in Heaven, to a subject God. This God will move with the times, and be manifest in various culturally relevant ways. This God will be the 'Ground of our Being' and the source of our living and loving. This God will be the connections between people and between people and nature. This God will be the meaning we place on life's events, the purpose we discover in struggles, the hope we feel in dark times.
The new Church will still find its inspiration in the life of Jesus, but not in a literalistic or moralistic way. There will still be place for worship, but without dogma and always reflecting the times and changes of the world. Within this worship, ancient creeds will increasingly be problematic, words of prayers and hymns will have to change and sacraments will have to be relativised and revitalised.
This new church will find with its freedom from absolutes an ability to engage with global and local issues making use of the latest research and theory. This will give its ethical response new life within the marketplace of ideas. Free from absolute dogma, the Church will find new energy in its inter faith dialogue and in new community partnerships. This is all very exciting, and new energy is what is needed at a time of death. Even the Bible says that all new growth occurs only as a result of death. It has to happen, so that we can move forward.
God will be experienced differently. The Church will be structured differently. It will lose its hierarchy. It will become more accountable, more open to state responsibilities and protections, more aware of basic human rights and employment duties.
There will be less of a focus on joining a club; ancient and separatist practices will be reformed. Baptism of babies will be widespread but only as an affirmation of young life and potential, and as a reminder to the Church and family to dwell in possibility. Confirmation as a membership rite will be done away with, unless we can work out a way to affirm teenagers in their own experience of life. The Church will offer marriage to all comers, and not only those who are baptised or claim denominational allegiance. The Church will offer other ceremonies, such as blessings of same-sex couples or, as I was asked to perform last week, a blessing for a man and a transgendered woman. These blessings will be written up in our registers as equal rites of passage. The Church will offer support for divorcees, even ceremonies marking these changes in life.
The Church will get with the IT program. It will be willing to compromise the need for gathering in order to connect with people who don't want to or don't have time to gather. It will be involved in things like texting and emailing messages and blessings, as St Matthew's has become involved in recently.
Church buildings will be used widely; for concerts, parties, and functions. The whole distinction between sacred and secular will be broken down. We will become community partners with social welfare agencies and clubs and activist groups. Above all else, the feeling that some people belong and others don't will vanish. The Church will be a community of equals, open to all comers. It will be a 'come as you are' party. You will take from it like you take from a well; as the need is there. You will give to it as there is opportunity.
So we come now to the end. A little breathless, but hopefully not too late. We leave the Church at rest and seek a new incarnation which will survive the next historical epoch. For we know that the Church always survives; it has survived before and will survive again. The challenge now will be, can it survive without an authoritarian God and a Church which sets the rules of life? Can it survive post modernism? Can it survive the fundamentalism which since September 11 has marked many of the world's religions, including Christianity?
"The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do." - Jozef Imrich
I'm 35 with a young family a long way from home. I love this Church, and yet hate so much of what it has stood for in the past. I believe it can and will change, and I want to be there to see it happen. I'm crazy enough to believe in resurrection, and for that reason have no regrets about saying to the church of my youth 'Rest in Peace'. I will remain at the edge, as only at the edge can I be faithful to the inspiration of my faith, Jesus who took risks, was always open to change and valued people over institutions.
Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And then out of the ashes something new and exciting will emerge. That I hope has given you some insight into why I journey the margins of the church.