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
Crossing the Theological Threshold: The Journey from House to Ship
September 24, 2006
St Matthew's Day
Matthew. Sitting at his tax booth, doing his extorting best, like the good little Roman lackey he was. Along breezes Jesus. “Hey, you, follow me!” The breeze lifts him up, picks him up, snaps the mooring ropes, and he's away.
Away to where? Well Matthew didn't have a clue. All he knew was that transformative power in Jesus had filled his sails and his heart. But he didn't know where he was bound. Neither did Jesus.
The Christian Church, like other world religions, attracts adherents by its perceived stability. In a world that seems to be constantly in flux it is a religion that has endured 2,000 years. Each week in the marketplace ideas, structures, products, and processes are hailed as 'new' and 'better', as if those two adjectives are synonymous. And each week, contra the marketplace, a number find comfort in grounding their spirituality in traditions and rites dating back centuries. With magnificent buildings made to endure, Christianity declares to the world that at least here permanence is presumed. No fickle wind, whim, or scandal is going to change the Church.
The common model for this understanding of Christianity is that of a house. Built on the 'sure foundation' of Jesus Christ, as one popular hymn attests, this house will supposedly endure forever. Grounded in the Bible and tradition this rock-solid structure will be able to withstand the storms of change and doubt.
Much of the debate within Christianity is between those who want to reinforce the foundations, strengthen the walls, and keep foreign winds and doctrines out, and those who want to open the windows and doors to the world and be prepared to change time-honoured methods and doctrines in order to do so.
Both sides are using the model of house. The critical issue is the limits of hospitality, how accommodating the Church should be. The debate about homosexual clergy and blessings, for example, is in part a debate about how open the doors of the house can be without compromising the foundations of the whole building.
God, in the house model, is at best a benevolent tolerant host who opens the gates to strangers, welcomes them and dines with them. God may take on board the strangers' suggestions about rearranging the furniture, even knocking a hole in a wall, but the basic foundations and structure will remain unchanged. For God in this model is not only the host but also in charge of the property. Order and structure, the look of permanence, remains immutable.
This is the model of Church and God that most often passes for Christianity. There are though Christians who are not comfortable with this model. They tire of the in-house debates, like the one over homosexual clergy and blessings, not because the issues are unimportant, but because the model is not true to their experience of God, faith, and community.
A building doesn't move. It isn't meant to. The model assumes that the land won't move either. It is essentially a static model, supportive of the illusion of an unchanging past and a predictable future. It assumes that any change is peripheral to community, faith, and, of course, God.
Some of these discontented Christians articulate their faith and understanding of the Church by using the model of a ship. The late Brazilian archbishop Helder Camara, for example, once wrote:
Pilgrim: when your ship, long moored in harbour, gives you the illusion of being a house; when your ship begins to put down roots in the stagnant water by the quay: put out to sea! Save your boat's journeying soul, and your own pilgrim soul, cost what it may. [i]
If one considers the Church to be more like a ship than a house then nearly everything changes. The Bible ceases to be a brick to fortify your structure or throw at your enemy, but is spiritual food for the journey. It gives energy for the challenges ahead. So does other 'food' – like the collective wisdom of world religions. The traditions of the Church are not a legal system but a guide, helping with the little tasks, teaching for example the theory of the helm but not doing the steering.
God too changes. Instead of being the gracious host and property overseer, God is the wind in one's sails and the beat in one's heart. God is a power within more than a power without, but not limited by either boundary. God is the energy of transformative love.
This wind God is more a breaker of rules than a maker of rules. It is less interested in order and structure, than in those excluded from order and structure. Change is not a threat, inconvenience, or prescription, but part of its nature. It is a God that refuses to be tamed.
The house Church and the ship Church have very different attitudes to leaks. Leaks in the Church can be thought of as the things that go wrong, the plans that don't quite work out, and the hurt people who distribute their hurt around. In a house a leak needs urgent attention. It drips on your head and can rot your walls. It needs to be repaired before your dinner guests arrive, or are even invited. In a ship, however, a leak is expected. Bilge pumps are normative. You don't stop the ship to attend to them, unless they are very serious. Leaks are part of sailing.
Yet the biggest difference between the two models of Church and God is risk. The house, even an open house, speaks of security, stability, and safety. The inhabitants know where they are, what to expect, and even whom they might meet at the door. The ship, on the other hand, is heading out into unknown waters. The familiar towns and headlands are no longer there. The good old ways become more irrelevant day by day. God, faith, and community have or will change. They will also become more essential; more connected with the essence of each person aboard.
St Matthew, long ago, boarded a ship and left the surety of his vocation, the known markers of his business, culture, religion, and God in the house of Judaism; and headed out to sea.
We bear Matthew's name. On some days we are house-focused: rightly concerned about the institution of Christianity – its squabbles, the debates over the nature of its foundations, and how open are its doors – and it consumes our thoughts and prayers. However on most days, with no disrespect to the house that nurtured us, we are out sailing.
We are looking to the horizon and the horizon is looking at us. Our website statistics tell us that nearly 4,000 new and unique visitors come to us each month. Some are looking for a house and its God; but not many. Most are looking for a different hope, a different way of Church that includes their difference, and a different way of envisioning and experiencing God. And that's what we offer. Welcome aboard.
[i] Camara, D.H. A Thousand Reasons For Living, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1981, p.40