John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme. In this sermon he considers the need for the church to both change in response to the world but also maintain what is important in the tradition.
‘Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you.’
In an organisation which values the way things have always been, words such as these come as a Godsend. For tradition – the things that have always been – has always had an important part to play in the life of the Church. And I believe it is important that we affirm tradition when is it helpful to our understanding of God and of his world, to our living the Christian life, to our participation in the mission of God’s church in God’s world, to our worship, to our lives of prayer.
But we need to distinguish between things that are of the very essence of the church’ tradition and faith and things that belong to its cultural expression. For instance, worship is clearly at the core of church life. But the styles, the forms, the language of worship are equally clearly cultural. You don’t need telling that what is culturally acceptable in one country is not acceptable in another.
We also need to remind ourselves that the generational differences are often much greater than we allow for, as the recent survey of the attitudes of what is called the iGeneration (the current 18 to 30 year olds) demonstrates. It’s something that I have to watch – I may be uncomfortable with some of the ways of an older generation, but I must not impose my ways as the only ways on succeeding generations.
But what is tradition? Often tradition is something that helps us be at ease with God, with one another, with our ways of worship. But the trouble with this is that tradition then very often become all-important. Yet tradition is always developing. For instance, the Queen has allowed Buckingham Palace to be opened to the public, demonstrating that the traditional interaction of monarch and people is changing, developing. The treasure is shared, valued in a new way.
150 years ago, no woman could be a nurse in such hospitals as existed. By the time I was growing up the tradition had reversed, and men had to fight hard to be accepted as nurses. What pronoun comes most naturally to you in connection with a nurse? I’m sure you can call to mind instances from the life of a church you know when things that once had seemed immutable have altered, been replaced by new expressions of how you are and what you do together.
Of course, something that is different, something that is not quite as received tradition has always had it (however long that may be), can been seen either as a negative or a positive, either as a breach of custom and tradition or as a development. I tend to be an optimistic, open-minded sort of person, so I see change, even to cherished traditions, not as disaster but as development and opportunity.
But for some people, tradition’s other name is security, and the need for security, even more than tradition itself, is antipathetic to change. It’s often easier to feed the need for security that to face the need for change. But the need for change faces each Christian and every church, not just now and then, but all the time.
When people are asked to cast around in their minds for images of the church, it’s amazing how often images of security come out. For instance, the church is a haven. Now that’s a very useful image of the church in certain circumstances, so long as it doesn’t become the controlling image. For the prime function of the church is not to be a shelter, a rock in a constantly shifting sea of change. The appeal of comfort and security is terrible seductive, and I don’t for one moment want to deny the need, or the importance of meeting the need. All of us at different times in our lives are likely to want the church to be for us a place of comfort and security. It’s not long since I was in exactly that position. And Jesus did indeed say ‘Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ But neither for God nor for the Christian is rest a permanent state. The haven is only of any use if, having sheltered in it, we then set sail again. And remember that the Bible does not apply its images of security to the gathering together of God’s people, or to the way we worship God, but to God himself:
In you, Lord, have I taken refuge,
let me never be put to shame,
in your saving justice deliver me, rescue me,
turn your ear to me, make haste.
Be for me a rock of defence,
a fortified citadel to save me.
You are my rock, my rampart …
So there is tradition, there is the need for security and there is the challenge of change. Actually, of course, the challenge for change comes from the gospel as well as from the environment in which we live. The message with which Jesus began his ministry was ‘The time is at hand. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel.’ Turn round, face a new direction, because God’s rule has at last broken in upon this world.
This is no backwards looking, let’s get back to where we used to be, demand. This is in tune with those words we pray so often that we forget their meaning, their impact: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.’ If ever I heard a call, a prayer, for change, that’s it. It’s not about some much to be desired future point, it’s about now. On earth as in heaven. This can only happen if we are in constant interaction and dialogue with the world. This can only happen if we know the world, if we speak the world’s language so that we can speak the things of God to the world.
Whenever someone is ordained or licensed to ministry in the Church of England, these really important words are said by the Bishop
The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set for in the Catholic creeds; which faith the church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.
This is the task. This is our task, my task, your task. We have to express Christianity in the world today by taking our whole inheritance – scripture, tradition, reason and experience – into the world and bringing it into contact with the world as it is, making Christ known there. This making known, this missionary imperative, is our most important motivation. The fundamental question about anything and everything is ‘Does this serve and promote the purpose of God’s mission in the world?’ To rely only on tradition with which to speak to the world is to have little or no language with which to speak to the world. To offer only something that is comfortable and haven-like – what we have always known and loved – is to miss the real opportunity of being Christ in his world.
There is a simple tool to help in this task of interpreting God to the world, of understanding and working with the different pulls of tradition, security and change. Four little words that will make a difference. Do, look, think, act. I’m a great believer in the transforming power of these four words. A great deal of education and continuing professional development work both in the world and in the church is based on them. It’s called reflective practice by the world; in the church we add a theological dimension and call it theological reflection. I do something; I look at it and wonder what’s going on here and why; I think about it and how it relates to God, the Gospel and the life of the Church, and I do this in order to act, to change, to do it better. It’s something that we can all do both individually and as a community of Christians. In fact, we do it all the time in our everyday lives – it’s the way we ourselves learn and adapt to new circumstances. But we’re bad at doing it when faith or church is at stake. The temptation is to do as we’ve always done, not to have to look and think and act and change.
Of course, the treasures of Christianity are important. Of course to find security in God is important. But ultimately God demands a turning round, facing a new direction. Do not be afraid. In faith reach out to your new situation. But do it in a way that is authentic for the people amongst whom you live and move and have your being.
You know, in my lifetime the design of petrol stations has changed radically. So too the Church must change. We must keep abreast of the world which we both serve and challenge. And we will not do this by being an anachronism, selling National Benzole from hand operated pumps.