“As for the nature of the Church, and the priorities for its recovery, it is simply assumed that the improvement depends on more and better clergy; that only congregations can fund it (with a fillip from the Commissioners); and that being a Christian is a matter of "discipleship".”
I found Linda Woodhead’s reflections in The Church Times on the C of E’s recent reports on reform, mission and discipleship both challenging and impressive. The way they point up the church’s tendency to focus on the clerical and the congregational over the lay and societal are, as some of my rock and roll friends might put it, ‘truth bullets’.
One section was particularly striking for me. Linda says,
How different it would have been if the reports had a more glorious vision of life in the Spirit, in which we are no longer mere disciples, but "partakers in the divine nature", capable of having "the mind of Christ". The gifts that we are given allow us, together, to make up the mystical body of Christ. God present not only in churches; the Spirit is poured out not only on the clergy; and leadership appears in many places.
Cynics will be inclined to say, ‘Ah this is easy, high-flown rhetoric’. And, in some respects it is. Many of us love to take off into the stratosphere and spin a picture in language. It was the kind of stuff I reckon Jesus was quite good at and I wish we, as an institution, were more attentive to and prepared to try. For how something is spoken of and written about shapes our imaginative possibilities. We are, in so many ways, the stories and poems we tell. The ancients knew that better than us I think. And those of us who put a lot of energy into the craft of making stories, songs and poems are (if we’re lucky) called poets and storytellers. If we’re unlucky, we get called less flattering things.
There’s no doubt the church of God needs a wake-up call. Linda Woodhead acknowledges that. But I reckon she’s asking for a little more of that stuff that got me excited about God and the kingdom (and – sometimes, just sometimes – the church) in the first place: imagination, creativity and attentiveness to the terrifyingly bold Divine Nature.
As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t flimsy, dreamy stuff. This isn’t the kind of stuff some of our more macho co-religionists might dismiss as ‘mimsy nonsense’. If God is the creator and is in creation and creativity, it is in a disciplined, sustained and sustaining way. That’s what I see anyway when I reflect on the universe we’re part of. Our participation in God’s calling is, like that of a serious poet or writer, about the disciplined hard work of attention, discernment and craft.
My modest work as a poet and occasional teacher of creative things suggests to me that often the stuff of God – the works of imagination and creativity I reckon most of us are capable of and are certainly capable of being part of – is not the special preserve of anyone. There is nothing as exhilarating as witnessing someone who thinks they're uncreative or untalented beginning to find their voice. The imaginative hope of the church no more lies in a special class of people (clergy) than in a special class of uniquely gifted individuals we might label ‘artists’. Participating in the mind of Christ or the Godhead – the fierce love that sustains creation and unfolds redemption – is something that can happen both inside and outside the church, among both lay and ordained.
However, like all creative work it flourishes under conditions where it is intentional and encouraged. As a writer, I’m not terribly interested in sitting around ‘waiting for inspiration’ or ‘expressing my feelings or thoughts’; I want to keep plugging away, being attentive to the shifts and play of language, participating in a creative and critical community of writers and thinkers. I’m not saying that everyone in the church needs to be writing poetry (well, if you pushed me…I certainly think we should all be reading more poetry…yes, ok, and writing it…) or painting and so on. But I wonder what the church might be like if more of us orientated our realities around stuff that might broadly be called 'creative arts', play and imaginative and creative responses to living. It would certainly make a change from the grind of keeping the church on the road.
If we really started looking beyond the functional and the technological (i.e. that which offers a technique for getting to 'x', e.g. producing disciples) I suspect we might take the world, other people and the unconventional a little more seriously. Hell, we might even start taking the Godhead herself a wee bit more seriously too.