I read two books last week, both of which approached the subject of the nature of the Church, but from completely different viewpoints.

‘The Glory and the Shame’ is an overview of the (mainly) Twentieth Century Pentecostal/Charismatic movements by a Peter Hocken, a Roman Catholic Priest. Well researched and sympathetically written it endeavours to highlight the positive and negative aspects of the Church’s response to the move of the Holy Spirit over the last hundred and twenty years or so. Hocken is perhaps one of the most able commentators on this subject and in other books he has shown a commendable thoroughness and the ability to grasp a very broad subject.

There is an integrity in his writing and he embraces the Spirit’s moving on both a personal and theological level. However, at the end of the day it is clear that he is a card carrying Roman Catholic who considers the papacy, the threefold apostolic ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon, and the historical continuity of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as foundational.

The other book, ‘So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore’ is a novel by Wayne Jacobsen. The book is structured around a series of encounters between a disillusioned church pastor and a mystery stranger who gently asks leading questions that help unravel and tease out what is happening in the pastor’s life. The book continually focuses on the relationship of an individual with their heavenly Father, and minimalises all formal church structures and offices. I am less at home with novels – especially Christian novels – than I am with historical theology, but I did find that this approach enabled me to imagine what a Church without structure or formal leadership might look like.

There appeared to be no conflict between the two books in one respect: they both emphasised the need for a Spirit led life in relationship with the Father and Jesus Christ. However, they stood in stark opposition to one another as to how that might be achieved and what it would look like as Church.

Hocken clearly believes that a hierarchical led Church, based on apostolic succession is essential to the final purposes of God. He hopes and possibly also believes that all believers outside such a Church should be gathered again within its fold. He appears to believe that even when such a Church is partially or even fully corrupt, it is in a New Covenant relationship with God (on a similar basis to Israel in the Old Covenant) and what is therefore needed is renewal and some measure of reformation in order to move it out of corruption into the place that God wants it to be.

Jacobsen on the other hand, whilst never actually mentioning Covenant, appears to believe that an individual relationship with the Father (never fully defined in the book) is central to the purposes of God, and that any Church will only be valid if it arises out of a multiplicity of such relationships.

If I were to put the contrast in my own terms, I would push it to its extremes and ask the following questions:

Does God set up and validate an organisation, and then move people to fit into it, renewing the people from time to time to ensure that the situation does not ossify?

Or, does God draw people as individuals and allow them to form an organisation on the basis of their relationships which he then subsequently validates (more or less whatever shape and form it has taken)?

I have recently become involved in a project to re-start a village church that closed down. One of my daughter-in-laws asked me how I would like it to develop and what sort of shape would I like it to take. As I thought through how to answer her (I have not done it yet) I realised that I did not really know, and had not really addressed the issue as there were too many other things to deal with at present.

Reading these books has helped me to identify what I need to think about, but they have not given me the answer. The problem is that it is not simply a question of either or. I find that setting out the extremes nearly always shows that to be the case, and forces me to try and find another approach.

As mentioned in another blog, I was brought up in a pub, and a friend recently asked me whether it was a positive or a negative experience. It was not like a pub in a modern chain, but an old fashioned village pub that primarily served folk who lived within walking distance of it. It was more like an extended family with everyone knowing everyone else and (at least to some extent) everyone else’s joys and sorrows. I learnt several life skills from it. I knew how to relate to adults from a young age, I learnt the need to accept different people and to put up with their foibles and, perhaps most importantly, I learnt that whilst my dad and mum ran the place, they did so in a way that served the people who came there. As I reflected on these things in replying to my friend, I realised that, on a human level, life in the pub was very much what I wanted to see in the church, but on a spiritual level and centred in Jesus.

The pub did have some structure, it was centred in, though not restricted to, a building, it did have set hours of opening and it did have a recognition of who was in charge. However, without the people, the local community, it would have been nothing.

So, when reflecting on the Church, I guess I am looking for something similar. A group of people regularly relating to each other, putting up with our various oddities and always being ready to welcome strangers. There is a place for having folk in charge, but their main function is to serve people, not to be served. A building and a degree of organisation can be really helpful, but again, both things should serve and be helpful to people. Once they become a burden, something has gone wrong.

I am still wrestling with this one. I cannot accept the position which appears to be held by Roman Catholics such as Hocken, which starts with an organisation and then seeks to breath life into it. That does seem to be more Old Covenant than New. But, though I find it quite attractive, neither can I reduce the Church down to the sum of individuals in relationship with Father as Jacobsen appears to do. Going back to scripture, it seems to me that, whilst we come into the New Covenant as individuals, the focus is on the people of God, which seems to be clearly a corporate entity.

In practice, as I endeavour to work with re-starting a church, I am also conscious of the almost suffocating pressure of legal rules and regulations that have been imposed on churches over the past twenty or thirty years in respect of both people and buildings (particularly as they relate to safety). These necessitate a level of organisation that may make church life much more difficult in the future.

Perhaps it is an appropriate time for us all to re-evaluate our understanding of Church and what it should look like. Whilst they both helpfully teased out things to think about, neither Hocken nor Jacobsen clearly rooted their views of Church in the Bible. Maybe that is where we need to begin again.

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