“The longer I am a minister, the less religious I am becoming. Of course, the institutional church is something I still love, (and get frustrated by in equal measure!) I wish to follow Jesus, probably with more determination than ever, but the trappings of the church, that I admit once held out a certain appeal, seduce me less and less. Of course the risen body of Christ needs to be incarnated by an institutional church. I do not have any difficulty with the existence of “the Church”.
What I am coming more and more to feel, however, is that the task of the Church is not so much a Christian one as a human one. God addresses us as human beings as much as he comes to us as a human being. He attends to the depth of the human condition by living it. It is not a matter of membership or institutional identity that matters. And so the task of the church is not its own self preservation or glorification, it is not to make people more religious but more human. The church’s role is to enable the life of Christ to spring up in the person and in the community. Our primary task in the world is not to tinker with and perfect, or even extend the institution, it is primarily about enabling people to encounter the living God and become more fully alive as people made in the image of God, living life in all its fullness. “In Him was life and the life was the light of men” John 1:4.
For many years I have worried about this trend in myself. It is this thing about getting to be less and less religious, less and less hung up on the structures and the dog collar wearing and the advancement of the Christian religion. I have worried because if it is my job to “whip up religion in other folk” and I have less and less of it in myself then maybe there is a problem. And then I read the narrative of this encounter between Jesus and his disciples and he says to them, “you do not know what you are asking”. But he goes on, he does not leave it there, he says to them, “you will drink the cup I drink and you will share my baptism”. But sharing in his ministry is not about ruling and being mighty and a cut above, “whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all, the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve”.
And this, surely, is the ministry in which each of us has a share, a ministry of humanity, not a high and mighty ministry, not a “churchy,” “lording it” type of ministry but a ministry of humanity and love. A ministry in which one sees and shares in the pain of others, feeling with compassion for the lost, walking in solidarity with those who limp and hirple through life, carrying the marks of life upon them. We are called to a ministry of loving, sharing, meeting, living, feeling and caring. Are not these some of the greatest words and greatest works of human existence? Are not they also earthy words and works, very connected to the mud and tears, the vulnerability and naturalness of human existence? Someone whose writing I love, in a rather acerbic aside, once described churchy, pious people as engaging in “remote metaphysical chatter” and I have to say some of the characterisations of vicars and ministers in the media (such as the minister in Dad’s Army) give the strong impression of being “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use”, to quote a famous phrase.