BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON
Church Times - 6 February 2009
Robin Greenwood on the view that things can only get worse
PATRICK WHITWORTH adds his voice to a growing consensus that the only way up for the Churches is down. Churches with complex histories, ailing structures, and shrinking membership, suggests the author, should seriously consider stopping pushing against the odds.
It’s time for serious reflection.
History is littered with paradigms of faith community in particular contexts which have flourished, had their day, and then given way to others. Churches now, instead of carrying on regardless, or simply capitulating to contextual demands, need to dig down to a deeper option. The way of mission for a contemporary exiled Church will rediscover the long line of lament, renewal, and revival — an archetypal growth pattern in the history of Jewish and Christian faith communities.
To substantiate his argument, Whitworth deftly weaves through scores of examples of scriptural, historical experiences of banishment and exile. Displaced persons and movements from the history of faith mingle with poets, playwrights, philosophers, and interpreters of the contemporary human condition as one of disjunction and alienation.
It is especially in chapter six, “Attitudes and Spirituality for an Exiled Church”, that I find the heart of Whitworth’s plea to the contemporary Churches. He invites churches to embrace rather than fear exile. Old Testament narratives and prophecy are a reminder that the disorientations and longings of Churches now resonate with experiences of forebears in faith.
Although lengthy lists of the Church’s failings can be tempered by accolades for its contribution to education, Whitworth invites the Church to face up to the realities of exile, not in fear, but in expectation. He proclaims that exile is the Church’s “best friend”, because it forces it to rely on Christ’s power made perfect in weakness.
A manifesto of attitudes for an exiled Church is distilled by Whitworth from St Matthew’s account of Jesus’s commendation of spiritual poverty, together with Jeremiah’s letter to a beleaguered community. Humility and repentance, in the face of failure, should not deter the Church from seeking the “righteousness” of “a new and more exhilarating, if dangerous discipleship”.
A subversive agenda for a Church living in Babylon is to witness as a Christian community to the values of generosity, hope, and confidence, restored by the Spirit. An exiled Church will focus on its self-understanding in terms of pilgrimage, waiting, lament, transformation, simplicity, and generosity or grace.
The bibliography testifies to the wide extent to which such themes are currently being explored and tested ecumenically. In this sense Whitworth, as Alison Morgan suggests on the cover, offers a “realistic and encouraging contribution to the discussion on the challenges facing the Church”.
Here the reader will find an accessible introduction to a key insight for contemporary institutional Churches. Our resistance to believing — and practising the belief — that sharing in God’s mission is possible only through Jesus’s way of losing life to find it proves stubbornly tenacious.
Canon Greenwood is Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, Monkseaton, in Newcastle diocese.