On Tuesday, we celebrated All Saints Day, it’s also the day that the children’s group, of which I am one of the leaders, meets in our parish. Our opening activity, in honour of St Francis of Assisi, was to build churches. The children busied themselves and created quite beautiful and detailed structures. We posed this question to them, “What do you need in a Church?” Expecting answers like altars, seats, candles, the immediate response from a 9 year old girl was, “People”. She had immediately spoken a truth that hit us hard as leaders. What had been immediate and obvious to her would have taken us as adults a little while to get to. For what is Church without people?
We can answer this in part by observing what we see around us;
Former Church buildings converted into nightclubs, museums or someone’s home - these once places of worship repurposed as the people have moved on.
Church buildings that are a greater example of historical architecture or repositories for works of art rather than a living, breathing centre for people seeking unity with God.
Dwindling Church attendance and Church meetings where there is more focus on the fabric of the building than the formation of the faithful.
Surely, the gathered people is the essential element of Church?
In Christian terminology the Church is often referred to as, ‘the bride of Christ’, we are Christ’s beloved, drawn into loving intimacy with him and yet, Sherry Weddell’s research on parish discipleship in the USA in her book Forming Intentional Disciples discovered that only 48% of Catholics believed it possible to have a personal relationship with God. If this is an accurate picture of Western Catholicism, almost half of Catholic churchgoers have a theologically distant understanding of God. If this is true then surely this limits, for us all, what is possible as Church.
This is not how the Church at an institutional level understands itself. In the writings of the Catholic Church we clearly read of an intimate and dynamic relationship between God and his people. Pope Francis in Evangelli Gaudium speaks of the Church as, ‘first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way towards God’, he goes on to say, ‘God has found a way to unite himself to every human being in every age. He has chosen to call them together as a people and not as isolated individuals.’ Here he echoes Lumen Gentium, one of the major documents of Vatican II which states, ‘The Church has been seen as “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”’.
This intimacy and unity is a challenge for us in a Postmodern, Post-Christendom Britain. We live in a diverse and fragmented society with diverse and fragmented relationships. The advantages of social mobility and mobility in general, alongside the rise of technological advances that has enabled our virtual connections via the internet, has created a greater number of people experiencing loneliness and isolation - quite the opposite of a united people.
As Weddell’s research explains, our experience of Church is no longer the community and social hub of any settlement that we may have had in earlier times, nor is it the experience we read of in Acts 2:44: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common;’. We need to reclaim, re-energise and re-imagine this intimacy of relationship with one another and with God for our own time and place. How we go about this is another challenge for another blog!
Pope Francis said, ‘Being Church means being God’s people, in accordance with the great plan of his fatherly love.’ We need to unite, under that banner of fatherly love and pray for wisdom and discernment of God’s plan.
In 1 Peter 2:9-10 it says, ‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;’ It is our identity in God, as his people, that can unite and inspire us, it is certainly what inspires me. We need to have the same revelation that St Francis had, that building the Church is not so much about the buildings but about building the people.