THE Church is not
comfortable with innovation. God may be making "all things new",
but churches are generally happiest doing what they already
I recall the reactions to
a modest suggestion I once made that the church chairs should be
arranged in a circle. The proposal was rejected, and a churchwarden
had to take me aside to remind me of some basic theology: "God
doesn't want us looking at each other," she said.
Such reactions are hardly
surprising when we consider the religious paradigm within which we
so often operate. The belief-world that we have made for ourselves,
when everything of importance has already been given or decided as
part of the tradition, has no need of novelty. The best that we
think we can do is to play variations on the old tunes.
The search for "new ways
of being church" is a good example. With the best of intentions,
Fresh Expressions understands that its energy and legitimacy must
come from the unchurched, who could lead us into dynamic new ways
of worship and living. In reality, though, many Fresh Expressions
projects are designed mainly by already paid-up churchpeople, who
are keen to be more "relevant", and are funded by mainstream
churches that are looking to extend their mission.
It is unsurprising that
some of the fruits of this work have not been as exciting as we
might have hoped. Many examples of Fresh Expressions involve doing
the old stuff in a new location, such as a pub or a café.
The problem is that 20
centuries of tradition have turned us into curators, not creators;
inheritors rather than inventors. Our principal idea of novelty is
to display the old treasures in modern cabinets, in the hope that
people will find our re- presented heritage more appealing.
VISITING the Sunday
Assembly (the new "godless" congregation or "atheist church") (News, 11 January), I
could see how, as inheritors of tradition, we lack the habits that
would help us to innovate: a willingness to think against the
crowd, to experiment, and to ignore existing orthodoxy.
The leaders of the Sunday
Assembly enjoy the kind of insight that is available only to the
uninitiated. Not knowing the rules, they do things that experienced
hands would never dream of, such as trying to have a church without
God, which is a breach of rule number one. Yet, in making such
errors, they have produced something rather wonderful, and much
closer to authentic religion than the ossified worship on offer in
On the surface, the
Assembly is a familiar sandwich of songs and talks. But, lacking
any doctrine, there is nothing to "teach", and no priesthood to
give instruction. One contributor simply shared her experience of
voluntary work with older people. It was touching, funny, and true
believe that they should be telling people what to think and feel
and do; the Assembly reminded me that honest human sharing,
emancipated from the need to instruct, has a power all of its
Inventing a religion
without God sounds crazy, but it has provided an opportunity for
hundreds of unchurched and de-churched people to reconnect with
religious life - when this is understood as the communal quest for
THE concept of novelty
is, in fact, built into the term "gospel". The gospel is "new" and,
like new wine, requires new wine skins. We see how Jesus struggled
to make disciples of those locked into the old religious paradigm,
whom he berated as blind rule-followers who are incapable of
reading "the signs of the times". Consequently, he finds his new
leaders among the curious outsiders, the publicans, and those
unschooled in religion.
Jesus provided minimal
instructions for the Church; so the first Christians and their
successors had no choice but to be inventors. Jesus left no creeds
or canon of scripture, no word about required festivals. He
expressed no views about vestments, organs, or digital projectors.
And he certainly had nothing to say about sitting in circles.
Almost everything we see around us on a Sunday, including the
entire church building and its contents, is the result of Christian
innovation becomes today's tradition. This is our dilemma:
centuries of religious experience have left us believing that we
already know everything there is to know about "proper"
To recover our freshness
of vision, the Church must be prepared to think in the ways that
the uninitiated might think, and be more open to ideas from those
who are outside the tradition.
IT WOULD be wrong to
predict what we might learn from an open process of listening to
the unchurched and de-churched, but there are clues within our
current experience. We know, for example, from funerals and
weddings, that people find religious meaning in "secular" music and
literature. Instead of stamping on such ideas, and insisting on
"proper" liturgy, we should see this as an opportunity to shape new
Once we give ourselves
permission to be authors rather than actors in tradition, it is
possible to re-imagine almost everything we think of as fixed: the
"sermon" as a platform for not one, but a variety of new voices,
within and beyond the Church; liturgies built around interaction
and dialogue; the design of new seasons and festivals; the addition
of new orders of ministry; the creation of new sacraments.
If this sounds reckless,
it is no more nor less radical than the invention undertaken by the
first generations of Christians. The question now is whether we
think that we, too, have the right - and, indeed, the nerve - to
follow in their footsteps.
The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is the author of
50 Key Concepts in Theology (DLT, 2007).