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Have the nerve to follow the early Christians

28 March 2013

Churches should listen more attentively to those outside, and be more truly innovative, argues Hugh Rayment-Pickard

THE Church is not comfortable with innovation. God may be making "all things new", but churches are generally happiest doing what they already know.

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 many churches.

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 to life.

Traditional churches 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 own.

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 ultimate meaning.

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.

But yesterday's 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" religion.

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 religious practice.

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).

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