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C of E should embrace its place on the margins

15 December 2023

The decline of institutional religion presents an opportunity, viewed in the right perspective, argues Paul W. Thomas

THE 2022 statistics showed that Anglican attendances at both Sunday and midweek services averaged 654,000, in a population of 67 million (News, 17 November). The Guardian noted that there were more naturists in England than Anglican Easter communicants. But this is no time for a new Decade of Evangelism (the Church declined by 14 per cent during those ten years, anyway); rather, it is time to revisit the mantra “Simpler, humbler, bolder”, and to make the third word “braver”.

It should be brave enough to recognise, even rejoice in, being the minority and marginalised people that we have now become. The Church needs to embrace its liminality as it takes us to the core of our identity and the core of our contemporary experience. Derived from the Latin limen, meaning “doorstep”, or “threshold”, liminality conveys an experience of being on the edge, about to cross from one sphere into another and discover a new identity.

Advent shows how the essential identity of the Christian community is liminal. It reminds us that the New Testament proclaims a changed relationship between time and eternity. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, God has established a “bridgehead” in our time-bound cosmos, and, as God’s Spirit begins to transform it, there is evidence of the eternal impinging upon the here-and-now.

God’s promise to heal creation is not solely a future prospect, but could be seen microcosmically in the person and work of Jesus, and is now partially glimpsed in the witness and service of the Church. Christians live with the tension of “the already”, “the not yet”, and what Karl Barth called “the even now”. As the harbinger of a new age, the Church anticipates, hopefully, the glory that is to be revealed to us, and thus lives on the edge of the present epoch.

BUT the Church has faced a secondary liminality in its contemporary experience. The collapse of organised religion in the West shows that most people prefer intuitional to institutional religion, bringing the Church to a point of radical transition. It peers into a future marked by widespread indifference and exclusion from most mainstream activities.

In such a vulnerable setting, rather than be made to feel guilty for being insufficiently missional and transformative, churches need time to catch their breath, find their bearings, and sit on the fence a while, to be filled with lamentation and longing. Advent is a reminder that there is an important element of waiting in our relationship with God and one another, and that, in the waiting, new possibilities and new potential may emerge.

Another Advent theme is that judgement begins with the household of God. Many of our buildings will disappear, and clergy will become an increasingly rare breed; the gospel imperative to love will need to be “performed” without the traditional props.

A smaller Church with a reduced capacity to reach people will require a right perspective if it is not to lose its nerve. It will need to see itself as the handmaid of God’s Kingdom, not as its centre-point. “Though God is defined by Christ,” Bishop John Robinson wrote, “God is not confined to Christ.”

The same can be said of the Church. God is in our midst, but far beyond it as well — as Jesus’s teaching on the Kingdom made clear. We find God in “the invisible Church” in the sense in which this term is used by Steve Aisthorpe in his book of that title. It is made up of people who hold firmly Christian belief and values, but who cannot identify with the institutional Churches. We also find God in people of other faiths and no faith who believe in the supremacy of love, albeit that they do not know, or do not acknowledge, the uniquely divine status of Jesus Christ.

During Covid restrictions, a conversation between a churchwarden and a publican led to the provision, on Mothering Sunday, of cream teas and flowers for all the mothers in their small village. In the following months, two families brought their children for baptism. A town church made a “warm space” available during weekdays, inviting the Sikh community to provide food and welcoming an offer by a humanist group to bring board games and the occasional film. The town council now shows interest in supporting the project, and the church is discovering a new part to play in the wider community.

A recent book, Finding the Treasure (SPCK) (Features, 23 June; Books, 30 June), records how diminutive churches on huge housing estates learnt to connect gently and creatively with their surrounding communities, offering spaces and corporate activities in which overridden voices and aspirations were heard, valued, and advocated.

THE Church is not the sole agent of the Holy Spirit in bringing about the fullness of God’s Kingdom; it must learn, in the words of Ecclesiastes 11.11, “to cast its bread upon the waters, finding it after many days”. The Church of the future will need porous edges and a heart open to the God of surprises.

A liminal Church, living on the margins, has exciting potential. It can demonstrate virtues that disappeared long ago, when it walked the corridors of earthly power. Poised on the edges of the public square, it can witness prophetically and authentically to the truth that it is often through weakness, apparent ineffectiveness, and vulnerability, that the Bethlehem baby who became the crucified God furthers his work of transforming humanity — and, indeed, the whole of creation.

The Ven. Paul W. Thomas is the Archdeacon of Salop in the diocese of Lichfield.

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