Friday 1 June 2012

The imagined ideal church - as a way of evaluating churches


One of the ways in which I evaluate things is by imagining them as real, and seeing how I like it. As a thought experiment.

Sometimes I can do this quite vividly, and reach fairly firm conclusions, especially negative ones - but also positive. Indeed, sometimes this method makes matters crystal clear for the first time.

And sometimes authors do this for me - that it, they put down on paper, explicitly, their ideal imagined state of affairs - and then I find either that I am drawn towards it, or repelled by it.


So, for example, I have often blogged (as recently as yesterday) ideal imagined versions of Eastern Orthodoxy, which I find extremely attractive; likewise (albeit at a lower level) idealised version of Anglican worship - the early morning spoken Eucharistic service, the perfected evensong (with music of the kind I love, but not too much of it).

And it was through not being much attracted by (even) the ideal versions of Latin church (such as I read in Belloc, or John Senior) that I found myself somewhat unwilling (at least, at the moment) to become a Roman Catholic.


And many years ago, it was a passage in Radicals and the Future of the Church (1989) by Don Cupitt (a famous and influential Anglican teacher, theologian and media figure) that finally and irrevocably made clear to me that Liberal Christianity was bogus, bankrupt and repellent.

Here Cupitt describes his ideal future church:

Sacraments, however, there will be. The church will exist in two states, gathered and dispersed. 

Gathered and become visible, the church will coincide with Christ. Dispersed and invisible, she will coincide with humanity at large. 


The church's gatherings will take place perhaps at noon on Sundays, or - in some cities - on Thursdays at the end of the working day. The historic buildings will still be in use. 

The gathering will consist of a common meal, taken seated at table. Each congregation's elected officers will be a group of deacons. 

One of them will open the meal by standing, banging for attention, and breaking a bread roll, saying: 'the body of Christ', a formula understood to mean that the church now gathered in company is the risen Christ. 

Noise then breaks out. 


The meal is simple, like a War on Want lunch. Baskets of fresh bread rolls, cheese tomatoes, apples. 


During the meal church business is transacted, items being introduced by the secretaries of the various divisions. Tasks are allocated. 

The general understanding is that each enrolled member of the church should attend the meal weekly, and each week should undertake some small task as his or her personal 'liturgy', or item of service. 

The rhythm is that week by week there is systole and diastole; you come in and are sent out. 


The chief divisions are Study (courses, evening classes, groups), Training (personal counselling, meditation, yoga), Art (music, drama, the visual arts) and Social Action (including local branches of human rights groups, twinning relationships with overseas congregations, and political action)...

...And so on.


The remarkable thing is that it took Don Cupitt another 20 years to leave (even) the Church of England - despite that his views on the ideal kind of 'Christianity' are now pretty mainstream among the mass middling majority of Anglicans, Catholics, and Nonconformists...

At any rate, Cupitt performed for me the valuable service of stating exactly where Liberal Christianity was trending; such that I could see whether, or not, I liked the destination. 



Catherine said...

Did anyone else read that description and imagine the congregation wearing grey "gender-neutral" bodysuits like in Star Trek?

A. M. said...

Dr. Charlton, I'm sure you're getting at something deeper than aesthetic preference and reaction against disorder. Presumably, there ought to be some theory of liturgical practice that is guiding your preferences. What is the service of Holy Communion supposed to accomplish and how do we know?

Bruce Charlton said...

@A.M - I am (as usual!) suggesting a middle way. Of course aesthetic/ personal preference is not sufficient, BUT neither is it absolutely irrelevant.

A. M. said...

Sure. I agree they are relevant & that a rite performed in a particular way, though essentially valid, may be so irreverent or spiritually anemic it actually does harm in other ways.

Holy Communion is a complex ceremony. It participates in a past event while making it present. The breaking of the bread accomplishes a specific act, while the pouring of wine and mixing with water accomplishes another. Adoring the consecrated and transubstantiated elements accomplishes another. Consumming, yet another. The Mass simultaneously makes present the once-for-all immolation on Calvary and effects a distinct act of oblation (offering) for present needs. Furthermore, the consumption of the offered elements effects a sacrificial meal wherein the participants commune with the Priest and Victim of Calvary and with one another. In addition to this, faith is strengthened, holiness increased, and calling renewed.

Outward performances and inward dispositions all have a tendency to enhance or detract from the individual's subjective appropriation of the rite's multiple benefits.

I seek the communion and particular observance of the rite (Holy Communion) that promises to maximize my personal appropriation of the objective benefits found in the ideal form of the rite. Where is this ideal located? In the ministry of our Lord, especially the original institution in the upper room, the sacrifice of Calvary, and the intercessory activity he presently undertakes for us. This is the pattern to which the Church's earthly service should conform and in which it participates.