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The Weeping Church

This post is a hopefully a set of fairly simple reflections on the past fortnight, one in which I have attended a Unitarian chapel and listened to a honest, thought-provoking sermon about the situation for Christians today in Western society and one in which I have attended a Quaker meeting where two fellow worshippers were openly suffering, having received grave medical news about their respective loved ones.

The Unitarian sermon from two Sundays ago drew upon the experiences of pilgrims, modern and of old. Through the experience of being cast out into an alien, often-hostile land, it was observed how pilgrims commonly found themselves spiritually reignited. It was also a sermon that acknowledged, in front of a fairly packed chapel of churchgoers as it happens, that 'ours is a minority pursuit' - drawing upon the imagery of Psalm 137, "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept..." It was interesting to learn from the sermon that it was in fact during the exile of Jewish peoples from their homeland between 587 to 538 BCE that the Torah, the Biblical scripture we Christians call the Old Testament, was refined and shaped into the version held dear today.

Following my visit to Dean Row Chapel, this most recent Sunday I returned to the Quaker meeting I attend regularly. I had already received word of one Friend's sad news that their beloved grandchild was critically ill. As they entered and sat, I already seated with eyes half-closed, I became aware of their distressed breathing and tears. The rest of the meeting remain poised whilst another Friend discreetly went to sit near her - I am sure it was something we all too felt inclined to do. Often over the past year meeting for worship has come to focus on the 'big issues' of government, society, theology - as reading back through the archives of this blog will perhaps attest to - but this meeting for worship became centred simply on the suffering of our Friend as we each put aside our other concerns to keep her in our thoughts and prayers - to use a traditional Quaker phrase, 'hold her up in the Light'. There was just one act of spoken ministry which saw another Friend reaffirm the meeting's duty to care for one another, and for the surrounding period there was a stillness - but noticeably not one easily wrought, one in which you could sense the whole meeting struggling to settle itself. It struck me that this is much like the process of a healing wound, as each side of torn skin strives to reach the other, in a battle to reknit itself together.

At the end of the hour there was a moment of group conversation, in which another Friend shared the sad news of their husband's degenerative illness. I was struck by the observations made by one Friend that the New Testament is to an extent problematic with regards to how we understand suffering and healing - noting a literal reading can lead to diseases and disorders being viewed as rooted in our own faults or sin, as something we can definitely heal if we only follow a Godly course of belief and action.  It's difficult to hear so bluntly about how the Bible can be potentially so damaging, even as someone who takes a liberalised, contextualist view of the Bible - yet it is something we must hear and pay heed to. The Friend went further, however, to note that Christian communities have always had a very real sense of some healing taking place amongst their members, and we can continue to gather in aid of this.

To finish this reflection, I have decided to share a 'vision statement' I have recently written as part of an ongoing, private though not confidential, conversation I have been involved in regarding the future of Unitarian & Free Christian congregations. I thought I had it down to a tee until these insights of the past two weeks. I have now added what I think is a crucial aspect in terms of envisioning a church that can survive and thrive in these times. The added statement is identified in bold.
"The Church we see is not a Church of bricks and wood and glass. The Church we see is not a Church of doctrine, hierarchy and ritual.

The Church we see is simply a gathering of people, from a variety of backgrounds, finding unity and common purpose in the Spirit.

The Church we see is a Church centred through practice. A Church which learns together, confesses together, rejoices together, sings together, weeps together, heals together, prays together, breaks bread together.

A Church whose God is too big to place into the words of a creed, yet not too far to grasp.

The Church we see is a Church built on our hopes and dreams, and those that came before us. A Church which encourages our individual strengths to spring forth whilst providing support for our weaknesses. A Church that provides a space for each one of us to step back for a moment before we step further forth. A Church that recognizes the unique spark at work within each human being yet invites us into something greater than myself, yourself, herself, himself.

The Church we see is a Church contributing to the local community, serving wider society, reaching out to the world beyond.

A Church following the example of Jesus of Nazareth, loving its neighbour as it loves itself.

A Church set on fire with the call to help bring about a new era of justice and peace. A Church drawing people from seemingly impossible situations into a life of faith and freedom. A Church raising up new generations of disciples, shaped to act as both leaders and servants – and as friends. 

One day, this Church we see could be our Church."

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