It is easy for many people today to think that the Church is steadfast, immovable and retains the never changing and eternal. The Church supports the traditions and the values of a generation that has long since seemed the be relevant.
As a proposition this is somewhat shallow and when examined seems rather flawed, starting with Jesus.
Jesus appeared in Israel during the period of the Roman occupation and he appeared in a community that resented the overlords, and longed for the days long since gone. He was hailed as a messiah, and there seems to have been a lot of expectation that he would lead the revolution and cast out the overlords, and return Israel to the premier position on earth, the people among whom God was pleased to dwell.
Clearly a lot of people did not understand what he was about, not the least it would seem was Judas Iscariot. Jesus told us, ‘the rulers of this world Lord it over, however it will not be so among you’. A different way of exercising authority is a critical part of Jesus teaching, and he argues for the the primacy of service, not Lordship. Crucified and Risen from the grave, the Spirit is given to the Apostles to be witnesses in the world, indeed to be agents of change.
Very early in the life of the fledgling Church they had to first deal with Paul, who had his own story of change, and then the Pauline mission took off and then the Church had to understand that the change was not just for the Jews, but also the Gentiles who were now to be Children of Abraham by adoption.
Then of course the next big thing happened and that was that the Apostles started dying and there was the realisation that the Churches eschatology was clearly connected to the idea that the consummation of the creation was immanent, and not deferred, and so the agent of change had to change itself.
Over time the importance of Constantinople rose and ultimately the Bishop of Constantinople was seen as the first among equals, and then the conversion of Constantine led to the importance of the Bishop of Rome, and the Church gained respectability and the Bishop of Rome rose to prominence, and ultimately primacy due in part to the proximity of secular power.
The point in fact is not to argue the worth of these changes, but more specifically to recognise that change has been part of the Churches life since the day of Pentecost, as must as it has been part of our mission.
Now one of the most important resources for change is Good Will. The Church has been effective with change within and without, not because there was no opposition, but because it has bucket loads of Good Will. The Good Will of the Agents of Change and the Good Will of the Opponents of change have often enabled to Church to embrace change and make it work well. We have prayed about things, we have genuinely discussed things (sometimes for seemingly too long) and ultimately we have made a move. At other times we have squandered this precious resource, believing it to be renewable, with a kind of attitude, ‘just do it, they will get over it – I know what is right and I have the power’. Good Will is a renewable resource, but it takes time to renew, and it is more easily squandered than it is built up and grown.
There have of course been less glorious moments of change in the Churches history, and certainly some of what happened in the time of the Reformation lacked grace, and there is evidence of the squandered goodwill that has still not recovered to this day. Florentine born Niccolò Machiavelli in his book ‘The Prince’ laid out many ways of going about change in a political way, somewhat less like the instructions of Jesus, and so today we find his name has become an adjective. Not the churches proudest prodigy.
When the Church embarks on internal change there is a need that this change be truly consultative. In the modern era where rationalisation is a topic for city churches in many parts of the world, consulting with four churches marked for survival and not with the two mark for for disposal, would represent spin, not consultation, and would be a waste of Good Will. The importance of the gathered community of faith, not always flashy, not always a megaplex, as a basic building block in the plan for the redemption of the world should not be underestimated. Because we have history there are lots of things about this communities that are worthy of thought. Much of what we have in these communities we hold in trust, worked for, given, offered, as to God, these bequests we honour, and at our best we are responsible stewards of this legacy, and we prepare to pass this on to generations yet unborn.
This is not different to other matters that are before the Church, such as the issues about how we will deal with marriage equality in our society. There have been many suggestions put forward, but clearly this consultation is a long way from over, though clearly for some any discussion is unacceptable. One way or another we do need to have these discussions, because the world is changing and if we want to be involved in our world then we need to be involved in these changes, even if it transpires that may be the voice of caution, even if we have to say – we can not go this way – we need to be prepared to embrace this discussion rather than believe that that we have some God given right to Lord it over people, which it would seem we absolutely do not.
Now the world changes and surely we can’t just go on blindly, our forefathers did not, and those who left this legacy did not want that of us either. In a family we can work together and accept the notion that sometimes we do not agree, and sometimes when we do not agree, then we do not proceed, and sometimes after much discussion we might agree to a trial, a test, a compromise, and so we move on, and sometimes families can be torn apart in these disputes. Commercial organisations have boards who make decision and we all just get on and do it – that’s it. One of the struggle of contemporary management in this setting is Gen Y who when told of a decision shrug and say ‘no body asked me!’. And the Church is of course somewhere in between, Machiavelli wants us to be more like the corporation, and Jesus wants us to be more like the family. We have to recognise that we do need to make decisions, and it is not just 100% agreement, there will be dissent, and there will be bruises, however we need to be sure that our processes are not Lording it over people. and that our consultations are real and effective, not trivial and political spin.