Apocalypse now? a sermon by Margaret Offerman

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Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Apocalypse now?

We’re absorbing the news of another ghastly attack on groups of people having what should have been a normal Friday evening enjoying themselves.  If you Google ‘terrorist attacks’ since 2001, the year of the bombings in New York and Washington, you will find a huge grim list of towns and cities that have been the victim of these outrages against humanity.  In Bali, Madrid, Moscow, Kampala, Istanbul, on and on goes the catalogue of places where large numbers of people have been shot or blown up by what the press, more often than not  call them  Islamic extremists.  They call their victims crusaders.  Does this mean it’s a holy war?

In the 70s and 80s we experienced bombings and threats of bombings quite frequently as the IRA attacked British cities.  On the whole they were small scale.  Now we’re much more aware of the universality of these episodes to the extent that sometimes they barely get a mention.  Analysis after the event often emphasises the alienation of the perpetrators.  They resort to terrorism because they have no attachment to the societies where they now live and which they’re attacking.  They’re almost invariably killed, either by suicide or by the armed police who close in on them.  They’re young.  They’re people without hope.

Our readings this morning were both about the apocalypse in the 2nd c. before Christ and the 1st c. after.  Jesus’s prophecy was fulfilled about 40 years later when the rising against the Roman occupation failed, the Temple was demolished and the Jews were scattered.

It’s tempting when we hear the news, of masses of refugees fleeing civil war, of  the re-growth of nationalism and its demands that we fragment internationally rather than unite, of natural disasters which are headlines for about a week and then slip out of consciousness, to feel that the apocalypse is approaching.  We feel impotent, daunted by the scale of the world’s problems.

I want to narrow the focus, since the season of Advent is nearly here.  The end of the church’s year is traditionally a time for taking stock.

In consecutive weeks in the middle of last month, the Guardian featured articles and reports related to the future of the church.  Three were negative, verging on apocalyptic.  Giles Fraser’s was the first I read.  He’s an Anglican priest.  He  argued that as custodian of  15,700 churches, many of them, like ours, Grade 1 or 2 listed, the C/E is struggling to swim with a huge millstone round its neck.  Its energy is sapped because it’s allowed itself to become a  buildings department of the heritage industry.  He claims that if every single one of these churches were to be blown up tomorrow,  England would be a much more Christian country in 10 years time.  His reasoning is that if the C/E were to be freed from its self imposed responsibility to be a universal service provider it could concentrate  its resources on its mission to become a high-morale bundle of energy,  a campaign HQ for the re-evangelisation of England.  At present, and this is his final paragraph, its buildings are so loved by those who take no interest at all in its message that it doesn’t have the nerve to do what Dr Beeching did to the railways in the 1960s.  Moses didn’t have to worry about holes in roofs.  He worshipped in tents, not temples.  And we must learn to do the same.

Simon Jenkins, whose article appeared the following week, is  a journalist and author.  He has edited the Times and chaired the National Trust.  His  headline read:  Churches can survive – but the religion will have  to go.  He argued that parish churches are the nation’s grandest social resource.  What he called ‘the fact’ that the church is failing in its original purpose doesn’t prevent its achieving  its potential. The essence of most churches is their beauty and physical prominence.  They should recover their status as the community’s social and cultural focus.  However this will never happen while they retain their aura of religious exclusivity.  Their role as places of prayer, peace and consolation is no longer relevant.

Its’ frustrating to read this kind of caricature by someone who admits that,  though he visits churches,  such beliefs as he has find no outlet in attending church.  How can he judge its relevance if he chooses not to experience what it offers?   (Though it was unfortunate that on the day his article appeared, two footballers announced that they were offering shelter to homeless men in Manchester,  and that same day Manchester’s bishop was reported as saying that he couldn’t possibly house refugees in his 6 bedroomed house because ‘it’s pretty smallish by bishop’s standards’. )

We in the C/A had an alarm call at the beginning of the year with the introduction of a new way of raising money for the diocese, no longer based on an imposed quota system assessed centrally on an estimate of the wealth of the congregation.  Instead we had an appeal to the prayerful generosity of individual congregations, accompanied by a warning that if that didn’t produce enough money to meet the needs of the diocese and of individual churches, ‘hard decisions would have to be made’.  Implicit in those words was the threat that churches would be closed down and clergy posts would be cut.  Dr Beeching will be reborn as an archdeacon.

Are people like Giles Fraser and Simon Jenkins right?  Are we approaching the end time in the church?  Would we mind if our churches became  architectural archives?  Museums of church history?  Gyms?  Wholefood restaurants?  Carpet warehouses?  Luxury flats?  Those of you who read the ‘ Nooks and Corners’ page in Private Eye will recognise these as the fates of many former churches.  I’d be very depressed if this were to happen to the C/A or even to churches of no particular aesthetic merit or historical significance.  However I recognise a serious risk that many churches are like  stopped clocks which are  satisfied that twice a day they tell the right time.   I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’re a navel gazing little clique here.  We’re outward looking, involved in activities that make a difference to our neighbourhood and our world.

But it’s possible, here at the Ascension, that unless we move forward, we may not stand still but move backwards.

An unlikely champion of the church appeared, also  last month,  in the shape of Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese artist.  He asked Lego to supply him with large quantities of plastic bricks which he was going to use in one of his pieces of conceptual art.  Lego refused on the rather odd grounds that they never allowed their product  to be used to make a political statement.  Ai Wei Wei posted this  on the internet and immediately he was inundated with parcels of Lego.  He did then make a statement:  The internet is like a modern church.  You go and complain to a priest and everyone can share your problems.  It may not be a totally realistic view of the church but it’s a shrewd recognition that one of the strengths of the church is that it’s a community.

We need to build up the strength of our community.  This can take very tangible forms – increasing our contribution to the refugees’ boxes and the begging bowl, committing ourselves to more frequent attendance at church, on Sundays and during the week, signing up for our planned giving scheme, now that we have a cashless collection, joining rotas  eg of Sunday School helpers or leaders of the intercessions, becoming a Friend of the Washhouse Youth Project, praying regularly for our fellow members – thanking God for them and interceding for those in need.  If we’re serious about offering ourselves as a more effective community resource we should be  putting more effort into raising the money to reorder the interior of our church.  This would transform our lives here and signify our intention to be a power-base for our area.  These may sound like very prosaic, small scale  suggestions and rather ominously self-centred.  And they’re not on the whole the kinds of activities that are exclusive to a church.  Rotary clubs raise money for good causes.  Very successful youth projects are run by non-religious people up and down the country.

There’s  another dimension to our life here.  We do what we do, not because it’s an interesting hobby or because we feel it’s our civic duty.  We do it because we try to obey the love comandment.  We do it because we won’t allow events to lead us to cynicism or despair.    We do it because we live with hope, hope that the kingdom we’re striving to create will come on earth as it is in heaven,

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