I suffer from a particular form of this affliction: Ecclesiastical Monachopsis. That is, the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place; that I just don’t quite fit in to conventional church (Ecclesia in Greek).
It isn’t that I particularly dislike the people (not all of them anyway), nor is it that I dislike gathering with the purpose of focusing on God, engaging in worship and learning (or even teaching as I do quite often) on Christ centred life and biblical understanding. In fact I love these things very much. I am, though it may seem an oxymoron, and perhaps a future blog will emerge on this, a contemplative extrovert. I love being with other people. I love chatting about real things (not a great surface converser) and I love spending time with folk over food and drink, whether it’s a meal, a cup of tea, or a pint of ale at the pub. I love engaging in different kinds and styles of worship. I don’t just mean singing, although as a musician I enjoy that style of worship, I mean practically and physically engaging in different acts of worship, spontaneous as well as ritualised. Anyone who knows me will agree that I do like to talk. I do like to teach. And I do love to pass on to whoever wants to listen anything which has helped me in my personal life journey, especially if it has helped me gain a deeper and more authentic relationship with the Divine. So in essence, I love the practical side of what happens in most churches on most Sundays. But I just can’t shake that feeling of ecclesiastical monachopsis.
I think a big part of why I feel I suffer from ecclesiastical monachopsis is that I just don’t think the mainstream presentation from the modern church is quite what Christianity is supposed to be. I think Christianity, as a faith, has slipped quite seriously from what Jesus was all about and what he, and those who taught immediately following his departure, meant by living in a relationship with God. In my experience, and I can only speak from my own experience, Church as an institutionalised organisation, on the whole, has become something apart from the teachings and person of Christ.
The term ‘Christian’, which has today become the title of a religion and a religious identification, was first made as a statement about the life and behaviour of a community of followers of the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is recorded in Acts 11v26 that the followers of Christ were first called ‘Christians’ in Antioch. The word ‘Christian’ is the Greek word ‘Christianos’ and means ‘Christ-like’. It has the suffix ‘ian’ which means ‘with the same meaning and properties as: an, ian.’ The latter is the more productive of the two suffixes in recent coinage, especially when the base noun ends in a consonant: Orwellian; Washingtonian; Christian. That means that this community of believers in Antioch was so much like the Christ they said they followed that they were identified as having the same properties, or qualities as Christ. This is, it seems, a far cry from many today who use the term ‘Christian’ to identify themselves, and of those who Mahatma Gandhi must have encountered in the mid-20th century for him to say ‘I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ’. What has happened to cause such a chasm to have been created between the believers in Antioch and those in the 20th century whom Gandhi experienced, and those in the 21st century whom many outside the church (and often those within it, including myself) encounter today?
One of the key verses in scripture for me is 1 John 2v6 which says ‘[t]hose who say they live in God (or, in this context are Christians) should live their lives as Christ did’. This seems a pretty straight forward statement. Be like Christ. But something is not right.
I have a book by the author Margaret Silf which is a collation of stories. In this book, entitled ‘one hundred Wisdom Stories from around the world’, there is a story called The Firemaker. In this story we enter into an imagined time where people lived but knew nothing of fire. Then a man who could make fire enters a village. He shows them this amazing thing, teaches them how to use it properly so that it does not hurt them. Shows them how to use it for heat, light, firing clay, and cooking. The Firemaker finally teaches the villagers how to make fire themselves. The village elders do not like this and decide they must get rid of the Firemaker, and the only way they will be able to do this is by killing him. But his death only seems to encourage the people more. So the village elders decide to control the Firemaker following which was beginning to build up. If folk wanted to celebrate the Firemaker, then they could do it in contained meetings and specially built buildings. The village elders would organise the gatherings and would control the way in which they went. After a time the gatherings of the followers of the Firemaker became a regular thing. The followers remained faithful and paid homage to the life of the Firemaker telling stories of him and great rituals built up around the gatherings. But, as the story ends, ‘there was no fire’.
I think the story of the Firemaker is an excellent reflection (as is its intent) of what has happened to Christianity from the time of Christ to its mainstream expression today. Throughout Christian history pockets of fire have risen, as they do today, but it has never become ‘mainstream’. I have a desire to make fire, but I do not always find others with the same desire, so I feel out of place. Pyrotechnic monachopsis!
So what is the answer to my ecclesiastical monachopsis? To be honest I am not sure there is one, I am not sure I will ever get over it, as I am not sure that a 2,000 year old institution can be that radically changed. Not in one generation anyway. But the individuals who are its make up can be. Signs are beginning to emerge that people who are absolutely convinced that Christ is the way are becoming discontent with the current expressions and teachings within the modern church. Questions are being raised. Doubts are being aired. Books are being written (*). Fire is emerging not just in individuals, but in groups of people.
I don’t wish to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as has been the repeated pattern in church history when a ‘new way’ emerges. I don’t want to stop gathering with other people to worship and learn about God; or encouraging folk and building them up in their faith – I like those things. I want to draw on the wonder and richness of our spiritual heritage, I want to live a life like Christ, even when that might conflict with the church institution. I want to learn from and be accountable to those who make fire, whose lives are tested and proven to have depth, breadth, and to be Christ-like, not just those who happen to have gained a qualification and position in leadership.
Ecclesiastical monachopsis may be something which I will have to live with, but it isn’t something I have to resign myself to suffering from (they are not the same thing at all). I can make a difference. This is one of the reasons I felt God calling me to start Waymark Ministries in the first place, and create opportunities for those who feel the same as I do, hence the tagline ‘The message of Christ for spiritual seekers’. Having already quoted Mahatma Gandhi in this blog, I will end with another quote attributed to him which seems fitting here and sums up why I do what I do: “Be the change you want to see in the world” (or church).
(*) one or two bits of further reading:
A New Kind of Christianity. Brian McLaren
Church: why bother. Philip Yancey
So you don’t want to go to church anymore. Wayne Jacobsen & Dave Coleman
A Churchless Faith – Faith journeys beyond the churches. Alan Jamieson