I started this blog just over a year ago. My first post was called ‘Count me Out? Responding to the Report on Child Abuse in Dublin Diocese.’ I saw this blog as a place where I could share my ‘perspectives on religion and politics,’ as the tagline said.
After some reflection, I’ve decided to give this blog a sharper focus. I’m interested in the way Christian churches are changing in the 21st century, especially the way church institutions are (or are not!) reforming in response to social change, post-modernity, secularism and yes – scandal.
This blog will now deal primarily with how Christianity is changing. I chose the new tagline, Building a Church Without Walls, to convey my conviction that many of our church institutions have become too rigid and dysfunctional.
Like the walls Paul writes of in his letter so the Ephesians, they need to be broken down and replaced by an active, dynamic church that is defined by what its people do to bring God’s love to the world.
I’ve written a fuller explanation of the rationale behind the sharpening of my focus on this blog here. I still plan to post my thoughts on politics, primarily on the Slugger O’Toole blog. I’ll provide links to my posts on Slugger from this blog.
I expect my posts to return to many of the themes I’ve explored here in the last year, including:
- Re-form in the Irish churches, especially how the Irish Catholic Church handles the fall-out from the sexual abuse scandals
- The contribution of the emerging church, especially its critique of North American, British and Northern Irish evangelicalism and how it may prompt wider patterns of reform
- The role of ecumenism, including questions about its continued relevance for peace and reconciliation
- How Christians in the West can learn from global Christianity, especially the churches in Zimbabwe and South Africa
Sunday I spoke at a service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Crumlin, Northern Ireland, at the invitation of the Crumlin and Glenavy Clergy Fellowship. They had chosen Ephesians 2 for their scripture reading. In my remarks, which I reproduce below, I try to provide some sort of picture of what Building a Church Without Walls might look like:
Remarks at the service for the Week for Prayer for Christian Unity – Crumlin, Northern Ireland
Building a Church Without Walls
Northern Ireland knows a lot about walls. It may seem like something of a cliché to point this out. But the so-called ‘peace walls’ that criss-cross Belfast, in particular, and keep people in their own small, supposedly safe spaces should serve as a constant reminder that all is not well in our society. A reminder that despite the exploits of this island’s saints and scholars down the ages – and the tireless efforts of the Christians who have worked and prayed for peace and reconciliation all through the Troubles – we still remain a long way off from what the Apostle Paul envisioned for the church.
We get a glimpse of Paul’s vision in today’s passage from Ephesians: “For Christ himself has brought us peace by making Jews and Gentiles one people. With his own body he broke down the wall that separated them and kept them enemies.”
Barriers – physical walls – are a crude way to restrict people’s movements and to keep people away from each other. Northern Ireland isn’t the only place where walls have been used as political policy. Just look at Israel/Palestine today, or the border between Mexico and my native United States. Nor are walls modern phenomena – we need look no further than Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans to keep the marauding Scots in their place – to see that.
Today’s passage from Ephesians offers a hopeful glimpse of a world without physical, mental or spiritual walls. Paul says the people who have previously been divided are now ‘citizens together’ and ‘built upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, the cornerstone being Christ Jesus himself.’
So, out of the rubble of the dividing wall that has come down, Paul says that those who have previously been enemies are being built up into Christ’s church – ‘a sacred temple dedicated to the Lord.’
You don’t need me to tell you that this passage from Ephesians, as open as it sounds, has in the past been used by Christians of all different varieties to actually exclude others, to erect even higher and stronger walls. This is what I mean: when preachers and teachers talk in such a way that it sounds like Christ has only broken down walls for those who now believe, think and act in exactly the same way. The ‘right’ way is defined by some higher authority or institution, such as a particular Christian denomination. This is a vision that is not true to the sentiment of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It is a stunted vision, a vision that says that the church is a safe space only for people who can now agree about everything.
But that kind of vision doesn’t speak to our presently divided reality, whether that’s the divisions among the many Christian denominations; or the social and political divisions that are so obvious on the streets of Belfast. It doesn’t inspire much creativity or innovation about what we as Christians can do to heal those divisions.
The fact that you have travelled here today for a service for the Week for Prayer for Christian Unity tells me that most of you have rejected that stunted vision of church. You long for something more. Ecumenism is a minority sport in Northern Ireland. And even those who are enthusiastic about ecumenism often feel helpless and discouraged.
Theologians have spoken and written of the present period of church history as an ‘ecumenical winter,’ where progress on a number of issues related to Christian unity seems stalled or frozen. There’s a sense that people aren’t as excited about the prospects of Christian unity as they may have once been, and that people are confused about what Christian unity would actually look like.
There are still the alarmists that claim the ecumenical project is about trundling everybody into one homogenous world church. And then there are those who see other priorities for the churches, such as beating back the advances of secularism, organising evangelistic missions, or working to overcome poverty.
It’s all very messy, like the rubble that is left once a wall has been broken down. But it seems that Christians – not just here in Northern Ireland but in other parts of the world as well – just don’t know what could and should be built up in its place.
I’m sorry to report that I don’t have an easy answer for that. But I think there is more insight that can be gleaned from today’s passage in Ephesians, starting from 2:20:
You, too, are built upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, the cornerstone being Christ Jesus himself.
[Jesus Christ] is the one who holds the whole building together and makes it grow into a sacred temple dedicated to the Lord.
In union with him you too are being built together with all the others into a place where God lives through his Spirit.
Something strikes me about the way Paul describes the ‘sacred temple’ that is the church. The language is dynamic, the church ‘grows’ and it is a place where ‘God lives.’ It is ‘being built.’ It is not something that has already been constructed and is now timelessly defined by physical buildings, doctrines or particular beliefs. Paul does not describe a cold, stone building or a lifeless institution, he describes a living organism.
And life implies change and action. It is all very well to be committed to action, but what are we, as Christians in Northern Ireland, to do?
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is being marked in other parts of the world around the theme ‘All things in Common.’ This phrase is taken from Acts 2, and it also offers some insights (Acts 2:42-47):
‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’
That passage is challenging because the very hallmarks of the early church are nowhere to be found when we survey today’s divided Christian landscape.
Sharing in the breaking of bread? Or as we might call it, shared Eucharist or communion. In most cases Catholics and Protestants are simply forbidden to share in this most basic and simple act of Christianity. Our religious leaders tell us that there are reasons for this which are profound and theological – but I myself (and I hope other Christians) have a hard time believing that these so-called obstacles are insurmountable.
Selling our possessions and goods to make sure everyone is taken care of? Christians, myself included, have bought into and not adequately challenged a Western consumer culture that encourages us to buy more and to define ourselves by what we own. We forget about the little guys and gals, or else leave the state to take care of them.
So again, what are Christians to do? We can start with prayer. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is an opportunity to reflect and focus our minds. So, this week as we pray:
First, we can look around: what walls do we see?
People will have different answers to this question. For me, the scandal of Christian division and communal violence in Northern Ireland demands that the churches here focus on reconciliation and prioritise ecumenical activities. What does that mean practically? To give just one example, I think the churches could take a more prominent role in urging our political leaders to prioritise a process for ‘dealing with the past.’ And if the politicians don’t have the will to do this, the churches might consider devising or supporting ways for this to happen at the grassroots. Just to give one example from the Irish School of Ecumenics, where I work: Next week our continuing education programme, Education for Reconciliation, is beginning a six week course called ‘Ethical Remembering: Acknowledging the Decade of Change and Violence 1912-1922.’ It will explore the tumultuous events from that decade, from the Ulster Covenant to the Easter Proclamation and more, and ask critical and ethical questions about how we remember violence and think about justice and peace in our present context.
Second, we can ask: what is keeping those walls up? Is it the stubbornness of individuals? Is it powerful institutions – even our own churches?
Even, especially, if it is your own churches that are keeping those walls up, start asking questions of your leaders. This may be as simple as asking why your church doesn’t use fair trade products, or why women may be prevented from using their gifts fully in your church?
Third, we can plan and act: what talents or ideas do we have, that can be used to help others notice those walls and to convince them to work with us to break them down?
It’s up to you, it’s up to us, to come up with the ideas. They can be simple commitments – for example, years ago Fr Michael Hurley, the founder of the Irish School of Ecumenics, recommended that all Christians engage in ‘ecumenical tithing’. In other words, Christians could commit to sharing in worship with a Christian tradition other than their own on a regular basis (perhaps monthly, or quarterly) as a witness to spiritual unity. More recently, clergy and laypeople in Belfast have begun an initiative, ‘In Joyful Hope: A New Step in Eucharistic Fellowship,’ which involves shared communion or Eucharistic services at Methodist, Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian congregations. By ‘shared’ I do not mean that people disregard the instructions of their churches and share in the bread and wine; rather, they worship together and observe each tradition’s communion practice. The next event in this initiative is Tuesday 25 January in St Bernard’s, Glengormley, at 8 pm.
I’ll conclude by returning to the image of church evoked in the passage from Ephesians. This church is a living, changing organism. It is a church of action. Its people are hard at work: they are building a church without walls.
Dr Gladys Ganiel
Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast
16 January 2011
(image sourced on flickr photo-sharing, by bec.w)