A number of things have happened in the past few weeks that have caused, and are causing, me to think about Church and what it means to be The Church in these villages, and indeed what it means to be The Church. We had, a couple of weeks ago, a thought provoking and successful Mission Community Away Day which contained a Bible Study on Ephesians 4 and some discussions of the marks of a healthy Church (the Natural Church Development (NCD) version rather than the somewhat narrow and negative Reformed Church version, but that's a discussion for another time and one I really can't be bothered with as I disagree so very much with the nine point plan put forward by some more conservative commentators).
It came out on that day, and has come out in meetings since, that we are called to be a generous Church, not a penny pinching, number crunching, self referential body obsessed with attendance and whether or not we want to pay for the ministry we receive.
The reason for saying that is because after this positive, warm, uplifting day I went to another meeting, this time of Deanery Synod which left a very sad and indeed disturbing impression upon me. We had an exceptional and encouraging presentation from our regional Bible Society representative which gave a very positive report of the work of simply spreading the Bible and allowing people to make their own minds up in the face of Scripture. I am a great believer in Biblical interpretation and theology, but the act of giving people Bibles and allowing God to speak to them through the words therein and the working of the Holy Spirit is an incredibly powerful way of sharing the life of faith, and this work is paying off in the work of the Bible Society throughout the world.
After this inspiring and encouraging talk we soon hit what felt like a spiritual brick wall. The Synod (and for those who are unfamiliar with the governance of the Church of England, a Synod is a collection of representatives that make decisions for an area within the Church and a Deanery is a collection of Churches within a particular geographical area, usually about thirty or so Churches) discussed the bane of every church member's life, money. It was like all the energy had been sucked out of the room in an instant. People became cagey, unwilling to approve budgets, and expressing all their difficulties in raising the finance to keep their churches going. There was criticism of our (incredibly hard working) Rural Dean (a Rural or Area Dean is a member of Clergy elected by other clergy to serve the area of the Deanery and who takes a position on the Bishop's consultative council and responsibility for the ministry within a particular area) and the expenses she claims. This made me all the more frustrated because those expenses are costs incurred in fulfilling her duty of serving the people who were complaining about the cost!!!!
As I watched I could see the room turning inward on itself, not physically but emotionally and, indeed, spiritually. The concern was with the institution of Church not with the Mission of God as shared by God's people, who are The Church. The feelings that came out were to do with 'our Vicar/minister', and 'our money' and 'our building' rather than a love of the communities we are privileged to serve, or a generosity towards those beyond our walls, indeed there was a lack of generosity even to those within the organisation!
Further to this, this evening as we discussed some of the work in our local Church there was a question raised as to whether we should charge for an event we put on rather than offering it free and leaving a basket for donations. I understand entirely the concern that this endeavour needs to be funded and supported but I was worried that a concern only regarding funding seemed to miss the point of sharing generously with non churchgoers the idea of being a loving community, a welcoming community, a generous community. I understood all the more because when this started I was the one who said that we should charge for this event, it came with a meal which had to be paid for by someone and at the time I worried that the cost would be prohibitive. The argument that people value what they have to pay for also came up, and I do understand that too, as it was something I said when it started.
But in a world which does attach monetary value to just about everything, in a world where 'you get what you pay for' seems to be the norm, isn't there a place for giving freely? In fact I would argue that at heart The Church should be renowned for its generosity and for welcome and love freely and wastefully given.
I am reminded of a very good talk I heard by Wesley Carr, then Dean of Westminster Abbey. He talked of the wastefulness of God, the unwarranted and undeserved grace that is at the root of Christian faith. Surely The Church, the body of Christ, should model such generosity in all that we do. I don't mean that we should be stupid, or that we shouldn't be wise stewards of what we have, but that we should have a grounding in grace, it should ooze out of the pores of the people of God. We have been given so much, we should give freely.
I have seen in my years in ministry too many parishes strangled by their own obsession with money and the buildings they have. They contract, they turn inward, they concern themselves with what goes on Sunday by Sunday in their four walls, rather than with a world beyond those walls which is crying out for love and meaning and acceptance and grace. In a small, and perhaps pathetic, way I believe my involvement in the pub at Yarcombe, along with efforts to be a part of local communities is my own miniscule attempt at being the Church beyond the walls of Churches, of just 'getting on with it' and seeking to build community and show the love of Christ, with no strings attached - just as the love of Christ was shared with me many years ago with no strings attached, but with love and faithfulness.
When we obsess about ourselves, the Church contracts. Loving, looking outwards, sharing, faithfulness takes us beyond ourselves and we grow in faith, hope and love and then we truly proclaim the values of God's kingdom, God's life,
This wasn't meant to end up sermon, or a rant (but is probably a fair amount of both). I am passionately committed to The Church, not necessarily to 'Church' which is our often imperfect expression of 'The Church', but I am deeply saddened when I see and experience attitudes which draw us further and further away from the generosity of a God who loves and gives without limit and without any merit in our part. I hope we can discover and share some of what that means in our lives together as the people of God and as followers of Christ.