Across from where I am sitting right now is a wood that appears to be sliding down a hill. It’s not the Dunsinane of Macbeth’s macabre story, but an ordinary small copse which is seemingly on a downward trajectory because of the lie of the land. Until quite recently it didn’t belong to anyone but now it’s been claimed and, thankfully, continues to be left alone, fenced off from the surrounding grazing land so that sheep and cattle are not tempted to wander in there. It is home to a few foxes and badgers and quite probably to one or two rare kinds of wild flower. Orchids and cowslips are known to grow in this area.
The copse makes me think of the Church, rooted or grounded on ‘rock’ as the Gospel set to be read this Sunday tells us (John 1: 29-42), but appearing to be sliding down a hill to possible oblivion, no more than a staging post for life’s significant events, ending with the one final event, the death event, which, on the whole, we would rather not talk about. The little copse across from me celebrates this event for the whole of the winter season, dancing nakedly and as happily in the gale force winds as it does in a summer breeze. It is unchanging and yet transforms itself entirely from year to year, from death to life.
I have a feeling that the Church could be like this copse if it, and people in general, would allow it. What inhibits its life, and it is nothing less than life that it is offering the world, is an inability to hold together the relentless forward movement which comes through gestation and change, and the immutability that it inherits from having been founded on ‘rock’. The kind of life that I am talking about, in regard to the Church, is not about different ways of doing things, or of ordering its practical existence, including the management of buildings, but has to do with how it values, nurtures and deploys human potential, the gifts it receives through the work and personhood of its ‘saints’.
One of the hymns that we will be singing on Sunday, in one of the churches that I am privileged to serve on a regular basis, gives thanks ‘for all the saints’ for whom Christ was their ‘rock, refuge and might’. These words can be read or sung in one of two ways. They can either be taken as a load of pious waffle, put to a quite rousing tune so that we all go away feeling the better for having taken a few deep breaths in order to sing them. Or they can be allowed to take root in a deep place, where they will remain, insistently, long after coffee is over and the washing up done.
The pious reading of this hymn is, of course, utterly fanciful, conjuring up ideas of valour and holiness which are well out of the reach of most of us, and perhaps not particularly desirable in any case. The better reading might appeal to a person’s innate goodness, their capacity for fun, their faithfulness to small tasks that are possibly essential to the life, or even to the survival, of another being, human or animal.
There is a reel currently doing the round on LinkedIn which shows a group of strangers linking hands to rescue a dog that is about to drown in what looks like a dam for generating electricity. https://www.linkedin.com/search/results/content/?keywords=Amazing%20kindness%20Ravi%20Narayanan&sid=hkP&update=urn%3Ali%3Afs_updateV2%3A(urn%3Ali%3Aactivity%3A6995263224543662081%2CBLENDED_SEARCH_FEED%2CEMPTY%2CDEFAULT%2Cfalse) The wall of the dam is too steep for the small dog to climb, or for any one person, so a few bystanders, strangers to one another, join hands to form a human chain to rescue the dog. They are the Church, or at least they are what the Church is meant to look like, strangers linking together to save a life, the life of the world in all its lostness and fear.
The people rescuing the dog may or may not go to church, but if such a person happens to find themselves in church this coming Sunday, when the hymn may be sung, they should know that the hymn is about them. They may or may not think of themselves as ‘religious’ or as ‘saints’, but the real Church is not a particularly ‘religious’ body, with all the connotations that word brings to mind. It is much more like the copse across the fields from where I’m sitting right now, rooted deeply in something like love, waving it’s branches madly in the air, inviting the world into its madness, inviting it to be part of a life-saving exercise which is desperately needed in this age of political turmoil and extremism of the worst kind.
Love, in regard to the Church and religion is, of course, madness, but it is a holy madness with no apparent rhyme or reason to its existence. But it insists on doing its work through the lives of its unobtrusive ‘saints’. It only needs the rest of us to come and join in the rescue operation.