Invisible Church

They say that if you are unlucky at cards, you are sure to be lucky in love. I’ve never been much of a one for cards, but I reckon I’m pretty lucky when it comes to love – in all areas, in human and animal relationships, in people I read about and will never meet and, surprisingly perhaps, in the Church.

I’m not going to over define what I mean by the Church because that would make explaining my reasons for loving it harder to do. I love it most, I think, when I come up against it in surprising ways from time to time, when it seems to be hiding itself. I love it least when it is ‘full of itself’, preoccupied with its material concerns, with tradition brought to the service of its own insecurities, with status and permanence, when it is too solidly present, unmoveable and thereby out of touch with the fluidity and complexities that are inherent in life’s everyday problems, including the great problems that threaten us all, like war, hunger and climate apocalypse.

By ‘full of itself’ I mean when the Church is overly introspective and concerned with the quantifiable, rather than with the qualitative. The qualitative is the unknowable unquantifiable element that lies hidden in the heart of every human being and which, I believe, the Church is called to give voice to. This returns me to why I sometimes love the Church.

I am not, of course, talking about the visible Church about which I have very mixed feelings. I am talking about the invisible Church, the Church that Jesus compares to yeast or to a seed that has come from a dead plant and found new life in the soil it happens to have landed in – if it has been lucky enough to land in good soil. This is where luck comes in when it comes to finding the Church or, for that matter of being the Church. It’s a matter of where you land. Given that seeds gestate in darkness, the more hidden the Church is, the richer it is likely to be and the more likely it is to turn into something new and life giving.

I think this is where there is some hope for the Church today. The hope lies in the very thing it dreads most – the decline and ultimate extinction of the visible Church. Perhaps we should stop calling it the Church, a word that objectifies (and quantifies) the whole notion of Christian community and sets it apart from the world. The ‘world’ is itself a misnomer too, signifying an entity without heart, driven by materialism and all its attendant vices. The contemplative writer Maggie Ross prefers to replace the word ‘world’ with ‘system’.

Jesus reminds his followers that he is not of the world. He is not of the ‘system’. This is a truly liberating concept for the Church to embrace today. If the Church were to shed the shackles of the ‘system’ that govern so much of its internal life, and consume so much of its spiritual energy, it would be freer to love the world in the way Christ loves it.

This returns me to luck and love. Occasionally, one realises, usually with the wisdom of hindsight, that one has stumbled on the Church in some small barely definable moment, through a tiny act of kindness received, or given us to perform, or in the hearing of a piece of news that helps put things together in our fragmented existence, that helps make sense of suffering, or at least brings love and hope into a situation of unhappiness or despair. In thinking about these moments I realise that I am not alone in them, that they are connected to other moments in other people’s lives, or even in my own, that everything is of a piece.

If this is the case, then how are we to think of God’s Church? Perhaps we are to think of it, not as a physical entity existing in real historical time, but as something that is continually being brought into being in ways that are barely noticeable. It is important that it not be noticed because when the Church draws attention to itself it invariably ‘misses the mark’.

Missing the mark, or hamartia, is the New Testament Greek word for sin. When the Church makes itself noticeable in all the wrong ways, through preoccupation with secular standards and concerns, it obstructs the growth of love and obscures the Wisdom of God which the world so badly needs. Let the Church be more hidden then. Let the good news be proclaimed quietly in and through the hearts of its members as they listen out for people’s need for meaning and for God, however it is manifested, in any given moment. When they do this, they become the Church or, better put, bearers of Christ, manifesting his presence quietly and unobtrusively into an anxious world.

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