A Fifth Column?
To speak or not to speak? Wayne Crich
weighs up the options for church-going radicals.
I have met the enemy and they are us.
(Nothing like a dramatic start, I always say. Now that I have your attention…) At a recent meeting in Sydney our group was discussing what we had achieved in our first year and what it was we wanted to focus on for the coming year. As always there were plenty of ideas and suggestions. To facilitate this our coordinator had prepared a number of questions for us to consider. The first of those questions has been much on my mind:
“How honest is it to stay within a confessing church? Could we perhaps be transitioning there for our own comfort, and what effect are we having on the faith of others as we use language to disperse meaning from central texts? Are we the dreaded fifth column in a tottering church?”
My initial reaction was to link this with the litany our church’s minister uses. “It is important not to disagree in public because it creates dissension.” Or: “Consider the faith of your weaker brother.” On the surface the idea of not changing, or not arguing for change, is appealing. It considers the comfort of others, it’s easier and it doesn’t break up friendships and social groupings which to a greater or lesser extent provide much of what a church is about.
In the end however I have decided not to be silent. That does not mean that I am undermining or breaking down the Christian church of which I have been a member in good standing for 30 years. Many of us have been too quiet for too long. If no one speaks how will our voices be heard? In Sydney, as in many cities, the more conservative elements of the Christian Church are visible and vocal. So much so that the person not involved feels this conservative group speaks for everyone in the church. The result is that many turn their backs on the church and the Christian story as being of no value in their search for meaning. For many of us, though, the Christian mythology captures profoundly our spiritual journey. The language, symbols and rituals provide the foundation from which our spirituality grew, and are a continuing source of inspiration.
Is it honest to stay within a church whose confession we no longer literally believe? I stay because I still believe that the confessions express the background out of which my spiritual life grew. That which is not literally true, can be true none the less. I no longer believe that the gospel accounts of Jesus are literally true but I do believe they capture important human truths. Finally, I see myself as belonging to a living tradition, one that I hope can grow and change. Growth is not possible if everyone who differs just leaves.
What about my comfort? That’s certainly true to some extent, the familiar is always comfortable. Surely though, my anger is as important. I have been lied to and deceived by people who knew better. I don’t want the same thing to happen to others, because the mess it creates is most unpleasant. For many in the Sea of Faith, the movement from orthodox believer to a more a radical belief was a slow transition. I am one of those whose transition from fundamentalism was rapid and painful. That experience makes me feel that I have a right to express my differing views (in an appropriate fashion of course). In many ways being an agent for change in a confessing church is a little like bashing your head against a brick wall; just as you think you’re getting somewhere you wake up, lying on the ground, wondering what happened.
The search for meaning is a universal one for us humans. I don’t have answers, not even many questions any more, but I do like to converse. Exchanging ideas about life and its meaning is very rewarding for many of us. Exploring the stories, symbols, rituals and myths that have shaped our past and present is also intensely rewarding and enriching. Our churches need to be places for conversation.
So I have decided I am not part of a fifth column, undermining a church that is shaking on cracked foundations. I am afraid I’m not much of a reformer either. I lack the vision. I do like a chat though, and if I’m not there to share a different point of view, how will it be heard?