Models of Church: House or Ship?

There are some who are attracted to Christianity by its perceived stability. In a world that seems to be constantly in flux here is a religion that has endured 2,000 years. With traditions, rites and orders dating back centuries, with buildings made to endure, here permanence is presumed. No shifting wind or whim is going to change the Church.

One well-known hymn of my childhood was “Christ is made the Sure Foundation”. It talks about the Church being like a house, a ‘Temple’, and Christ being ‘the cornerstone’. With sure foundations of Bible and tradition, centred on Christ, the Church will be rock solid, able to withstand the storms of change and doubt.

Much of the debate in the Christian world is between those who want to reinforce the foundations, strengthen the walls, and keep foreign winds and doctrines out, and those who want to open the windows and doors to the world and be prepared to change time-honoured methods and doctrines in order to do so.

Yet many of us tire of this debate, not because the issues are unimportant, but because the model of the Church as a house is not true to our experience of God, faith, and community. A building doesn’t move. It isn’t meant to. The model assumes that the land won’t move either. It assumes that change is peripheral to community, faith, and of course God.

I prefer the model of a ship. The late Archbishop Helder Camara wrote:

Pilgrim: when your ship, long moored in harbour, gives you the illusion of being a house; when your ship begins to put down roots in the stagnant water by the quay: put out to sea! Save your boat’s journeying soul, and your own pilgrim soul, cost what it may.

If one considers the Church to be more like a ship than a house, then everything changes. The Bible ceases to be a brick to fortify your structure or throw at your enemy, but is food stored for the journey. It gives you energy for the challenges before you. The traditions of the Church are like a sailor’s almanac, helping you with the little tasks, teaching the theory of steering, but not doing the work for you. God too changes. Instead of being the property overseer and the gracious host, God is the wind in your sails and the beat in your heart.

The models of house and ship also have different attitudes to leaks. I think of leaks in the Church as the things that go wrong, the plans that don’t quite work out, and the hurt people who distribute their hurt around. In a house a leak needs urgent attention. It drips on your head and can rot your walls. It needs to be repaired before your dinner guests arrive, or are even invited. In a ship, however, a leak is expected. Bilge pumps are normative. You don’t stop the ship to attend to them, unless they are very serious. Leaks are part of sailing.

Yet the biggest difference between the two models is safety. The house, even an open house, speaks of security, stability, and safety. The inhabitants know where they are, what to expect, and even who they might meet at the door. The ship, on the other hand, is heading out into unknown waters. Its occupants are on a journey. There is significant risk involved. The familiar towns and headlands are no longer there. The good old ways become more irrelevant day by day. God, faith, and community all change, and become more essential - more of your essence.

[i] Camara, D.H. A Thousand Reasons For Living, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1981, p.40.


The Politics of Eucharist

The biblical antecedent of Eucharist is the manna from heaven story.[i] Manna, the food of liberation, is found not in the Big Red sheds of Egypt but in the wilderness beyond Pharaoh’s control. Manna is bread that is to be shared, not stored for profit. It is bread that comes courtesy of God, not from the machinations of the market with more landing on the palates of the rich than on the plates of the poor.

It has served the interests of the ruling classes to de-politicize the Eucharist and turn it into an individualistic private act of devotion. With our sins of disobedience confessed we were to kneel and bow our heads to God, as we would to the king. We were to receive of the king’s bounty and go forth quietly to live subservience lives. We dressed our bishops and priests like royalty: “Yes, m’ Lord, you know best.” From Constantine on the paramount political function of the Church has been to sanction, and thus sanctify, the power of the state.

As God said to Moses; ‘Stop groveling and get moving. I want my people to be free. I don’t want to hear about your shortcomings and guilt. I don’t want you to wallow in it. Saying sorry isn’t going to free my people. Decisive, confrontational, planned action is. When you act, you’ll find me acting with you. Together we will walk out of slavery into freedom.’

It is no mistake that Matthew’s Gospel pictures Jesus as the new Moses. It is also no mistake that Constantinian Christianity removed Jesus from the picket line, stuck a crown on his head, and plonked him in a starry heaven – as far removed from working class people as possible.

The Eucharist has also been de-politicized by debate. Is the bread and wine real flesh and blood, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or symbolic substance? Who can receive it – divorcees, children, gays and lesbians, Buddhists and Muslims, anyone? Such disagreements still divide the Church, diminish our potency, and serve those who fear our power.

The Eucharist is marching food. Think of it as a high-protein energy bar for those communities that passionately burn for justice. It brings us individuals, all the little spluttering, erratic flames and the torches that we are, into one bonfire. Together we can light up the sky bringing hope to those in darkness.

Eating is a communal act more than an individual one. Some days as individuals we can’t even amble to the clothes line let alone stand on any picket line. Yet we belong. We belong to a community that stands for justice. Newborn babes belong, folk stricken with ailments belong, the brave belong, the weak belong, and even those who don’t believe can choose to belong.

For too long the high-protein power bar for the visionary Jesus movement has been reduced to a pious after-dinner mint for individual penitents.

We need to recover the potency of the Eucharist. It is God’s gift and it’s divine. In eating we come together. In solidarity there is healing. With healing comes the ability to re-vision. With renewed vision comes the passion to plan and act. With action we live our prayers.

The Eucharist calls us to action. Not for action’s sake, but for all the forsaken. It is a holy meal for the sake of the whole world.

[i] Exodus 16


Joe Hill and Jesus

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me:
Said I, but Joe you’re ten years dead;
I never died said he.

In Salt Lake, Joe, Great God, said I,
Him standing by my bed;
They framed you on a murder charge,
Said Joe but I ain’t dead.

The copper bosses framed you Joe
They shot you Joe said I;
Takes more than guns to kill a man,
Said Joe I did not die.

Joe Hill ain’t dead he says to me,
Joe Hill ain’t never died;
Where working men are out on strike,
Joe Hill is at their side.

And standing there as big as life
A-smiling with his eyes.
Said Joe, what they forgot to kill
Went on to organize!

From San Diego up to Maine,
In every mine and mill –
Where working folk defend their rights
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you or me:
Said I, but Joe you’re ten years dead;
I never died said he.
I never died said he.[i]

There is obvious Christic allusions in this ballad eulogizing Joe Hill, a working class hero, who was killed in 1915. Like Jesus he was concerned about injustice. Like Jesus this concern rallied the forces of wealth and might against him. Like Jesus he was killed. Like Jesus he lives on, immortalized in song and deed.

Let’s imagine that Joe had been with his friends the night before he was arrested. Let’s imagine that he’d taken a pint of beer and a chunk of hard tack,
[ii] likened them to his body, and shared them round. And let’s imagine Joe told them that every time before they go out on the picket line, every time before they stand up to injustices, every time before they fight for what is right, they are to eat and drink and remember the spirit - that is Joe’s spirit, and the spirit of their forebears who struggled, and the spirit of those standing beside them.

This ritual is about re-membering, bringing together the past with the present, and the dead with the living. It is a ritual that empowers people. It focuses them on the tradition of protest of which they are a part. It focuses them on the cost of that protest. And it focuses them on the dream of life lived free of oppression, hatred, classism, and prejudice.

I don’t know very much about Joe Hill. I do though know his song. And I have met his spirit and joined with it. I know a lot more about Jesus, been taught his songs, and have met and joined his spirit too. While every spirit is unique, there is a resonance between these two spirits.

Here's one of our Eucharistic prayers:

“Here today, through bread and wine, we renew our journey with Jesus and his disciples. We renew our unity with one another, and with all those who have gone before us in this place. We renew our communion with the earth and our interwovenness with the broken ones of the world. We take bread, symbol of labour, symbol of life. We will break the bread because Christ, the source of life, was broken for the excluded, exploited and downtrodden. We take wine, symbol of blood, spilt in war and conflict, symbol too of new life. We will drink the wine because Christ, the peace of the world, overcomes violence.”

This is a call to political action. This is a call to stand with Christ on the picket lines of history – everywhere oppression is rampant, freedom is suppressed, and bread is not shared. The spiritual is political, it can be no other. This Eucharistic act re-members the past and binds it to the present in order to build the future. It is holy, and it is potent.

[i] By Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson
[ii] Hardtack is thick cracker made of flour, water, and sometimes salt.


Banks and Churches

I walked fifty metres down Zurich’s Hottingerglasse and into the local bank. There were two female tellers both sitting behind desks. They were on a raised platform in order that, when the customer was standing, they had a corresponding sightline. No one else was in the bank. ‘This feels different’, I thought.

What was missing was the obvious security. There was no burly guard with weapon ready. There were no doors that captured you in a capsule while an invisible camera checked your underwear. There were no grills, toughened glass screens, or obvious deterrents for bank robbers.

Now please understand, this was no cheap, run-down bank. This was a branch of Credit Suisse, in the largest city in Switzerland, the banking capital of the world. This was where one could expect state-of-the-art security. Instead I was treated to state-of-the-art service.

I did note however that security existed. After signing my traveller’s cheque the money arrived via a cylinder from, I guess, the back room. Security was there, it was just not thrust in your face.

I was impressed by this bank. Someone had sat down and thought ‘How can we make this bank as friendly and receptive as possible?’ and then did it. Other banks have sat down and thought ‘How do we make our bank as secure as possible?’ The type of bank you have will depend upon which of these two questions dominates.

When it comes to churches there is an equivalent pair of questions: ‘How can we make this church service as welcoming as possible to newcomers?’ and ‘How can we faithfully continue our religious traditions?’ The type of church you have will depend upon which of these two questions dominates.

If you were serious about welcoming newcomers – and here there is a big difference between what churches say and what they do – then I think as a starter you could give people on arrival a laminated card with the following features:

+ It would be in 3 or 4 languages
+ It would tell you where you could sit
+ It would tell you what’s available for children
+ It would indicate where the toilets are
+ It would tell you about hearing loops and wheelchair access
+ It would tell you the approximate length of the service
+ It would invite people to stay for tea or coffee afterwards
+ It would tell you how to stay in contact with our church
+ It would say what Holy Communion is, and who can and how to receive it.
+ It would tell you about the collection of money and whether you are obliged to give anything.
+ It would tell you about taking photographs and turning off cellphones.

That branch of Credit Suisse on Hotteringlasse proclaimed the message of people being more important than money. Not bad for a bank! How do we, the Church, proclaim the message that people are what we care about most?