June 6, 2015 by Worship, Community, Formation
People do like to watch the church make a fool of itself. Sometimes the church seems only too ready to draw back the curtains and put on a show. In the latest example, the Telegraph, the Mail and the Guardian, and many more, were all peering in at the windows as we rowed about whether or not to talk about God as Mother, as well as Father, in worship.
Online and off, the debate pits those ‘for’ God as Mother (inclusiveness, welcome, justice, relevance, spirituality) against those who want to stick with what we’ve got (bible, tradition, scripture, obedience).
There’s a third category of commentator, too: those who can’t forget the watchers at the windows, and would like to offer them something that looks more wholesome. ‘Can’t we talk about something important for a change?’ they often ask.
On the face of it, the third group is onto something. In a world stuffed with suffering, injustice and inequality, there is plenty of real substance to be going at. Yet we’re not a voluntary organisation; we’re church, and if there’s anything more important than how we testify about God, it’s hard to imagine what it is.
So, I especially liked the brouhaha about ‘God the Mother’ because of this paradox: it was at once really important, and utterly pointless. Not only can it not matter to God, who can really deal with anything, but it ought to be plain to the rest of us that any words we use to describe God are inadequate. Any serious argument in favour of changing a word is inevitably just as invalid as a serious argument to keep it the same.
The debate is actually about our own preferences, but we can’t admit that, because it means the only way to resolve it is to shout loudest. Instead, we dress up our arguments in terms of what’s right:
Innovators: it is right to speak of God in a way that undoes centuries of church teaching that women are lesser.
Traditionalists: it is right to pray the Our Father in the words that Jesus taught us to use.
Innovators: it’s important to expand our imagination about God;
Traditionalists: it is important not to confuse those who’ve been worshipping this way for years.
Strong and even generous theological, pastoral and organisational arguments build rapidly on both sides. Which side am I on? Well, by inclination I want to pray with the words that I’ve got used to, and I hate the feeling that other people might grab those words and change them to fit a particular agenda. But, those are my feelings, and if you are a Christian there are matters more powerful than feelings: God, for instance. When we stand before God as fully as we dare, and compare ourselves to him, our perspective shifts: even our most strongly held feelings, and the beliefs that generate them, become laughable. ‘It’s nice that you care on my behalf, little human, but I think I’ll probably be ok without your help.’ Yes, prayer, esepcially listening, reflective prayer, soon dissovles our vanities.
How do we get in this room, with the lights on and the curtains drawn back, yelling at each other, anyway? As Christians, we ought to know that righteousness is not the mainstay of our calling, and never has been. God’s been telling us for millenia. From the first moments, faithfulness has been the heart of God’s call. Whether it’s Eve and Adam, asked to trust God (and failing); whether it’s Abraham, whose ‘faith was reckoned unto him as righteousness’, or Moses and the people of Israel, shaped in the desert years, or most simply the disciples, who repeatedly learnt that they had no capacity whatsoever to judge what was right, but kept faith with Jesus enough to eventually be formed as the early church: these are our examples, and each testifies to faith above righteousness. If St Paul had not been rescued from certainty by Jesus and led into faithfulness, he would have been a righteous Pharisee to the end of his life.
And worship is the special space where we can train for faith over rightness. The weekend palaver over God as mother is a palaver over ‘what I want’ dressed up in the language of ‘what is right’. But what we want is very rarely what we need – and as long as we pitch the argument in terms of finding the right answer, we are being unfaithful to God. We do not need the right answer: we need a faithful answer.
As such, let’s leave judgement behind and take up discernment instead.
A right answer is certain, permanent and universal. If it’s right, then it’s right for all, for ever. By contrast, a faithful answer is provisional, collaborative, and local. A right answer can be applied from the outside; a faithful one needs to be arrived at from within. One congregation’s faithful discernment will be different from another’s – but as they implement it, they will know about those who have ‘lost’ the discussion and will have a better chance of travelling together. What’s most important of all, is that seeking a faithful answer together, rather than a right one, forms the congregation in real Christian practices:
- Hearing and learning from one another (testimony and reconciliation)
- Honesty and trust – as we pluck up the courage to describe why we feel what we feel, and share that with others
- Generosity and hopefulness – as we try to imagine ways of looking after others more than ourselves
- Welcome and hospitality – as we think of what would open the gospel best to those who do not worship with us
This kind of discipline is difficult, but glorious. It demands time, commitment and some particular skills – how to shape and support debate – but once a group of people learns that it can work through conflict in things that matter, the community begins to travel towards becoming a vibrant and laughter-filled, nurturing and hopeful community – and one that can display incredible creativity. This is true of any community that learns to debate together, I think, but with worship at its heart, church has a place where we can learn to deal with things that seem to matter massively, while also not mattering at all. This, I hope, mitigates against scapegoating, but that is another blog.
Thank God we have worship, where no one gets hurt or killed, because here we can learn to work through difficulty before heading out to make the same types of decisions out in the world – where people do get hurt and killed. Thank God we can learn to discern what is good with Christians, who we can expect to forgive us, before we go out into the world, which cannot be expected to forgive. And above all, thank God for pointless things to argue over, in public, with the lights on, because if we do it faithfully we can be a gift for the watching world.