Friday, April 27, 2007

Present Challenges: 4. Church Buildings

Today I am resuming, after a break, where I left off in my series looking at some of the challenges I see in my present ministry. This was itself a part of the larger series on my personal journey! I am going to write this blog in two parts. The first today to try to describe my attitude to church buildings and then next to try to describe what I see as the challenge at the moment!

Whatever our attitude to church buildings, most Churches do own property. Do we see this property as simply the place where we meet? Or do we see it as having some spiritual significance in itself? This is the subject of today’s part!

The weather is getting wetter here in Hong Kong. We had our first ‘red rainstorm warning’ this week. When it is not raining, it is still quite wet because of the humidity. I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like in the days without air-conditioning. When I look at pictures of the old colonial days, way before air-conditioning came along, I am amazed to see British soldiers in full ceremonial dress at the height of Summer. It must have been unbearable! Of course, the weather here causes no end of problems for old buildings, but I’ll come to that next time.

Have a good weekend!

Present Challenges: 4. Church Buildings

Part One: Just Bricks and Mortar?

Some of you may remember me writing some time ago about how I first became a Christian through the House Church Movement. In those days, it was just that, namely, a movement that believed in meeting in houses. Many of those who were part of the movement had come out of traditional Churches. Houses were the only place to meet given that those concerned did not own other buildings to meet in! However, meeting in houses was seen not just as practical necessity, but as saying something important theologically. It stressed informality and spontaneity, family and closeness.

I have to say that whatever else I believe about the Church, I still believe that this was an important insight that we have not subsequently taken as seriously as we should. I would recommend R J Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, as an excellent study of what St Paul has to say about the Church.

However, as far as the House Church Movement was concerned houses were not only good, traditional church buildings were bad. God did not dwell in holy places, he dwelt in holy people. You didn’t go to Church to worship God, you worshipped him anywhere and everywhere. This meant traditional attitudes to church buildings were theologically wrong, they reflected the attitudes of the old covenant and not the new. The Church is the people not the building.

It wasn’t long, however, before the House Church Movement outgrew houses. Those part of it wanted buildings to meet in and acquired often very expensive buildings in which to gather for worship. (It has often intrigued me that those most critical of traditional church attitudes to buildings spend infinitely more money on them than many local traditional churches!) They kept the name House Church Movement, but that was more about past origins than present practice. Nevertheless, those associated with the movement continued to be critical of any tendency to accord the building religious significance. This was where the Church met. It was not the Church.

This theology permeated traditional congregations as well, not least through the charismatic movement. So congregations led by keen Vicars started vandalizing existing church buildings. Oh alright then, reordering them! The result was much the same. Centuries old pews were thrown out in favour of chairs that had a life of a few years. Church ornaments were sold off to antique dealers. Everything was about usefulness. Nothing was sacred and nothing was holy. How could it be?

Ironically the contemporary manifestation of the sprit of the House Church Movement, the Emerging Church, is rediscovering the importance of the holy and of sacred space. So places like Iona and Lindisfarne are suddenly tourist hot spots for radical Christians. It’s a funny world.

Many Christians found themselves caught in the middle. They could see the argument about the Church being the people and not the building, but they also loved what were often old and beautiful buildings. Another consideration for many traditional Churches, of course, was finance. Beautiful old buildings cost money, lots of money. Mission not maintenance was the order of the day. Why waste money on buildings when people needed our help?

So when I was ordained I found myself somewhat torn. I still had house church attitudes to buildings, but now I was part of a Church that owned many old buildings, buildings to which many accorded religious significance. As a curate, I had the luxury of not having to worry about it. As a college chaplain and a lecturer in a college without a chapel, I was again spared the problem. When I went to Banchory, however, I had to start to face up to it!

Both my Churches in Banchory were Victorian of a gothic design. While they had been looked after, they both needed work doing on them and constant maintenance. This was the first time I had had responsibility for church buildings, and I had to work out my attitude to them. During my time in Banchory, I found attitude changing in a a series of steps:

Step one: the importance of stewardship. At first, I took the attitude that whatever significance the building did or did not have, theologically and spiritually, it had to be looked after and maintained and this was just good stewardship. I did what I could, therefore, to look after the buildings and make sure they were kept in good condition.

Step two: creating a welcoming environment. As my time at Banchory moved on, I became increasingly convinced that looking after the building wasn’t about maintenance, but about mission as well. If the place where the church meets is badly cared for and dilapidated, as many church buildings are, what does that say to new people? Apart from anything else, you don’t want to invite people to a building that is in a terrible condition. This led me to work hard to improve the overall appearance of the building and to make it warm and inviting.

Step three: a place for worship. I gradually became convinced of the importance of the place where we worship for worship. I accepted, in a way I would not have done years earlier, that physical surroundings have an affect on how we worship. While worshipping God in a tin shed might be as valid, in God’s eyes, as worship in a Cathedral; nevertheless, some buildings, because of their architecture and the way they have been cared for and arranged, inspire worship.

Step four: sacred space. I finally came to believe that not only was the building the place where we meet for worship, but that it was itself a part of our worship. It shared in our worship and acquired a character and importance because of it. In other words, I came to see that physical space could have spiritual significance. This did not mean that I thought the Church was the building or that you could only worship God in special buildings or that you shouldn’t hold services elsewhere, but rather that certain places were especially conducive to worship and became themselves sacred because of it. Furthermore, I came to believe that these sacred spaces should be honoured as such.

This, I think, is significant for I know many Christians who would go a long way with me down the path I have described, but who would not want to take the last step. They would agree that looking after the building is good stewardship. They would agree that it is a bad reflection on a Church if the building is in poor condition. They would accept that we should make the building as warm and inviting as possible to newcomers. And they would even agree that the physical condition and atmosphere of the building affects worship. Where they would stop short is in seeing any building as having any spiritual significance in and of itself and so of being itself worthy of honour.

I respect that. I also accept that it is not true of every building used for worship and nor need it be. Plenty of people have to rent halls, schools, community centres, and the like, out of sheer necessity. There is nowhere else for them to meet, and their worship is no less worship because of it. Other Christians choose not to create or to regard the space where they worship as sacred, even if they could. They will meet in the church building for worship on a Sunday and use the space for something else quite different during the week. That, I believe, is a valid choice.

But is it really so terrible if some of us feel the space where we worship, and where perhaps generations of Christians have worshipped in the past, is special? And is it so terrible if we want to recognize that it is special by the way we treat it and behave in it, not only when we are there worshipping, but at all other times as well?

Well, that at least was the position I came to while at Banchory, and it was with this attitude that I came to Christ Church, Hong Kong.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Books that Make a Difference

Every now and then you read a book that you recognize as saying something significant, even if you don’t completely agree with it. A book that makes a difference. At least that has been true for me. The books concerned don’t necessarily have to be brilliant from an academic point of view, or even popular, they just have that certain something that affects you.

The first to have this sort of impact on me was a book by Isobel Kuhn, By Searching. In it Isobel Kuhn tells of her life and calling as a missionary to China in the first part of the last century. She writes of how the Christian life is a search and that we know God by searching. This has modern resonances where search is the big thing in spirituality. The difference between Isobel’s search and the modern search was that she believed that when you searched you actually found something. In much modern teaching, it is the search itself that matters! Anyway, her book changed me and gave me hope at a time when I felt God was impossible to find.

I have just been reading a very different book. It is by Richard Bauckham entitled, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. It looks at our Gospels and asks questions about how we got them and how historically reliable they are. This is not just another book arguing that the Gospels either are or are not reliable historically. It tries instead to imagine how what we have in the Gospels came to be there in the first place.

What I get very annoyed about in much academic New Testament research is how far removed it is from the spirit that gave rise to it. The New Testament was not written as an academic exercise, but in the white heat of a new faith that had changed the lives of those involved. So much of what is written about the New Testament fails to take into account the inner motivation and convictions of the writers: it breathes a different and foreign air. Bauckham’s book, however, has an air of reality about it that most scholarly writing does not have. It is not always an easy read, but it is a fascinating one.

This is an extremely good review of it, and I think a fair one:,,25349-2633034,00.html

I hope Harvey is right and that we do get a paradigm shift in the way we look at the Gospels! It won’t be before time.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Talk Four: Saved from the Wrath of God

Recently, a friend told me how annoyed he got when other Christians suggested that God was going to send people to hell. He was reacting to a sermon he had heard in which a Christian preacher said just that. My friend a Christian preacher himself said that it was unthinkable that a God of love would ever reject anyone. I don’t particularly like the idea of people being tormented forever in the fires of hell myself, but I asked my friend what he made of those passages in the Bible that suggested that one day God would judge the world. And what he made of the church’s teaching down the ages, which asserted that we would all one day have to give an account of ourselves to God?

The passages in the Bible, he said, were just the products of people who knew no better. They reflected a primitive worldview. Now we know better and understand God better. As for the Church’s teaching, well the Church had just got it wrong as it had got many things wrong in its history. God loved the world and the teaching of Jesus was that God welcomed everyone no matter who they were, where they came from, or what they did. The love of God would triumph in the end and everyone after death would meet a God who accepted them regardless of what their life on earth had been like.

At first sight, this is an attractive message. We all respond to the parable of the prodigal son in which the father forgives the son who had wasted his inheritance in riotous living. We like to think of God as a God of love who understands us and who is always there for us. And it is true, as my friend pointed out to me, that the God of some of the Church’s teaching in the past really wasn’t very nice, not someone you would want to spend much time with, and certainly not the rest of eternity. Why would God want to torture people?

And yet is the message that God will accept everyone regardless of what they have done really more attractive? It means, for example, that Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein will all be there to meet us when we get to heaven, alongside many other torturers and mass murderers. We may be happy with that idea, but most people do have a sense of justice. We believe that people should not be able to rape or murder without facing the courts and receiving a proper sentence. Many victims of crime, while not wanting revenge, nevertheless find some comfort, no matter how small, from knowing that the legal system will track down the person for the wrong that has been done against them and will punish them accordingly. Most of us feel that people need to be held to account if they commit, for example, genocide or war crimes. We do believe that there should be consequences for wrongdoing.

So why do we find it so difficult to accept that God is going to hold people to account for the way they have lived? One of the main accusations levelled against God is that he allows evil to continue in the world. The Christian response is that God respects human freedom, and evil in our world is one of the consequences of that freedom, but one day God will put everything right.

How, though, is ignoring what people have done and not holding them to account in any way at all putting things right? We demand temporal justice for crimes committed in our society. Surely there must be eternal justice as well?

Yes, Christians have, at times, focused inappropriately on the idea of heaven and hell and eternal judgement. God has not seemed very nice or attractive. But to get rid of the idea of justice altogether makes him seem indifferent and unbothered by wickedness and sin. The message of Easter is that God will one day judge the world by the One he has raised from the dead and that all will appear before him. There will, indeed, be eternal justice. For those who belong to Christ, there is no fear for the One who will be their judge also died for them as their Saviour and freely forgives and accepts all who turn to him.

It is him who saves us from the wrath to come.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Talk 3: Raised from the Dead

First, we had the Da Vinci Code, which claimed that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, fathered a daughter by her, and that Mary escaped with the daughter to France where she established a royal blood-line. We were told by author Dan Brown that all this was carefully researched and based on established historical fact. There was no difficulty showing people how ludicrous these claims were, although it took rather a long time to do it. Recently, we have had the claim, on the Discovery Channel no less, that the tomb of Jesus has been found, and he had been buried with Mary Magdalene and his son together with other family members in Jerusalem. Fortunately, there was not only no difficulty showing how ludicrous these claims were, it also took rather less time. It would seem that a Mary Magdalene who escaped alive from Jerusalem with a daughter was more attractive to the public than a dead one with a son!

Why do people, often intelligent people, insist on making these claims and why are so many people interested and taken in by them? Well, there is money to be made and publicity to be had for one thing. Jesus still haunts our culture and people are still fascinated by him even if they do not want to worship him or follow him. They may have lost interest in the Church, but there remains a residual interest in Jesus.

We are also frightened by him. For if the Gospel writers are to be believed, this Jesus was no mere mortal. He was the divine Son of God sent by God to a world that had lost sight of its creator and had fallen into error and idolatry. The Gospels claim he was not just another teacher, prophet, or leader, but the way the truth and the life. The One who was sent to save us from the mess we had made of things through our stupidity and wrongdoing.

But that would mean admitting that we are not nearly so clever as we like to think we are, that as a human race we had got it terribly wrong and needed help. As any counsellor will tell you it can be very hard to get people who need help to admit it. We are proud people and like to think we need no help. We hide our need for help from even ourselves. So we try to domesticate Jesus. We can’t simply ignore him: his call is too persistent and his personality too compelling.

So we say he was a good man nothing more. Or a prophet who certainly said many true things. Or a teacher who shows us how to live and to be kind to one another. A leader of a large religion certainly, but not the divine son of God. And definitely not the One on whom our salvation depends.

The Bible, however, is less concerned with Jesus’ life and far more concerned with his death. His death, the Biblical writers tell us, is the key to understanding his meaning and significance for everyone not just those who followed him or heard him during his lifetime. His death, they say, was the cure for our blindness and foolishness that led us to reject our Creator and pursue behaviour that was damaging to us, to others, and to the creation around us. This was God’s answer to our sin and rebellion.

How did they know? Because, they said, God had raised Jesus from the dead. The central question then for us is did he? Christians proclaim at this time of the year that he did. That Jesus Christ is alive today, that the Lord is risen indeed. God showed who Jesus was by raising him from the dead and making him the Lord of life so that all who turn to him find the life they long for.

Why do people want to focus on theories that suggest that Jesus was just another ordinary man? Why we are so entranced by them in a way we would not normally be with such fanciful theories? Is it because we want to avoid the challenge of facing up to the possibility that Jesus really is alive? Are we afraid that his resurrection raises questions not only about how we see the world and live in it, but about our own relationship with God as well. Is the truth just too hard for us to face? Millions have found that by having the courage to face it, they discover that not only is Jesus alive, but that in him they can find life as well.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


According to google, this is the 100th post I have made. I am sure they are right!

Thank you to all who read these posts, and please forgive me when I do not post as regularly as I should.

A Happy and Blessed Easter to you all!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Happy Easter!

Here is the second in the series of talks.

I hope you all have a very good weekend. It is all about to start in earnest here with the Maundy Thursday Supper! I know many of you will be very busy indeed. Don't get too tired!

Talk Two: Modern Day Idolatry

Idolatry, that is the worship of idols or images, was just a normal part of everyday life in the ancient world at the time of the New Testament. The Jews rejected it, but they were a comparatively small minority who kept themselves to themselves. The Christians, however, saw it as their task to tell the world about the living and true God, who they believed had created everyone. We are all his offspring, they told people, and ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ - whether we realize it or not.

The images and idols that people worshipped were just substitutes for the real thing; substitutes, which turned out to be no substitute at all. We adopted them when we stopped thinking clearly and fell into error. Today we pat ourselves on the back that we do not worship images as such any more. We don’t have pagan temples at the heart of our cities and sacrifices to pagan gods are not part of the daily routine of city life.

Paul, I think would not see our position quite so positively. He believed that images and idolatry were what came after worship of the living and true God had been abandoned. It was, if you like, the next step down the ladder. At least, however, the pagans with their idols were reaching out in search of something. They knew that this world is not all that there is and that there is a spiritual reality beyond us, a reality every bit as real as the physical world we inhabit. Paul thought that their foolish minds had become darkened so that they could not see the truth, but at least they saw that there was truth to search for.

We have gone one step further down the ladder. Not only have we been foolish, we have become total fools. We now deny the evidence of our own eyes and pretend that there is no spiritual reality. We even act as if this foolishness is cleverness. But still we need something to take the place of the God and the reality we deny. Instead now of making gods of things in the world around us we have made gods of our physical appetites and desires, we have internalised our idolatry, but idolatry it still is. Worship is not simply about where we go to sacrifice. It is about the whole of our lives. About the values we live by and what we consider to be important.

We pursue money, career, ambition and status. Sex, pleasure, and possessions are given a significance that it is hard for them to bear. Our new shrines are the malls and arcades where we try to blot out the feeling that there must be more to life than what we can buy, eat, drink or experience. The consequences of our lifestyles and the effects of our new idolatry are there for all to see no less than was the idolatry of Athens when Paul visited it. Drunkenness, obesity, debt, disease, family breakdown and social disintegration are all the consequences of the new idolatry.

The Bible calls us to return to our right minds. To see that the denial of God and the rejection of spiritual reality rather than being a sign of intelligence and progress is rather an irrational rejection of the evidence of the world around us. It is the fool who says in his heart that there is no god and living without god brings only pain, sadness, and loneliness.

The time has come to tear down our altars and to return to the living and true God, who alone can bring peace, purpose and fulfilment.

How are we to find this God? The message of Easter is that he is revealed not in the writings of the philosophers and intellectuals, not in the experiments and discoveries of the scientist and scholars, nor in the sayings of the wise and famous, rather he is revealed in the person nailed to a Cross. In the same way that we rejected knowledge of our Creator in favour of first the image and the idol, and then of our appetites and desires so we rejected the One who came to reveal that Creator to us and to call us back to the living and true God, who alone can satisfy our deepest needs and longings. But still God waits for us and in Christ offers us the chance to know him once again.