A few years ago, the vicar of my then (Evangelical Anglican) church encouraged the congregation to meditate on the future of that church – so I did, and had a vision of the church turning itself inside out – literally (tales of topographical churches?). The floor lifted through the roof, everything along each side of the church reversed itself in order to become “outside” and the pews rearranged themselves to line the sides of what was now a single thick wall; everyone in them was now facing the streets on either side rather than into the body of the church. The former roof became canopies cantilevered over the pews, and I’m assuming the altar was now decorating the rear wall, which I couldn’t see.
I shared that vision with him after the service. I’m not sure he was entirely taken with the vision. I read speculation as to whether Christianity can survive without an institutional church; he may have had something of that sort in mind.
To be fair to that church, it does already spill out onto the street more than most others. The doors are open more than those of most other churches in the city, there are often events which spill onto the church forecourt (which is effectively just part of the street), and they do immersion baptisms on the forecourt in good weather. They welcome the homeless of the city in particular, and feed them one day a week.
They just need to do something about the 16th century walls and 19th century box pews, and the mindsets which go with them. A people set apart, by walls, and a people intent on themselves, protected by box pews (although the Peace does disrupt that somewhat).
I can relate to the impulse to become “a people set apart”, which I tend to think of as the Anabaptist option, thinking in particular of the various Mennonite sects, notably the Amish. Granted, I don’t do that from the standpoint of the religious conservative, as to a great extent they do; that seems to be the impulse which fuels “The Benedict Option” (a kind of new monasticism as proposed in a recent book by Rod Dreher) which plays to the moral impulses of conservatives to avoid contact with anything viewed as “impure”, to venerate authority and group loyalty. I’m not a conservative; my primary moral concerns are fairness and care, and I worry less about liberty, following authority and purity, which are values which tend to be placed high by conservatives, as Jonathan Haidt remarks in “The Righteous Mind”. I do however value loyalty to my group very highly – but I take the definition of my group from Jesus, whose parable of the Good Samaritan (which these days would probably be the parable of the good Isis fighter or, for me, perhaps the parable of the good Tory MP) tells me that everyone around me is part of my “in-group”. I also cringe at my necessary immersion in a culture which values self-centered pursuit of money and conspicuous consumption very highly; I’ve characterised financialised free market capitalism as “The System of Satan” previously.
It’s that last impulse which removes the possibility of withdrawal from society as being a viable option. While I view it as a fairly conservative one at root, I take a radical view of its extent. Jesus was renowned for consorting with extortionists (tax collectors) prostitutes and other low-lives; he was typically unconcerned about mixing with women or foreigners (even foreigners who were part of the occupying Roman forces), and didn’t have much time for ritual purity considerations – women with discharges, for instance.
So maybe that gives the background for my vision. There is a centre – the church walls in the middle. There is shelter – the roof cantilevering out in both directions, rather than rising to a central apex. But there are no walls, no separation from the life around it. In much the same way, I look to Jesus as the centre, the model for our lives, and see us as looking out from that perspective and welcoming towards us (and him) everyone “out there”, no matter how far from that centre they may seem to be. If we can attract their gaze in the direction of Jesus, they are going to be moving in the right direction.
And our overriding mandate is to love them as we love ourselves (or God; the second Great commandment is like unto the first), to care for them as we care for ourselves.
As we get closer to the centre, we become more closely the community which I think he envisaged; there is room there for a kind of monasticism, but a new one. I was recently at a lecture series by Robin Meyer, in which he told the story of a monastery which was originally set high on the hills overlooking Santa Barbara in California, with expansive views over the valleys below and complete peace; you could go there and “feel close to God”. However, wildfires destroyed the monastery some years ago, and the monks were given shelter by nuns living in the midst of the bustle of the city below. When the insurance paid out, the monks debated whether to rebuild up on the mountain, and decided their place was exactly among the people. The new monastery is not quiet and does not have a superior vantage point, but it is involved with the community as its predecessor wasn’t.
It has opened itself to the world. That is where I think we should always strive to be.