[Jesus said:] A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘My boy, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will, sir’, the boy replied; but he never went. The father came to the second and said the same. ‘I will not’, he replied, but afterwards he changed his mind and went. Which of these two did as his father wished? Matthew 21 vv28-30
What is church for? There are those who would say that they go to church simply because they believe they should, since God has laid down that there must be church; for them the question is irrelevant if not meaningless. At another extreme, there are those who would find the question uninteresting because it’s pretty obvious to them that the church performs a number of social roles, most of them to do with various aspects of heritage and conservation. Followers of Jesus of Nazareth will not be convinced either by the pious or by the cynical; they will think that the church, like the Sabbath, is made for us, is meant to be useful to us, that it has a function that can be expressed in terms we can grasp.
The church has, I think, three principal, related tasks. I don’t say it has no other roles, but these seem to be pre-eminent. The first of them has to do with power. We can all sometimes be over-confident in our conscious abilities and then in a crisis suddenly feel helpless and alone. It is then that we need the assurance that despite appearances the resources are available that will enable us to find our way through whatever crisis we face. The church’s first purpose is to help with giving this assurance; that’s what many of its apparently empty rituals are intended to do.[i] And when you’re in a pickle, you don’t much care where help comes from: it may be a god-out-there or it may be some unsuspected force deep within yourself – it really doesn’t matter so long as you get the help you need. But there’s a danger here: the resources we can call upon are awesome but they can be used in ways that are not only self centred but actually damaging to others. In this sense we have available to us the power not only of God but also of a Devil who is quite as powerful as God. The powers we can access are indeed enormous but they seem to be value free.
That’s why the second of the church’s principal purposes is to help us develop values that promote both our own and others’ (interconnected) flourishing. This is the part of the church’s role that can easily get reduced and corrupted into the promulgation of rules. But it’s really not about rules; it’s about relationships, where people know each other and can form an idea of the unique individual who lurks behind every face; that is the basis of love. It starts with the family, where the need for and the possibility of forgiveness, reciprocity and self-sacrifice are first appreciated. But not everyone has a loving family, and in any case families need both practical and theoretical support; the church ought to be heavily and widely involved here. However, even an extended family is essentially small scale; to make life in our large societies possible, something is needed that is more than the real love that can only apply between individuals who know each other.
And that in turn is why the third of the church’s purposes is to remind society at large of why the long-term common good needs to be pursued, and sometimes to suggest how that may be done. At this level rules and law have more of a role to play, but we still need as many people as possible to understand how they relate to the common good and realise the truth that all individuals flourish better in a society that seeks the common good. I’m not going to go any further towards defining the common good than to say that it centrally involves both peace and justice; in any case, the point is not to define the term but to debate it with the sense that what it is pointing to is the greatest objective of social life. We need at least to try to label those aspects of life around us that pretty clearly are not conducive to the common good, as well as to try to develop and support measures that equally clearly are. All this is also the business of politics of course, which is one reason why we can’t allow an over-clear disjunction between religion and politics. These then are the three principal tasks of the church. But they are not the tasks only of the church. Often we find people doing a wonderful job in these areas who have nothing whatever to do with the church, and what they do is no less valuable or worthy because of that. As our text reminds us, it’s walking the walk that matters, not talking the talk – which is another reason why religion and politics can’t be allowed to go their separate ways.
Decades ago, I knew an Anglican priest who left the parish ministry to go and be a teacher. His parishioners said he had ‘lost his faith’. Perhaps he had. But it’s quite as likely that he had come to feel that dressing up to sing sixteenth century adaptations of medieval monastic offices, managing bazaars to raise funds to maintain a large and ageing building, and struggling to believe and usefully interpret the Pauline gospel did little to advance the great objectives in which alone the church could find its real purpose. Perhaps he had come to feel that he had been, to a considerable extent, wasting his precious time, not to mention his many talents. Yet the curious thing is that people are not infrequently helped by the kind of church he led to discover for themselves the life-changing understandings that it is the church’s real business to promote. They may later turn away from the trappings of religion without actually turning away from its essence – and Jesus was neither the first nor the last to point out that that’s a much more desirable outcome than to get stuck with the trappings while losing the essence. The question of course is whether we can find ways of treasuring and communicating the essence that are more effective for more people today than simply maintaining or modernising the religious trappings we have inherited.
[i] Incidentally, recent research suggests that a placebo medicine administered with the proper medical ritual to a patient who knows it is a placebo by a doctor or nurse who also knows it is a placebo can sometimes be effective.