The Guardian has now closed responses to Theo Hobson’s Face to Faith article. He started a very interesting debate and I, for one, am grateful. Most responses were intelligent and respectful. I do not think that Theo’s responses do him justice, but he will have to tackle that himself. (I have posted earlier on this.)

However, one respondent (called bannercross) made three very good observations and I am pasting them below. (I hope that is acceptable – not sure of etiquette in these things.)

First, what do we mean by ‘liberal’? Simply going along with the world’s current consensus? Sure, that saves us embarrassment and conflict, but is hardly what Christians are called to. To take a recent example, one reason the bankers got away with so much for so long is that the whole of society was on a credit binge. As long as we felt better off, no-one wanted to question ‘greed is good’ – certainly not the average politician! If Christians had had more balls we’d have been translating our unease into prophetic warnings.

Secondly, didn’t most of the splintered denominations in Christianity start off trying to get away from the corrupt institution they thought the Church had become? And didnt most end up just as institutionalised, whether individual churches labelled ‘Free Evangelical where the atmosphere is anything but free, or whole groups like the Quakers who have a stronger sense of denominational identity and ‘what we do and dont do around here than the Anglicans! Do your ‘free liberal’ thing long enough and make it attractive enough and start your own denomination?

Thirdly, the church I just about hang in with has a huge mission to the marginalised – kids’ clubs in rough parts of the city, soup runs, work with kids dropping out of education, advice on debt, a fellowship that gets the homeless back off the streets and learning skills – I could go on. The point is not to say ‘what a marvellous institution we are’. The point is that working with the vulnerable cant be done on a Generation X ‘turn up when you feel like it basis. These folks have been let down repeatedly; they need to know that people will be there each week for them. This requires organisation, time, money – and a wider community into which they can be welcomed. I may not like many aspects of ‘church but Im struggling to find a better model for organising followers of Jesus to manage this. And as far as I can see from Jesus’ own track record, if were not there for the poor and oppressed we may as well all go home!

It is his/her third point that is most powerful. Take away the ‘institutional’ elements of the Church and you lose a lot more than you gain. For example, the ability to organise effectively for being present and engaged in places and communities that would otherwise be abandoned. Self-selecting ‘alternative churches’ run the risk of meeting the needs of those who belong, but ignoring the needs of those who are challenging. Narcissism is not a Christian virtue.