I have been in parishes all day today (it’s what bishops do), but managed to catch the news in the car. Two items caught my attention for all the wrong reasons.
The first story was arresting. Murdo Fraser MSP, the frontrunner to lead the Scottish Conservatives has outlined plans to split from the UK party if he wins the leadership election next month. His line is that the values and policies of the party are more important than the institution of the party itself. In other words, if the party cannot get the values propagated for the sake of the country, then another medium will have to be found. The values and policies are more important than the vehicle for delivering them. The vehicle can be changed if the focus is right. It’s about ends and means again.
This caught my attention because I was on my way this afternoon to preach at a Celebration Service in a church that is closing for worship after 170 years. The process for deliberating on potential futures for the building is now about to begin. But, the challenge is not to keep a building going, but to remember what the building was for in the first place (communal worship of God in order to equip Christians to live christianly in their community, serve others, and draw others to Christ and his community). Therefore, the Christians in that small rural town (where there is one other Anglican church as well as other denominations) have to use this sad celebration to focus on what being a Christian body in that place really means.
Recognising this challenge is not easy for some people who fear losing what has mattered to them in the past. I understand that. But, institutions that forget their foundational story, or maintain the vehicle when the fuel has run out, or sit in the car without moving when there is a bus down the road, are doomed. What is required is a recovery of vision for what Christian living and believing is all about – a being grasped by God and the good news of the Kingdom – and then working out what resources are needed for enabling that to happen. I think I met a good deal of that courage this afternoon and evening.
The second story in today’s news is the publication next week of former Chancellor Alistair Darling’s memoirs. Apparently, he and Gordon Brown didn’t get on. That isn’t news, is it? It seems almost no one in the Cabinet got on with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister. The relationships appear to have been tortuous and Brown obviously didn’t run a happy ship.
But, why the constant splurging of memoirs? Does anyone in Government ever speak plainly or tell the truth about what they really think? After all, as soon as office is spent, out comes the bile. I can’t help but think that this phenomenon must inhibit honesty and introduce to relationships a degree of suspicious engineering. Surely, if you think that one day everything you say and do will be taken apart by bitter or point-scoring ‘colleagues’ in public, this would impact on how you behave. I’m not sure how healthy this is; it certainly seems pretty narcissistic.
Anyway, this caught my attention not only because it is the latest title to be added to my ‘books I won’t read because life is too short and I really don’t care’, but also because it is yet another demonstration of ‘the means’ compromising ‘the message’ (or the values). New Labour imploded under the force of its own narcissism – where personalities and ambitions overrode the conviction that the country needed what New Labour purported to offer.
As with the judgement on Macbeth, ‘vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself’ takes one’s eyes off the purpose of the enterprise. Once that happens, the plot is well and truly lost.
The same is true in the church. As I have written many times before, the church is called to be a reflection of the Jesus we read about in the Gospels – a touching place between God and people. We are called to live in such a way that the presence of God is recognised or glimpsed. We are called to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God. Anything else is a fraud. But, that is the vocation that we must not lose sight of when dealing with buildings, institutions, money and stuff.
The fuel is meant to propel the vehicle. The vehicle is not there to simply ‘house’ some fuel.