The General Synod of the Church of England is meeting for three days in London. Like many others, I approach such meetings with a mixture of serious anticipation and reluctant resignation. I might be unusual, but I usually need some prior wider preparatory thinking that sets the particular agenda in a constructive context.

So, I was belatedly reading some papers on the train this morning and found in them some useful stuff. Dr Isolde Karle presented a paper at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung conference in Italy recently in which she addressed some of the challenges and perspectives arising from the role of the Church in a society differentiated by function (Kirche in der funktional differenzierten Gesellschaft: Herausforderungen und Perspektiven). Having examined the changes in society that have led to a diminution in influence on the part of the Church in the west, she differentiates between the dominance of status/order (up to the 18th century) and that of function/individualism thereafter. She looks at Luther (who wanted freedom from the – perceived – totalitarian claims of the Roman Catholic Church) and Schleiermacher (who wanted to free the church from the state) en route and summarises: “Religion war vor allem eine Sache der Ordnung, nicht der Überzeugung.”

Having stated that the church both gains and loses from the changes that now shape the modern world, she goes on to identify three 'dimensions of church life' that are significant for wider society:

  • Preservation of the Christian cultural memory
  • Church as an intermediary institution
  • Inclusion of the excluded.

Now, although these will take on slightly different complexions depending on the particular German or English contexts, they seem to me to offer a corrective to the common defensive misery or under confidence of the church in a changing world. Yes, there are other dimensions that could be identified, but these three matter enormously. Dr Karle is unapologetic in stating that this cultural memory cannot be taken for granted. “It is completely imaginable that one day the story of the Good Samaritan will no longer be known/understood. Solidarity with the powerless, deliberate care of the marginalised, of the sick and of people in need are not self-evident.” (Es ist aber durchaus vorstellbar, dass die Geschichte vom barmherzigen Samariter eines Tages nicht mehr verstanden wird. Die Solidarität mit den Schwächeren, die explizite Rücksichtnahme auf Ausgegrenzte, auf Kranke, auf Menschen in Not versteht sich nicht von selbst.)

The church is well placed to create the space in which other societal bodies can meet and thrive – hence the 'intermediary' role which the church exercises for the common good… on the basis of the vital rooting of our cultural memory in Christian theology and ethics.

In a functionally-differentiated world in which fragmentation is one consequence of societal change the church remains one of the few institutions that make space for all-comers regardless of background, status, qualification, wealth or ability.

OK, this is a rough summary of a longer and well-argued paper (that will be published next year). But, given that we will be debating women bishops (there's a surprise!) and 'intentional evangelism' (with the clear challenge of what this looks like among the poor and on our large urban estates where many churches are struggling to grow), Dr Isolde provides a background consideration of the cultural pool in which the church currently swims.