Last night an old friend asked me why I don’t leave the church. The question came after the primates meeting and the suspension of the Episcopal Church in the USA. In response I waffled about my calling to the diaconate but reflecting in the car as I drove home I realised that I haven’t left the church not because it needs me but because I need it.
I need the connections it gives me with people across the world, throughout the ages, of different generations and backgrounds to keep my perspective broad and generous. I need the structure of the Eucharist and the words of the liturgy to reassure that death and failure never have the final word. I need prayer to sustain hope and I need words which shape my imagination and I need to have a place in which I expect to encounter God.
It is unusual to admit that we need things – especially for those of us that find ourselves in the richest 10% of the global population. We are trained to be independent and we pretend that we don’t need other people. We find it incredibly difficult to ask for help and we never want to be seen not coping.
But some of the people I most admire are those who can ask for help without cajoling, manipulating or demanding. The grace of their asking unlocks more grace.
Lots of people of faith want to help others. It is a great asset that people are willing to help at night shelters, food banks and soup runs. This kind of help is vital and keeps people alive. This kind of help puts drowning people in a dinghy but it does not necessarily pull them out of the water.
I think the ways we truly help one another demand that we acknowlege our interdependence and the mutuality of the relationships. They mean that we are changed and we are prepared to be shaped and formed by the people we meet, opening our lives to one another so we become friends. L’Arche is a great example of this kind of help. Birch is another. Places of Welcome perhaps another.
Encounters like these make us more fully human and thus more like Jesus, who was fully human as well as being fully divine. Christianity cannot be a solitary self-improvement programme. It can’t be bought or acquired. It can only grow in community and relationship.
The more money you have the less you think you need a community.You don’t need a mate to jump start your car because you belong to the AA. You don’t need to use the local library – your books arrive in your home from Amazon. You don’t need to go to the park – you have swings and slides in your garden. The longer your drive, the bigger your gates the more estranged you become from your neighbour.
But Jesus famously said it was as hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. This is not because there will be an angel checking our bank balances at the pearly gates. This is because the Kingdom of Heaven is found when people admit their need of one another, where people recognise that their wellbeing is tied up with the wellbeing of all their neighbours, when love for friend and neighbour goes hand in hand with the love of God.
Church is not a place where we go for a weekly dose of religion to get us through the week. Church is not something we endure to get to heaven. Church is not a badge of honour or a club we belong to. Church is a place to practice this kind of Ubuntu. Church is the place where we get used to being friends with people who are not just like us. Church is the place where we begin to carry pain together and Church is the place where we can be forgiven when we get it wrong. Church is a place where we can learn how to ask for help and how to receive help. Church is a place which prepares us for the Kingdom of Heaven and that is why I cannot leave it however imperfect it is.