The difference between church and Church: the building and the body.
The Church is the more important and has as its purpose to be the Body of Christ, the continuation of the life of Jesus. So, it is a short step to tell what it should be: Christlike. If Jesus Christ typifies anything, it must surely be love. At the Church’s heart then is quite simply love. In a sense everything else that is Christlike stems from this. A welcome to everyone, a concern for the excluded and disadvantaged, but then also actions, like healing.
The church with a small ‘c’ is a building, the product of human history. Perhaps in the early Church, the church was simply where the community of believers met. I was reading about the origin of Venice and found this: ‘Venice began life a a host of separate island communities, each clustered around its own parish church’. I love this image of a church that is both central but also protective, like a mother hen. Human history has added much: churches are symbols of glory, of wealth, of excellence, of power, but also of beauty, art and creativity. They have as many uses as buildings can have.
This is, of course, not the whole story: there is the whole edifice or establishment of the institutional church, which I might call middle ‘c’.
When we have a problem with ‘the church’, it very often is with this middle ‘c’. At its worst child abuse could flourish because middle ‘c’ failed to stop it; the inquisition was really part of a power struggle within middle ‘c’. But there is more on a much mundane level. How often have I heard that ‘it’s terrible, the diocese did such and such.’ Of course it is always convenient to have something relatively faceless to blame, and what better than middle ‘c’.
Was middle ‘c’, an organisation or establishment, always inevitable? Could the early Church have found an alternative? Philip Pullman, in his intriguing book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, suggests something along these lines. The religious authorities of the time saw the effect that Jesus was having and took immediate steps to squeeze all the new dangerous thinking into a religion shaped box. After all it was only yet another gloss on an age-old subject. It would be wrong and seriously disrespectful by this token to damn other older religions, but I suspect Pullman has point. There does seem to have been something of a hijacking.
I suspect that in the beginning it was a fairly light touch, but not wholly if we listen to the arguments St Paul had both with young Churches and with the group of followers gathered round St Peter. The stories of the many heresies that emerged as men tried to make sense of the stories and teaching around Jesus certainly indicate that the touch grew heavier.
The turning point for middle ‘c’ came when the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. It was now part of the machinery of the state. Some centuries later this can be seen in vivid terms in places such as Lincoln where the Norman Castle and Norman Cathedral together send a message of power over a population of Anglo-Saxons that stood tiny before them. It was and is quite simply a massive contradiction, a church spelling out power in the name of a Church born of a cross.
So, what’s to be done? Well, over the centuries many have tried. John Wesley must be the name that springs most to mind. He wanted to get back to what matters: yet the Methodist church now has its own middle ‘c’, its own organisation.
I find it sad that middle ‘c’ that it is the institution of the Church of England seems to be gaining ground as I read of dioceses producing ‘strategies’, of inviting successful ‘churches’ to bring their magic formula and set up ‘branches’. I am probably grossly out of touch and will be proved wrong, yet I am haunted (in a good way) by the last part of John Betjeman’s poem, Christmas: Eve, where he explores the implications of the story of Jesus being true:
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
If it is true, can we find a way to trim down middle ‘c’ to give space for Church and church?