What the free churches can teach civil society
Here are some notes written in preparation for the panel discussion about the history and future of free churches in England, held at Wesley Memorial Church, Oxford, on 1 July 2009. This is just a sketch, to be further developed, and these are not polished conclusions. However, they have been published in Saint Columbaâ€™s church newsletter. Incidentally, today the Bishop of Reading echoed my earlier comparison between churches and supermarkets; I insist our (free) churches should be like co-operatives.
To set the background: Gordon Brown in late June announced more of his â€˜choiceâ€™ agenda, which now has the added flavour of â€˜rights and entitlementsâ€™. Unlike its namesake and predecessor, which â€˜owed more to Methodism than Marxâ€™, New Labourâ€™s agenda is to turn citizens into consumers, but then the market-oriented â€˜societyâ€™ is one without social coherence. All of a sudden, the Government needed to introduce tests for Britishness and Armed Forces Day, measures that paper over the symptom but not the problem. On the other hand, Michael Sandelâ€™s Reith Lectures, broadcast in the same month, advocated a society of citizens, not consumers.
The established Church of England, joined at the hip with the English (British?) State, offers little help in this regard. Like the National Health Service, people see it as a (dispensing) service: as one goes to the General Practitioner â€˜free at the point of useâ€™, one goes to the Christmas service at the parish church. Yes, there are Parish Church Councils and there are Foundation Trusts, but the majority see it as for those few who are do-gooders, not for everybody. Yes, there are bishops in the House of Lords, but church involvement in society should not stop there. (And, incidentally, disestablishment should not mean the end of such involvement.)
To tide over crises such as climate change, Peak Oil, political apathy/antipathy, we will have to revitalize our democracy and re-learn how to run our local communities, collectively, along with other people around us. Our interaction with our neighbours should depart from mere (commercial) transactions and move to (communal) relationships. We will have to learn how to farm in our parks and how to run our local schools, rather than waiting for supermarket supply chains and wealthy academy sponsors. This is called the â€˜Transition Town Movementâ€™ in the secular world, but we historical free churches have known it for a long time. We just have to re-affirm it.
We need to affirm the priesthood of all believers, and as Susan Durber said, â€˜to abolish the laityâ€™. We donâ€™t need to wait for bishops to tell us what to do. We run our own churches, mutually supervised to reflect the Communion of Saints. Looking around us, we see that this is already happening: the seeds are sprouting. We see Tony Brett and Rosemary Knagg, involved in the Oxford Credit Union rather than the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (run by an Anglican clergyman Stephen Green). We see Clare Matthews, running the co-operative shop Fairtrade at Saint Michaelâ€™s … thanks to the Anglican church for the space; I just hope the PCC would get more stuck in!
We need frequent, Swiss-style/American-style Town Hall Meetings, modelled after Church Meetings. Charles Brockâ€™s lectures about Independency (Congregationalism) in what became the United States of America offers some hints. This tradition is being revived and redefined since the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. But we should claim â€˜Town Hall Meetingsâ€™ back from the Americans: what can be more English … more Saxon … than â€˜folkmootâ€™? This is â€˜participatory democracyâ€™, English style. And we free churches have been doing it for centuries: since the Civil War days, if not earlier.
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