When you look out there what is staring back at you is only you. There is nothing to blame. It is only you. And even when you look at the church, it is the same. It stares back. There is no entity out there which is the church at all. It is only and wholly a reflection of you. Or else it is the Body of Christ but that is pretty advanced and it means letting go of me at the centre and that is very advanced spiritual work.
There is a book about which people are talking. It is called The Invisible Church. It is probably worth reading but I haven’t read it. It introduces an idea of the invisible church but not at all in the way I am thinking about it here. I am only using the title as a link.
I mean ‘invisible church’ as in ‘Body of Christ’. Its boundaries are not defined by us. We neither decide nor dictate where it begins or where it ends. That church is not about a list of names. That church is about specific actions and activity. It is the coincidence of the divine and the human in the world. As God does so does that community of faith. It is community born out of and existing wholly in faith. It is real presence. It is caught up in a mission. It is caught up in the mission of Christ we saw expressed in Jesus of Nazareth. It is the Body of Christ in the world as Jesus was the Body of Christ in the world. It is incarnation all the way.
There is only invisible church. That why you can’t see it. That is why when you do see it what you are seeing is not church at all. The chances are, and here I am hedging my bets, when you think you see the church, you are looking at yourself. It is not that there is nothing out there. It is just that what you see is yourself. It is the same when you look at other people. What you see reflects you. You are angry and the world seems angry. You are cynical and the world seems untrustworthy. You project all the time.
But the church provides everyone’s excuse. It is hypocritical, anachronistic, concerned with itself, a business, self-seeking, self-serving, self-deluding. All of this is true of the church every time I have looked at it. Frighteningly, all of this is also true of me.
I have always known that there is no church and that the thing I see is actually me but it took a moment of uncharacteristic insight and self-awareness last week for it really to sink in.
Sitting in the General Assembly, #GA2016 to the Twitter elite to whom and with whom I (@neilgcampbell) tweeted happily the whole seven days, there were moments in which I thought that there was hope for the church, glimpses of the kingdom, glimmers of light, speeches and comments which radiated warmth and truth and gentle certainty. Without doubt there were all of these things. There are some very impressive and sincere people in the Church of Scotland. And yet sometimes when these good and sincere people spoke I heard something different. There was dullness, cynicism, tired repetition of the same formulaic, dogmatic nonsense.
But nothing external had changed or was changing. What changed in the tick tock of one second becoming the next was me. My mind changed. My mood changed. The world changed.
Good #GA2016, Bad #GA2016. They co-existed. They were one and the same. They co-existed without conflict because they did not exist other than in my head. And I was critical of what I saw going on out there but uncritical and blissfully unaware of what was happening internally. What I criticised and decried out there was what I dislike within myself. The scary stuff was not out there. It was in my head. It was me. I was seeing my faith, my life, my belief, my behaviour. I wasn’t seeing the church. What I was seeing was a projection, as clear as day is day, of me. I liked it and didn’t like it much as I like and dislike aspects of myself.
I have been a minister sufficiently long to know that this is what is at the heart of, the cause of, difficult church meetings and challenging congregations. There is projection all of the time. The angry member of the congregation, the challenging elder, the disgruntled congregation or minister, we are all doing it. Our rose or other coloured spectacles are in fact contact lenses and we do not even know that we are wearing them. Nothing is as it seems.
The angry elder is not angry with the rest of us. He is angry with himself. Righteous anger is not usually expressed aggressively. Righteous anger is rare in churches.
For all of us, the church I see is me. When I’m OK, it is OK. When I am not OK, the church is not OK. The real church, the incarnation of Christ – which is what ‘Body of Christ’ means – is invisible. You can sense its activity, its work, its presence but you cannot see it. The church we can see is the rest of us. And it is onto this that one projects oneself.
The way out is ‘metanoia’, a Greek word mistranslated in our English Bibles as ‘repentance’. This mistranslation goes back to the early Latin translations of the Bible, the Greek ‘metanoeo’ became the Latin ‘paenitentiam agite'(1) to which Tertullian objected. What metanoia means is a change of mind, a new way of seeing, seeing the whole or the bigger picture.
Here that bigger picture is the picture in which everything does not revolve around you. When you see the church, you see, you see yourself. The church as the embodiment of you, projected, of course, onto a much bigger screen so it looks bigger and worse than you but it is nevertheless you. And what you hate in yourself, you utterly despise in the bigger and much worse version of yourself you mistakenly see as the church.
But metanoia changes it. Its centre is Christ. The centre of everything is Christ. Through whom and with whom everything comes into being as John’s Gospel says. And you can now see it because you are looking without judgement, without envy, with no malice, no comment, no fear. It is as it is. It is what it is. It is all in all. It is. God is. And there it is.
Without metanoia, the man with a mortgage and a car and a pension plan reads the story of Jesus and the rich man with the same unease that he observes in the church which preaches on it uneasily and nervously. But it isn’t the church’s preaching which is nervous. It is his hearing.
His house has more rooms than he needs and he holidays while the poor remain poor and he watches a church do similarly with its money and possessions and assets. The man is critical. He hates and criticises what he sees without recognising that church-hatred is self-loathing. We who compromise and justify ourselves need a church which does the same. We need it. We create it. We create it and we hate it and we try to leave it and we find ourselves torn apart.
It took an uncomfortable, sometimes comfortable, comforting, challenging week at #GA2016 for me to be reminded of the truth. It is not the church which needs to change it is me. And the New Testament expression, key to Jesus’ teaching, is metanoia, seeing the bigger picture, seeing it for what it is.
(1) e.g., Pœnitentiam agite: appropinquavit enim regnum cælorum, Matthew 4:17, ‘Repent: the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’.