Only in a church

I have just finished preaching my way through a rich period in the liturgical year. Pentecost, Ascension Day and then Trinity Sunday contain within them the heart of this last period of human history which is we waiting for the return of Christ to earth. This same Jesus, who was taken from the disciples into heaven, will come back in the same way they saw him go into heaven (Acts 1:11). For good measure we have also had the Thy Kingdom Come Celebrations and Christian Aid week in-between the celebrations for Ascension Day and Pentecost.

I had an immediate insight into why a Trinitarian God is so hard for people to grasp. I had eight people round for a meal and between them they had six separate dietary requirements. One person did not eat dairy food and another person did not eat carbohydrates, including leeks. At a stroke we had ruled out the two significant food families. One person was a vegan and another a vegetarian. One person was a meat eater and another brought his own food since he wanted to keep a tight control on his diet. In another culture a meal would have been a coming together but here, in our cold northern European culture, it was a marking of the differences between us. I arranged a buffet where people could help themselves to the combination of foods that suited them best. A salad with optional cheese, meat or bread was the only thing that suited everyone. Each of us then sat on sofas and talked across the room to each other rather than sat next to each other at a table.

Okechukwu Ogbonnaya (1998) wrote that the Trinity has long been considered an enigma within Western Christendom because a Communitarian Divinity does not fit with our individualized, self-referential, consumer rights driven worldview. Supermarkets used to be the only places, other than a church, where every class race and social group would be represented. However supermarkets are now socially stratified in a way that they have not been previously. When Waitrose offered free coffee, their regular customer complained on line that the initiative might encourage the wrong type of person into the store. “I don’t want to walk behind someone pushing a trolley with their belly hanging out of their trousers”, was a particular example of social snobbery. 

Where else other than in a church will people that might otherwise never have met gather together? It is the counter cultural nature of a parish church bringing together different groups of people that shape her distinctive role within the community. Last night our parish hall was in use till midnight by our local Islamic group celebrating Iftar. This morning everything will be cleaned and ready for a Baby and Toddler session along with music and puppets.  

Where else other than in a church do we get to care for the poor and vulnerable and challenge the unjust structures of society? A lady who comes to our Rough Sleepers Cinema Club cared for her husband who had dementia. Her husband had crossed the legal threshold of competence needed before they were able transfer tenancy of his flat into her name. When he died she was given a month by the Council to leave the house that she had lived in for the past 20 years. She has been without permanent accomadation ever since.

Where else other than in a church do we learn to die well? We have had some beautiful deaths recently from among our congregation. They have broken our collective heart but left us conscious of the God who calls us home. Each person had their own particular and distinctive way of dying that was true to the person they were. Jean died sitting up in her chair. Mary slipped away quietly in the few minutes that her son was out of the room. She did not want to be a fuss. Renee died while we were sitting in her hospital room talking about politics. She wasn’t the centre of attention but she was surrounded by voices she knew. It is a deeply impressive aspect of our human make up that we carry on making choices right up until the point of death.

I have just finished preaching my way through a rich period in the liturgical year and I count myself a lucky man to have been able to do so - to God be the glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:36).