Making Relational Church Possible

Simon Barrow

“What on earth does ‘relational church’ mean? What other kind could there possibly be?” Jane looked frankly puzzled.  Then she paused and thought for a few moments, sifting mentally through her various experiences over the years.  “Come to think of it, I think I can see what you might be driving at.  Most of the churches I’ve been to have either felt pretty anonymous, rather cliquey, or cloyingly over-friendly in a superficial way…  I guess that’s at least part of the reason why I rarely go any more. It too often feels either a bit remote or rather artificial. Full of people who are hiding away or trying a bit too hard. There’s rarely the opportunity to get to know others, to explore, to question, or to relate to people in a bit more of an honest way. There often feels to be no real sense of connection to each other and to God.” 

Disconnected Church

What is church for, and what difference does it make in our lives? An increasing number of people have been answering that question with their feet in recent years, and not in a positive way. When I was young, we used to ‘go to’ church, which was basically provided for us by the clergy and a select few lay people. That was a way of being church developed within a culture which was predominantly hospitable towards a relatively domesticated form of the Christian message, and where – despite the political, social, cultural (and, yes, religious) turmoil of the 1960s and early ‘70s – the Church of England seemed to stretch across the land and form part of its bedrock. The dominant ethos was that of what sociologists Grace Davie, Linda Woodhead, Nancy Ammerman and others have called ‘vicarious religion’. That is, the notion of religion performed by an active minority on behalf of a much larger number, some of whom ‘go to church’ and many of whom do not, but all of whom feel it is (or should be) there when they need it – for rites of passage, aesthetic beauty, pastoral support and social comfort, for instance. In Jane’s language, it seems “a bit remote”, though (as I will explain later) that does not always need to be a bad thing.  

Some twenty years later, as a paid member of the then Lay Training Team in Southwark Diocese, I became part of a network of people who worked on the basis that church was, and should be, something we consciously ‘do’ rather than passively ‘go to’. The understanding and language we inhabited was about ‘being the church in the world’. For us the Christian gospel was a disturbing and transformational force oriented towards ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, rather than the social and cultural binding agent within society that the ‘vicarious’ model presupposed.  This was an essentially activist credo, stressing discipleship (the personal and corporate following of Jesus) in a very particular set of ways. Much good came out of such an approach, I would argue, but it probably did not touch the reality of life in most parishes. Jane would perhaps feel that it was in danger of being “cliquey”. It was something developed by and for an “in group” that too frequently failed to recognise its “in-ness” as part of the reason it struggled. 

The fate of the ‘go to’ notion of church has been gradual (in some cases, dramatic) decline. In many places people simply do not ‘go to church’. The habit has worn off and the religious assumptions that sustained it have not been transmitted. ‘Do’ churches, predominantly of a more conservative and overtly evangelistic type, have done proportionately better, but still occupy something of a ghetto within the wider culture. They may well put off as many as they attract, if not more. They also want to maintain tight boundaries for belonging, in order exclude those who don’t conform to their definitions, despite rhetoric about ‘outreach’. Meanwhile, engagement in spiritually resourced social activism (focusing on justice, peace, community action, and the environment) has grown, but has also led some people to drift away from church rather than to stay (or to concentrate on para-church or civic networks), often out of frustration at the reluctance of the majority to follow suit.

Reconnecting humanly for the common good

What Jane describes in her experience is something of the fragmentation of much modern church life, pressurised as it is by consumer culture on the one hand (the temptation to become a marketable ‘product’ for particular groups of people to ‘buy’) and deep theological divisions (on the very nature of faith, and on who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of favour with God) on the other. In thinking about ‘relational church’ we are looking towards practices of belonging, believing and behaving which can resist the former and reframe the latter, I would suggest. This is because the Christian gospel is all about the processes by which we are reconciled with one another and with God, called into a body of shared joys and sorrows in the company of Christ, and enabled to develop the kind of habits and relationships which make this hope tangible and shareable.

At Pentecost there was a deep sense of unity among a diverse group of people who all came to understand what it meant to be caught up in the transformational life of the Spirit through their own specific languages and cultures. This is unity-in-diversity. What it requires is not uniformity, but the ability to translate for and with one another, to build bridges rather than walls, and to connect. It is not about forcing everyone into the same mould. People are different, their life experience and needs are different, and at any one time they are at various stages in life. At a particular moment (and this can and will change), some need space and a ‘vicarious’ community that provides a supportive but more distant sociality for what they struggle to do, feel or believe; others need to be active, recognised and engaged; and some need to probe, question or reach out to others. 

Meanwhile, all of us need to deepen our understanding of the possibilities that exist in nurturing one another in the hope that lies at the heart of the gospel (in and for the world), and to be touched by this in prayer and worship. We may not always recognise this, of course. Awakening that recognition in each other is another part of what is meant by cultivating relational church. Particular church communities will also be better adapted than others to some of those ‘roles’. That ought not to matter. Different aptitudes and dispositions can be actively accommodated within the larger body that is also ‘church’. The key thing is that, starting at the local level, we nurture human relationships of sufficient honesty, durability and sympathy that we can recognise those differences, and help the different parts of the body work for the good of the whole. 

This is surely what ‘relational church’ is all about. Reconnecting humanly for the common good, and for the needs and growth of each person. Pooling our lives together (spiritually, socially and economically), in the transforming presence of God, is at the heart of what is meant by koinonia in the New Testament. It is the foundation of the Christian life, and an essential part of what the church is for.  But, as this book suggests, it is too often neglected. 

A key element of rebuilding relationships and making healthy connections obviously lies in developing good habits (regular patterns of positive behaviour), and learning to root out characteristic vices (behaviour which fragments and harms us) in the life of any church community. Valuing and caring for one another in this way is essential to discerning how to be, and to let be, together, in the grace of God. Some of the habits to be embraced and the vices to be avoided are well described elsewhere in this collection. What I want to do here is to touch on three specific, collective challenges which need to be faced in helping to create the conditions for a ‘relational church’ to come into being. These challenges are about our credibility as church communities in a world which is (often rightly) sceptical about who we are, what we do, and whether what we believe and manifest is truly liberating. These can be expressed positively, as three commitments. They are about striving to ensure that: 

  • Our practices embody our goals
  • Our speech cultivates truthfulness and openness, and
  • Our faith acts justly and walks humbly

This is not about some fantasy, ideal-type community, we should note. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his extraordinary little book, Life Together (Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1939; SCM Press 1954), warns us that impossible ideals can be the enemy of a community which, in Christ, knows itself to be broken and in continual need of healing and repair. Rather, it is about attending to household tasks together, and sustaining an effective livable space in which, as Jane expressed it at the beginning, there can be a “real sense of connection to each other and to God” – in a way that addresses different needs and gifts, while advancing the good of the whole. 

Our practices need to embody our goals

When Jane was describing her experience of church in the quotations from a conversation recounted at the beginning of this chapter, she was speaking, naturally enough, about her feelings. That is quite appropriate. Feelings are an important part of what makes us human, and it is no part of the Christian message to deny them. Much damage can flow from that. But, on the other hand, “I’ll do it if I feel like it” can be a real blockage in our day-to-day lives and in our sense of responsibility for ourselves and towards one another. So too with the formation and reformation of church life. If the gospel of God’s reconciling and transforming love made tangible in Christ is the foundation and goal of the community that shares his life, then then these goals will need to shape our practices, choices and relationships. Otherwise ‘voluntarism’ descends into a basic neglect about whose we are, as well as who we are. (I should add, of course, that I fall as short as any in this regard, I know. That is also why forgiveness and reparation need to be essential parts of the common practice of any Christian community.)  

The aftermath of the tragic shooting that took place at the West Nickel Mines Schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, provides what for many of us may seem a dramatic example of this (and of what ‘relational church’ may demand of us). Deeply disturbed gunman Charles Carl Roberts IV shot ten young Amish girls aged 6–13 years there in October 2006, killing five, before committing suicide himself. The response of the Amish community then caused widespread comment across the USA and beyond. Community members visited and comforted Roberts’ widow, parents and family. They offered material support to her and attended the killer’s funeral. Marie Roberts later wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbours on behalf of the family, thanking them for their forgiveness and mercy. She wrote: “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”  

The reaction to this in the broader culture, and in other church communities, was mixed. Many were bemused at these seemingly extraordinary feats of forgiveness, and some felt they were preemptory or inappropriate in responding to such a heinous crime. The Amish and their kindred were asked how they could not feel anger and bitterness at the senseless slaughter of their children. Their response was to explain that their actions were not rooted in their feelings in the first instance (which were battered and tormented), but in the long-cultivated actions that flowed from how the community understood itself and the Christian message as one of peacemaking and reconciliation. In one interview, a respondent explained: “We did this because this is who we are and what we are called to be. It wasn’t a question of whether we felt like it or not. Forgiveness is what Christ asks of us, and in a case like this we hope that in fulfilling the vocation of our community, hard though it is, God will mercifully align our feelings to these actions and bring healing to us as well as our neighbours.” 

The point here is not to idealise a particular way of life (Amish communities have also been criticised as being authoritarian, patriarchal and even abusive), but to consider a specific standout example of what it might mean for our practices to be shaped by the goals of the gospel, which we would hope would be at the heart of our church life. In that light, perhaps those ‘values’ and ‘mission’ statements we are apt to produce, and which can sometimes feel rather abstract or tokenistic, could be reshaped into statements of intent about how far we are prepared to go in seeking to evidence the gospel in what William Blake called “the minute particulars” of life. For those “who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer.” There is a very strong challenge towards what we really mean by ‘relational church’, and how it will be received and understood by those around us.

Our speech needs to cultivate truthfulness and openness

Laziness of speech and pious cliché (‘the language of Zion’) bedevils too much ‘church language’, and can fog or betray honesty and genuineness in relationships. I hope I am not being unkind in saying this. Those outside the ecclesiastical walls often notice it all to easily, as I have myself in my own periods away from church life – because, for some of us, there still need to be “spaces in our togetherness” (Kahlil Gibran). This is why, incidentally, the church sometimes feeling “a bit remote” need not always be a bad thing!

There are no fixed rules here, and tastes and cultural practices vary. But if we are going to build relationship and connectivity within the church (and beyond it), it is worth developing an awareness of our habits of language, asking whether we really know what we are saying, and attending to the extent to which the way we talk might sometimes be about veiling truthfulness and obstructing openness, rather than the opposite. Just as the historic peace churches try to remind us that learning not to kill is hard work, so Bonhoeffer suggested in his posthumously published Ethics (SCM Press, 1955) that we need to learn to speak the truth.  That means paying careful attention to the grain of our language. Is it accessible to all, or does it empower a certain in-group? Does it reveal a mystery, or mask the commonplace in obfuscation? 

For instance, what do we actually mean when we use a word like ‘fellowship’, which has little common currency in the world around us? When I was a teenager, it meant weak lemonade and a sermonic lecture after a games session at the local church youth group. For that jaundiced reason it is a word I am not particularly keen on, and try to avoid. There is, of course, a place for language that binds particular groups together. ‘Relational church’ is a term that is being employed to focus a certain set of considerations and questions within the life of the Christian community here, for example. But wherever we can use language that connects beyond as well as within our walls, we should, I suggest. In an age and culture where fewer and fewer people are familiar with biblical language, we must also find ways of speaking and acting which express what it has to say in fresh ways, as Bonhoeffer also recommended. 

The challenge of both truthfulness and honesty came together for me in a vivid recollection from a packed church conference about homelessness in the 1990s. The room was full of genuine concerns and worthy intent. But at the end of the meeting a gaunt, nervous man got up and finally managed to speak after some time waving his arm and not being noticed. “I’m grateful for much that has been said at this event,” he declared. “But I have a question. Almost everyone from the church who has said something this evening has talked about ‘inclusion’ and ‘being inclusive’. As far as I can tell, none of you are homeless – but I am. So, what do you mean by ‘inclusiveness’? Are you going to include people like me, who are actually homeless, in your plans and ideas for us? Are you interested in knowing what we think and what we want? Or are you going to go on ignoring us, while talking about how ‘inclusive’ you are to make yourselves feel like you are doing good to people like me?”  

This was a very sharp jolt indeed. It called into question just how open and truthful the language of “inclusivity” was in this context, or whether it was the right word at all. Perhaps what was needed was a different way of handling homelessness that made the people being talked about subjects and actors, rather than “the done to”? Again, the test of our relationships is the truth they can bear and the extent to which they are open to repair and a new future.

Faith needs to act justly and walk humbly

Few if any reading this will be unfamiliar with the invitation in Micah 6.8 to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” In some variants, mercy is rendered “faithfulness”. Right now, the Church of England (which I now view from across the border in Scotland, though it was part of my life for many years) is facing an existential crisis of reputation and trust on several fronts. One of these is its historic and present treatment of those who have faced abuse at the hands of clergy and others. Young people also look at the church from the outside and are puzzled or angered at the treatment of women and LGBTIQA+ people within its ranks. They see the church not as a sanctuary, or a as a repository of wisdom, guidance, compassion and ethical strength, but as a confused, compromised and damaging organisation. If we are to make relationship central to the life of the church, alongside worship and service, as we surely should, these issues of justice-love, of safeguarding and of reparation for wrong cannot be ignored or sidestepped, painful though they are. An abusive church cannot be properly relational, let alone healing. This requires humility before God, before each other, and before our neighbours.  

Similarly, while at the Eucharist we proclaim that, “We are one body, because we all share in one bread.” However, the actual reality is that there are vast economic inequalities, huge gulfs in access to the very substance of life, within our congregations and denominations, and across the world. In early church communities described in the New Testament and beyond, koinonia (which we often translate as ‘fellowship’, and which embraces notions of community, communion, joint participation, sharing and intimacy) is deeply linked to the sharing of gifts and of common life and goods. The Iona Community is among those Christian communities who try to practice an ‘economic discipline’ of accounting for the use of resources and sharing them as part of its regular commitment to the integration of work and worship. This may be a separate issue to ‘relational church’ in certain respects, but any attempt to build relationships which tries to ignore or avoid they ways in which we are divided from each other, or in which justice and mercy are not the fruits of faith and love, will struggle to make progress. Going deeper spiritually will expose some raw nerves, as well as enriching and enlivening us.

What other kind of church could there possibly be?

To conclude, and to return to where we began, it is perhaps worth reconsidering Jane’s initial question in response to the matter of ‘relational church’, looking at how it could (with the agreement of her and those like her, hopefully) be directed in a fruitful way. “What on earth does ‘relational church’ mean? What other kind could there possibly be?” she asks. How pertinent is that second question, if by church we mean a community of people truly called together by the earthly Jesus and the risen Christ – who is one in the divine feast we are invited to foretaste and participate in, even as we share his sufferings in the world. Koinonia, in other words, is not another task of the church, in addition to worship of God and service to the world. It is the identity of the church, if it is true to its calling. 

In his marvellous little book BeLonging: Challenge to a Tribal Church (SPCK, 1991), Peter Selby links the notion of ‘belonging’ in the Christian community to the longing for God, for love, for peace, for justice on the earth. To ‘be longing’, he suggests, is to long for a church that embodies the gospel in recognising that we ‘belong’ not because of some merit, status or characteristic that marks us out as better or different to others. We belong, rather, simply because we are adopted by God’s grace (often in spite of ourselves), and the journey of faith is all about what that means for our lives, personally and collectively. It is relationships forged in that recognition and hope that surely lie at the heart of what we mean when we talk about ‘relational church’ – “as if there could be any other kind”. This means the church refusing the idea of being yet another tribe based on ethnicity, class, race, nationality, gender, sexuality, or any other identity marker which the world uses to categorise or divide us, including ‘religion’. The challenge of this may seem immense, but the gracious gospel invitation is always there, and the habits, dispositions and commitments required to respond faithfully and hopefully are not beyond our grasp. At the end of the day, they are not about technique, however. They are about helping each other to glimpse a vision and return to basics.

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