On a wall next to platform 4 of Reading Station there is a memorial to Henry West who ‘lost his life in a whirlwind’ in that place in 1840. The memorial includes a poem from the time which turns this tragic accident into the opportunity for a verse sermon, urging those left behind to take warning from the event. ‘Dear Friends’ it says:
Prepare, taking warning by my fall
So shall you hear with joy the Saviour’s call
It is hard to imagine such an event being marked and remembered in such a way now. Christian belief and language are so far from the minds and lips of the majority of the population that few have little idea of the sense of the memorial’s message. The appeal to ‘hear…the Saviour’s call’ falls on deaf ears, in a culture is little knowledge or understanding of who the ‘Saviour’ is and what his call might be.
Religion in our culture is a peripheral affair. Recent statistics suggest that those who self-define as religious are now in a minority. Our traditional religious institutions are in a very different place to where they were in 1840. The church is a marginal voice in a crowded religious and cultural marketplace. And whilst the church may still have the default position of lead religious voice in some matters, its statements carry little authority. In the wake of the Manchester bombings it was the church that was invited to provide leadership at the vigil soon after. Yet as the Bishop of Manchester has since said, it was his role to ‘curate’ the community’s response rather than lead it, and certainly not to dictate it.
This year is the 500th anniversary of the moment in history generally associated with the beginning of the Reformation. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on a door at the Castle Church, Wittenberg, and the church was never the same again. His radical rediscovery and application of the doctrine of grace blew apart the relationship between church and people, challenged many of practices of the Catholic church and paved the way for the protestant movement to move from persecuted minority to a legitimate expression of church.
500 years later the dramatic shift in the place of religion and in particular Christianity, in the life of Britain and other western nations, has been so thorough and so fast that many have wondered if we are experiencing a new reformation. Where might we look for evidence of this transformation? There is first the story of decline, of all the mainstream denominations. Then there are the many stories of those who have left church but not abandoned faith, looking instead to gather a handful of like-minded individuals and journey together. And there are the huge numbers of people drawn to elements of Christianity, but happily fusing these ideas and practices with those of other traditions with little interest in organised religion. Something is afoot. And whatever it is Christianity, and its place in society, will likely never be the same again.
The writer Phyliss Tickle referred to what we are experiencing as another “semi-millennial rummage sale of ideas”, a kind of necessary clear out of accumulated stuff as a means of rediscovering what really matters. That was true of the Reformation with its three slogans ‘sola Scriptura’ ‘sola fides’, ‘sola gratia’ – ‘only scripture!’ ‘Only faith!’ ‘Only grace!’ It was attempting to clear away the clutter of indulgences, overbearing ritual, relics and obligatory religious observance and invite people back to a personal and individual faith. The key point of these slogans was to shift authority away from the patriarchal institutions of the church and back to scripture.
Many argue that the Reformation didn’t go far enough. The power of institution was not sufficiently broken and ritualistic authority was simply exchanged for an authority of doctrine. After all you couldn’t trust the ordinary man or woman to read Scripture on their own! So instead of being mediators of grace, the churches became arbiters of truth and dispensers of orthodoxy. What we are experiencing in our own age is the undermining of institution as the locus of authority. And with that global shift the churches in the west find they are losing adherents at an alarming rate. Some, it is argued, were never too firm on their belief in the first place. Others are taking their well-worn faith and looking for a place to nurture it beyond the reaches of organised Christianity.
Other still are venturing out to the edges of the institutions and reimagining church for the increasingly post-Christian, post-Christendom landscape that is still forming. Slowly but surely a movement of such pioneers and dissidents is forming. Spirit and community are the axioms that characterise this reforming movement – the equivalent of the three-fold cry of ‘grace’. The church emerging from the upheavals of the last century, growing in conviction and confidence, is one freed from the assumptions and models of Christendom. Free to follow the Spirit and reimagine church as a set of relationships rather than a set of prescribed practices. Free to delve into the past for such treasures devalued by the Reformation and refresh them for a new age – practices such as contemplation, silence, solitude. Freed enough from clericalism to find the space to rediscover church as a deep expression of solidarity and love in community. And freed from the endless dance around the holy grail of orthodoxy to journey with others with the deeper question of what it means to live Jesus’ call to live life to the full. These new forms of church are small and numerous, fleet of foot and flexible in form. They meet in cafes and homes, pubs and gyms. They will never have the power, prestige or public face of the traditional church. This emerging church is Communitas Spiritus, ‘a church from below’, a church with a purpose, shaped not by the limited arguments of the Reformation age of right belief, but by the common hunger for spiritual community in the service of Christ.