Rethinking the Church: How ‘tradition’ often impedes necessary changes

Today’s report by the BBC tells of the Church in Wales requiring a radical re-think:

Today’s report by the BBC tells of the Church in Wales requiring a radical re-think:

Its no surprise that the Church is in need of a rethinking of sorts. Why? Apparently, there’s not enough young people to sustain its future, too many old buildings that cost too much to maintain, and worship services that don’t quite connect with the hearts of the people.

Periodically, right through history it seems, the Church has had to re-invent itself just to stay alive and relevant. Whether its Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley, Billy Graham or any one of the current host of American re-imaginers of Christianity, there is always someone reforming some aspect of the world’s most popular religion.

Sometimes they don’t do a good job, and it all goes horribly wrong. But sometimes they get it right and the reforms last for hundreds of years. Its not always the theology – its harder to change – but the manner of its delivery and the way in which its applied to real life that is required to be reformed.

The difficulty with ‘The Church’ in the UK is precisely that it is THE Church, the established pattern of religious worship that has been with us for centuries. And deep down we may not like to change tradition. And even if we do, no-one really wants to be the one to change hundreds of years of tradition.

The Americans didn’t have that problem. Our country churches and the Protestant form of Christianity that’s taught there go back to the 1540s and before that to the days of the Norman church-building marathon, back in the late 1070s and early 1100s. The great American tradition, by contrast, is one of under 300 years of freedom of religion, no government Church, and a long history of innovation in governance, liturgy and ritual. And quite a bit of interpretive theology, too.

There’s 68 million Catholics, for a start, which helps the Protestants remain keen to get their messages across and be welcoming to converts. Including 16 million Baptists and 7 million Methodists the Protestant congregation in the USA remains the biggest in the world.

Its patterns of worship have not been hindered by old, cold, dark buildings (much as I love churches, they must be very off-putting for people). In fact, it doesn’t seem that America really has the same concept of ‘Church’ as we do over here. Many years ago I was in Minneapolis and followed a street sign for ‘Ancient Church.’ Being British, I forgot where I was for a moment, and somehow expected to see a church site dating back to the Neolithic era. I discovered that ‘ancient’ in America means ’1876.’

Americans are not confined to ‘King James Biblical speech,’ in their worship services, and their worship songs owe a lot to the dissenting Methodist hymns and the Black singing traditions that have become part of their musical landscape.

We in this country have experienced a growth in American style ‘fellowships’ and ‘ministries’ over the past 25 years, and it is just one more way in which the established Church is feeling the pressure to change. But so much of the Church’s identity is bound up with the legacy of the past it is difficult to see how it will occur, and when.