Maintenance or mission? — A problem with the current ecumenical situation in the UK or, "Would Jesus Join A Christian Church Today?"

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church in the evening sun
READINGS: Luke 10:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)

“Would Jesus Join A Christian Church Today?” from “Without Apology: Collected Meditations on Liberal Religion” by A. Powell Davies (ed. Forrest Church, Skinner House Books, 1998, pp. 61-62).

Davies was a English Methodist minister born of Welsh parents who, in 1933, became a Unitarian and who then had a long and influential ministry at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC. The essay from which the following extract is taken was first published in November 1947. 

Jesus was never a Christian. He was a Jewish prophet upon whose life and work Christianity was partly founded. I am not sure that Jesus would ever have wanted to be a Christian, or that he would want to be one now. I doubt whether he would have felt that any religious institution that narrowed itself to so dubious a theological formula was big enough for the job it was attempting to do. I can easily imagine him telling the story of the Good Samaritan over again and saying with added weight of emphasis, “Go thou and do likewise.” I can imagine him trying to cleanse the temple once more — whether the temple of our national honour, corrupted by avarice and greed, or the temple of the Christian churches, selling their moral birthright to maintain a worn-out creed. What I cannot imagine him doing is going about saying that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
          Because he never did go about saying it — and, being a Jewish prophet and a monotheist, he never could have said it. Every respectable scholar in Christendom knows perfectly well that Jesus made no claim to be God and was even uncertain as to whether he was God’s Messiah — God’s Jewish Messiah. What Jesus would have told the churches is that they cannot serve two masters — the God of truth and the God they put into their creeds. And he would have said that a religious movement should be based upon a way of life, not a theological opinion, and that, therefore, the churches, if they are to unite, should unite upon a purpose, not a creed. This purpose would have been the one he spent his public life declaring — the kinship of all people. And he would have said — as he did — that this meant food, clothing, and shelter for whoever needed it, since religion has to be lived and not merely talked. “Inasmuch as ye did it not unto the least of these,” he should have said, “ye did it not unto me.” And until the churches had accepted this as the true Christian basis, leaving people to believe whatever other doctrines they decided were persuasive, Jesus would, I think, have refused to join them.


Last Thursday I went to a meeting of the Cambridgeshire Ecumenical Council to hear a talk by the Revd Dr David Cornick, General Secretary of Churches Together in England, about the changing ecumenical landscape.

Before I begin I want to make it clear that I have some good friends and colleagues connected with the council with whom I continue to work well. I also want to say that I like and respect David Cornick very much. In the words which follow I hope simply to present to you a set of reflections to bring back to you to help us all as a community do some thinking about our own place in the current ecumenical landscape.

An opportunity arose in the Q&As which followed David's talk to ask specifically whether, in the changing landscape of ecumenical relations, a Unitarian church such as our own was now considered inside or outside the definition of Christianity that satisfied Churches Together in England. The answer, gently but firmly and clearly given, was that we remain “outside” — Churches Together's self-understanding remains wholly Trinitarian and, well, that is that. There continue to be ways we may work together but the relationship is increasingly like an interfaith relationship rather than an ecumenical one.

I wasn’t at all surprised by this as it’s been that way since the British Council of Churches (of which we were a part) ended and, in 1990, when it was replaced by Churches Together (Henceforth CT).

So, the ecumenical landscape may be changing in England, but not in this specific matter.

But that doesn't quite map the terrain properly because the changing overall landscape ensures that what it means to be excluded from CT today is not what it meant to be excluded in 1990. Why this is so began to be revealed when David reminded us that it seems clear we, in Britain anyway, are on the cusp of transformation from Christendom to post-Christendom and that this has helped bring about a change of emphasis “from maintenance to mission”.

What does that mean and how does it affect us?

Well, when the more-or-less liberal, mainstream churches held sway in what was a generally Christian culture (Christendom) any given church’s role was centred on maintaining or upholding this general culture in various ways. We may not be (nor ever have been), doctrinally speaking, a Christian church but we’re clearly a culturally Christian one and in the context of “maintenance” we had a role to play.

As I occasionally point out there is a notice in the vestibule — hand-lettered by Gee Horsely sometime in the 1980s — which says “Our religious thinking is related to the teaching of Jesus and its application in the modern world”.

I hope it is clear how this basic stance ensured a continuing meaningful, and often close, working relationship with other Christian churches particularly in the sphere of practical social action and, for example, in debates about the ethical and moral questions facing our society.

In his talk David said something that initially seemed simply to reaffirm this area of practical collaboration, namely that in his opinion what brings the churches together now is doing things – Street Pastors, Night Shelters, and serving the community in countless other initiatives, particularly at the moment, through foodbanks.

Over the fifteen years I’ve been your minister I’ve consistently encouraged us to maintain a reasonably high level of ecumenical involvement in such practical things. However, something’s been quietly but persistently nagging away at me for the past four or five years that’s resulted in me gently withdrawing little by little from my involvement in the local formal ecumenical scene. The trouble is that I’ve not quite been able properly to put my finger on what the problem is. To some extent I’ve been concerned that the problem was due primarily to changes in my own theological thinking. Inevitably, this has had an effect but, because I’m not so radically different from the person who came here in 2000, this didn’t seem properly to account for the problem.  

Well, it was during David Cornick’s talk that I was suddenly able to see what the problem is. I saw it the moment he pointed out that there had been this change of emphasis “from maintenance to mission”.

When I was able to be involved in the maintenance of "Christendom", which to me meant the maintenance of a certain kind of broadly secular, practical liberal Christian culture, all was fine and dandy enough. But this background is no longer so strong and clear and, for good or ill (and it will always be a mixture of both), the general, clearly Christian (if also secular) flavour of our culture does seem to be fading and we are, as David said, “on the cusp of transformation from Christendom to post-Christendom.”

But what about mission? Well mission begins to come into play whenever a church finds itself in a situation when it is no longer the main-game nor even a (let alone “the”) main-figure in whatever the new-game is. As the churches have begun to become increasingly conscious that they are in a post-Christendom situation they have also realised they cannot be any longer in the business of maintenance and so, in their paradigm, they must now shift to mission.

To see the full extent of the problem I saw you need to be clear how Christian mission is generally understood.

Christian mission is the organised effort for the propagation of the Christian faith. This involves preaching a set of beliefs for the purpose of conversion to Christianity. Mission has, of course, always included a large element of humanitarian work, especially among the poor and disadvantaged, but this work has always closely been tied to the task of persuading a person, community, or country to adopt Christian belief.

And so now here’s the issue. A few years ago I, we, could be involved in many different ecumenical activities because, at the end of the day, what really counted for most of us was the practical action itself. It was never the case that Christian belief never mattered in these things, but it could be left gently and quietly in the background because everybody knew that most people involved were sort of vaguely Christian anyway because, of course, we were all still living in the general context of some kind of “Christendom”. As A. Powell Davies indicated I, we, were involved in the formal ecumenical scene because we felt that “the churches, if they are to unite, should unite upon a purpose, not a creed.”

But that underlying context has probably been gone for at least a good twenty years, if not more, but the point is that this wasn’t until recently fully appreciated (or at least explicitly acknowledge) within the ecumenical setting. Now it is and, in consequence, the ecumenical scene’s centre of gravity has decisively shifted towards belief and doctrine and any social action that it is now carrying out has Christian belief increasingly foregrounded because this is a necessary part of Christian mission.

(NB. The primary reason for me stopping my work as a Police Chaplain a couple of years ago — this is a local ecumenical project — was because those of us who were there as Christian Chaplains were given access to Bibles, printed up with Cambridgeshire Constabulary logos, and were being encouraged to find ways actively to distribute them to members of the force as part of an overall attempt at Christian mission.)

The problem is that I, we as a church, simply have not for a long, long while done Christian belief nor engaged in Christian mission. This church’s non-creedal religious faith is one centred, as you know, simply on taking the human Jesus as our personal, primary (but not sole) exemplar and model of how we are to behave in the world. A. Powell Davies’ words we heard earlier gave a powerful illustration of that position.

It’s a teaching which means, for example, we give food to a hungry person because we believe Jesus' example revealed to us that this was a good and proper human thing to do. But, as we follow him in this we feel no desire, nor any obligation engage in an underlying Christian mission which requires us, or them, to have Christian belief.

As David spoke last week I experienced a powerful moment of epiphany: I suddenly saw how, although I could do certain kinds of maintenance in the ecumenical setting, I couldn’t do mission. I don’t believe it, I don’t like it and I won’t do it.

In consequence, I don’t think my changes in thinking can really be blamed for my backing-off from ecumenical things rather it’s been caused by an until now, unarticulated realisation the there has been this significant change from maintainace to mission.

So when David, gently said to me last week, that as a Unitarian church we were still excluded from CT, the scales fell from my eyes, and I heard his words now as an exclusion, not from maintenance, but from mission.

I always resisted and strongly pushed against our exclusion from CT’s work of maintenance because, when push comes to shove, I still think a broadly humanistic, secular kind of Christian society is pretty damned good one to try and maintain. It’s not the only way a good and open society might be organised and maintained but it has been our way and I still think it has so much to offer the world.

However, I found myself breathing a deep sigh of relief as I understood that, in the current context, we were now really being excluded from CT’s work of mission. If I, we, weren’t already excluded I realised I’d have to leave anyway.

For me, personally, this is a very important and profound realisation because the first twenty-five years of my life were spent as an Anglican fully inside both national and local ecumenical structures and activities (indeed, some of you will know that I nearly became an Anglican priest in the very early 1990s), and my second twenty-five years of life as a Unitarian lay-person and minister have been spent trying to find ways to remain fully inside those same ecumenical structures and activities. So when, on Thursday, this effort finished I felt it viscerally.

This realisation doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m suddenly going to stop working with other Christians where and whenever I can. That would be ridiculous not least of all because many of the people still involved with CT are still working within the maintenance paradigm which I have already admitted to have been happy (enough) to work with.  But Thursday evening does for me mark the moment after which I feel the need to say, quite publicly, that I have no choice but to consider myself now definitely outside the orbit of formal Christianity and it's ecumenical structures. I was very lucky to have Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch as one of my tutors at Oxford and I was very taken by the fact that he now calls himself “a candid friend of Christianity.” I feel minded increasingly to borrow and use his pithy phrase to express my relationship with my birthright faith.

It seems clear (to me) that involvement in the formal ecumenical scene is now finally ruled out for us and so, regardless of my own personal feelings about all this, in the end this is not just about me, it’s about us as a religious community who still have a real sense of commitment to the human Jesus. It’s about where we understand ourselves to be, in what circles of belonging we wish now to move, to ask what it is we want to be doing and with whom and how we want to be working and collaborating?

These are big questions with no easy or obvious answers but still, they must be asked.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.


Anonymous said…
These guys are stealing Jesus. Early Christianity was plural, with ebionites, gnostics and "proto-orthodox".

The trinitarian model is one way of thinking Christianity, but not the only one.
Steven said…
Hi Andrew

A very thought provoking piece - I would be very keen to have your views on spiritual practice in the context of where you are at? As someone on the fringe of Christian belief with humanist/quaker/zen sympathies I struggle with the idea of spiritual practice as a Unitarian?

What is helpful for you?


Anonymous said…
Hi Andrew

I am interested in how your position relates to spiritual practice?


Dear Steven,

Thanks for taking the time to post your comments. Much appreciated. In answer to your question about spiritual practice directly related to a particular (unitarian) attitude to Jesus I add below three addresses which might begin to answer your questions. In addition to these practices, however, I'd personally add in walking, music, Tai Chi, mindfulness meditation and photography. (Our evening service is one which incorporates mindfulness meditation and specifically Unitarian and Universalist tropes -- just click on this link to go to the order of service.)

So, here are those three addresses:

A theology of the event

No image, no passion - why this liberal continues to stand up for Jesusl

Lao Tzu meets Jesus - a story of accepting the gift of the liberal Christian traditionl

Best wishes,