What is the point of church?

Blog post by Warren Hartley 

In September at St Bride’s, for the third year, in a row we celebrated Inclusive Church Sunday. Not heard of it before? Don’t worry, many won’t have!  St Bride’s is part of Inclusive Church, a national network which seeks to raise awareness about the ways that people feel excluded by the church.  It is so much more than just a single issue organisation and is committed to working for a church that is welcoming and open to all. So each year, on the third Sunday of September, we hold a special service which celebrates our membership of this network and to recommit ourselves to making inclusion a hallmark of our community.

We were delighted to be joined this year by Rev Dr Barbara Glasson, a Methodist minister from Touchstone Community in Bradford. Barbara is no stranger to Liverpool, having set up Liverpool City Centre Methodist Church, also known as ‘Somewhere Else’ or, as it is more popularly known, ‘The Bread Church’ on Bold Street. The reason we invited Barbara to celebrate with us for Inclusive Church Sunday was her role in leading the Touchstone Community.  Touchstone describes itself as ’a listening community with the vision of making safe places of hospitality where people who are radically different can listen to and with each other.’  This is not your typical church community.  

I am particularly struck by the phrase ’a place where people can listen to and with each other‘.  You see, I don’t know about your experience, but so often religion can come across as ‘let me tell you’, rather than ‘let me listen to you‘.  So many communities seem more interested in spreading the word than in listening to the life experiences, thoughts, hopes, dreams and tragedies of people.  Perhaps it is because, if we listened, our neat, tidy little way of looking at life may stop looking so neat and tidy.  Having our assumptions or way of life challenged is not a comfortable experience.  If we are passionate about being inclusive, it will be costly.  Inclusion isn’t about bringing in the outsider and saying, ‘See, aren’t we lovely, we’re including you!’  Inclusion is far more radical.  Inclusion is about going outside of the walls of our buildings, outside of our comfort zone, to accompany others and thus risk being changed by the experience.

Barbara challenged us to be a church community that listens, but more than that.  Barbara summed it up well when she said that the mission of the church is to listen. Not to preach, but to listen, to really listen to the people we are with.  In our own limited and faltering way, I believe the community that is St Bride’s does attempt to live this out.  We can’t and won’t always get this right.  We are a community of human beings.  Though we might not like to think we do, humans have limitations.  We can’t know everything, we can’t be all things to all people nor get it right every time in every circumstance.  So what do we do?

This got me thinking again about something I regularly ponder. What is the point of church? How do we live out a message of radical inclusion within the limitations of culture, institution, history and circumstances?  As I was reflecting on this something struck me quite profoundly from our Eucharistic Prayer that day.  A prayer written to specifically for Inclusive Church Sunday:

‘May the Spirit of creation take these earthly things and show us, in their brokenness, the life-giving plenty, the end of all poverty, the body and blood of Christ.’

That is what the church is for!  This is a prayer I can pray!  May the creator of this universe take this earthly and broken church and may it, in its brokenness and humanness, be the body and blood of Christ.  To embody the divine and create communities and places of abundance.  Communities which work tirelessly for equality and the end of poverty.  Communities willing to risk everything, even its own existence to create places where all are welcome, all are heard and to be transformed in the process.  Maybe, just maybe, we might change the world in the process.

The Eucharistic prayer continued:

’We pray that we will be a community defined by what it is open to, not by what it fears; by the excess of its love not the walls along its borders‘.

May this be our deepest desire.  Amen.

You can listen to Barbara’s reflection here.