An ‘authentic’ church is a church which sees itself as ‘the bearer of a question’

I spent some time today reflecting on these words from Rowan Williams’ extraordinary essay ‘Women and the Ministry: A Case for Theological Seriousness’. (The essay appears in Feminine in the Church, and is also available here.) [HT: Chris Green for drawing my attention to this essay]:

If we had to choose between a Church tolerably confident of what it has to say and seeking only for effective means of saying it, and a Church constantly engaged in an internal dialogue and critique of itself, an exploration to discover what is central to its being, I should say that it is the latter which is the more authentic – a Church which understands that part of what it is offering to humanity is the possibility of living in such a mode. What the Church ‘has to say’ is never a simple verbal message: it is an invitation to entrust your life to a certain vision of the possibilities of humanity in union with God. And to entrust yourself in this way is to put your thinking and experience, your reactions and your initiatives daily into question, under the judgement of the central creative memory of Jesus Christ, present in his Spirit to his community.

I turned then to Mike Higton’s wonderful book, Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams, wherein he offers a stimulating commentary on these words of Williams’. I thought that it was worth sharing:

If the reality which the Church helps us to explore – the reality which it teaches – is that ‘ceaseless movement towards the Father’, then we need to be cautious about how we express the nature of the Church’s teaching. It is not going to be simply the doling out of well-understood truth – a case of those who have reached and understood the truth handing out that truth to others. Rather the Church will teach by inviting others to join with it in learning, and by pointing them to the sources from which it itself is slowly learning …

Rather than thinking of the Church as the bearer of answers, it might be better to think about the Church as the bearer of a question – the bearer of the question which the Gospel poses; we might say with Williams that the Church is ‘[t]hat which transmits God’s question from generation to generation’. The Church teaches by pointing away from itself to the transforming, upsetting impact of Jesus – pointing not so much to a stable, achieved religious system as to a disruption which can bring all systems of religious practice and knowledge face to face with a reality that cannot be exhausted by any system. The Church’s paradoxical task is to preserve this questioning – to find concrete forms of life, stable practices, and a learnable language that will keep alive the possibility of our hearing this disruption, and which will allow it to be felt deeper and far wider than the circle of its original impact’ (pp. 69–70).

3 thoughts on “An ‘authentic’ church is a church which sees itself as ‘the bearer of a question’

  1. At ‘The Gathering’ today (our breakfast ‘fresh expression’) we looked at the work of M.C. Escher – especially a drawing called ‘ascending and descending’ where the characters walking one way always look as if they are descending and the ones going the other way look as if they are ascending. But the stark reality was that both were going nowhere. The nagging question of why, where, and when gnaw at us. It is too simplistic for those gathered to live a ‘don’t worry be happy’ existence – they have questions – they want to ask them – and the asking of the deeper questions matter to such a degree that I detect there is a reluctance for a quick-fix one-dimensional answer. Thanks Jason for identifying the permission given here. For myself, identifying the pathway to walk is enough – the rest will unfold as I wander along and in.

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  2. I’ve had a lot of trouble commenting on WP blogs lately, but I think I’ve finally figured out the problem — and solution, So as a first attempt in making it work, let me say how much I appreciate all that you share in general, and this link in particular.

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  3. Thanks for your comment, Mart: I love your ecclesial reflection on the Escher drawing.
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    Robin, thanks too for your kind and encouraging words. Here’s to the end of the days of your WP commenting troubles. Every encouragement to you in your ministry.

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