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Cherishing a Dead Body: The Condition of the Church & the Contemporary Theological Enterprise

By Simon Reynolds.

Some years ago, an ecumenical Lent course invited us to ask: “What on Earth is the Church for?” It is a question I asked, with no small degree of urgency, shortly before my ordination, as I stood in the National Gallery faced by Titian’s Noli me tangere. This intensely tender portrayal of the encounter between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene vividly coveys both deep desire and nervous withdrawal. The encounter is made more complex because the risen Christ appears as if he is both drawing back from Mary’s outstretched arm while also leaning over and towards her in a reciprocal gesture of desire. It is an image of insecurity. As I continued to look, memories of being next to my own father’s body, immediately after his death from cancer, began to flood my mind’s eye and mingle with my perspective on the painting. All I wanted to do at the time of his death was to sit beside his body and absorb the enormous significance of what had happened - to both of us. I found it almost unbearable to release his body to the undertaker.

The Necessity of the Body?

This merging of image and memory provided a startling scenario for someone on the threshold of ordination. First, because my sense of vocation, my training and formation, as well as the visions and dreams I have for the future exercise of my ministry, are inextricably bound up with my sense of belonging to the body of Christ. The Church is hugely important to me. I cannot imagine what it would be like to function as a priest in isolation from the history, liturgy, doctrines, structures and networks that make the Church what it is. Without them I suspect that I would lose a large part of my sense of selfidentity. My attempts to respond to a call to the priesthood, which undoubtedly has its origin in the life of God, seem to make most sense within the framework of accumulated ecclesial experience. Put starkly, I need to be closely identified with this body and its history, to have intimacy with it.

And second, because all this raises huge questions about the body’s composition, how it relates to the society it seeks to serve, and what its longterm health might be. What am I trying to cling to, and where is my sense of self and security located? The prevailing culture, undergirded, many would argue, by the presuppositions of the European Enlightenment, declared the body clinically dead a long time ago; and many voices are calling for the machines to be switched off. Both inside and outside the institutional Church, there is a deep malaise, a paralysis of will and imagination almost, which disables us from envisioning future possibilities for this body beyond its apparent terminal state.

What is an appropriate response in the face of such malaise? Is it to visit the grave, to mourn, to remember, and possibly to fantasise about resuscitating the body to its previous condition? If so, then R S Thomas’ clearsighted inscription is carved into the headstone:

Religion is over, and

what will emerge from the body

of the new moon, no-one

can say.1

And yet, the compulsion to belong remains. Is there more to the divine prohibition of Easter morning so vividly captured by Titian, and my compulsion to belong to the body of Christ?

What Will Emerge?

R S Thomas’ realisation about the demise of religion is hardly novel, of course. It is a theme which has repeatedly surfaced in Christian theology since the late 18th century. Its most explicit and celebrated proponent in the 20th century was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His idea of “religionless Christianity” in a “world come of age” is probed in Letters and Papers from Prison, and has continued to inform much subsequent theological exploration. The seeds of Bonhoeffer’s idea lie in an oftquoted letter, written in Tegel Prison in April 1944, less than a year before he was executed:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience - and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now cannot be religious any more.2

We find echoes of Bonhoeffer’s words in George Steiner’s more recent assertion that the collapse of shared beliefs is linked to a fracture in the relationship between language and reality:

It is this break of the covenant between word and world which constitutes one of the few genuine revolutions of spirit in western history and which defines modernity itself.3

This covenantal breaking of word and world takes us right to the heart of the contemporary theological enterprise, and the apparent failure of theology to speak a credible language in the public domain of postmodernity. One of the manifest consequences of the marginalising of liberal theology (of which Bonhoeffer was a prime example) during the latter half of the 20th century is the propensity for theology to speak only to theology. Retrenchment and the appeal to an autonomous theological discourse seems to be the consequence of the internal crisis in contemporary theology. There is a discernible preoccupation with a past dark age or a past golden age, and a tendency to withdraw from an open and level engagement with the gamut of contemporary culture. Dialogue with culture and society is increasingly dictated by the fixed terms of the internal theological narrative. The overriding impression is one of deep insecurity, of taking refuge in the ‘theological or pious’ and a reliance on ‘inwardness and conscience’.

Appealing to the Insider?

This tendency is arguably typified by a number of recent European theological movements4 which identify the Enlightenment as a dark age, modernity as malign, and denigrate reason as subservient to revelation. They advance an attractive agenda which undoubtedly appeals to those who belong within the Christian community, but have yet to demonstrate that they have either connected credibly with wider public life, or are contributing to open, multidisciplinary dialogue in which wider culture - and other academic disciplines - might inform (rather than simply receive from) theological discourse. Such a theological method begs huge questions of the future direction of theological study. As one commentator has recently asked:

Is it the case that theology has been overtaken by cynicism in which the hope of one version of reality connecting with anything different has been long abandoned? With modernity breathing its last breaths, do the roots of our current malaise lie in theology having abandoned any claim to rational method? Without agreement on what might form the systematic basis for theology, can it only turn in on itself where it might previously have reached out from itself?5

Such questions inevitably lead from the study of theology to its outworking in the mission of the Church. Certainly the 1998 Lambeth Conference will represent for many thoughtful Anglicans a turning point at which consensus, and the holding together of Scripture, Tradition and Reason as the foundational principle for panAnglican theological discourse was shattered, not least in relation to the fraught question of human sexuality. National Church life has also witnessed a growing shift away from an open, questioning engagement with society, and the propensity to define the internal ecclesial agenda more tightly. It is deeply ironic that the major enterprise of the Church of England during a socalled ‘Decade of Evangelism’ was the overhauling of its central bureaucracy, a sharpening of its public language, and a growing emphasis on management and success. There is less of the language of pastoral care, of the praise of God, and the wonder and mystery of God. We are perceived less as a community at prayer and more as a public limited company.

As I seek to minister in a typical parish situation, against the background of the theological and ecclesial landscape I have described, I find that my claim to offer a parochial ministry is being eroded by this sense of institutional insecurity, a consequence of which is a clearer drawing of the divide between those who are in and those who are out. Certainly, less is heard of the more generous nuances of the Gospel, and our willingness to dialogue. The proliferation of Alpha, for example, coupled to the tighter language of our initiation liturgies, sends a clear message that those who do not belong to the Church can come and explore on our more clearly defined terms only. Rarely is there any affirmation that new enquirers may bring to the life of the Church something of a preexisting social and cultural reality which, in turn, enables the Church to become more involved in the necessary continuities that must exist between Church and culture if we are to be a credible public presence in the community, or an antidote to sectarianism.

I recently organised a mission questionnaire among one of the churches in the Team I serve (it has a moderate Anglo-Catholic tradition, and serves a large workingclass suburb, with a strong sense of communal identity and a fairly stable population). All respondents were more than willing to answer questions and offer opinions on internal ‘churchy’ matters (ordering of worship, use of the building and finance etc.); but 68% of them failed to answer any of the questions which related to the Church's engagement with the local community and society as a whole (e.g. how was the church perceived locally, what were the main concerns in people’s lives, what local needs were not being met?). A predictable pattern emerged as a clear majority of respondents wanted to see more young people, more young families, and more bums on seats generally, but didn’t want any change to their preferred patterns of worship or church life. Indeed, when the Parochial Church Council was asked what they would like to do with the data that had been collected, there was little appetite for anything more than having the results displayed for interest or information.

The Body Broken and Given

I want to argue that it is in Bonhoeffer, and the currently forgotten tradition of liberal theology which he exemplified, that we may find a way forward. For Bonhoeffer, the resolution of such issues is Christological. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is a concrete moment of revelation in history. To borrow Steiner’s language, this is an event in which the covenant between word and world is renewed and reconstituted. Its character is, however, entirely kenotic. Jesus Christ is ‘for others’. The body of Christ was nailed to the cross as a demonstration of God’s action in reconciling the world to himself. It is only from these Christological foundations, by giving away and being open to the voices of the world at large, that we can begin to conceive what it might mean to be Church instead of another privatised option:

We all know that Christ has been eliminated from our lives. Of course we build him a temple, but we live in our own houses. Christ has become a matter of the church, or rather of the churchiness of a group, not a matter of life ... However, one thing is clear: we understand Christ only if we commit ourselves to him in a stark ‘EitherOr”. He did not go to the cross to ornament and embellish our life. If we wish to have him, then he demands the right to say something decisive about our entire life.6

The Church has no right, according to Bonhoeffer, to claim to be the community of Christ’s revelation unless it is thoroughly kenotic: deeply committed to others; and ready to share in the suffering as well as the creativity of the world as a whole. The Church - and for that matter the discipline of theology - which cultivates a spirituality or strategy of withdrawal from the world, is a distortion of all that God’s revelation in Christ is. Equally, when the world seeks to live in isolation from God, it is a distortion of what it means to be fully human. We must recognise in Christ, therefore, the embodiment of God’s relationship to the world. The allholy, transcendent God is present to us, through Christ, in the suffering and confusion of the world, in the creativity of human culture, in the pursuit of economics and social policies. The Church which orientates itself away from the world merely dispenses “Cheap Grace”.

Life Outside the Body

Obviously, when we talk about the ‘world’ we need to recognise that there is a significant gap between the world of Bonhoeffer’s time and our own. Indeed, there are now several ‘worlds’ inhabiting one fragile planet in varying degrees of isolation from each other. Yet the question of how a kenotic bearing towards the world may offer the Church a credible way forward still persists. It was explored in a sermon preached on the fiftieth anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death:

All too often the world is something we fear and prefer to walk away from rather than seek out. To be close to God and close to the world is frightening; not only because of the demands of God’s holiness and because of the tragedies of humanity, but also because such closeness sets up a distance between us and the Church. At Calvary, in a sense, there was God and there was the world and there was no Church... Somehow the Church can take us away from God just as it can take us away from the world, especially if we misunderstand its role. One of the most penetrating questions which faces anyone who is really ‘at the cross’ is, can we do without the Church? Can we do without its securities and companionship? Can we find our faith just by being with God and by being with the world? If we can, then in that moment of what may well be a fearful emptiness there is a real chance that the Church as it truly should be - the crucified and risen Body of Christ - will come into existence.7

A Risen Body?

It is striking that, even during imprisonment, when selfpreoccupation and selfabsorption would have been natural for Bonhoeffer, his focus was resolutely towards the world and towards the future. There is an almost total absence of selfindulgent sorrow at the scope and scale of his - and the Church’s - immediate predicament. The accent of Letters and Papers from Prison, for example, betrays a consistent concern with family and friends, with prayer and study, with society and theology and, above all, a desire to envision a future beyond the immediate political and ecclesial circumstances which confronted him. Indeed, he had no desire for death or martyrdom, and was planning his marriage from his prison cell. This focus is amplified in the letter, written from his prison cell in May 1944, to his nephew, to celebrate his baptism:

Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its selfpreservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action... All Christian thinking, speaking and organising must be born anew out of this prayer and action... any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organisation will merely delay its conversion and purification. It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite nonreligious, but liberating and redeeming - as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom.8

Still Clinging?

As I seek to fulfil the demands and opportunities of priestly ministry, I cannot avoid close identity with the Church as it currently is. Its failures and compromises are my own. In a sense, this is reassuring. I cannot claim an individual purity over and against an imagined corporate taintedness (not least because of the events and relationships which make me the person I am). I benefit personally from the security which the existing structures provide. I enjoy being a priest in the contemporary Church of England. It is undoubtedly a place of safety in which I can grow and encourage others to grow. The question is, can I do without it?

Any claim to be the Church is necessarily accompanied by a great deal of historical, doctrinal and liturgical baggage without which we could easily disintegrate into a tribal sect. Our sacramental integrity depends, to a great degree, on our sense of belonging to something which is beyond the immediate and the local. The witness and experience of otherness (whether historical, cultural or global) will guard against narrow sectarianism. Indeed, the New Testament is explicit in its understanding that the body of Christ is the locus of God's continuing salvific enterprise. But a fully synoptic ecclesiology will always be concerned with an unknown future as much as an inherited past. It will always seek to engage with what is strange rather than live comfortably and unquestioningly with the familiar and comforting certainties.

Dying to Rise

As I continue to wrestle with the question, I find myself going back to the encounter between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene in Titian’s painting. I know only too well Mary’s aching need to cling on to the beloved and familiar body. It is a universal need which every human being will experience at some time in their life. At times of insecurity, our instinct is to reach out to grasp that which fills the fearful void. I know I am not the only priest to experience it. But in the reaching out to fill the void the voice of prohibition speaks: Noli me tangere.

Of course, those chilling words of prohibition hide an abundant promise of new growth and new beginnings. It had faced me on that hot afternoon before my ordination, as I stood in the National Gallery, seemingly engrossed in the colour and form of Titian’s masterpiece, but too weighed down by my own preoccupation with the way things are. In the ambiguity of Christ’s body language (in his appearing to both invite and reject), a whole new future becomes possible. It was only six months later that I came across words which caused me to see the encounter in totally new light, and to glimpse a new theological and ecclesial possibility:

Even after death it is through physical contact, by honouring his body, that [Mary] seeks to express her love of Christ. And when he appears she reaches out to touch it. Yet the time of bodily love, of the love she understands, is past. Christ draws back from one kind of contact and leans forward to offer another, for which the time has not quite come: he is not yet ascended... Mary’s gesture concedes that what she loves is now unattainable in the terms familiar to her, that the fulfilment of her love will not be physical but spiritual. And the anguish of a few minutes before is resolved; because a Lord who cannot be touched is a Lord who cannot be taken away.9

The Revd Simon Reynolds is Assistant Curate in the St Thomas with Emmanuel Team Ministry, Exeter. The ideas in this article have been developed from a sermon preached in the Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge, in June 2000.

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You are reading Cherishing a Dead Body: The Condition of the Church and the Contemporary Theological Enterprise by Simon Reynolds, part of Issue 23 of Ministry Today, published in October 2001.

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