David Ould asks in response to my post on 'Messy' Church, what is church?
Well, as theological students at St John's, it is what we are always asking ourselves as we seek to engage with different expressions of church within the Anglican communion and reflect on the ecclesiology we find there.
I have done a little bit of thinking on this and I remember being struck by Rowan Williams' reflections on what constitutes church.
[the church] is essentially missionary in its nature, seeking to transform the human world by communicating to it in word and act a truthfulness that exposes the deepest human fears and evasions and makes possible the kind of human existence that can pass beyond these fears to a new liberty.1
I guess what Messy Church is actually capable of doing, is taking that fear, a fear of church - and then turning that on its head.
It proclaims itself to be 'church' and the 'messy' conveys not just the activities in which families will involve themselves, which can be literally messy (paint and glue based), but also the messiness of having to confront one another in activities which many families are now struggling to engage in together: crafts to which perhaps one family member is far more predisposed than another and yet all will work together, board games which have been eclipsed by information technology activities and passive entertainment in front of the wide-screen television. In a world in which children are encouraged to develop their own specific talents and finances are invested to stimulate these, do our children and their parents self-sacrifice and engage together in activities that as individuals they would not usually choose?
At messy church the messiness of human relationships is confronted. Where liturgical church shapes divine and human encounter, the liquid liturgy of messy church has frayed edges. The divine encounter is also repackaged. There is the meal, shared with family and strangers, perhaps indicative of the original agape. There is a simple shape to the event and the language is de-churched and an application of the gospel message suggested in the fifteen minute service.
Messy church also relies heavily on the contributions of others, who are all at different stages in their own Christian journey, who lead the activities exploring the theme. It is a place where the gospel is offered as it is worked out by people who are busy in the world during the week. Rowan Williams describes how 'If confidence predominates, mission becomes a kind of corporate egotism, the effort to bring the world under the dominion of a system administered by an institution possessed of exclusive rights'2. I think the often ad-hoc feel of Messy Church empowers, in so much as it is not a service one attends that is conducted by 'professionals', it is a coming together in which one participates and offers whatever one has for the benefit of everyone.
Maintaining humility and distinctiveness - a 'this is church, even if it is messy' status, is difficult and will need to be navigated carefully: how not to create another expression to which some will feel an outsider status and yet also to communicate the foundation upon which it is all taking place: the good news of Jesus Christ, requires prayer.
The Church will always wrestle with whether what it is doing is truly church and church's distinctives need to be thought about carefully. The Mission-shaped Church: church planting and fresh expressions of church in a changing context sought to do this. If other churches propagate the idea that next door's Messy church is not church, then they are actually propagating too a culture of exclusion that is antithetical to the inclusive culture of Messy Church. Rowan Williams warns against this in his book 'Why Study the Past?'. We are to be very hesitant about forcing our definitions of church upon others without giving them a chance to work out what they are about for themselves. If they are professing Jesus is Lord, we should lend to them his patience.
In Messy Church, the scriptures are explored in the short service and through the activities that draw out an idea from Jesus' teaching, many will ask whether it is still church without the sacraments? What is the significance of the meal? Rowan Williams, in his 'Advent Letter' explains how,
... the first and great priority of each local Christian community is to communicate the Good News. When we are able to recognise biblical faithfulness and authentic ministry in one another, the relation of communion pledges us to support each other's efforts to win people for Christ and to serve the world in his Name. Communion thus means the sharing of resources and skills in order to enable one another to proclaim and serve in this way.3
Bubbling over from our gratitude that we meet with the Risen Christ and are being changed by his revelation should be a desire to have others meet too with the Lord of life. If the church proclaims Jesus' mission, which is to draw all people to himself, then Messy Church can be seen as one way in which he is doing this. There are few Messy churches offering the sacraments but liturgy can shape the meal, even if it is only in a clapped and acted out sharing of the grace or a prayer so that the food shared with kin and stranger does take on a deeper significance.
Williams describes how,
It may be part of the Church’s task in some places to develop ...corporate symbolic actions which do not so deeply presuppose the kind of symbolic identification involved in the Eucharist, yet still open up some of the resource of Christian imagination to the uncommitted.4
Games and eating together develop bonds and it sets people in a community of consolidation against the world's agenda of competition. This in itself will strike enough of a contrast to those occasions when families come together in days when even a child's birthday party has become an occasion of one-up-man-ship as parents compete to host something more original than the parties they have attended before.
Williams talks in “Doing the Works of God” of Christians seeking to challenge 'all ways in which human beings enshrine separation from each other and superiority to each other.'
Perhaps 'Messy Church' can feel confident about its humility. It seems to me that it is exploring what Williams describes is mission that,
... is not first of all communicating information or persuading people to adopt your point of view. The mission of Jesus is his concrete reality: God’s purpose is satisfied when the lost and lawless come into a specific relationship with him, especially at table) and are thus brought into the people of God. There is no mission that is not this sort of involvement.5
Check out a Messy Church near you and tell me what you think. Click link and you will locate one in your area.
1 Williams, On Christian Theology2 Williams, “Doing the Works of God” in A Ray of Darkness, 231
3 Williams 'Advent Letter'.
4 Williams, Resurrection, 61-62
5 Williams, “Doing the Works of God” in A Ray of Darkness, 222