Vision of Church
I was on holiday with my family in Scarborough this week. It was a great, relaxing time with unexpectedly lovely weather which we all really needed for one reason or another. We were staying at the Grand Hotel and noticed there seemed to be a lot of conference delegates wearing orange lanyards staying there too. These folk turned out to be on the ECGConference, which (according to a flyer we found in one of the communal areas) is a Christian conference offering a week of all-age worship, Bible study, debates, children's activities, training, seminars and all manner of good stuff for enthusing, equipping and building up people to send back out into their ministry. I then noticed ECG popping up in my Twitter feed because of mutual friends - you know how this works sometimes - but took a policy decision not to get involved as I was on holiday. As a family we need to rest, and that includes unplugging from my own ministry, I was sure. Yes, absolutely, I was sure this was the correct response to being cheek by jowl with ECG.
And then I had a vision one morning. I compromised...
It's now Thursday evening. I'm back home from my holiday and didn't get distracted by ECG this week. Apart from the vision, that is. But ECG are still there doing their thing, so I am blogging my vision now. I don't know what their seminar contents are or whether this is relevant to them, but I have "one of those feelings" that someone there might need to read this, so here goes...
I awoke early on Tuesday April 10th, and not because of the seagulls. This was in the pre-seagull quiet of dawn. As is my custom I said the Daily Office then finished reading Luke's Gospel as part of my daily reading plan. I waited on God prayerfully. After a few minutes, a very vivid vision unfolded.
The following are my notes made immediately afterwards and edited just now only to make more grammatical and for clarity:
An immense shape appears - so huge you cannot see all of it - rising up from the landscape, looming over the landscape but not coming out of it as such, more a distinct presence among the panorama of the South Bay of Scarborough, including the Spa Conference centre and Grand Hotel. It's shape is indescribable: very beautiful and with many surfaces, colours, textures and materials. Some parts are jewelled, some are rough, some glass and see-through, some shiny, some opaque, and all of this is visible in incredible detail, far beyond what I could have really made out with the naked eye had I been seeing it in the flesh. It is astonishingly beautiful and I cannot for the life of me say why as it is almost formless, shapeless, artless in its construction, impossible to say which way is up, where it begins or ends. It is architecturally incoherent. It is absolutely, indescribably huge.
I say to myself, "Is this a good thing or a distraction? Is it from God or not?"
And I hear the answer as another question, "What would a child think?"
A child would see it is beautiful too. It's attractive, there is lots to get involved with, many ways of seeing it but almost impossible to see all at once. The outside is what we see, in all its weird variety and, as I look closely I see that there are pathways, handrails, tracks leading in from every surface, every part of it, continuing around the structure and leading further into it.
Accept it as a child, then.
All the surfaces have a way into the centre, into the heart of it. All the surfaces are a way in potentially. I muse that you could still admire or decry this thing from the outside without actually exploring it or engaging with it.
I look at it with my youngest daughter. She is drawn to different faces of it to those I noticed most. She sees coloured, see-through, glass-like flowers with layers of other shapes in different colours nestled behind. I had seen grander, more stained-glass-like structures at first. The whole thing is historic and huge, ancient, but very new; very old indeed and changing, moving all the time, never still, always in the "now". On looking again, I see parts which don't attract me at all: dull surfaces, odd angles and shapes which say nothing to me at all. They all lead into the same structure though.
And the image faded and the seagulls began their racket. And I knew I had seen a vision of the Universal Church throughout all ages and was shaking in wonder. I needed to think, reflect and pray on this.
On Wednesday morning, I prayed through this vision. The sheer variety of the appearance of the Church was wonderful. Just imagine the sheer variety of expressions of what it means to be Church in ages past through to the present and in cultures worldwide! Many of these expressions of Church will be unattractive to us. Some will be, frankly, incomprehensible. That's all good. We are whom we are, here and now. That is true for God's people throughout history, and our Church will not look like theirs and will not even look like our contemporaries' either. Whenever we think of equipping ourselves and our churches for ministry and mission, we can lose sight of the fact that the Holy Spirit, on whom we rely for that equipping, is a wild goose that blows where it will and, as this vision reminds us, shapes the Church in more ways than we can possibly imagine.
You only have to read Paul's epistles to see how varied even the early church was: the sheer variety of the issues Paul deals with pastorally in these letters, and the variety of focus in his teaching in order to equip each Christian community for its life and ministry together tells us that they were not identical in character. God meets people where they are, not where we think they ought to be. The Church has to reflect that reality.
So, as we listen for God's voice, pray for equipping and invite the Holy Spirit to work in us and our churches, we do so in humility, knowing that we are not creating a blueprint for every church. We are called to shape our facet of the Church into something beautiful, but something which is part of a far more awesome whole.
I feel sure that this vision of a beautiful, attractive yet infinitely varied Universal Church is reflected in the variety of people attending ECG this week in Yorkshire, in the varied communities they live in and seek to reach with the Gospel and in the churches and groups which they will return to. May God bless them all and the beautiful facets of His church they seek to create.
Nick Morgan, Ripon.
April 12th 2012