The role of the Church in society

For a very large number of people in this country (probably including most of those who are not members of any church, as well as not a few of those who would describe themselves as Anglican), the Church of England exists for two main reasons: to look after a particular set of ancient buildings of high historical value (and to preserve some ancient religious rites that have been performed therein since time immemorial), and to perform ceremonies for important occasions in the lives of individuals (i.e. christenings, weddings and funerals) and in the life of the nation (coronations and royal weddings). As a general rule, if these people do ever attend a church service, they will expect the vicar to use the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer – whether ordinary people can now understand these is beside the point – and woe betide him (or her) if he (or she) has moved the pews around!

In this paradigm, the Church has to conform to the expectations of society. It exists to serve it, and so it must abide by whatever rules society sets. If society decrees that a certain way of doing things is wrong, then the Church must immediately follow suit (Note: the Church must be ‘traditional’ in its worship, but its message should be indistinguishable from that of the prevalent culture). Any differences it might exhibit should be purely decorative: there’s no better backdrop for those (gay) wedding photos than an attractive old parish church.

The Apostle Peter had a somewhat different point of view, which can be found in his first letter (towards the end of the New Testament). The Church, in his mind, is a spiritual house (not a material building at all, let alone a ‘listed’ one); moreover, it is built out of ‘rejects’ (beginning with its Cornerstone, the Messiah rejected by His own people). This is anything but a respectable organisation. It won’t be orchestrating any state occasions – it won’t even be invited to attend! So what are we? “A chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” And what is our role? To “declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.” (I Peter 2:9)

This is a totally different paradigm. The Church is separate from the rest of the world, and is not answerable to society – only to God. But this does not mean huddling together in some kind of private club (society would not mind that so much!); instead, we have the uncomfortable duty of broadcasting our counter-cultural message to all and sundry. This means using contemporary language to preach a traditional gospel – the complete opposite of what the world wants us to do!

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