Trying to hang in there with Church

Our Anglican church that we attend has a small attendance of about 40-60 people (depending on the day), consisting of a handful of families, mostly elderly Pākehā, and perhaps seven Māori. Each Sunday we meet (to be fair, our own attendance is spasmodic but we feel connected) in one of two regular services (a ‘traditional’ early morning or ‘family’ mid-morning service) from the Aotearoa New Zealand Anglican Prayer Book. Regular attendees are able to see what page number the service will be from next week, and decide on that basis if they wish to attend. Our kids love it. They stay in the service, do their thing, and enjoy the Eucharist. This is normally followed by Griffins™ Superwines™ and plunger coffee (it’s a bit weak, but that’s cool) in the hall. Like lots of mainstream churches, the biggest attendances are for baptisms and funerals, when people attend for that particular person. The family members do not tend to return the next week.

Please don’t conceive of this as a complaint. It’s an interested observation. It got me thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer again. Bonhoeffer conceives of community as a gift. He was no doubt aware that many congregations are a mere shadow of the church-community he imagines, places without challenge, without conflict, a comfy place. As a member of a church-community, a fellowship, at times I can struggle to connect Bonhoeffer’s church-community with my experience of the church-community. Such a place appears to bears little relationship to Bonhoeffer’s gift. This comfy place seems to have no room for the call of Christ to “follow me,” indeed it seems to have no need for Christ to carry on its habitual and ritualistic existence.

The human experience of church-community; our human need for significance, authority and control; at best our human love reigns here – but as Bonhoeffer explains even in these best of circumstances, all “human love seeks direct contact with the other person; it loves him not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself…. It desires to be irresistible, to rule.”[1] In contrast, Bonhoeffer reminds us that “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ…. What does this mean? It means, first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.”[2]

So the church I have described is a bit buggered then. Yet in the same breath, Bonhoeffer cautions me in making this judgement. Our church-community is a privilege and “not all Christians receive this blessing.”[3] We are to have eyes to see through the human inadequacies to understand that our church-communities are “not an ideal, but a divine reality. Second… [that] Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a psychic reality.”[4] The divine reality the Bonhoeffer is referring to is that our view of church-community, our relationship to the fellowship is mediated through Jesus Christ. It can only be mediated through Christ as “since Christ there has been no more unmediated relationship for the human person, neither to God not to the world. Christ intends to be the mediator.”[5] So if I am committed to my church in relationship with Christ, I cannot see the human frailties and weaknesses of those whom I am in church-community with, except through the eyes of Christ. I need to see them mediated through His eyes.

The demands of this view seem to actually create an ideal out of the divine, out of Christ’s reality. Yet Bonhoeffer is clear that the divine reality is not a pipedream. Quite the contrary, Bonhoeffer’s Christ is keenly aware of frailty, of failure, of the Cross. Church-community is a gift, church-community is a privilege, church-community is a burden: “As Christ bears our burdens, so we are to bear the burden of our sisters and brothers…. In this way Jesus’ call to bear the cross places all who follow him in the community of forgiveness of sins.”[6]

Church-community in Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship and Life Together is not presented as a pleasant or safe situation, but as a difficult, challenging affair prone to failure as “…each day, with its temptations by the flesh and the world, brings Jesus Christ’s suffering anew to his disciples. The wounds inflicted this way and the scars a Christian carries away from the struggle are living signs of the community of the cross with Jesus.”[7]

A lot like our Anglican congregation. Note this: our experience of church-community is not an issue of choosing a reality as followers of Christ. If we confess Christ then we confess the Cross, in which case we confess suffering and humiliation, for “the world has no reality of its own, independently of the revelation of God in Christ.”[8] We cannot cherry pick our experience of church-community as “between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians.”[9] It is not that we are denied choice in church-community, but that there is in reality no church-community to choose outside of the revelation of Christ as “our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us…. The more genuine and deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital to us.”[10]

Essentially Bonhoeffer asserts that what those who deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ in fellowship yet claim to live in church-community are doing is no such thing. Whether a person is weak, strong, skilled, unskilled, wise or foolish, if a church-community is not in and through Christ, their efforts will be defined by desire, the urge to control others at the advantage of the individual. In that vein, one of the things that Bonhoeffer says that really upset people is his statement that “…from the first moment when a man meets another person he is looking for a strategic position he can assume and hold over against that person.”[11] What a gall, to suggest that even our commitment to social justice and the poor may be based in the ego, those very urges that we pride ourselves on! So many have been quick to reject Bonhoeffer’s insight as masculine, modernist posturing. I am not so sure.

All of us who have offered ourselves as a salve to the poor should face the desires that drive us: perhaps it is to be significant; or to be seen as humble; or to give wise advice that changes a life; or to destroy a system of injustice. “Human love lives by uncontrolled and uncontrollable dark desires; ….Human love produces human subjection, dependence, constraint; ….Human love breeds hothouse flowers.”[12] Above and against human love and its inadequate basis for church-community, “[t]he basis of the community of the Spirit is truth.”[13] Truth is revealed in Christ, and this again returns to a rejection of an ideal reality for a divine reality as “Christ did not, like a moralist, love a theory of good, but He loved the real man…. For indeed it is not written that God became an idea, a principle, a programme, a universally valid proposition or a law, but that God became a man.”[14]

Bonhoeffer also asserts that we are also to love others who are our gift, our privilege and our burden, for it “is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.”[15] I find Bonhoeffer compelling; to accept this gift, privilege and burden is against our human nature. It requires that we humble ourselves, humble our ego, be lesser in the service of others. That’s the challenge that drives me to stay connected with our little, lovely, eclectic church.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. by John Doberstein  (London: SCM Press, 1954); 24.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 11.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 8.

[4] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 16.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, vol. 4, Kindle Edition, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, trans by Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 1901-8.

[6] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 1790-5.

[7] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 1778-85.

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. by Neville Horton Smith (London: Collins, 1970), 197.

[9] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 8.

[10] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 15-6.

[11] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 80.

[12] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 27.

[13] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 21.

[14] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 84-5.

[15] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 90.