Monday, 7 September 2009

Identity vs Intelligibility?

In an early journal article Jurgen Moltmann suggests a helpful continuum to understand the history of the church. He suggests that the church moves between the two poles of relevance and identity; in the world but not of the world, incarnated in the world with a citizenship in heaven. If it moves too far to one side there is a reaction the other way. Mission and evangelism follows this continuum. Think of those churches that focus on ‘personal faith’ as a gathered community to the extent that their sectarian nature makes them irrelevant to the world around. Of course, they would say that is the whole point! Calling people out of the world that is passing away. Or consider those churches for whom their Christian faith seems little more than an overlay upon existing views on society, human relationships, etc. So relevant that they have merged back into the world around them! Mission and evangelism requires both identity and relevance. We are a people called out, yet God sent the Son to save the world. Remove the admonitions concerning justice from the Bible and it would almost be readable in one session! The goal is to integrate the continuum, although, as Moltmann says, different ages reflect different emphases.

In the current turmoil in the Anglican Communion we can see this continuum and the conflict arising within it at work. Today we might use the term intelligibility rather than relevance. (I'm being kind here because deep down I think the temptation is to be relevant, which implies that irrelevance is just around the corner.) Of course, both poles in the current debate would claim that they are being both faithful to their Christian identity and intelligible, although in a candid moment the right would admit identity is more important to them and the left would admit that intelligibility is key for them. When a parish, diocese, Province or Communion holds together those from opposing poles then we have integrated the continuum. That is, communion prevents the narrowness that an emphasis on one pole or the other necessarily brings.

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