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Sunday, 18 December 2011

Have churches in Australia "got over "christendom?

You would not want to conduct a prosecution on the basis of media reports, even if the report did appear in such a sober paper as The Canberra Times. Well more sober than say, The Daily Telegraph, or The Herald-Sun. However, the report on Christmas messages from church leaders, buried on P.9, of the December 17 edition, under the heading "Churches address contentious issues", rises some interesting questions of some theological significance about how churches place, or perhaps better, imagine themselves in addressing  Australian society, in a time after Christendom.


My suggestion is that the church in Australia has not yet really "gotten over" Christendom and is still assuming a location in society that gives it a particular position of power and responsibility for sustaining the social order. The news report gets to the heart of the issue with the observation of one church leader that "... rather than legislating morality the Church could help to unite society" and is followed by the comment that ...the gift of the Church is ... being the voice of Christ, especially to those who feel alienated from or dispossessed of the gifts that this nation has.


The comment about the Church "uniting society" betrays a lingering Christendom mentality in which the church and state are still linked together to uphold the social order, even if the church does not wish to proceed by way of legislation in achieving its goals. While it is one step away from the original Christendom arrangement, the next part of the statement assumes that there is still an important degree of linkage between church and state and that the church will play a "conserving" role in society as a chaplain to support the social order as it is. The observation about the Church being the voice of Christ "to" the alienated, assumes that the Church is in a position of power and can speak from that position "to" those who are on the margins as an upholder of social order and a source of "values", a term that usually remains curiously undefined. Everyone is in favour of "values", aren't they?


Unfortunately, the church leaders who were responsible for producing these statements have not, in my view anyway, being paying enough attention to the readings for the third Sunday in Advent. These readings are particularly unsettling to any presumption that the God that the prophets of Israel presumed to speak for can be easily corralled into support of  asocial and economic order in which it is business as usual. If God is in favour of "values" then they are very specific and disturbing values, not likely to be enthusiastically embraced by those entrenched in positions of authority. and power.


The readings from Luke and Isaiah caste into severe doubt the presumption that God is interested in upholding the social order as it is. Indeed they suggest that  those who wish to align themselves with God's activity will be unlikely to be found acting as chaplains to a society devoted to consumerism in its early twenty-first century manifestations.


Take the reading from the prophet Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 
For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11)
That doesn't sound a lot like a recipe for maintaining the social order and business as usual to me, while the declaration by Mary, recorded in Luke's Gospel is positively rabble rousing in its political and social implications:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away emptyHe has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1: 46b-55)
Yes I know these passages are read in the churches, but the problem is that they are read by the those of us who are in positions of relative social and political power, and economic and social comfort. We carry the assumptions a hangover from Christendom about the social location of the church and its responsibility for maintaing social order. As a consequence we remain largely oblivious to the way that our location in the comfort of middle class Australia obscures the radical and disturbing call of the passages. 


The voice of the churches in Australia will only start to take on the disturbing character of the prophets and Mary in addressing the world around us when they can begin to imagine themselves as being "other" than the chaplain to the state, and without the perceived responsibility for maintaining the social order and thereby supporting business as usual. When the churches can recover their identity as witnesses to the upside-down disturbing kingdom that Jesus came to announce and inaugurate, then they might begin to speak not "to", or even "for" those who are on the margins, but "from" the margins, as a community that has begun to practice justice, and depends for its life upon the faithfulness of a merciful, remembering God, not the support of the state and alignment with the "powers that be".

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