Church cannot fulfil most vital role while it is so central to the establishment
RITE AND REASON:The economy is dead but, in these times of financial freefall, what are the funeral arrangements, asks Stephen Neill?
IT WOULD be very tempting in the current economic crisis to jump on the bandwagon of hysteria and fear, and present a "return to faith" as the path to calm and stability. In the Irish context, some might say that this is an opportunity for Christianity to reassert itself.
The truth is, however, that Christianity is part of the problem! As the inheritor of the mantle of Christendom, the church still bears the scars of its prolonged flirtation with powers and principalities, whereby the Gospel that brought offence to the establishment and spoke the truth to power became a bastion of that same establishment.
Patently dishonest systems not unlike our failed global economy largely went unchallenged as long as the church had its own space in which to operate. Christianity, once the champion of the marginalised, withdrew from the margins and built walls around an increasingly exclusive centre.
And so today we have a church that is more concerned with its own survival than its mission, a church that has lost its prophetic voice and become an exclusive club rather than an inclusive movement. The frequently deafening silence of the church on issues of systemic injustice confirms a deep public cynicism towards institutional religion, compounded in Ireland by the clerical sexual abuse scandals.
The church has responded by retreating into a self-centred focus on personal salvation and private morality that has only increased its isolation and impotence. It is increasingly reluctant to wander too far from safe ground, concerned more with its own brokenness than with the brokenness of the people of God.
As part of the establishment, the church has not been immune to the global financial crisis, and is finding it difficult to fill the void left by the failure of global economics. Until last year, my own denomination, the Church of Ireland, counted among its major investments a substantial holding in the tobacco industry.
One of the strongest arguments for keeping these investments was their profitability, but at what cost? We are an integral part of this global economy that is in meltdown, and we cannot expect to emerge unscathed.
The church needs to rediscover its radical voice and present an alternative vision of how things should and could be. There is a model already. The Green movement is fulfilling a role in society that was once the preserve of the church. In a fragmented and highly individualistic world it provides a global community of shared values.
It affirms our interdependence and it calls people to concrete and often sacrificial action. With notable exceptions, people of faith are not well represented in this movement and in some cases are hugely cynical of it. Could it be that this antagonism is rooted in guilt, conscious or otherwise, that the church is not at the forefront of responsible environmental stewardship, or perhaps jealousy that someone else got there first?
However deeply repressed, there is a consciousness within the church that things are not meant to be this way. We are reminded every time we open the Scriptures that being a follower of Jesus is not about safety, security or respectability. Jesus spent his whole earthly life with failures and misfits, counting among his followers terrorists, extortionists, traitors and prostitutes.
These assembled misfits were the genesis of the church. If these "failures" could change, then there was hope for everyone. That is what the church is or should be about - showing people that they are not slaves to the past or to any system, economic or otherwise. To borrow a phrase from a once marginal American presidential candidate, the church should be about "change we can believe in".
When it ceases to present that challenge it is no longer a church, but a sterile and impotent body destined for destruction. The church is not the seat of power, but the agent of bringing God's love to the powerless. The current global economic crisis is about far more than collapsing markets - it is about the collapse of a toxic world view and with it perhaps, and even hopefully, the church as we know it.
• Canon Stephen Neill is rector at Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary