Thinking Anew – If the Church is our mother

Portsmouth Cathedral. Known as “the Cathedral of the Sea”, it is situated at the mouth of the harbour: a hard-working expanse of water, with ferries, warships, oil tankers, fishing boats and cargo ships passing at all hours. Photograph: Getty Images

Portsmouth Cathedral. Known as “the Cathedral of the Sea”, it is situated at the mouth of the harbour: a hard-working expanse of water, with ferries, warships, oil tankers, fishing boats and cargo ships passing at all hours. Photograph: Getty Images

 

There is a saying attributed to St Augustine: “If the Church is our mother, she is a whore.” I am curious what Augustine understood a prostitute to be. Someone who randomly charges for sex just for the fun of it?

Yet setting aside the layers of misogyny lurking in that statement (if this is even possible), it expresses well the dissonance that many of us feel about the Church. On the one hand, she is our home, our refuge, loving and beloved of God. On the other, she has been so unfaithful to the goodness and humility of God down the millennia that sometimes it is difficult to see past the harm she has caused. This damage rolls around the globe and down the centuries, gathering moss. Is it too far-fetched to suggest that 9/11 would never have happened if it had not been for the Crusades 900 years earlier?

If the Church is our mother, then the cathedral, mother-church of a diocese, may have a special place in our hearts. St Thomas’s Cathedral in Portsmouth certainly has a special place in mine. As part of my curate training, I have just completed a placement there. It is where I was ordained deacon and priest – glorious, joyous occasions!

When our first child was born 23 years ago we headed to the cathedral – two shell-shocked new parents with their fresh baby. The cathedral was a safe, quiet place to go. There is a stone prayer room off the chancel where we settled for the afternoon, imbibing this prayer-filled place. I breast-fed, my husband changed the nappy, our baby slumbered blissfully.

A few years later, I fled to the cathedral for comfort when a terrible thing happened. My dear friend gave birth to a still-born baby, and all those who loved this stricken family shared their shock and their grief and their broken hearts.

At this time of overwhelming sorrow I needed something particular from my faith. The loving support of my church friends was important but it was not enough. I needed something severer, something immutable that expressed the overarching power and goodness and stability of God and his eternal purposes: “as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be”.

At the cathedral service, I was anonymous. I didn’t have to protect anyone from the sorrow of what had just happened. I wept through the hymns. The formality and precision of the liturgy and the music quietened my soul. After the service I asked the visiting preacher – a stranger – to pray with me for my friend, which she did. And then I left.

This experience changed my theology. At the time I would have defined the Church as not a building but a community of love, serving Christ together. The Church is that. But it is not only that, it is also an incarnational sign – in stone and iron and wood and bread and wine – of the presence of God in our midst in the particular place where we are rooted.

Portsmouth Cathedral is small and intimate, with a salty Mediterranean feel to it. You can see out to the blue sky on summer evenings, or the trees tossing and turning down the seasons. Known as “the Cathedral of the Sea”, it is situated at the mouth of the harbour: a hard-working expanse of water, with ferries, warships, oil tankers, fishing boats and cargo ships passing at all hours. At every Evensong a prayer is offered based on Psalm 107, “for those who go down to the sea in ships, and serve upon the waters of the world”.

The Church can be disappointing, compromised, wounded and wounding. But God in his grace loves her faithfully and passionately, and – at her best – she feeds, shelters and sustains us. Rachel Held Evans puts it beautifully by inviting us, despite everything, to believe “that this flawed and magnificent body is enough, for now, to carry us through the world and into the arms of Christ”.

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