Guildford United Reformed Church

83 Portsmouth Road, Guildford, Surrey GU2 4BS

Faith in Today’s Society

Sunday 2nd July 2017

Guildford URC

Readings: Exodus 3: 1-6 & 13 – 15

Acts 17: 22 – 25


With a Muslim community worshipping on our premises for their Friday prayers and again last Sunday morning on our premises to celebrate the Feast of Eid, the ending of their Holy Month of Ramadan, my thoughts have been fixed on the horrific events that have taken place within our country over the past months and weeks.

First on Westminster Bridge and in the grounds of the Houses of Parliament, then in the aftermath of those diabolical murders at the Manchester Arena, and yet further bloodshed on London Bridge and in Borough Market, since which there has been, according to press reports, a doubling of the number of hate crimes reported daily to Police, including a bomb threat, racist taunts to people on our streets and graffiti. And the other week the tragic events outside the Finsbury Park Mosque!

And yet, in the face of these horrific and devastating tragedies such hate is greatly outweighed by the huge outpouring of compassion and unity across the community, across the barriers and divides of religion. These tragic events remind me yet again that regardless of the different religious labels by which we choose to define ourselves we each have a responsibility to work together for the common good and for the future of Creation.

You see, unless our faiths speak to the heart of these causes, then we and our chosen faiths will become increasingly irrelevant in this world. Unless what we say on our respective Sabbaths and holy days changes us and changes our world with compassion for the benefit of all, then we really are being nothing more than NIMBY navel gazers who have little to offer to a broken world.

Having said that, it is important for me as one who has been born and nurtured within a Christian culture and church, to remain as a follower of the Way of Jesus. However, in so doing, I have moved beyond the separating and suffocating barriers of traditional, institutional Christianity.

On my journey of faith I now experience a truth that there are many legitimate compassionate pathways along which we can journey to participate together in the Infinite Mystery – a sacred reality that is above and beyond, yet, at the same time, within and without each one of us. Or, as we have just sung in our last hymn, the words by George Matheson, a man before his time and who was criticized for writing that hymn: “In many forms a common soul we seek; in many ships we seek one spirit land.”

The compassionate out pouring in Manchester and on the three occasions in London has yet again demonstrated that we are already united as sisters and brothers within the Infinite Mystery. Coupled with this I would add the outpouring of help by all faiths following the Grenfell Tower disaster. Why, then, do different religions continue to define themselves by what makes them different rather than by what each has in common?

To help make sense for those of us who are followers of the Way of Jesus in our post-modern world I want to make two important points concerning the creeds, doctrines and orthodoxies of the institutional western Church.

The first point is this: the creeds, doctrines and orthodoxies are statements of faith created centuries after the simple life of a wandering Jewish rabbi and wisdom teacher was ended on a Roman cross of execution. The understanding of the synoptic Gospel writers was uncomplicated: if they lived as Jesus lived then they, too, would experience the same transformational sacred Spirit in their daily lives that had been in Jesus.

The second point is that the creeds and doctrines of the Church that remain foundational even today had more to do with centralised power and political control brought to bear over fourth century local church communities than they had to do with the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Not many people realise that both the Nicene and the Apostles’ Creeds contain debatable statements about where Jesus came from and to where he went after his execution but they say nothing about the most important part of Jesus: his values, teachings and way of life.

Even the Nicene Creed needed two attempts to agree a new fourth century orthodoxy – the first in Nicea in 325 and the second in Constantinople in 381. Ever since the fourth century the creeds were and remain instruments of power and control. I think that these ancient creeds, doctrines and orthodoxies concerning Jesus may well be unrecognised by Jesus himself!

The choice that is facing our declining institutional churches today is this: “Do we revert to imposing the ancient creeds, doctrines and orthodoxies in an attempt to stop decline and to ‘save’ the Church from liberal or progressive theologies? Or do we recognise the damage being caused by those ancient creeds, doctrines and orthodoxies in a world that has rejected Christianity’s grand story that supposedly governs all truth?” We have to stop answering questions that no one is asking!

It is time for the institutional church to stop pretending that all church members believe the same things.

It is time for each one of us to take responsibility for our own theological thinking, in other words, how we understand God today.

It is time for us all to get informed, to have the courage to ask deep questions of our scriptures, of our chosen religion, of our worship styles and of ourselves. But then we need to share our answers with others who are on a similar journey, regardless of the religious labels worn.

I am now more convinced than ever of the rightness of Selby Spong’s remark that “the Church will die of boredom long before it dies from any form of liberal Christianity”. Unless there is passion in the preaching and a relevance in the message that links what we say and to what we do then we are merely keeping the cemetery warm.

Unless we get rid of any barrier between Sunday worship and the way we live Monday to Saturday then even the currently faithful may join the exodus into the freedom of not having to put up week by week with such theological old paradigm irrelevance. And no matter how we who follow the Way of Jesus, demystify the Jesus stories or jazz up our worship with rock bands and dancing in the aisles, unless our thinking is translated into actions of compassion, justice, love and peace, then all our pontificating will be no more than puffs of air.

What is needed is a commitment to daily personal and corporate living based upon the ultimate power of the love and compassionate ‘powerlessness’ of Jesus.

And unless we welcome a new reformation free of the ancient creeds and doctrines we will surely kill the institutional Church in this questioning post-modern age. The real alternative to the killing straight jacket of creedal and doctrinal orthodoxy is more than hiding behind yet more words. Indeed, the new reformation needs to be less wordy and more concerned with living the personal sacrifice and servant hood ways of Jesus. It will need to involve the active seeking of justice for all people.

The way of Jesus is the way of the abundance of the fullness of humanity for all people, and that is what Jesus found worth dying for. It is in that compassionate humanity that there is real hope for all the London’s and Manchester’s of the past, the London’s or Manchester’s of the present and, sadly, for all the London’s and Manchester’s still to come.

It is time for us as individuals, it is time for the church as we know it, to change!

Phillip Jones