As vicar of Greenside Parish, I have been exploring with my church the idea of adopting a church rule of life. Recently, we began to look at some potential wording for such a rule as a way of exploring the idea. Whether we will ever adopt this wording or even something similar to it remains to be seen. For now, it is just an exploration.
The words we have been considering are below.
We are sojourners in the way, following behind our founder Jesus Christ. For a time our paths run together. During this time, we choose to travel together, we choose to be safe companions, we choose to love, we choose to share:
we share one another’s joys and burdens
we share one another’s gifts and needs
we share one another’s food
we share one another’s stories
we share with everyone outside our group
When our paths part, we will part well, knowing that one day we will all live together with Jesus for ever.
In the rest of this article, I explore some of the nuances and depth in this wording.
The word “sojourners” attempts to capture several aspects of our lives. Sojourners are different to settlers. Sojourners live in a place temporarily, whereas settlers are permanent. In parish life, many people will remain part of the church only for a time and then move on. It is not necessarily a bad thing or reflective of something wrong when someone moves on. Sometimes their life’s journey takes them elsewhere. Sometimes it is because God calls them elsewhere. This kind of instability is endemic to parish life and a new monastic parish church would differ, for example, from a Benedictine community where stability is part of the charism1Charism means divine gifting: that which God has called the community to be in the world. of the community.
So the rule of life recognises this. In this community, people will not make life vows. If we adopted a rule of life like this, we might renew our commitment to the community, say, once a year in an annual covenant service2Borrowing the idea from the Methodist church, but changing from an individual covenant with God to a corporate covenant with God and each other..
“Sojourners” also captures something of our identity as citizens of heaven (Phil 3:12-21). No disciple of Jesus is really “from here”. We’re all, to a degree, strangers in a strange land, called out like Abram (Gen 12). We are passing through on mission. We are following the heavenly calling (Phil 3:14). We are children not of human descent, but born of God (John 1:13). We’re like Jesus, sent from somewhere else and here temporarily. John 1:14 is, perhaps, better translated “The word became flesh and pitched his tent amongst us”. This is the meaning of the Greek word σκηνόω. We are people who live in tents.
“Sojourners” suggests the need to travel light. Settlers build large edifices of stone. Sojourners live in tents3There is something deep here to reflect on concerning the tabernacle and the temple.. I am particularly struck by the need for the church of this age to be willing to divest itself of much of the baggage we carry, not least in the form of buildings which are often costly, out of place and difficult to change. The same applies to many of our ministries which no longer fit in a post-Christendom era. This doesn’t mean we are careless of our heritage, but it does mean we recognise when the glory of God has departed from something and we are willing to let it go.
Jesus speaks of us following behind him. At its most extreme, this means taking up one’s cross (Luke 9:23). So there is a deep sense of costly discipleship in these words.
But there were also plenty of people who followed Jesus in the crowd. Many even stopped following him when the things he said got a little contentious (John 6:66). To speak of following behind Jesus, therefore, opens up the possibility that people could be following at all sorts of distances from Jesus.
One of the difficulties with a common rule of life is how to avoid ring-fencing the “committed” few and, thereby, excluding those who are just exploring, who might, one day, come closer but, for now, are somewhat wary. We want to be a community defined not by the boundaries we place around ourselves but by the person at the center of our traveling band. We want to be a people with a solid, committed core but with very fuzzy edges.
Our founder Jesus Christ
For many, the word “founder” is nowhere near strong enough. Jesus is our Lord and God (John 20:28). He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15). He is the great cosmic saviour (John 3:17). Yes, for those of us at the core of the traveling band, we acknowledge these things to be true.
But we want our band to be open enough to allow anyone to follow Jesus. The word “founder” attempts to point to the person at the center of Christianity, the one who started this whole movement, without making a claim so strong that only the deeply committed can be part of the band.
And, incidentally, yes we are, first and foremost, a movement. Not an institution. We are traveling, we are moving. That’s a bit of an identity change for the church.
For a time our paths run together / we choose to travel together
This is about intentionality. All parish churches are made up of people who, for whatever reasons, are walking together. But when any strain develops in the community (and it will if it is in any way an honest community), there is nothing to keep the group from splintering and parting ways. In this rule we intentionally choose to walk together. Perhaps not much changes from outward appearances – we are still walking together. But the meaning of our group and its power for transformation changes dramatically.
Take an example. Recently, one of the elephants in the room in our church has come to light: questions around human sexuality. I had suspected, and my suspicions have now been confirmed, that we are far from united on this subject and our opinions are deeply held. We had never talked about this, so harmony was maintained. But now what do we do – do we carefully brush the elephant back under the rug4Yes, mixed metaphor. I am not repentant!? Or do we talk about it? If we talk about it, what will hold us together? I think we need, first, to promise that we will stick with each other no matter what. Otherwise this subject is not safe for us.
So, if we say “we choose to travel together”, the emphasis is on “choose”. We will do it on purpose5A phrase I borrow from Danny Silk’s excellent book title “Loving Your kids on Purpose”.
Churches hurt people. Yes, at their best, churches heal people as well – and that is the ideal we strive towards. But plenty of churches have hurt people. Even the best intentioned churches have hurt people. Churches have driven people away from Jesus. Churches have driven people to suicide.
To be fair, most churches don’t do too much harm. But they also don’t do too much healing. That’s because most churches are not true community6Here, I am using M. Scott Peck’s language from his book “The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace”, which is essential reading for anyone wanting to create intentional community.. True community is profoundly transformative and healing. But it does that by bringing us into profound vulnerability with each other. And there is huge danger here. If we are going to be a community of vulnerability, then we need to be an intentionally safe community.
The romantic myth applies to community as much as it does to marriage. We idealise living together in harmony (Psalm 133). We think “If only I could be part of that community, all my yearnings would finally be met”. In the heady first stages of community, we rush in headlong. But this romanticised image of community is an idol. It will not satisfy our longings because only One can do that. All of us are hard to live with and, sooner or later, we discover that about each other. And the more we idolised each other at the start, the more this seems to be a betrayal. Incautious romanticism creates an explosive cocktail.
In our church, I see this clearly. We are connecting with people from broken backgrounds. How exciting! Isn’t it amazing what God is doing? Well, yes, it is. But we need to be real about the brokenness in the people coming in and, critically, also real about the brokenness in ourselves. So we must, together, choose to live ways that are safe. And, if we get it right, we become a people where that brokenness can come into the light and be healed.
We choose to love
God is love (1 John 4:8). That’s the starting point of all things. Creation (all of it) was created by God who is love. Creation is a work of love – literally it is God’s workmanship and God is love. This love breathed existence into that which was not. That love which was within the Trinity reached beyond the Trinity and created the universe – an other – which also became an object of the same love. The love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the source, template and energy behind all true Christian interactions.
But, whilst love is sometimes intensely pleasurable and joyful, love can be bloody tough at times, too. Married couples know this. That’s why the wedding vows say “for better and for worse”. They’re not just romantic words – “of course I will love you when it is tough because my heart drives me with passion!” No! When it is tough, my heart contains other stuff, too, and the passions of my heart are not wholly to be trusted. Rather, I will love you even when my heart hates you. No matter what I feel, I choose today to act love. I will follow the path of grim determination in loving you to the bitter end.
This is why 1 Corinthians 13 makes such a good wedding reading. It makes two fundamental claims: Love is the highest of all things. And love is an act of determination. All well and good for wedding couples, but Paul was not actually writing with wedding advice. He was writing to a church that was riddled with in-fighting over spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 13 exhorts the Corinthian church to choose love. This is far, far more important that any spiritual gift.
So, too, for this community. No matter what other glories, or otherwise, may be a part of our life together, we choose the sometimes difficult path of love. Love that holds us together. Love that looks outwards and breaths life beyond the circle of the lovers.
We choose to share
This is about mutuality. The list of things we share is very much open to change. But it will, hopefully, express mutuality. That each of us is a gift to the rest of us. That my riches are your riches. That my poverty can also be, through the glorious transformative power of God, mine and your riches. All things work to our good (Rom 8:28). We are all on a level with each other. We all partake in each other, both individually, and, through a glorious synergy, in the sum of each other which is greater than the parts.
There is a glorious story unfolding and we are all characters in this, the greatest of stories ever told, the story of the good news of the kingdom of God. We share in this.
We share, most visibly, in the meal Jesus gave us. And, in every meal, this meal is recalled and re-enacted.
Finally, because we share in love, our sharing is not bounded. Anyone may be part of the sharing. Some may not be at the center of this. Some may be right on the fringes, just along for the ride. But the wealth that is within us is synergistic and generative. There is plenty for all. We cannot be inwards looking. There is too much glory to share. Should we try to capture it and bound it, it will either slip through our closing fingers 7Yes that is a Star Wars reference, well spotted., or we will be consumed in the burning intensity of it.
When our paths part
We take it as read that our paths will part. We are a parish church. We are sojourners. Some people may remain in this community for life but not everyone will. We will part ways, some staying and some going. Sometimes life will call us away. Sometimes God will call us away. But we will part ways. (For now! See the final part of the rule below.)
We will part well
Zulu people do not have a word for “goodbye” – but they have two phrases: hamba gahle and sala gahle, “go well” and “stay well”. The party who remains says one and the party who departs says the other. We choose to be people who can say these words to each other when our paths part.
What does this look like? I think it means we will tell people we are leaving, not just slip quietly away or send a post-fact e-mail explaining why our tithe payments have ceased.
I think it means people will not be shocked and surprised when we announce we are leaving. At least some members of the church will have journeyed with us as we make this decision, will have discerned with us what God is saying and doing. Maybe not all will know or expect it, but some, certainly, should.
I think it means we will do our best not to walk out in anger or after a disagreement. That is not to say we might not have to. It is important to leave leeway here: a blanket rule against leaving in such circumstances is a recipe for tyranny by a domineering leader. But we will do our best not to be the cause of any such parting.
I think it means we will send each other off and leave each other behind with tears and prayer. And, here’s an idea, both parties will pray for the other. Let’s not slip into just having the church pray for the one(s) leaving.
Living with him forever
This is the awkward truth. One day we will all live together with God forever. That’s what it says in Rev 21-22. The great story of creation and new creation begins with human beings living together with God in a garden. It ends with human beings living together with God in a glorious city, the heavenly Jerusalem.
So often, the gospel we proclaim is a gospel of individual personal salvation. We paint a wonderful picture of the saved sinner living with God forever. But we forget that this means we will all live with each other as well. That is the much wider truth of the gospel: it is, primarily, not the gospel of personal salvation but the gospel of the kingdom of God. We will be citizens together of this kingdom. Indeed we already are, even if the kingdom is not yet fully realised.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons it does not work to say “I believe in God but I don’t think I have to go to church to practise my belief”. We are not so much “going to church” as being church and when we get together we are not so much practising a belief, but practising for the day when we will all live together with God! If church people get up my nose now (and, let’s be honest, for all of us there is at least one church person who does), what is going to change when Jesus comes back? How will I be able to live in God’s kingdom if I am not someone who is already working to get along with all the other citizens of the kingdom?
That is why we part well. Because we do not part forever. That is why we love. Because it is practising the life we’re all heading for. That is why we share. Because we will share everything when we get there. That is why we choose to be safe.
So that’s it
This is the rule of life we are playing with. Maybe it will not amount to any more than an exercise, a way of discovering that this is not what we signed up for. Maybe it will inspire us to write a completely different rule. Maybe this, or something like it, will be something we adopt.
My hope is that we will choose a rule and make it our practise to renew it every year in an annual parish church covenant service.
|↑1||Charism means divine gifting: that which God has called the community to be in the world.|
|↑2||Borrowing the idea from the Methodist church, but changing from an individual covenant with God to a corporate covenant with God and each other.|
|↑3||There is something deep here to reflect on concerning the tabernacle and the temple.|
|↑4||Yes, mixed metaphor. I am not repentant!|
|↑5||A phrase I borrow from Danny Silk’s excellent book title “Loving Your kids on Purpose”|
|↑6||Here, I am using M. Scott Peck’s language from his book “The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace”, which is essential reading for anyone wanting to create intentional community.|
|↑7||Yes that is a Star Wars reference, well spotted.|