Nevertheless individual Christians gather together, organise themselves, discuss what is and isn't important about being a Christian, particularly what is and isn't important about being Christians together. This grouping of Christians forms the phenomenon known as Christianity and the institution known as the church (or, if you like, the institutions known as the churches). Theologically, this institution is intended to be a living being, the body of Christ. Somehow, in this institutionalization process, Christians full of the Spirit of Jesus, manage to distance the body of Christ from the Jesus we meet in the Scriptures. The signs are there for us to see. What has Jesus to do with robes in the church, for instance? Something, to be sure, because robes provide a certain anonymity to the priest, thus enabling us to see beyond the priest to the Christ at work through the priest. But when we are getting wrung up over whether the ex-pope wears a white or red cassock (and, for that matter, when the ex-pope chooses for himself what robe he will wear, rather than bowing out to the furtherest away monastery, John 3:30), we are moving a long, long way from the example of Jesus Christ.
But there are other things which I worry about. There is a whole direction of conservatism going on which raises considerable questions for me. Benedict, whatever else he did which is universally acclaimed as good, seemed to lead the Roman church in a conservative direction which went backwards a century or two, but didn't go all the way back to Jesus. His emphasis on the perfection of performance of the liturgy, even, I gather, to the point of regretting the post Vatican 2 involvement of laity, as well as his endorsement of the Latin Mass movement goes back to an idealised past, but not to Jesus who made no requirements concerning liturgical fastidiousness on his followers.
Last week I highlighted some church sites which stake part of their distinctiveness on the teaching of the Reformation. In part that is a code for a way of reading the original Scriptures which pays attention to particular doctrines. But staking a claim in this way runs a risk of freezing Christianity in the 16th century: there is the ideal, walk ye in it. But, as Archbishop Peter Jensen himself once said here in Christchurch, in the context of observing contemporary ambitions to complete the work of the English Reformers, shouldn't we want to go back to the 1st century itself?
Or, to take another example, following recent events in the States, I note a trend in conservative Christianity there to defend the acquisition of rapid firing assault rifles with large magazines. Jesus has got nothing to do with that. Though perhaps it will be asked, what do I know about the translation of the gospel into other cultures?
Conservative Christianity, whether Protestant or Roman is trying hard to be faithfully Christian in a difficult century. But what are we being faithful to? A natural tendency for conservatism (of any kind) is to hark backwards, proposing that some point in the past is the ideal. But isn't that an idolatry? Whether we worship the Latin Mass in all its sartorial splendour or the exposition of the Word with Calvinist precision, are we worshipping an image of what we think Christianity is and not Christ himself? (Does the whole of Eastern Orthodox, which makes a particular point of remaining frozen in time, some seven centuries after Jesus, constitute a form of idolatry?)
The mess over homosexuality, which is what we Western Christians are in (especially, right now, the Roman church), could it just be due to neglecting to ask what Jesus would do? It is difficult, on the basis of what we read in the gospels, to think that Jesus would approve of gay marriage. But would he approve of the way that churches oppose gay marriage? Wasn't Jesus the master of bringing in unpopular, even despised groups of people into his movement (tax collectors, Samaritans, prostitutes, Zealots)? Would he handle the GLBT community today the way conservative, Protestant and Roman Christianities are
In some things I read it feels like Jesus has been co-opted into conservative Christianity ("Look. Jesus agrees with us!") But wasn't the point of the kingdom of God, you know, the kingdom that turned the empire upside down, to co-opt people into it, not to be co-opted into another realm?
Does Jesus want conservative Christianity (21st century version) in his kingdom?
Would we recognise if he allowed us in?
There are many forms of conservative Christianity in today's world. At first sight the link between assault rifles and constriction of the laity from the liturgy may not be visible. Keep looking! My argument here is that the many conservatisms of the modern world are equally in danger of promoting a version of Christianity which is at odds with Jesus Christ himself. That is the link.