The Nightmare Church

5 May 2017

Nightmares are always disturbing. Like dreams, they can often tell us something about what is going on in our world, about what is occupying our thoughts or even about our subconscious.

I am given to vivid dreams and on occasion, though thankfully an increasing rarity, an all-consuming nightmare. This morning I have woken from sleep with what seemed to be a lengthy episode. As a youngster I played a lot of football and quite fancied myself, as many a player who pulls on their boots do.

In my sleeping hours I arrived for the game and changed into my kit. The only problem being that I was the age that I am now, 57, but all the other players were young men as the team appeared to be an under 18’s side. (I stopped taking football seriously when at 18 I realised that I was never going to get signed by a professional club).

The game got underway but I was left on the touchline as a substitute. Even when one of our players was injured the manager kept me off the pitch. My frustration grew. Neither side looked like scoring. At half-time I expected to be called on and warmed up accordingly, but I wasn’t. The second half descended into a slog with the pitch turning into a mud bath with occasional fights breaking out amongst the two sides. At one point I walked onto the pitch and told four players to cut it out, which amazingly they did; at least being 57 carried some authority even if not sufficient trust to get me onto the pitch and make a difference.

With minutes to spare the opposition scored. I felt despondent. It became clear to me that even then I was not going to be sent out from the touchline to save the day with a late goal. So I left the pitch and sought to collect my bag and clothes from the dressing room, but they had been stolen.  And so I awoke.

All this the night after I felt that I had been discriminated against in a shop because I was wearing a clerical shirt. Over the course of 30 years ministry I have grown accustomed to being treated differently on account of my dog collar. Maybe I have become cushioned a little to the more nuanced reactions; maybe as I have got older it is less of an odd thing to see a minister in their 6th rather than their 3rd decade as was once the case. But there have been three occasions in the past 18 months where someone has sought to verbally attack me because of my faith, evident by the clothing I wear. On one of those occasions the abuser was served a Police Information Notice which meant that they can no longer approach me.

Hurtful and worrying though these incidents were, they are nothing of course to the hostility many of our friends who happen to be Jewish or Muslim are facing. At a recent exhibition in the city where I live a bottle was thrown at a woman in hijab and on numerous occasions she and her friends were told that they ‘are not wanted here’ and ‘should go home’.

With armed guards at synagogues and Jewish schools and increasing hostility toward Muslims my own experiences were minor compared to what my neighbours have to face. Looking beyond these islands I am also aware of the extraordinary level of hatred and violence people are facing because of their faith. I therefore must not exaggerate the discrimination I face and make of it more than it is.

However, I believe the main thrust of my nightmare was that I am losing influence. The Church today is more on the side-lines of society than once was the case. The ‘game out there’ is descending into chaos as the rules that once kept some control become less respected. And all I can do is make a brief and rare intervention that might bring some sense to the occasion.

What can we do in such a time? How can the Church respond? Is it enough to suggest we pray and plod on, a sort of limbering up on the touchline? Will there come a point when we get called onto the pitch to play a fuller part again? Is there still time with what is left before the final whistle to make a difference?

We clearly have to redouble our efforts and better understand how the game has changed, not just the tactics but the rules too. Even the offside rule is different to what it was. Indeed one could argue that the tactics have had to be adapted as a consequence of the game’s philosophy. Maybe it’s time to recognise that how we played 40 years ago is no longer appropriate and effective today.

At the heart of all of this then is a need to understand how the world is thinking today and realise that it thinks differently to the way it did a generation, let alone two or three generations, ago.

The Church has not kept pace with the changes. It’s not that it hasn’t tried, it’s just that game-plan has been tried and found wonting. Others have been promoted while we have been relegated. There are a lot of potential fans out there looking for someone to follow; the issue is whether we can offer them something that fires their enthusiasm and causes them to believe.

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