February 25, 2011
Ode To a Concrete God
About four years ago, following a precedent established by the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire (they elected a homosexual bishop), the Anglican Church of Canada began solemnizing marriages for same-sex couples. Outraged, forty-two local parishes declared their independence from their national church and formed a new denomination they called the Anglican Network in Canada.
Surely, they should be applauded for their courage in opposing this assault upon Bible authority. At last they could return to preaching the Gospel, unburdened by the dictates of an increasingly liberal and politically correct leadership at the home office.
But instead of rejoicing at their new freedom to get back to business, the newly empowered ANiC went on to do something that can only be described as bizarre: They launched a fierce legal battle over real estate. Yup, you heard it right: bricks, mortar, and property deeds. They wanted to hold on to their grand old houses of worship, while the ACoC insisted the buildings rightfully belonged to them. By one argument the buildings exist only for the benefit of the local parishioners, who are the true owners; by another, the locals merely act as caretakers on behalf of the national body, on whose authority the congregation operates.
The results have been mixed: Just this month one breakaway parish prevailed in court, while another raised a white flag and surrendered their property. Similar battles have taken place in American churches, also with varying outcomes. Who is right?
I don’t know. And I don’t care. God doesn’t live in a building, and he doesn’t live in a denominational hierarchy. The very notion of a Christian congregation owning real estate – or anything at all, for that matter – is entirely foreign to the pages of Scripture. The moment that we begin to define a “church” in terms of material possessions, is the moment that we begin to lose our identity as Christians.
Of course, as we know, that spiraling descent began long ago. Consider the majestic cathedrals of Europe: Many of them took decades to build, consuming huge chunks of the church’s resources. The bishops could have fed the hungry, or healed the sick, or sent off missionaries to distant lands. But instead they spent the equivalent of billions of dollars, employed slave labor (in some cases), and strove to make their religious institutions as grand as the worldly empire they served.
So you think this is merely a medieval attitude? Let us consider the Crystal Cathedral in California: just recently, they publicly admitted that the overwhelming cost of heating, cooling, and cleaning their ostentatious glass edifice is simply unsustainable. Never mind spreading the Gospel or serving the poor, which (last time I checked) constitute the real mission of a Christian church. Their single biggest line-item in their budget, I suspect, just might be Windex.
When I joined my current church, 21 years ago, we didn’t have our own meeting place. Instead we met in rented halls and hotel ballrooms, moving from place to place as circumstances dictated. For a while we employed a banquet room at a bowling alley, because the rent was so cheap. When I invited my neighbors and co-workers to come and join us on Sunday morning, many thought it strange – even heretical – that we didn’t meet in an old building with wooden pews, stained glass windows, and a bell tower. They didn’t stick around long enough to actually listen to what we preached.
I must admit, this was a strange concept for me at first; but in time I came to admire this idea of a hermit church that moved from place to place. We didn’t have to spend God’s money on a bank mortgage, a gardener, or an exterminator. If we had a surplus at the end of the month, it went toward charitable works or church plantings. And when the Northridge earthquake struck in 1994 – and scores of church buildings in our community sustained major structural damage – we lost nothing. For a couple of weeks we met in a public park, until the Best Western reopened.
Sometimes it’s good to sit back and consider just what it is you’re really worshipping.