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Beautiful Institutions by Rev Dr Vincent Jambawo

Shall we bathe this morning?' she said, suddenly looking at them all.

`Splendid,' said Joshua. `It is a perfect morning.'

`Oh, it is beautiful,' said Fraulein.

`Yes, let us bathe,' said the Italian woman.

`We have no bathing suits,' said Gerald.

`Have mine,' said Alexander. `I must go to church and read the lessons.

They expect me.'

`Are you a Christian?' asked the Italian Countess, with sudden interest.

`No,' said Alexander. `I'm not. But I believe in keeping up the old institutions.'

`They are so beautiful,' said Fraulein daintily.

`Oh, they are,' cried Miss Bradley.

This rather ‘flighty’ conversational extract is from DH Lawrence’s acclaimed novel, Women in Love. The exchanges occur when a select group of socialites is meeting at Breadalby, described by Lawrence as a ‘Georgian house with Corinthian pillars, standing among the softer, greener hills of Derbyshire, not far from Cromford’. We are also told that the house ‘looked over a lawn, over a few trees, down to a string of fish-ponds in the hollow of the silent park’.  It is against this impressive background that the Honourable MP Alexander makes his startling but brutally honest revelation that he goes to church only for the sake of ‘keeping up the old institutions’.  Distasteful as this inference might be for Christians, it is a sharp reminder of what we are called to be when we seek to be disciples of Jesus.

Every week I have the wonderful privilege of engaging with congregations across the Amersham Methodist Church Circuit. Every time in each of the congregations, big or small, liberal or conservative, I find evidence of a people avidly living out their faith not just merely propping up beautiful institutions.  Contrary to popular 21st century opinion within and without the church, this is not an easy option. What Alexander says in Women in Love puts the spotlight on what exactly it is to be a Christian. It is not simply about putting up appearances and maintaining a dead institution. It certainly is not always beautiful and unchanging as we seek to share the good news. Dietrich Bonheoffer warns us of comfortable and cheap grace. Rather Christ calls us to a radical new way of doing mission. We remind ourselves again that the message of the cross is about a difficult but ultimately fulfilling discipleship.

Walter Brueggemann (1993:129) asserts that good news ‘is no safe church activity that will sustain a conventional church, nor a routine enterprise that will support a societal status quo’. Indeed he encourages the church to reject both ‘the liberal misreading toward expressive individualism or the conservative propensity toward legalistic conformity’. In other words, the business of ‘keeping up old institutions’ is a far-cry from the mission of the church. Let Alexander know that!

Elsewhere in this issue we learn about, and welcome, the new Superintendant of Amersham Methodist Church Circuit, the Rev Anne Ellis. She brings along a variety of God’s gifting to a 250-year old chain of Methodist missional activity and witnessing in the Chilterns Hills (Sutcliffe and Church 1988). Like all of God-given time to us, I want to think of this moment as prophetic crossroads. Once again we are invited to take a swim with God in His mission. This is no time for ‘keeping beautiful institutions’ but a time to affirm the living presence of Christ in our worship and in our lives. As we begin a new church year I encourage you my dear brothers and sisters to accept Christ’s invitation to a ‘messy’ Lord’s Supper where the main course is eating his flesh and the dessert offering is drinking his blood. When we accept the totality of Christ and his message in this way, we are given the capacity to bring ‘the Good News of Christ into all the strata of humanity, so that humanity itself becomes a new creation’ (Shorter 1988:215). In season and out of season, may the Holy Spirit breathe through your swimming, running, talking and living. God bless all!
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