Church Without Walls

Last September, the London District Synod spent a day exploring the idea of ‘Church without walls’. It was a great day – a ‘fresh expression’ of Synod! I hadn’t really thought about the phrase ‘church without walls’ before, but in one way or another it has kept cropping up on my travels as President of the Conference. So let me explain.

There are at least two meanings of the word ‘without’. The first is ‘outside’. (Shakespeare used it a lot like in this sense. Many a knave has rushed on stage shouting words like, ‘My liege, someone is without!’) The second meaning of ‘without’ is ‘not having.’ ‘Church without walls’ can use the word in either sense, either as ‘church outside the walls’ or as ‘church that doesn’t have walls’. I want to look at both, but mainly the first.

Church outside the wallsL~

We used to sing, ‘There is a green hill far away, without a city wall.’ And there is something pretty significant for us in the idea that God’s saving, life-transforming act of love in Jesus took place outside the wall - on the scrap heap, where people didn’t want to go, the place for those who were outcast. What does that tell us of where God is at work?

Last year I visited Brazil and met people living in the favelas. Though they sometimes live within the city limits, they are always outside, in the sense of being cut off from many basic necessities of life that others take for granted. The Methodist Church in Brazil is exciting, with its many large, young, congregations, and new churches being opened every month. But it’s also exciting for its deep commitment to the people of the favelas and on the street; to the family I met who had seen their dad killed in front of their eyes; to children involved in prostitution, drugs and crime. Bringing hope. Being church. Church without walls.

Yet going outside the walls, leaving our comfort zone, not allowing or assuming God to be locked up in a building, is quite a challenge! Meeting people where they are. Consenting ‘to be more vile’. Preaching from your father’s tomb or in the open air, like John Wesley did. In this sense, clearly, church ‘without walls’ is at the heart of a Methodist way of being church. It’s our history and how we developed. It’s what we did.

In today’s Methodism, I think of Barbara Glasson’s ‘scarecrow ministry’ in Liverpool, leading to the setting up of the bread church, Somewhere Else. Or our involvement with Ship of Fools, an Internet based, ‘virtual’, church. At the London Synod we met ‘Applecart’, professional actors telling the Christian story through drama - in a pub in the East End of London. I mentioned ‘Applecart’ in a service in a London church and someone in the congregation said ‘Yes, that’s right. That’s why I’m here. That’s how I became a Christian!’

For other examples, I think of many different forms of lay and ordained chaplaincy (though I might get in trouble for describing prison chaplaincy as ‘without walls’!) In September, I visited the Navy and went on board HMS Daring with its Methodist Chaplain. I spoke to some young Muslim sailors who were quite clear that she was their chaplain too. She’d make sure there was somewhere on board ship they could say their prayers. And she was there for them when they needed someone to talk to. A few weeks later, I spoke to the senior RAF chaplain on Remembrance Sunday and he saw chaplaincy as one of the few places where the old parish idea still operates – of the minister, whatever their denomination, being there for everybody.

I’ve also met hospital chaplains, MHA chaplains, rural chaplains, retail chaplains and town centre chaplains. And then there is the amazing development of street pastors and ‘street angels’ in more and more places. In Wolverhampton they run Bible study groups in Yates’ and McDonalds! In Watford they offer to pray with young people they talk to on the streets at night – and the vast majority say ‘yes’. Police in Halifax say there’s been a 42% reduction in city centre crime over the past few years and put much of it down to the presence of ‘street angels’.

I rejoice that there are so many stories of Christians responding to the context we’re in, the people around us, rather than just bemoaning the fact that people don’t seem to send their children to Sunday school any more. (Yet sometimes I hear frustrated ministers saying they still feel they’re expected to be the chaplain to the club of people who come to a particular building.)

I also believe that these examples of ‘church without walls’ link closely with my presidential theme of ‘creating safer space’. I asked then where are the safe spaces to explore deep matters of faith, without feeling guilty because they find some bits difficult if not impossible to believe. Where can people be open about doubts, questions and disagreements?

One challenge for us is the question of how we understand these examples of ‘church without walls’. Are they ways to get people to come to church? Are they ‘good works’ being done by the church? Or are they church already - church without walls? (Or maybe this has to do with a difference between ‘church’ and ‘kingdom’? Where Jesus is present at the feast, there is the kingdom already. And it could be anywhere. And it may well not be inside the walls of a church.)

Church that doesn’t have wallsL~

On, briefly, to the second meaning of ‘without’. ‘Church without walls’ in the sense of a church that doesn’t have walls, whether external or internal.

Walls separate people. Think of Palestine today, or Berlin until 1989. Walls treat people differently and keep them apart. Walls protect people from other people and can suggest that ‘You are not welcome in here’. A Simon and Garfunkel song has the lines:

~q‘I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty.
That none may penetrate……’q~

So, a church without walls would be one where people are not separated (remember Ephesians 2.14). Where people don’t have their separate compartments. Where there are no no-go areas.

For me, this immediately links up with what is called the ‘equalities and diversity’ agenda – in a very helpful way. Because a church without walls would be one that doesn’t separate and exclude and marginalise on grounds like age, race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, theological perspective… It would have no walls of discrimination. And no glass ceilings either.

In some of these areas we have travelled a long way. Maybe in others our journey has just begun?

But aren’t walls sometimes a good thing?L~

Do we really want no walls? Can’t walls be good things, at least sometimes? When you want to hold a roof up? When you want to keep the cold out? When you want something to hang a picture on? When you want something to put a window or a door in? When you want a safe space?

In my Conference address about creating safer space, I suggested this was something the Church needed to do in all kinds of ways. Supporting sanctuary seekers. Working with children and young people, people experiencing abuse and injustice, older people.... We can provide safer space in all kinds of settings – in a group, a meeting, an organisation or a relationship. But, of course, we also provide safer space on our premises and within our walls. So walls have their uses. And churches with walls are part of our story, for good reason and with good purpose. But they’re not the whole story. And they shouldn’t be the main plot either.

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