What is the Church?
The Local Church
When people talk of a ‘church’ they usually mean a church building. However the original meaning is a group of local Christians who are the ‘Body of Christ’ in that area.
Every house or field in England is in a parish. Every person in England lives in one and can look to their local parish for help. Though many people belong to other churches or other faiths, everyone in England can ask to be baptised or married in their parish church, and everybody has the right to a funeral in it. Everyone also has the right to turn to his or her local vicar for help and advice about a personal problem.
The Church of England tries to run its affairs so that every area is covered in this way. In practice it is not always so simple. Quite apart from the people who belong to other churches and faiths, there are also Anglicans who prefer to go to a church in another parish where they feel more at home. In large urban areas there are simply too many people for the clergy and laity of the parish church to be able to know and help everyone.
The Church in Action
A Church is a Community of People
It is a group of men, women and children who have been drawn to God, and have found that awareness of God has made a difference in their lives. It has given them a new sense of purpose, a new perspective. In learning about God, especially as He has shown himself in Jesus Christ, they have found that they can understand the world better. They have a different sort of strength to cope with its problems, and a deeper and more satisfying way to celebrate the joyful things of life.
Task Force of Love
Church people try to love God, though most of them would quickly admit that they are not very good at it! Loving God means loving other people. And Christians know that they are not always very good at that either – though they try.
So perhaps we should say that the Church is, or should be, a task force of people who are trying to discover how to love God and other people, and how to bring more love into a world which often seems desperately short of it.
But it is a far from hopeless task. For Christians have the supreme example of what real love should be like in Jesus Christ, and the help of the Holy Spirit to live it in their own lives.
Loving by Learning
‘Loving God’ is a difficult idea. What it really means is trying to get to know God better so that we can each become the sort of person he wants us to be, with all the potential of our individual personalities fully developed.
When you admire another person you try to find out all you can about him or her, and you spend all the time you can in their presence. That is why Christians go to church; to make time to be with God, and to get to know him better.
They learn most about God through learning about Jesus Christ: reading about His life and teaching, and exploring the meaning of His death and resurrection. They also pray, which is talking to God, and listening to him through the words of the Bible and of other people, and in moments of silence.
But this sort of learning doesn’t only happen in church. There are many other ways in which Christians get together to share their insights and experiences. Some meet in each other’s homes in discussion groups. Others meet in a whole range of activities, from lively youth conferences to religious retreats where Christians spend a day or longer in prayer and silence, listening to God.
Loving by Celebrating
One of the things about being a Christian is that you have a much clearer view of goodness and evil. You not only recognize how much sin and cruelty there is in the world, you also become aware of the tremendous amount of love, beauty and splendour that is all around us.
In so much of this one can see the creative power of God, the loving self–sacrifice of Jesus, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
For all this Christians find that they want to give thanks, and they want to celebrate it. That too is worship, and they very much want to tell other people about it.
Loving by Caring
Caring for people, whether in the church or outside it, is a central part of the Christian life. As Jesus Christ showed the love of God, so Christians are to show that love to others.
As part of this loving and caring, they try to share their knowledge of God and His love, and of His readiness to forgive us the wrongs that we do if we will turn to him.
But caring also means being involved in the problems and needs of others. The Church and individual Christians originally pioneered most of our social caring and education which has since been taken over by the State. Church organisations still work, often together with the State and other caring agencies, to help all sorts of people in need, including children, the elderly, disabled and homeless, and those who are deprived of love. Members of the Church started many of the best known organisations, as various as the Samaritans, Christian Aid, the Children’s Society and St Christopher’s Hospice for the dying.
The Church of England still has many, many caring organizations with less well–known names; and individual parishes run local groups. Some start up neighbourhood care schemes for the elderly, lonely and unemployed or run play groups, youth clubs, or clubs to provide companionship and support for young mothers.
Loving By Social Action
The Church is concerned to help create a just and compassionate society with social structures that can be channels of God’s love. This also involves working to bring about constructive change in British society and in Britain’s relations with the rest of the world.
The Church does not ally itself with any particular political party. But many of its members are involved in politics in the hope of bringing about a better and more just and loving society. Jesus said that he had come that we might all “have life, and have it more abundantly”. At the present time there is a particular call for Christians to concern themselves in the deprived areas of our towns and inner cities to help the people who live there lead happier and more fulfilled lives.
At the national level the Church initiates and contributes to new thinking about the future of British society, and the effect that British policies have on the Third World. The General Synod, the governing body of the Church of England, together with its Boards and Councils, frequently makes representations to the Government in matters of social and international justice.
The Church in Action
Above all, the Church consists of individual men and women who are trying to show the love of God in their lives by the way that they do their daily work. In a huge variety of ways they are tackling the enormous job of helping the world to believe in the power and effectiveness of love, justice and peace.
Often they know they are not very good at it. But they keep on trying because they know it is the most certain way to save the world from itself, and to make all lives worth living.