Over six hundred people gathered in Chester Cathedral yesterday afternoon. The occasion was the ceremony in which new lay ministers are admitted and licensed for their task. It was great to see so many people eager to take up the challenges of Christian ministry in our highly secularized society, and so many others supporting their commitment. It didn't only feel good; it felt right.
In the Church of England, as in most Christian denominations, the authority to minister in Christ's name is conferred in a special gathering, presided over by a special person (in this case, a bishop), in a special building. This is the way things are done. In particular, the special person, in the sense of someone with distinctive qualifications, training and authority, and the special place in the sense of a purpose-built, set-apart and architecturally out of the ordinary building, are simply assumed. These things are part of our mental make-up; at least to all who are to some degree familiar with the ways of the church. We fail to notice that these things are not inevitable.
I don't want to go into vexed questions of church order, whether about people or places. It simply strikes me that the easily assumed power of the special person and the special place shapes the way that faith is seen without that shaping being noticed most of the time. And that shaping should be, at the least, acknowledged as we try to work out ways of being the church for our own times.
Since Christianity's first purpose-built church, Saint John Lateran's Basilica in Rome, was dedicated on the 9th November 318 the notion of special buildings from which special full-time religious functionaries operate has coloured all our thinking about faith. This thinking has become the memory through which we read Scripture. And that makes it very hard to recover the alternatives that are there in the New Testament. For almost three centuries our Christian forebears knew nothing of our assumptions, at least not in any straightforward way, and we need to learn from their faithfulness to Christ prior to those assumptions becoming so powerful. Recovering those ancient Christian memories will help us live faithfully in changing times.