I read the ABC Religion and Ethics blog by Scott Stephens the other day. It was written in the context of the testimony given by Cardinal George Pell before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The subject matter was ‘The Religion of the Humble and the Peril of Institutional Atheism’.
Whilst the findings of the Royal Commission are likely to have a significant impact on the life of the Uniting Church, what struck me about this blog was the use of the term ‘spiritual worldliness’.
As I understand it, the term means putting yourself at the centre. It is what Jesus saw going on among the Pharisees: “You who glorify yourselves…who give glory to yourselves.”
The article was directing criticism at the Catholic Church and a perceived tendency to conduct affairs in a manner that arrogates glory to itself by becoming the focus and end of its own activities.
I found myself wondering whether that criticism could also be directed at the Uniting Church. Not so much in relation to the Royal Commission but, for instance, in the aftermath of Uniting our future and the ensuing Major Strategic Review.
My thinking centred around how easy it is to convince ourselves, or the various councils of the church, that disposing of this, or acquiring or developing that, or heading in this or that direction is for the greater glory of God when, in fact, it may well be for the greater glory or possibly the greater comfort of the people or the institution.
The front page of last month’s Crosslight featured a launch of a questionnaire to aid the process of the Major Strategic Review of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.
It suggested this was “a chance for Church members to say what they really think, about what they really want”. I wondered whether this too could be construed as spiritual worldliness, particularly if it is not responded to in a prayerful manner.
According to the ABC blog, the phrase was originated by Henri de Lubac in his book, The Splendour of the Church (which I confess I have not read) where he apparently asserts that spiritual worldliness feigns the appearance of an other-worldly orientation but behaves as though God does not exist.
All our work in the life of the Church should of course be to humbly orient ourselves and others toward the worship of God – worship that precipitates personal change.
Yet, in recent months, I have heard much talk about ‘strategy’ and that ‘the greatest risk to the survival of the Synod is a lack of a strategy’. It is assertions such as this that give rise to concern that our values could potentially be based on the values of this world as apart from those of Jesus, which stir us to the worship of God.
Rather than speaking of ‘survival’, I believe that all Christian denominations would do well to recognise that Christianity will only flourish when it ceases to be self-concerned and inward-looking.
When we as individuals and as a collective institution give ourselves away for the sake of others, we will inevitably find our true orientation and focus.
To use the words of a very well-known and oft quoted hymn:
We limit not the truth of God
to our poor reach of mind,
by notions of our day and sect,
crude, partial and confined.
no, let a new and better hope
within our hearts be stirred:
The Lord has yet more light and truth
to break forth from his word.