As I have detailed in previous posts, losing faith entailed a great many losses to the core of who I considered myself to be. One of the most fundamental of these losses was the sudden absence of a ‘Universal’. God had been a unifying force, one who served as a constant beneath the varied cultural, linguistic, ethical, and generational experiences I had had in my life.
It was at my church in Istanbul, Turkey that God as the great unifier was most in evidence. Here, among an eclectic missionary contingent, a nascent group of Turkish believers and a multicultural congregation of travelers and refugees, a community was formed that spanned all the many cracks and fissures between theology, dogma and tradition. In some services newborns were baptised, while those who held to “believer’s baptism” held their tongues and celebrated a new member in their community. In other service drums, guitars, and raised hands typified the worship style, while those more comfortable with the organ and stoicism worked hard to embrace a more dynamic and contemporary mode, for the benefit of younger members. Equally, the young participated in liturgy and very structured meetings, knowing that this is what aided others in their relationship to God. I worshiped with people who sought the ‘gifts of the spirit’ and those who thought said ‘gifts’ were tricks of the devil. I took communion with Calvinists and Arminians. I attended youth groups with Universalists and those that believed in an ‘Elect’.
I lived in Turkey on and off for ten years. For most of that time the church was simply the church, there were no denominations. Differences in style or focus perhaps, but no major theological differences and no dissension. Only in the later years of my time there, 2010/11 when the population of Turkish Christians had risen significantly and certain American Christian groups had established a missionary presence there, did divisions begin to arise. In the early days, there were too few believers to afford the luxury of dogmatic division. They were drawn together and thankful for each others company and support. But as numbers grew, as people became less reliant on one another, the differences in creed and practice started to seem more important than the similarities. Foreign influences were particularly to blame for this. Missionaries with their own baggage-laden agenda forced divides where there need not have been any. For the first time congregations could be formed based upon preference or ideology. I moved to Turkey in 1991. It was not until 2010 that a church first self-identified along denominational lines. In my mind, a sad day.
It was in Istanbul I learned not only that a trans-denominational church was possible, but that it benefits the whole body. The breadth of perspective contained within such a community, the potential, and indeed necessity, for working on communication, for prioritising tenets of faith, for accepting different practices by looking past the symbol to the heart, all these things made for a richer and more transformative experience of church than I have had anywhere else.
Though far from perfect, this kind of church is what I grew in and have since held as a standard. The idea of church as one body always struck me as important and impressive. That each local incarnation of the church be a microcosm of the whole, comprising the breadth of the faith’s diverse membership within itself, seemed an obvious goal.
In the absence of God and therefore a ‘Universal’, I have spent a lot of time wading through the relativist, subjectivist plurality of a world with no arbiter, no organising principle, no direction. I do not prefer the freedom of being able to create one’s own morality. I do not prefer schism and chaos. For this reason, it concerns me greatly when I see the church trading so casually the ideal of unity for populism and comfort. The old adage, “we can choose our friends, but not our family” comes to mind and describes perfectly the progressive’s rejection of any attempt to reform traditional congregation, and instead form exclusive communities of their own.
More and more the Liberal, Progressive and Emerging church splinters itself from established denominations because it wants to “revitalise”, or “reimagine” the idea of church. More often than not this just looks like a clique-ish attempt to get rid of the old and the uncool. The idea that church should serve me, rather than vice-versa has taken firm hold and so congregations cater more and more to specific interests rather than being melting pots that encourage people to reach out to others unlike themselves in an attempt to understand what kind of a family they are a part of.
In my post, ‘Christianity for Atheists’, I say that Community is one of the tenets of the faith that non-religious people can respect and learn from. As more and more Christian young people react to traditional views on sex, marriage, homosexuality, drink, drugs, and rock and roll (joking aside, style of worship is an extremely divisive issue), by rejecting those that hold them, rather than seeking either to dialogue, or understand, or change them, the church moves further and further from its intended purpose. Neighbour love, compassion, patience, cooperation, these all become increasingly theoretical in homogenous communities which must necessarily consider themselves “true believers” and at best be embarrassed by their less forward-thinking brothers and sisters.
As someone who will probably never set foot in a church again I feel hesitant to weigh in at all. But as someone who values the richness of a diverse community, I lament the crumbling of humanity’s best example of how common purpose can bring people together.
Sorry for being preachy. I know progressives hate that.