There’s a saying “I’ve been thrown out of better places than this.” and it’s something I can say with absolutely honesty. I have been thrown out of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.
When my daughter was about 16, I was invited to speak and to receive an award at a lunch in a very very select Gentleman’s Club in London. Because we were travelling from the Midlands, dependant on train times, we arrived a little early (my habit anyway) and the rain was pouring down on a cold and very windy day. In the St James area, the buildings are tall and stately, the streets wide, and in gusty weather they turn into efficient Georgian wind tunnels. We fell out of the taxi, splashed through the puddles, were just about blown in through the doors and stumbled up to the desk… only to be told that as we were women we couldn’t be admitted. We would have to go away and return in half an hour when the event was formally starting. I was amused – the place was enormous and sumptuously furnished, sofas and chairs and thick lush carpet, doors ajar to smaller sitting areas, loads of room. And I was there as their ‘honoured’ guest. I pointed to the horizontal rain and the glistening grey street and said “But there’s absolutely nowhere for us to go. It’s all residences and other Gentlemen’s Clubs.” The bloke at the desk was regretful but insistent – women could not be in the club until the official function was begun…. so we went out into the wind and rain, more amused than affronted. The doorman, a good ole no-nonsense Irishman said quietly to me “I’m sorry, love, they’re all gobshites.”
He was right.
A gentleman’s club is somewhere Lord Clarence and his old pal Percy can meet and feel secure and comfortable. The place is there just for them, and as long as they don’t pee in the aspidistra or scare the horses, and as long as they pay their fees, they will be made to feel welcome, special, entitled. Even if I was a gentleman, I wouldn’t want to be part of that cosy, elitist and essentially moribund community. I like the word ‘moribund’. It means ‘at the point of death’.
I know a chapel that’s moribund. It’s in my village, it has a couple of services a year, attended by a handful of elderly people. It also sees the funerals of people who once attended, or whose families once attended. It has no pastor, no website, not even a noticeboard outside to tell passers-by when the services are, or who to contact for help. I’m sure that building will be up for sale soon.
The gentlemen’s club and that chapel have much in common. When they were started they were vibrant and exciting. The club was founded by adventurers and travellers, liberal thinkers, men of learning and accomplishment. The chapel was founded by a small band of enthusiastic working people, people with a desire to read the Word and to learn and to worship. Both have, over the years, gone into a slow and steady decline. Both are on the point of death. The chapel people are probably aware of this, as they see their numbers dwindle away, and the fabric of the old building rotting around them, but maybe the gentlemen of St James can kid themselves that they’re still doing fine, cushioned as they are by their money and power, the deep velvet cushions of their armchairs and the deep plush wool of their carpets.
But it’s still true that the gentlemen’s club and the chapel have much in common. The club has done everything but dig a moat and install a drawbridge. The chapel is forbidding and unwelcoming, just a slab of grey on a narrow street.
Neither make any attempt towards relevance in the community. About 10 years ago the village Primary School held a service in the chapel – it was damp, cold, grey. The sweet elderly people who greeted the children were kind and one or two of them were the grandparents of some of the visiting children. The service was full of old hymns, with a simple but unexciting story, and the children were bored rigid. Now, it’s mostly there for funerals.
What will the chapel become? A B&B like the chapel next door to my house? Indeed, my house is the old vestry of that chapel, and it was built in 1926… look at the crowd attending the opening of my little home…. a simple building where children were taught about God.
In 1851 the average Sunday attendance at the main chapel was 971.
NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY ONE.
And now, none.
Not one. Now the chapel is a bed and breakfast, the wonderful pulpit and stairs, the ornate carpentry, the high ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows no longer giving praise to God, but acting merely as a point of mild interest to holiday makers.
How long did the decline take? When did the congregation begin to realise that they were slowly dying off and no one was there to step into the breach? In 2001 they began to make plans to sell the chapel, and in 2006 it was closed.
The people in these chapels never did anything terribly heinous. The church people were held to account, and behaved with propriety, they were respectable, the men wore hats and the women baked cakes, and the children were disciplined. These stalwart hard-working people brought this nation through two World Wars. They are not to be despised, or looked down on. They are our foundation and without them we wouldn’t be here.
So what went wrong? Why has the love for Christ, and the love of Christ been forgotten in my very lively and pleasant , community-minded village? The people around me are wonderful, creative, funny, loveable, interesting. I have no reason to believe that a few years ago they were any less. So, how is it that 7 chapels in this village have already died? Didn’t these worshippers love Jesus?
Yes. They loved Him, but not enough. Just as we love Him, but not enough. Did no one tell them that our God is jealous God? That He wants the world, He desires every soul, He yearns for the love and the devotion of every human being without exception? Did no one tell them that He will pour His Spirit into them and be revealed in them? Did no one ever tell them “You are wonderful because your God is wonderful”? Did no one ever say to them “Courage, mate, we can do this! We can reach out and take the love of Jesus to anyone who’s lost and broken and despairing.’? Did no one ever say “Let’s get down on our knees and ask God to keep this chapel alive.”?
They must have done and known and said all those things. So, what went wrong?
One definition of madness (Mr Einsten’s) is ” doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Is the modern church doing what the church of the 19th and 20th Century did? And are we expecting a different result? I look at the Parish church in this village, and at the Parish church in the town, and at my own church, and I see us doing the same things we have always done. Worse, I see us fighting against change, shrinking from challenge, closing our eyes to revelation. “Too loud! Too unsettling! Too uncomfortable! Too inconvenient!”
And so we do the same thing over and over again, wearing a deep rut in the earth, deeper and deeper, deeper and deeper, until… guess what… that rut becomes our grave. And we don’t realise what’s happening. Like age, it creeps up on us.
And the world, beyond our rut, doesn’t even see us. We are irrelevant. The world around us is changing at a pell-mell rate. Faster and faster. And our reaction is to stubbornly dig our heels in, stick our fingers in our ears as we sing “La la la” as loud as we can (or some obscurely theological hymn in the language of the 1800’s).
The bottom of a rut is no place for the family of God. It doesn’t serve our Lord if all we do is quietly slide into senility and decline, attending funeral after funeral, until it’s our turn and all that’s left are dust motes, dancing in the sunshine struggling through a grimy window.
It’s not enough to honour each other’s preferences. It’s not enough to keep the rules and to walk along the well worn path of precedence. We’ve seen where that leads. Give us adventure, Lord. Give us challenge and the courage to face that challenge. Let us climb mountains with you, knowing that you’re clearing the path ahead. And if it’s noisy and unrespectable and the men don’t wear hats and the women don’t bake bloody cakes – well, hurrah! If there are risks and there’s exhaustion and frustration and desperate need for prayer – HURRAH! I want to be out in the storm, Lord, not sitting in a plush armchair in a snug corner of a dying old boy’s club.
Sing to God a brand-new song,
praise him in the company of all who love him. Psalm 149
Get out of the boat. Trust in God. Desire God. Desire change. Pray for revival. Accept discipline. Get out of the boat. Get out of the boat. Submit and find joy. Sing a new song, shout it into the wind. The gale blows harsh and the waves are high, and you’ll struggle to make headway, but look who you’re walking towards… look whose hand is outstretched towards you. Get out of the boat.
Walking away from that Gentleman’s Club, how we laughed! How irrelevant they seemed! The wind and rain… bring it on.