In my quiet time this morning I was struck again by the exhortation to go outside the camp in Hebrews chapter 13.
I’m still reflecting on my time in the U.K. and the breadth of Christian history that I was able to engage with there.
Two images highlight this for me: Columba Bay and Durham Cathedral.
Bay is on the Southern Western coast of the tiny island of Iona. It is surrounded by rugged cliffs and covered in pebbles that have been rounded by centuries of being bashed against each other by the force of an often rough sea.
Durham Cathedral, according to the visitors guide is one of the greatest churches ever built. Planned and begun in 1081 and finally finished in 1280, its scale and obvious history simply take your breath away.
Both sites are of great significance to the Christian church.
Columba bay was the site where Columba first came ashore at Iona, as a result of his conviction that God had called him to leave the familiarity of home and give his life for the barbarians known as the Picts (modern day Scotland). As I stood on the shore at the bay, reflecting on what I would be willing to give up if God called me, I found myself deeply moved at Columba’s faith and courage.
Durham Cathedral is grand. It houses the remains of St. Cuthbert who some scholars call the greatest saint of the North (I think Cuthbert’s achievements pale into insignificance alongside Columba, Aiden and even Brigitte, but what would I know), and a number of other significant Historical figures. It is huge, and a sign inside tells visitors that it costs £60,000 a week just to keep open. There is part of me that wanted to decry the waste of money. I tend to agree with Bono who sang “You glorify your past when your future dries up”, but being there and standing where so many have gone before, I could see the dilemma that the Church of England finds itself in. I’m not sure I would want to lose such a remarkable link with those who have gone before us, mind you England is saturated with historical churches. I would be fascinated to know just how much is spent on sustaining church buildings around the world. I’m not sure it is wrong, but it certainly raises some questions.
It was interesting to contrast the apparent contradiction between Columba and the church as represented by Durham cathedral.
Someone once used the definition for what the bible calls the world (which in Greek is Kosmos, meaning order or arrangement) as the system that sets itself up to tell you what you need in order not to need God. I find that definition helpful, and realised again this morning that we are called out of “the world” because we are focussed on a different system, a different order.
Hebrews 13:11=14 makes it clear:
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
I was reading a bit about how systems work, and how systems change. I came across a paper that talked about how systems tend to reinforce themselves:
Established systems may be stabilised by legally binding contracts. Systems are also stabilised becasue they are embedded in society. People adapt their lifestyles to them, favourable institutional arrangements and formal regulations are created, and accompanying infrastructures are set up. The alignment between these heterogeneous elements leads to technological momentum. Existing systems are further stabilised by social relationships. Actors and organisations are embedded in interdependent networks, which represent a kind of ‘organisational capital’. and create stability through mutual role expectations.
I think I was struck at how much we humans can make the institutional church its own system, its own world.
One of the truths of systemic change is that radical change doesn’t tend to come from the hierachy of an established system. The paper I was reading says that:
In the first phase innovations emerge in niches, often outside or on the fringe of the existing regime. There are no stable rules (e.g. dominant design), and actors improvise, and engage in experiments to work out the best design and find our what users want. The networks that carry and support the innovation, are small and precarious. The innovations do not (yet) form a threat to the existing regime.
The paper then goes on to talk about how those innovations bring about transformation.
I find it interesting that God has used his church over and over again to bring about regime change in societal systems. Each time they have done it by “going outside the camp”, going outside what the world considers to be normal, and because they have their eyes on a completely different value system, they are able to establish a completely different societal system.
I was interested to learn that the first building that was built in a Celtic Monastery was not the church but huts that were set aside for visitors and the sick. Loving people, and building systems that responded to their needs was at the heart of the unparalleled phenomenal growth of the Celtic Christian church.
I wonder whether sometimes we get seduced by the system of the world, or think we have to maintain a system from the past, when it is not the system that is the main game. We are called outside the camp, because our goal isn’t build an enduring city (or system) here, but looking for the city that is to come.
I think part of the reason God didn’t give us clear systemic instructions for how the church was meant to function, (no matter how some people want to argue he did), was that he knew that the world would be constantly changing and the systemic infrastructure of the church would also need to be constantly changing.
We are called to the constant battle of being willing to share in the suffering of Jesus outside the comfort zone of the camp. If we were to take this passage seriously, the Christian church would be constantly re-inventing its forms and structures because it knows there is more to life than the existing system…. Actually thats what it has been doing for the last 2000 years….
***The article I was reading about systemic change is here : http://www2.druid.dk/conferences/viewpaper.php?id=2633&cf=18