Working in the Church, one often hears the metaphor that we are “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” or some other sinking ship metaphor. What is often implied is that whatever is being done is not enough and the Church is sinking fast.
It works, if your definition of the Church is as something that is actually sinkable. The problem with the Church-as-sinking-boat metaphor is that it completely misidentifies who and what the Church is. The Church is not the burst hull and sinking vessel, the Church is the Body of people who are trying to find rescue and respite – who are caring for the lost finding the desperate. The Church existed before the worlds were born for it was held in the heart of the Trinity and revealed in Christ’s walking among us.
The Church is not sinking – the structure of the Church is undoubtedly creaking and cracking – but the Church herself, the Body of her faithful people, is reaching to find some way to a new craft that will carry them in to calmer waters.
The Church is the people who have built and trusted the structure to carry them in relative comfort. The Church is the people who are relying on the institution to help carry them from one place to another. The Church is the people longing to find a place a peace amidst stormy waters. The Church is the people who found themselves with no hope left and then were rescued. The Church is the people who were lost beneath the waters before they could be rescued.
My friend and I were sitting next to one another when we heard the metaphor most recently used. We both had the same reaction at the same time – we need to stop using this metaphor. He offered the image to me of a ship sinking down into the water and landing on something rising up to meet it – something like the City of God rising up through the waters.
In other words, there is no doubt change coming and the Church (both her people and the institution) will look different, sound different, be different. Yet I don’t think it will look that different from the Church of the earliest centuries – a time when the people of God gathered around font and altar and sought ways to share the Good News with a world that was at best indifferent to the message they shared.
Before we had structures, bylaws, and committees – before conventions and deaneries – we had a Meal and a Great Commission.
Institutionally, it is time for us to stop identifying with the Titanic and to start identifying with the people shifting, by fits and starts, from one ship to another. The image that remains with me is the image of the Carpathia, a rescue ship, coming into port with those who had been saved from the sinking of the Titanic. You see in that picture the wounded, the frightened, the relieved, and the thankful. It is in the midst of that party of saved men and women that we are found as the Body.
No doubt, we are a group going through something unsettling and terrifying, knowing real loss and genuine grief. And yet the Church is at her best when she finds herself caught up in a vision of new life. We are being called no longer to know ourselves as the floundering ship but to be the brave men and women calling out to, reaching for, nursing, and making whole those all around us looking for a Church that outlasts rust, wind, ice, and fog.