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.
The same sort of pele also say “It has to die before it’s resurrected” — as though the Body of Christ had not already been raised from death, had not destroyed death. It’s an anti-theological premise, and it’s very popular in the Episcopal Church; the implications sadden me.
Perhaps it’s a commentary that the word “church” is understood by 99% of Americans — and, I’d argue, a majority of Episcopalians — to be not the Body of Christ but rather an edifice or an institution. We don’t have a widely accepted vocabulary to denote the institutional apparatus specifically. Until we get such a vocabulary, comments about rearranging deck chairs will continue to be made about the “church”. Yes, it’s imprecise. But given the significant misalignment between the present structure of the institution and what’s happening in the world, the references to deck chairs are understandable. Zeal to reform the structure of the institution is meet and right.
Fr. Stephen said:
Thank you for this. I remember one of my seminary profs’ favourite sayings was “the Church is not the guarantor of her own existence”. Rumours of her death are greatly exaggerated. So, point well taken.
However, I often find myself worried about how this argument is used in the Church today. In my context, as a fellow Anglican, I generally hear it used in a way that lets us rationalize our own decline. At my clergy conferences, it usually goes something like this: the Church belongs to God and God loves His Church, so therefore my parish (or diocese, or Anglicanism) will do just fine. When used this way, the logic is faulty.
I know Christ’s Church is triumphant, but that doesn’t mean the particular expression I inhabit will triumph. I wonder sometimes if we aren’t like Judah in the time of Jeremiah. All the prophets kept saying that God loves Jerusalem, and would never let His temple be destroyed. But as Jeremiah told them, He would and did. Yes, God preserved a remnant, but He didn’t let their faithlessness go without consequences.
I look at the Church in North Africa, for example, and note that despite it producing spiritual giants like Tertullian and St. Augustine, it still collapsed like a house of cards at the Muslim conquest. Apart from Coptic Egypt, there are no churches in N. Africa which survived, despite it being a heavily Christian area at the time. Can we be confident that the rising tide of secularism in our culture won’t do the same to North America’s church?
My concern is that we can easily give ourselves false hope, believing that our lack of faithful teaching, evangelism, pastoral care, outreach or whatever will somehow not have an effect on our particular church’s future. It will, and I greatly fear that while the Church’s future is guaranteed, my particular expression of it may be found wanting. I put my hope in the Lord, and I know that ultimately this hope will not be disappointed. But for the Church militant here on earth, I also suspect that I, and Christianity throughout the West, are in for a chastening.
Drew Downs said:
Perhaps the challenge in the image (which you get at) is the passivity embedded in it. Virtually no one aboard the Titanic could prevent its sinking, and with the cost-cutting leading to insufficient life boats, the entire enterprise lends us to see ourselves as helpless and destined to drown.
I was playing with a different sort of image this morning (synchronicity!) about a fleet of boats with small crews and in various states of disrepair. And the crews all struggle with how to deal with the situation–changing boats, patching holes, etc.–but without regard to the wider problem: that each of the boats is sinking, but there is no discernible hole in the bottom. Ignoring that common experience or faithful prayer might reveal a common situation. Instead, we independently go about trying to “fix” our problems all by ourselves.
What the Titanic image is trying to express is that sense that our actions are wrong or ineffective, which I do relate to. But I come at it from a similar place to Stephen’s, I think, in which I watch many of us essentially opting out of dealing with our situation or saying “we’ll be fine if we just ______.” Or setting up a paradigm of one side of donothings vs. one side of restless change-agents. Not a helpful schema.