It might appear contradictory, misguided or wrong to some Christians...
The Invisible Church: Part Five
Returning from a meeting on 'the future of the church', Nick Page is flung into the future, to the year 2040. He discovers that church buildings are now regarded as museums and the Anglican Church in Britain a pale shadow of its former life, with the recent General Synod held in a back room of the Rose and Crown in Tooting. He finds that bureaucracy, outdated training methods and increasing detachment from community were amongst the reasons for the demise.
When I woke there was a bright light shining in my face.“Where am I?” I asked. “What happened?” I couldn ’t move. I seemed to be wrapped in a large amount of heavily padded silver foil.
“Please don’t talk,”said a gentle, musical,yet strangely annoying voice,
“I will keep you in stasis, until we reach the hospital.”
“Who are you?”
“Your medi-suit.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see a small silver grille in the front of the suit, out of which this oily voice was oozing.“I have been asked to care for you during this journey. I am monitoring your condition. You are satisfactory.” There was a pause. “Although if you ask me,you could stand to lose a few pounds.” It was like listening to a cross between a nanny and the worst TV presenter imaginable.
“Look,” I snarled. “I’m not in the mood for this. I’ve been catapulted through time, bitten by a snake and now I’m being lectured by an overgrown duvet...”
“You are becoming agitated. I will give you a sedative.”
“I don ’t want a sedative...”
“Now, now, medi-suit knows best.”
It was no use. I could feel myself growing drowsy again. As I drifted off, dim fragments of memory rearranged themselves in my brain. I was standing in the overgrown wilderness of an old theological college, talking to Helen about the inadequacies of training, when I had been bitten by a snake.
“I always knew going to Bible college was bad for your health,” I muttered. “But I never knew it was going to be like this.
Helen’s face loomed into view. She looked down at me.”Don’t panic,” she said. “It ’s only a bite. We’re used to them by now. We’ll soon be at the Self-Heal Unit. The medi-suit will keep you OK.”
When I next woke I was lying on a kind of padded bench in a large, bright white room. Helen was inserting my hand into a kind of metal sleeve which was attached to the bed.
“What’s going on?” I croaked..
“Please relax,” said my suit, in a voice which instantly made me grit my teeth.
“You are being plugged in.” I began to panic slightly.
“What do you mean?” I said. “I don’t want to be plugged in to anything thank you.
“Oh don’t be such a cry-baby,” scolded the suit. “It ’s for your own good. It won ’t hurt a bit.” “When this is over I’m going to personally put you through the mangle.” I said. Once my hand was in the socket, I felt something metal contract around it and hold me.
“Reading your DNA details now...” said the medi-suit. There was a long pause.
“Well that doesn ’t compute at all,” said the suit eventually. It sniffed in annoyance.
“What ’s the matter?” I asked..
“According to your DNA topography you are Nick Page.”
“And you are also dead.”
The suit sounded personally aggrieved. “According to central records you died twenty-two, oh-seven, 2031. Cause of death...” There was another long pause. “Good grief,” said the medi-suit. It sounded shocked. “That must have hurt.”
“What? What must have hurt...”
“Never mind all that now,” interrupted Helen. “But I want to know what must have hurt...”
“No.I don ’t think you do.”
“This is most inconvenient,” said the suit.
Why have you got to make things so complicated? How can I cure you if you ’re dead?”
She reached across and swiped a card through a small gap in the medi-suit’s read-out panel. The suit beeped twice.
“Override detected,” it said. “Payment agreed. Treatment will proceed.” I looked at her.
“You have to pay?”
“Of course.” I looked around me. All around the walls there were trolleys like the one I was lying on, but no-one else was using them.
“Where are we?” “SHU.Self-Heal Unit. It’s kind of like a Casualty unit, only without the blood and hysteria.”
“And the overcrowding apparently. Where is everyone?” She laughed.
“Oh it’s all computerised now,”she said. “We don ’t use people any more. All the diagnosis and treatment is electronically administered. You can see a doctor if you like, but it ’s always more expensive.” She paused.
“The funny thing is that loads of people still choose that, even though all the doctor does, on the whole, is lie you on a trolley and plug you in.”
“I guess the computers are more efficient.”
“Partly it ’s that. But mainly that these units were created because of the difficulty of getting people to work in the public services. One of the less-foreseen effects of the collapse of Christian values.” I grimaced.“I don ’t see the link.”
“People used to talk about vocation when they talked about those jobs. They used to see them as a calling.” I snorted.
“Yes, well, the only difference between a job and a vocation is that you can pay people less in a vocation.”
“No. A vocation came out of a moral vision. Look,” she continued, “Christianity always taught people the importance of service and sacrifice. It encouraged people to serve their fellow humans. But when Christianity faded, that view faded as well. The prevailing moral climate of your time was one of self-interest. And in that kind of society it becomes more and more difficult to fill jobs that require self-sacrifice.
“You ’re not claiming that the crisis in the Health service was directly attributable to the decline of Christianity?”
“Not wholly - but it was all part of the mix. Even though Christianity had been declining for decades, there was still an acceptance of some of its values - the idea of service being one of them. When those go, then all you get is a religion of self. So instead, the government was reduced to trying to teach people citizenship. We had to teach them how to be citizens of earth because they no longer believed they were citizens of heaven.”
“You seem to be arguing that people will put up with lousy pay and poor working conditions as long as they believe strongly enough in self-sacrifice.”
She snorted. “I know you’re ill but do try to listen. I’m not justifying the poor pay or conditions or anything like that. I’m saying that a lot of people went into these kind of jobs because the moral framework in which they were raised encouraged them to serve their fellow human beings. Even when specific Christian beliefs began to fade and die, there was still an appreciation of the value of self-sacrifice and mercy. But eventually - when the only moral framework was ‘look after number one’ - then the idea of ‘vocations’ disappears. So it become merely a question of pay and conditions. That’s one of the reasons that in your time it became so hard to recruit teachers and nurses and doctors.”
My suit started beeping. “I have identified your illness and am currently dealing with it,” said the medi-suit. “While I ’m at it, I ought to point out some of the other things that are wrong with you. We haven’t been looking after ourselves at all well, have we?”
“Look, you over-powered anorak, you’re supposed to be healing me, not engaging in character assassination!” I said.
“I can see why people prefer the doctors.”
“Yes,” said Helen. “That’s why not many people come here. They all prefer to pay more and see a doctor or a nurse or the local general Herbalist.”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry?”
“Oh you can get all kinds of alternative therapies in the National Health now. Providing, of course, you can pay for it. Anyway, the point is that people need people. They want to talk about their illness, not just obey the commands of some electronic machine.”
“I heard that...” said the medi-suit in rather an aggrieved tone of voice. “I think, speaking as highly technologically advanced clothing I know what is best for the patient.”
“You can’t replace real care and attention,” continued Helen, ignoring the suit’s protests. “People in your time were crying out for it. Crying out for someone to care for them. They were desperate for relationships, for someone to say they cared. And what did they get? Chatlines. Therapists. Professional friends. Oh, our society was too busy to be friends; we preferred to employ others to do it for us.”
“A bit of a sweeping statement. Therapy wasn’t quite as simple as that.”
“No. Perhaps not. But the point is that nothing beats a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. Nothing communicates God’s love better than one of His people putting it into action. People wanted someone to listen to them, someone to pay attention to their fears and their anxieties; to tell them that it was all going to be all right, to tell them that they mattered. They needed someone to show them that God loves them. And who better than the church to do that?”
“Well, as I recall the church did do a lot of practical care. Missionaries, aid and development, social care organisations and all that...”
“Yes, of course. But it was also really needed at the local level - in the towns and the villages. That’s where the church could make a huge difference. But so often what we wanted to do was to talk rather than act. We were too busy telling people what was wrong with them, telling them what to think, to listen to what they really needed. We had so much doctrine and dogma to stuff them with, we never noticed they were scared and desperate and lonely.”
She shrugged. “I mean, it’s not rocket science, is it? The key message of Christianity is so simple. God loves you. Everything else springs out of that simple fact - all the other stuff about forgiveness and redemption and prayer and eternal life. It all springs from three little words: God loves you. We were too busy telling people what they ought to believe to actually put those three little words into action. But the churches that actually did things; the churches that cared enough to get their hands dirty - they were the ones that people listened to.”
Suddenly my hand was released from its metal grip.
“So are we feeling better now?” The voice coming from the medi-suit was smooth and unctuous.
“You can try to replace friendship and care with artificial constructs,” said Helen. “But nothing replaces the real thing.” She pulled a tab on the front of the medi-suit, and the silver wrapping started to peel away from me. It deflated with a gentle hiss. I felt like a lizard shedding its skin.
“Thank you for using me,” said the medi-suit as I climbed out of it.
“Please call on me again.” Helen folded it up and put it back into the protective bag. “People should catch God’s love, like a virus,” she said. “We should have been contagious with it, spreading it to whoever we came into contact with. Love seeps out and fills the air between us until you can’t help but contract it. We walked back towards the waiting Travel Pod.
“You know who built the hospitals?” she said.
“We did. The Christians. The churches, the monasteries. They built the first hospitals. It was Christians who first went into the slums and started treating people; Christians who started the first free education for all. And they did it because when God walked in person on this earth he didn’t just come and preach to people. He healed them. He fed them. He listened to their questions and their fears. He cared.”
We climbed into the Pod, she pressed a button and slowly, silently, we moved away.
To discuss if when I get back.
- 1. How many of my church are engaged in public service? How can I support them better?
- 2. How can my church practically care for our community?
- 3. How can we ensure that people feel cared for and loved?
- 4. Do I actually listen to people who talk to me? Or am I merely waiting for the opportunity to speak? If you missed any of the earlier episodes, log on to our website www.christianityandrenewal.com and read them under ‘archives’.