Obadiah on church – past, present and future


Obadiah’s mind has been wandering in church. But not off-topic. We have been learning about how to be church in my church. Obadiah’s mind has wandered to a small prefabricated building nestled against St Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide, like a tugboat pushing against a mighty ship.

It is the Adelaide Quaker meeting house, where my twin was married. (He’s now a “canon” of the cathedral next door, but that’s another story, although it fits the Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles novels – Obadiah Slope, the “odious evangelical,” is a character in the books.)

My wandering mind was triggered by 1 Corinthians 14:26 “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.”

I saw some of this at the Quaker meeting house. No tongues, though, which are to be found elsewhere.

I mused (and I think correctly) that no one entirely does church as described in the New Testament. It is a rare Sunday gathering open to whoever “has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.”

Prayer book services can be glorious. They involve more Scripture reading than most contemporary services.

Praise music services work for Obadiah, too – every great move of God is marked by music.

And the halfway house sort of service that Obadiah gets in his Sydney Anglican gathering on Sunday nourishes him.

But the ideal of 1 Corinthians 14:26 is hard to find in a Sunday service.

Quakers do that well, but another element of church – teaching – misses out if Mr Slope can be critical for a moment. But sitting waiting for the Spirit to inspire, and accepting the discipline of respecting whoever speaks, can be refreshing.

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On the other hand: “I was not a member of a Christian congregation because I had not found any that had heard or obeyed the commandment ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.'”

James Baldwin ‘I am not your negro’

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Name blame: Readers with far too much knowledge of church history for their own good might have realised that Obadiah’s real-life surname – Sandeman – is the name of a church founded in Scotland that held a full meal called a love feast each week between morning and afternoon services. The Sandemanians believed that the accumulation of wealth was sinful and practised foot-washing.

But this promiscuous column that has roamed across many denominations would be regarded as sinful by the Sandemanians because they would only fellowship with each other.

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Unpolitics: The Sandemanians rejected the political Presbyterianism of the 18th century Scotland which sought an established church, believing the church was spiritual and should not use the organs of the state. Maybe that is a Sandemanian thought that might make sense today.

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No Sunday Coffees: seen on a local coffee “hours of business” notice painted on their door. “Sunday Exodus 31:15”

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Evangelicals are the problem: Read this quote, and then I will tell you where it is from.

“Apart from the scandal of pedophile Roman Catholic priests, bishops and a cardinal or two, no other group has done more harm to evangelism and the spread of the gospel in America than evangelicals.

“Consider the following.

The political alliance of millions of evangelicals to the side of Donald Trump brought about the rise of Christian nationalism, racism, xenophobia, fearmongering and hate, and the conflation of the gospel with American civil religion. This has wrecked the proclamation of the Good News to secular America. Trump used evangelicals as useful idiots for his base to drive MAGA America, even though he despised them. In private, Trump spoke with cynicism and contempt about believers. ”

Is it from some lefty? Or maybe a trendy evangelical? It is a quote by David Virtue, a very conservative and often irascible commentator on US churches, especially Anglicans.

He is clear-headed on this one, Obadiah thinks.

Across the pond, John Hayward, a British mathematician who has been researching church decline, agrees that politics won’t save churches. His thesis is that most churches in the UK, apart from some newer evangelical ones, have not been converting enough people to survive.

“No, it’s not all doom and gloom, but if people want to get back to a time when Christianity was central to the nation and the Church was central to its influence, they’re looking at the wrong model. We see this in the USA too, where they are about to face a rapid Church decline, even among stalwarts like the Southern Baptists.

“Christians in the USA have tried to keep the culture Christian by political campaigns. But culture becomes Christian because we spread the faith to people who aren’t Christians. We can’t artificially keep a culture Christian; we need to concentrate on making converts. Our job is to grow the church and change people. The culture changes because people change.”