Tuesday, December 06, 2005


One of the areas we all enjoyed at Perth Zoo the other day was the orang-utan enclosure. In order to create an appropriate environment, researchers studied orang-utans in the wild to identify their primary activities – activities such as taking introvert time out to watch the rest of the family from a distance; climbing around the tree canopy; making nests; searching for food; and resting in the shade. Then, rather than attempting to recreate a rain-forest environment in the zoo, what has been done is an attempt to provide for all of these core activities in a habitat made of wood and steel and rope, which has a very urban feel to it. Indeed, it felt much more like creative human architecture than anything else. Information boards presented pictures showing what each core activity might look like in the wild, and how that same activity was paralleled in the enclosure.

This approach seems to me highly appropriate* for reconstructing church in a new world reality [post-Modernity; post-Christendom; post-9/11; post-]. First we need to decide what we consider to be core activities for a given community of Christians. I don’t mean minimum-requirement essential doctrinal statements – though doctrine does matter – but what any given group looking to be church in this new world considers to be key elements of their praxis. And it is important to figure that out, at least provisionally, before setting out: too many good ideas have floundered, to many pioneering spirits have become disillusioned, because this groundwork has not always been done.

Then we need to avoid the temptation of seeking to re-create the ‘original’ – or even last known – environment in which those activities were previously done. When the last natural habitat of the orang-utan is felled by loggers, it will be no good denying it – and, though that day can (and in this case ought to) be resisted, its inevitability probably won’t be reversed. In the case of the passing of one age of history into another, resistance truly is futile. Rather, what we need is creative models of how those same activities might look in a completely different, an alien, context. Orang-utans need to nest – but traditionally they haven’t built their nests out of plastic crates and Hessian sacks. Christians need to worship – but how they worship must take into account their changing context, as well as their un-changing God. That is not to say that there is no place for continuity – the orang-utans have a great deal of that. Pioneering expressions of church have often ‘thrown the baby out with the bath-water’ when it comes to continuity – but that’s as short-sighted as throwing the orang-utans into the fairy penguin enclosure and expecting them to adapt...

* and not only because Anglican bishops are also known as Primates ; )

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