I’m currently reading Tomáš Halík’s Patience with God, described by Ben Myers as “one of the best and most beautiful responses to the new atheism” – though the primary focus of Halík’s book is on what he calls the “Zacchaeuses” who inhabit the fringes of the church, keeping their distance, avoiding the crowds, observing (as it were) from up a fig tree; whose faith is (as Boris Johnson once put it) “like Magic FM in the Chilterns – it comes and goes”.
Christmas is a good time for the church to think about its fringe. It’s easy for regular churchgoers to fall into the trap of being a bit sniffy about the “once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them” and to question their motivation for turning up (“just another form of midwinter entertainment”). Most of us, if we’re honest, have probably made that mistake.
Halík argues for the importance of the fringe and of ministering appropriately to the Zacchaeuses who inhabit it. Rather than trying to “manipulate” those on the fringe into conforming to the image of “standard believers”, we should accord them “freedom to determine how close they want to be to the visible forms of today’s church-based Christianity” (p.77).
Maintaining the church’s fringe is not only important for those who occupy the fringe, but for the church itself. As Halík continues:
The point is that, without that “fringe”, the church would not be a church but a sect. One of the fundamental differences between churches and sects is that a sect – unlike a church – is limited to a “hard core” of absolutely identifiable members and in some cases considers that type of member to be the ideal. (pp.77f.)
Halík uses St Peter’s Basilica in Rome as an illustration of this:
It was designed by the architect so that the square – enclosed by a colonnade resembling open arms – is an integral part of the place of worship, in addition to the inner space of the basilica. […] That is precisely what the Catholic Church should look like. If, instead of a colonnade, it built an impenetrable wall, or if it were actually to abandon the space of the square – in which, naturally, it is impossible to demand the disciplined behaviour or proper attire required inside the basilica – it would abandon its catholicity. (p.78)
This is a challenge (and an invitation) to all of us in our own churches: where are our “St Peter’s Squares”, our open spaces surrounded by a colonnade rather than a wall, and yet still an integral part of our life as a church? Holding social events on the church premises is sometimes presented as fulfilling as similar function – a “non-threatening” way to “get people used to coming into the building” – but seems to me to lack that element of integration into the worshipping life of the church itself. Our Christmas services may often be the best opportunity we have to present a “colonnaded square” to our neighbours.
It’s also hard for some of us to shake off our preference for drawing clear boundaries between who is “in” and who is “out” – our preference for the church as a “bounded set” rather than a “centred set”. Halík argues that the Second Vatican Council:
…proclaimed that it neither knew nor recognised any definitive boundaries of God’s people, that by their very humanity all people, in a certain sense, belong to the mysterious body of the church and the mysterious body of the Crucified. (p.79)
We can gain a new love and respect for the fringe and for those who inhabit it, Halík tells us, by acknowledging that we are already to some extent on the same pilgrimage. Or in other words (to return to one of the themes from my recent series on W.H. Vanstone) by accepting that God’s love is not confined to the “hard core” of the church, but rather that the church is the place where that love is (or should be) most fully recognised. Our task is to help others to share in that recognition of God’s love rather than to drag them across a boundary line.