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Sunday Worship 3 July | Sacred Spaces: chapter

Updated: Mar 18

1 Corinthians 2:6-16 (NIV)
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him — these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

This morning we come to reflect on ‘Chapterhouse (or more simply Chapter): a place for decision making’. George Lings, whose work we are drawing on, admits that he did not initially recognise Chapter as its own distinct space. Some monasteries do have specific Chapterhouses, so named because they are the place where chapters of the monastic rule are read in order to guide discussion and decision making, but the communities he has spent time with conduct their meetings in public recreational spaces so that he says “the essence of Chapter is a social and governmental function more than a specific building”. But as we have already seen in the past two weeks, these sacred spaces do not have to be physical or unique, and the particular and fundamental role of Chapter is enough to mark it out as a space of its own.


One of our distinctives as Baptists is our commitment to making decisions together, and for us Chapter is expressed as the church meeting. We’ll come to think very particularly about that later, but I wanted to make that connection at the start so that you have it in mind as I share some of Lings’ reflections on Chapter. He writes that members of the Northumbria Community, a dispersed network of people united by a rule of life and a rhythm of prayer, speak of Chapter in terms of “communication, corporate discussion, debate and disagreement, intentional accountability” - things which Lings notes are “easy to say and less easy to do well”. Because they are less easy to do well, communities which are committed to making decisions together, must be intentional about working at them. Lings therefore suggests that qualities which aid Chapter include mutual respect, humility, renouncing judgement, refraining from grumbling, and challenge.


Let’s put a bit more detail on those qualities, which we should seek to embody in the church meetings which represent Chapter for us. Mutual respect is important for maintaining good tension and avoiding bad tension, allowing us to hold different needs and views in balance without anxiety or hurt. That kind of respect requires a genuine humility, a willingness to honour others above ourselves, seeking to hear their opinions and meet their needs, trusting they are doing the same for us. Renouncing judgement is something we have to be very conscientious about, because as a community we do need to hold one another accountable, reminding each other of our responsibilities and perhaps even offering gentle correction, but it is easy to slip from there into unhelpful and unhealthy dynamics where some judge and others are judged. Refraining from grumbling must be balanced against the need for challenge, as there is a place for what Lings calls “well argued protest and proper anger against evil, injustice, bullying or exploitation”, whether that is directed at failings within the community or directed out at societal issues the community can face together.


I said last week that the way we use physical space is important, and so it was interesting to read in Lings’ book that chapterhouses in monasteries are often round or octagonal, designed to encourage everyone to speak and find consensus “without corners to hide in or fire bullets from”. And while they necessarily have doorways, they often have no doors in order to emphasise transparency and openness. I’m not going to suggest we build an octagonal extension with no door in order to facilitate our church meetings, but it may be helpful to reflect further on how we order the space we do have. We have experimented a bit with things like where we sit, and gathering around the tables where there is the opportunity for small group discussion, and inviting people to come to the microphone so that they are addressing the whole meeting and not just the chair, do seem to make a difference when compared with everyone remaining in rows and a microphone being brought to them. It may be that there are other changes we could make that would do even more to encourage engagement.


I’m going to leave Lings behind at this point, to pick up on some writing specifically about Baptist church meetings, and I hope you will understand if I quote others heavily here. People with far more experience of church meetings than me have written carefully and eloquently on the subject, and it would be foolishness or hubris on my part to think I could reinvent the wheel or do one better. In the ‘Baptist Basics’ leaflet ‘The Church Members’ Meeting’, Nigel Wright introduces the church meeting by writing that “Baptist churches practise congregational government...[this means] congregations are self-governing in that the whole congregation is invited to seek the mind and will of God for the good of the church...For practical and spiritual reasons, congregational government usually takes place through meetings, specially convened for the purpose and known as ‘Church Members’ Meetings’...Although the form of a Church Members’ Meeting appears democratic, it is important to see that the intention is greater than that of allowing majority opinion to rule...A church is better described as a ‘Christocracy’, a community in which Christ rules. Put differently, it is a ‘guided democracy’, led by the Spirit.”


We tend to speak of church meetings rather than church members meetings, which I think recognises that we value the contributions of those who are not formally members too, but otherwise I hope that sounds familiar as a description. We gather to seek the mind and will of God for the good of the church, and I would suggest for the good of the world too, as we seek to understand how this community can play its part in establishing the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven”. Because of this, Wrights says that “Church Members’ Meetings should be conducted with a conscious awareness of the presence of Christ, with opportunity for worship and prayer and with the overall intention of being guided by God.” Our meetings always follow worship and begin with prayer, but I wonder how conscious we are of being guided by God as we then work through the agenda. I wonder if we might stop more often to pray and to be aware of the presence of Christ among us.


Wright also says that church meetings require “the ability to listen with care, both to others and to God, and to argue for one’s own thoughts assertively but not aggressively. Although meetings always have the option of voting, the more important task is to discern the ‘mind of the meeting’ in the belief that this ought to reflect the mind of Christ”, which is why “the normal process of decision making is by consensus within a meeting [and therefore ] being present to share in the discussion is important.” I think it’s right to say here that consensus doesn't necessarily mean that everyone votes the same way, but rather that everyone feels able to go forward together. We can disagree with grace and love, and remain in fellowship even while we hold different views. It is the way of Jesus, who called a collaborator and a rebel into his band of disciples, and it is a witness to the world, which is increasingly fractured into disparate groups.


Wright talks about the meeting discerning the mind of Christ, and we might also pick up on another phrase from the 2 Corinthians passage to speak of the meeting seeking “the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit”, but that is another of those things that is easier to say than to do. A few years ago, I heard a fellow minister called Ruth Moriarty deliver a paper at Theology Live, based on research undertaken for her doctoral study. She was looking at the church meeting, and her paper focused particularly on what she called slow wisdom as a method of discernment. Her conclusion was this: "Discernment is not based on scriptural images or dramatic revelation, nor do members perceive immediate or audible direction from God. Instead Baptistic discernment offers a slow wisdom embodied in the faithful schedule of meetings at regular intervals, with patterns for difficult agenda items. Consensus and comfort of all members are valuable indicators for an embodied knowledge, enabling a slow wisdom to emerge as discernment."


We discern the mind of Christ not by waiting for a voice to boom from the heavens, but by faithfully journeying together, allowing God and one another to speak through prayer and discussion until a consensus emerges, paying attention to our feelings as well as to the facts. For some years now, a regular prayer of mine has been that my heart will become like God’s heart, and I think that is my prayer for the church meeting too. I hope that by trusting this process of slow wisdom, taking time to listen and to reflect instead of rushing to a decision, we may become more attuned to God’s vision, and feel greater comfort and even confidence in our collective decision making.


Wright concludes his leaflet on church meetings with these words: “the fact is that in Church Members’ Meetings, Baptists can be at their worst or at their best. They are at their worst when they allow meetings to become places of divisive argument, or when they are used by some people to get their own way, to exercise power or to resist legitimate change. They are at their best when people realise that all of us together are wiser than any of us on our own. When God’s people gather together in spiritual agreement to seek God’s will, to build up the church and to serve God’s kingdom they are capable of great achievements.” There are some words of caution there, but there is encouragement too. We are capable of great achievements, and so there is every reason for us to be excited about church meetings and to work at doing them well.


I think my favourite line in Lings’ chapter on Chapter is this: “The church should be a community where decision making becomes sacred”. It is easy to see the church meeting as a formality, simply a place for dealing with the necessary business of church life, but the decisions that we make there shape us as the body of Christ, and that is and should be recognised as a sacred thing. We are going through Ling’s book in sequence, but I almost rearranged the services so that this focus fell on the day of a church meeting. In the end I left it here because I hope it gives us some time to reflect before we gather again, and I really do encourage you to use the discussion questions that go with this series to think more deeply about our meetings and how we might use them to make sure we are a community where decision making is sacred.


If you would like to reflect more deeply on the sacred spaces we are exploring this summer, you can find reflection questions in the file below.

Stoneygate Baptist Church teaching series Summer 2022
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