My wife and I have recently returned from a few days away in Scotland. Our time away included a brief day trip to the islands of Orkney. I do not propose to inflict on my readers a geography lesson but rather reflect on the way that islands have a deep attraction for many people at quite a profound level. The island represents a place that is away from it all, a place of escape, a place of peace. How many people nurture the fantasy that, if they won the lottery, the thing that they would buy would be an island so that they could live out that fantasy of escape and retreat?
The urge to escape and find a place of peace and rest is something that is found in all religions. Many of us can hear the music of Mendelssohn and the words from Psalm 55 sung by a boy treble, ‘O for the wings of a dove, far away would I roam…’ Church appears to offer such a sanctuary and we could say that part of the attraction of church is that it remains a place that is unchanging in a changing world. To attend church is to retreat, to some extent, to somewhere safe.
To return to our picture of islands as the place of refuge from a world that makes many demands on us, the salient feature of the island is the fact that it surrounded by water. This surrounding water makes it difficult for anyone to land on our island. The owner of the island will make sure that he or she restricts the access so that it would be very unlikely that anyone would called unexpectedly. Thus the home that is built on the island would be a place of peace but also one of isolation. The very security of the boundaries would shut out the wider world. Just as the world outside finds it difficult to land on the island, so those on the island have to make some effort to maintain contact with those on the mainland.
I imagine that my reader may have already guessed that I am seeing the island to be like a cult-type church that has closed itself from contact with the wider world. The world outside this ‘island’ church is variously seen as apostate, heretical or generally hostile. The surrounding barrier of water is needed to protect those within from contamination and wrong ideas. The higher the barriers, the greater the expanse of water around our island, the more those on the island are thought to be kept safe. Their safety is however only possible at the expense of a loss of contact with all that lives beyond the island. The longer they remain in this ‘island’ church community, the more difficult they find it return to their old lives on the mainland. Let us suppose that the people in the ‘island’ church have had to learn to speak a new language to enter this community. How difficult it will be to return to speaking the language of the people they left behind years or decades before.
The rich owner of a small island paradise may revel in the isolation that his territory brings him. But there are few individuals who are able to stay for long periods of time without becoming imprisoned by this isolation from other human beings. The tight barriers are liable to become prison walls very quickly. In the same way the church with tight boundaries can quickly become a prison. The special ‘island’ language, the jargon that Christians often indulge in, is barely understood outside their circles. ‘Island’ churches are wonderful places to join but very hard to leave. The sense of disconnection from the mainland of ordinary human living is attractive but ultimately detrimental to our emotional and spiritual health.
Chris is often reminding us of the marginalised people in society and how such people feel little for a church that ignores them and their plight. If this complaint is a valid one against mainstream congregations who support food-banks and give generously to good causes, how much more valid is it against those churches that revel in their ‘island’ status and their success in keeping their members ‘pure’ from the contamination of the world. The ‘island’ cultic church has become doubly disconnected from people with real spiritual and social needs. It is so concerned with the issue of ‘saving’ individuals from what it sees as a wicked and corrupt world that it feels no responsibility of any kind towards those left behind. A few years ago I read some of the literature connected with beliefs about the Apocalypse among conservative Christians in America. It appeared that those who believed that they would be raptured, taken up into the air with Christ had absolutely no compassion towards the 98% of the human population who would not be saved but would by contrast meet a horrible and fiery end. There is something deeply pathological about such beliefs. There is a whole series of fictional books written by one Tim LaHaye, the Left Behind novels, to feed these bizarre and unwholesome notions.
The fantasy of living on an island whether literally, or metaphorically through your church, would make living the Christian life far from easy to achieve. Jesus spoke of his followers being those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoners. I have had little experience of the last of these, but in my brief time as a part-time army padre, I always made it my business to call regularly on those locked up in the army barracks cells in Dreghorn, Edinburgh. My reflections on the stories the confined soldiers used to tell can be recalled on another day. But however we understand our response to these words of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, it is clear that it will involve, not our separation from the wider world, but our readiness to get our hands dirty at times, to go to places that we would rather not go. Whatever it involves, it does mean that we are not called to live on islands, however attractive they may be, but on the mainland where the rest of humanity lives.