Visions for the New Church

Edwina Gateley

Visions for the new church. Well, I had a few of those and I tried sharing them. I have been in trouble ever since. Clearly the visions we are all talking about are ones that also include over half the human race. That is, women. Women called to be prophets, preachers, priests, confessors, birthers of new life.

But, of course, none of us started out with a vision of church as inclusive and holistic and just. We started out with the church that was passed on to us as children. A safe, comforting, inspiring children’s church with hymns and stories and images of heaven and holy people. A church to which I was utterly devoted as a child and as a young woman. A church that gave me a sense of security and belonging—and, along with that, a God who was Father and Judge and Lord, and who demanded obedience and loyalty. No problem for a young teen in the 1960s!!!

I was safe with my God, secure with my church— and fiercely devoted to both. Until, of course, I went to Africa, and took my God with me. My God who was white, male, Catholic…British. As we mature, and as we grow in experience of life, continuing the journey in faithfulness, God grows with us. God gets bigger. God no longer fits into the church of the Fathers built on the notion of the classic hero’s journey, characterized by strength, power, control, hierarchy, rules, pomp, and triumph.

As we plunge into the complexities of life’s journey, the clear and strict boundaries that we learned in our youth no longer fit our experience. Those boundaries are too small! There are far more questions than answers. What once appeared black and white becomes grey and blurred. God, and the church (like the world), becomes complex and unfinished. And, as we begin to experience injustice, suffering, pain, exclusion, and a host of other bewildering realities, there arises within us a rage and a passion impelling us to become involved in birthing a new vision of church. A church that is different, more balanced, more authentic, inclusive, and adult.

A church that reflects who we are becoming and who we are called to become. A church that we can claim as our own, as our family. A church where adult, intelligent, and caring Christians will not only feel at home, but where they can become catalysts for new life and hope in our nation and our world.

We all sense this. But what to do?

What to do with a longing for healing and wholeness in an environment of hostility and oppression? 

Some folks just keep quiet and hunker down and sit in the back row lamenting, hoping things will change in the next several decades or so (although recent British research concluded that true equality for women will take another two hundred years!!!). It is perhaps no wonder that many of our brothers and sisters retreat. Passively waiting is a real option for many.

I am reminded of the poem “We Should Talk About This Problem,” by the great Sufi mystic Hafiz:

There is a Beautiful Creature
Living in a hole you have dug.

So at night
I set fruit and grains

And little pots of wine and milk
Beside your soft earthen mounds,

And I often sing.

But still, my dear,
You do not come out.

I have fallen in love with Someone

Who hides inside you. 

We should talk about this problem

I will never leave you alone.

Some of have been seduced out of the hole already. We have climbed out, though not without trauma. We have been so hungry, so thirsty for new life that we have dared to take a risky journey in that quest for newness.

We are not alone on this journey of longing. We are a community of believers driven by the Spirit of a passionate God. We are women and men gifted and empowered to be healers and birthers and bringers of new life.

And aren’t we desperate for that in a world where:

  • Six thousand children die every day because of poor sanitation. This is an issue for a new vision of the church.
  • Half of all the creatures with whom we share the planet are facing extinction. This is an issue for a new vision of the church.
  • Globally over one million children are trafficked for sex. This is an issue for a new vision of the church.
  • Global trafficking is now the third largest illegal industry and fastest growing industry in the world, generating $18 million in profits. This is an issue for a new vision of the church.

Aren’t we desperate for a new vision of church in a country where:

  • Our total defense spending is well over $500 billion this year, while $16 billion has been cut from Medicaid and another $14 billion will be cut from Medicaid next year. This is an issue for a new vision of the church that has a biblical mandate to take care of the widow and the orphan.

  • Funding for our food banks is 40% less than it was ten years ago, even though there are 10 million more people applying for food assistance. This is an issue for a new vision of the church that has a biblical mandate to feed the hungry.

  • We have spent more than $7 trillion on nuclear weapons. This is an issue for a new vision of the church with a biblical mandate to turn the other cheek.

  • We have over 3 million homeless. This is an issue for a new vision of the church with a biblical mandate to give shelter to those without homes.

In the face of all of this reality, it is not surprising that we can so often feel overwhelmed and hopeless. But despair comes when we are out of touch with our divinity, our called to wholeness.

There is available to all of us a divine energy, an internal power for transformation that was promised by Jesus. Such a spiritual energy cannot be harnessed by the faint-hearted because, by its very nature, it drives us from our comfort zone into the “disturbing” company of the disempowered, the marginalized, and the excluded.

But it is here that we will form community. We can be sure that it is the very ones who have been excluded that will become the source of conversion and vision for our church. Why? Because it is only those who are most broken who understand what the breaking of the bread truly means. Their pain and passion will revive us. This is where Jesus stood, and, so, it is where the new church must stand.

From such a stance with the marginalized will arise, involuntarily, visions for this new church of ours. As we align ourselves with the poor and ignored of our church and our world we will come to know what a new church looks like. It will be black and white and brown; it will be female and male; it will be gay and straight; it will be married and celibate. And its mandate will always be commitment to the poor and a self-searching zeal for justice.

This vision will come about as we deepen ourselves into the presence of God.

Our task as people of God is to lead each other into a consciousness of our own spiritual power. It is the only way whereby we will have the resources and the courage to birth visions for our new church and our world. This consciousness of our possibilities will lead us to believe in doing things we once only dreamed of and prayed about: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, welcoming the stranger in our midst, visiting the prisoners.

This is a community-centered agenda. But we are living in times of crisis, when personal survival often seems the most reasonable—and only—option for many people.

We, the whole church, must serve the whole community. Victor Frankl has said that in times of crisis, people do one of three things: they deny, they despair, or they ask critical questions. Far from being preoccupied with personal survival, we, the new community called church, must ask the critical questions that will lead us to action in our church, our country, and our world.

Coming from churches that ask no questions, we the new church must ask the critical questions that challenge our pursuit of violence and power, the erosion of human rights, the destruction of our environment, the assault on human life and dignity, and the exclusion of the different. Only a questioning community can begin to bring solutions to the surface.

And we must redefine our notion of sin, not as primarily concerned with sex, gender, and women’s bodies, but as that which destroys or diminishes human dignity, tramples on the poor, and harms our planet. We must, for example, declare from our pulpits that this administration’s cutting of over 150 programs affecting health, education, and social services for the poor in order to pay for war is a sin! This is an issue for a new vision of the church. We must declare from our pulpits that all war and forms of violence are conditions of sin.

We, with a new vision of church as a community of justice and love, must confront these shadows in our world and bring to bear alternative solutions. Birthing a new creation, a vision for the new church is messy—it stretches and it hurts! But we must think with our hearts and speak from our deep sense of truth.

Right in the middle of all the violence, all the chaos, and all the fear, our voices must rise with hope and a vision based on the words of Jesus: “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the fullest.” It is interesting that in response to Jesus’ words, some people claimed: “He is out of his mind!” Indeed! New possibilities, new visions, new ways will always elicit fear and rejection in the minds of those whose wealth and identity are dependent on maintaining the system that supports their power—the status quo.

Changing such a system in the name of the little ones is never a popular stance with those in authority. In 1917, during the struggle of voting rights for women, the government tried to get a suffragette, Alice Paul, certified insane and institutionalized. The doctor hired to evaluate her refused to cooperate, declaring: “Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.”

We, the women and men of a new church and a new vision are not insane. We are not out of our minds, but deep in our hearts. We must find our voices in a world and a church desperate to hear the authentic word of God. We must speak aloud words of life, not words of war and death, words of love and comfort, not anger and terror, words of justice and kindness, not hatred and retaliation.

St. Catherine of Sienna once said, “Silence is violence. It is silence that kills the world. Speak as if you had a million voices.” The new church may be small, but its voice must sound as a million voices.

The new church must have a mighty voice. Our vision for the new church is one where women will preach and prophesy and preside, and where men will not be afraid to weep aloud and listen deeply to the whisper of God within them.

This new church of ours will not spend millions of dollars and years of research trying to dig up details on the lives of ecclesiastical fossils who died hundreds of years ago in an effort to prove them saints. We will raise up our modern saints and martyrs who dare risk their lives for love. Martyrs and saints like Marla, who was killed by a suicide bomber after spending over three years documenting civilian casualties in Afghanistan; or Rachel, who was run over by an Israeli bulldozer as she stood in front of Palestinian homes that were being destroyed; or Sr. Dorothy, who was shot to death after decades of championing the rights of peasant farmers in Brazil; or Tookie Williams, the executed gang leader, killer, and addict who publicly repented of his crimes and turned his life over to God and the healing of young people on the streets.

It is these people, the heartbroken, who are most open to God’s working through them. There is a saying that it is the crack in our heart that lets the mystery in. Indeed! We have all have a crack in our hearts that leaves us vulnerable, but it should also make us receptive and open to new ways of seeing God’s working in the world.

It is these people, who have anguished so deeply, who truly understand the resurrection. We will all anguish in the new birthing. But the feminine spirit of God—so long and inaccurately declared masculine by the dying church of the Fathers—will be with us on this journey of birthing a new vision. She is the One who makes her home in those who seek her. She is the one who cries aloud in the marketplace. She is the one who seeks out the vulnerable whose very brokenness can be a source of new life. She is the one who leads us to a vision for our new church. And because of her, we are all expectant.

We, women and men with a new vision for the church, must stand before the altar of our Mother-Father God and declare: Here we are, broken and believing, dreaming and visioning. We are the healers, the believers, the birthers, and we have a dream and a vision for our children and our church.

Edwina Gately offers talks and retreats internationally on her faith journey and her struggles to be faithful to her call to urban ministry and mission. A prolific writer, she devotes much of her time to working with abused and marginalized women, and serves as a “Mother Spirit” for Exodus, a program in Chicago for women in the second phase of recovery from prostitution.