While most of the people who read the Messy Church blog will, with me, rise up in ire, wielding a pitchfork at the description of Messy Church as ‘a brand of work with children’ (yes, I share your pain), Bishop David touches on something important about the value of messiness to the way we are church together.
If we expect church to be tidy, we’re deluding ourselves: church is family. Family is never tidy until we bury every member simultaneously. Death is tidy. As Mike Pilavachi said, ‘It’s neat and tidy in the graveyard, but it’s messy in the nursery.’ Church is about birth and life and transformation of individuals and communities. Church is not about moulding everyone to be like me, to think the same as me, to behave like me. Church is about opening up doors to everyone around me and daring to go through open doors myself ahead of others or trusting enough to go through behind them. That great holy habit of repentance is about ever-opening horizons; risk and failure and picking each other up, dusting each other down and setting off again in new directions. We are fast and we are slow. We are old and we are young. We are wounded and we are being healed. We’re a great shambolic ragtag of fishermen, street kids, tax collectors, misfits and prostitutes hardly daring to believe that the kingdom of heaven is open to us, as well as to the neat, tidy, sorted, rule-keeping, safe people in our midst. We are the most shambolic, diverse tribe on the planet. We are family.
Family sticks together, come what may. Family loves unconditionally, even when we disagree profoundly, not because we are lovable but because we are loved. We kiss and make up and move on together, growing together because that is the way the head of this family wants it to function. The messy edges in me need the rough edges in you to crash up against like a pebble-polisher. The smug cosiness in me needs the rude challenge of a toddler, a teenager, an older person to make me keep on being a learner to the end of my life. The theological certainties I hold most dear need the sea-storm of your diametrically opposed ones so I can see if mine are built on rock or on sand. How ironic to be worried about splitting the Church over the doctrine of marriage—that great and mystical bringer-together in a covenant of love.
Let our churches be content with mess. Messiness means being content not to control others, not to exert power and authority over them, but to dance with them in the middle ground where nobody is entirely comfortable or confident. Let’s determinedly inhabit that chaotic edge space where godly life is sparked: the oaks at Mamre, Jacob’s well, Zacchaeus’ tea table, the savage hill littered with skulls outside the city. Uncomfortable spaces, spiky spaces, wilderness places.
Messiness is about justice and equality, because nobody is rich enough or wise enough or holy enough to hold the whole truth singlehanded. Messiness means creativity, risk and humility in the way we approach other people and ideas. Messiness is content with loose ends, unresolved issues, development, spontaneity, fluidity and tensions, because family life is full of them and they are a vital part of how we become who we are meant to be together. It treats other people as potential rather than problem. It accepts that process is as important as product. It sits lightly but holds on tightly. It is a place of power because it refuses to take hold of power. Messiness is a throwing-off of protective shoes to step vulnerably, with messy feet that need the washing of the only person who is qualified to do it, into the holy ground of loving God, loving our neighbour and loving ourselves. Like the child in this picture, we find the pearl of great price in messy places. Messiness is a holy mystery.