Some time ago – well, ages ago – I was sitting with the very good people of Kilbrittain talking about some images they had come up with for their parish. One of the groups had drawn a boat. A man described the boat as the Church with all the people of the parish taking their part – some leaders, some do-ers, some navigators, deck swabbers and so on. Another person from the group said with a laugh that he had jumped the ship and now must be in the water. We all looked again at the picture. In our preoccupation with the boat we had not considered the water. If the boat was the Church – what was the water? ‘God,’ said the first man, ‘the water is God.’
The reason I remember this all these years later? Is that when we get into bemoaning the failing and dying of the Church, and even into conversations about how to save it, I say to myself ‘it’s not about the boat.’ God is bigger. God can keep the Church-boat afloat but also so many other vessels. God can sustain all the creatures of the deep. When people jump from the Church because anything is better than staying on board, they fall into God’s mercy, God’s provision and God’s love.
The Church has been preoccupied with itself. Those who sail in it have been concerned about their positions, and roles. We have loved the boat, tended to it and fixed it. At a certain point, some have been sacrificed for the good of the boat. Some were deemed unfit for the boat and made to walk the plank. Others were left on the pier and never taken on board. Some forgot that the boat was on the sea and that the sea was deep and wide and unknowable. Others forgot even to stand on the deck and feel the spray on their faces, as the sun turned orange in the west.
It’s not about the boat. It’s about the boat and the crew; the sea and the sky; the fish and the seabirds. It’s about the galley kitchen and the photo’s on the bunks; the rigging and the sails; the cargo, the tilt of the deck and the rumour of land. In the rise of the swell the Spirit is moving. The Word of God is heard in the night air as a bird calls.
Those of us who have given a lifetime as ship’s company should continue our work – at this stage we’re not going to change. However as we do so we can acknowledge that it is not about the boat and the boat doesn’t come first. We can be attentive to the perspectives of others – dolphins, gulls and landlubbers – not so that we can save the boat but so we can know the sea better.