By Philip Eaton,

Photo By Jimi Lott

Once the Center of the Community,
the Church Struggles for Influence

On a recent beautiful Sunday morning, in the lush and rolling hills of the Cotswolds region of England, Sharon and I, along with a group of friends from Seattle Pacific University, set out to worship in the little community of Chipping Camden. As we wound our way through the graveyard entrance to the church, I felt a sense of respect, appreciation and solidarity with this church that had clearly served its community for hundreds of years.

It was easy to see that the church was once the center of this little village, drawing people together in worship, shaping the values of the community, providing hope, purpose and meaning for the lives of so many generations. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Cotswolds became a world center for the production of wool, and over the centuries the region has seen both prosperity and wrenching economic shifts. And there was this little church in the midst of it all, holding the village together, providing a center, an anchor, a long view for the challenges of day-to-day life in community.

"When the church ceases to become a cultural force for good in any community, something profound is missing," says SPU President Eaton, pictured here at the 2001 Graduate Hooding Ceremony on campus.

This farming village seemed still to be thriving, though I suspect its economy now depends as much on tourists like us as on the production of wool. But while the village seemed to flourish, its church was clearly dead. There were fourteen of us from SPU. I counted perhaps ten faithful parishioners from Chipping Camden. There was a pipe organ in the church, but no music. There was no choir, no hymnals. The bells of the church rang out to announce the beginning of the service, but the attention of the folks in the village was elsewhere on this Sunday morning.

The experience became for me a kind of metaphor for our times. To be sure, there are churches all over England that are thriving, just as there are in America. But when the church ceases to become a cultural force for good in any community, something profound is missing.

I found myself thinking,what do people do when they want a funeral for a loved one, but the church is no longer alive for the family? Or what if a child had no place to be baptized into a community of support and faith? Or what about the young couple that wants a sanctifying ceremony to bless a new marriage? And if the church is dead, who will teach the stories of the Bible, that meta-narrative that gives meaning in the face of confusion and troubling change? And most of all, when there is no longer worship in a person's life or the life of the community, from whence comes hope, love and purpose? And how are values shaped into a culture that is life-giving?

In 1851, looking out from the cliffs of Dover Beach on the other side of England, out across the straits to the gleaming lights on the French coast, Matthew Arnold must have been thinking thoughts similar to mine as I went to church in Chipping Camden. He begins by noticing how beautiful it all seems:

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits. ...

But then he is drawn into deeper reflection on his times and the fate of his country and the world when "the Sea of Faith" issues a "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,/retreating." When faith retreats from the culture, from the center of community, then

... the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love,
nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor
help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling
Swept with confused alarms of
struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash
by night.

I came away from worship that morning in Chipping Camden with a deepened commitment that our work at Seattle Pacific to engage the culture with the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ is precisely the right challenge for this moment in time. I believe we are in a moment of cultural crisis in our world, an enormous shift in culture that had its beginnings in places like Arnold's Dover Beach.

Unless we want to settle for a world that has "neither joy, nor love, nor light,/nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain," our task is to show another way, the way once made clear by the little church in Chipping Camden.

Please read our disclaimer. Send any questions, comments or correspondence about Response to
or call 206-281-2051.
Copyright © 2001 University Communications, Seattle Pacific University.

Seattle Pacific University
Office of University Communications
3307 Third Avenue West
Seattle, Washington 98119-1997
United States of America