O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
The dream of Emmanu-el, or God-with-us is a very powerful one. Depending on the character of the God in question can make the greatest of differences to what you believe is the right or wrong thing to do. The creation myth which begins both the Torah and our Christian Hebrew bible tells of a god who creates the world as an original blessing; the world is created and it is intrinsically good. The creation myth of the Babylonian captors of Israel is a story of the violence of Tiamat the mother god slain by Marduk who spreads her butchered carcass out to create the geography of a world, a world which has been formed both in violence, and in violence against the feminine.
Before we smile too readily at these ancient near-eastern myths, we only have to consider those causes of our own day, who believe God-is-with-us. Osama bin Laden is a man of faith, in such a way as we may prefer him to have no faith at all. The last several United States Presidents have been impotent in the face of present-day Israeli atrocities, because the powerful voting lobby of the evangelical right believes that Israel has the right to that land, and is ethically absolved from how it maintains that right.
The Church of England has, by law, been the established church of the English people. While few would defend this as a meaningful title in public life, it remains the basis of assumptions in rural communities. If the Church of England represents Emmanu-el, God-with-us, whether we are signed up to the faith or not, we are currently witnessing a breach of that generation’s long-held view of that implicit covenant.
For over a thousand years, Emmanu-el meant the rights of the established church personified in the lord bishop, indistinguishable from his secular counterparts. Emmanu-el meant, for village communities, being required to gather each Sunday in churches funded by the landowners, in order to acknowledge that the pecking order of earth was ratified in heaven.
There are few rural communities now where the ancient feudal powers still exercise the same rights of patronage over the parish church their forebears built. Since the Second World War, in many places, these rights have been assumed by people of new money. These people have not been motivated by the noblesse oblige of the landed powers, but have expected the services of the church with little or nothing in return. They have expected power without responsibility.
As feudal estates have receded, with their guarantees of employment and grace and favour accommodation, they have been replaced with the new rural with the aspirations of gentry, but who do not understand the obligations with which that power was balanced in former days.
So, the notion of God-with-us is open. Formerly the Us, whom God was with, was a contact between feudal power and peasant, and each looked after the other. Our medieval churches are littered with memorials to the moneyed. As despicable as this is to the original Jesus vision, at least it is honest.
But, in these days of pastoral restructuring of the church, the voices who oppose closure of a church are not those which have contributed to its life, either by piety or by brute underwriting. They are arid voices which do not give life to anyone, but rather defend their own view of themselves and of the romantic view of the countryside which overlooks the impoverishment which made its economy possible.
We need church leaders who can articulate what it means to have God-with-us which supersedes the basis of much of what has given the Church of England, and before that, the Bishop of Rome, power in the past. It must be rooted in the character of God represented in the infancy narratives, stories from which we cherry-pick for our carol services each year, because we value attendance over conviction.
In short, we need to re-visit the character of the God whom we claim to be with us, re-visit Emmanu-el, and ask whether our practice discloses God’s character, or seeks to shore up a practice whose underlying assumptions are corrupt.
Andrew Spurr is vicar of Evesham, in the diocese of Worcester.