Sound Bite Theology

“The Church is not a building, it’s the people.” The problem with sound bite theology.

Fr Peter Anthony uses basic logic to expose the inadequacy of the statement that the Church is the people, not a building.

Of all the sound bites put around by the bishops of the Church of England during the COVID crisis, none caused more concern, unease, and anger amongst my friends than this: “The Church is not a building, it’s the people.”

The overwhelmingly critical reaction to this new axiom showed many people felt the apparently innocent little phrase was unfairly designed to stifle criticism, and propagated an understanding of the Church that was very far from the truth. I hope in this brief article to lay out why this phrase is so problematic, and how oversimplified sound bites rarely make good theology. Let’s begin by examining its internal logic and rhetorical intention.

“a is b, not c”

One of the most frequent categories of question used by examiners in arts subjects is the famous “a is b, not c” quotation. 

Examples might include:

1. “The causes of the First World War were economic rather than political.” Discuss.

2. How accurate is the verdict that the Gospels were written to be heard and not read?

3. “It’s not the men in your life that counts, it’s the life in your men” (Mae West).

Evaluate this quotation’s worth as an axiom for human flourishing.

“The Church is not a building, it’s the people,” is a classic example of the examiner’s “a is b, not c” quotation.

The “a is b, not c” question involves an assertion whose rhetorical force is reductionist. In other words it forces you to define something in very simple terms to the exclusion of other evidence and ideas. It is basically intended to back you into a blind alley from which there is no exit other than an increasingly simplistic and narrow answer. What it asserts, therefore, can only ever be partially true.

In examination terms, a low scoring answer will agree that “a” is indeed “b not c”, will collude with the quotation’s false logic and won’t draw on any further evidence or competing ideas. Answers in the 2:1 band will see that the assertion is overly simplistic and seek to prove “a” is both “b” and “c.” Answers that will receive a high 2:1 or First, however, will realise that any explanation of “a” is always going to be more complex than merely “b” and/or “c”, and includes d, e, f, g and a thousand and one other factors. The higher scoring the answer, the more it challenges the assumptions made by the quotation and its orientation to oversimplification and reduction.

“The Church is not a building, it’s the people.”

The problem with this definition of the Church is that as a theological assertion it can only ever be true in a world satisfied with oversimplification at a very elementary level of reflection and abstraction. It can never be the case that the Church is simply one thing rather than another. 

The implication that anyone who questioned the Church’s response to the pandemic somehow didn’t believe the Church was the People of God was appallingly disingenuous. I don’t know anyone who felt the churches shouldn’t have been closed at all. Most of my friends did, however, have reservations about the high-handed, incoherent, and chaotic manner in which it happened and the way in which priests were banned from undertaking perfectly safely their most important duties. 

There were entirely convincing scientific reasons for halting public worship. The closure of churches was a reasonable action so the Church could contribute to the common good and public safety. That is in itself a perfectly satisfactory theological argument that legitimises the suspension of public worship. Much less convincing was the swiftly invented pseudo-reasoning that because Church was “people not buildings,” physical buildings no longer mattered.

Before the Church is ever people or buildings, it is surely Christ: Christ, living in the baptized who make up his Body; Christ, embodied in the physical buildings that signify his presence; Christ incarnated through the worship that takes place in them; Christ, present through time and in eternity through the eschatological promise of resurrection for his people; Christ, powerful in his Spirit energising and directing the Church; Christ, known through the teaching and proclamation made by the Church in word, deed, and sacrament; Christ, the heroic strength of the persecuted and the burning love of those who fight for social justice; and Christ, felt through the prayers of the saints and those who have gone before us in faith. 

The Church can never merely be either a group of people or a building. She is an eschatological mystery through which Christ reigns over and in and through his creation so that God’s Kingdom is made more and more of a reality.

The bishops’ “people not buildings” sound bite is probably one of the most myopic theological statements in the history of second rate thinking. It reveals a level of reflection and theological learning that is very worrying indeed. If I were marking their responses to it as an examination question, I fear I’d need to write at the end of the script something along the lines of, “Room for significant improvement.”

The Rev’d Peter Anthony

4 thoughts on “Sound Bite Theology

  1. Many thanks to Dr Anthony for this piece.

    However, the phrase ‘the church is the people and not the buildings’ has been around for a long time. In my experience it is most commonly to be heard when the authorities want to justify closing a church so that they can sell it and appropriate the proceeds for diocesan purposes (i.e., stipends and pensions).

    The beauty of the phrase, as far as ecclesiastical bureaucrats are concerned, is that it puts opponents of church closures on the back foot: “your opposition is fundamentally inhumane – for what you are concerned about is the antiquity or aesthetics of the building, and not about the propagation of the faith; ergo, you are not actually a proper Christian and it is we – who are concerned about the ‘living church’ – who are the true believers”. In other words, the phrase is often also used as a sword and as a shield.

    As such, it is invaluable cover whenever the authorities (or, even worse, local clergy who are on a mission to close and sell their own buildings) want to liquidate any part of the stock.So, whenever I hear any member of the clergy use the phrase, I immediately form the view that they are wanting to grub for money by selling assets, and that they are thoroughly disingenuous and dishonest into the bargain.

    Of course, the church is the buildings *and* the people; to suggest otherwise is to engineer a false and opportunistic dichotomy, or to adhere to a reductive and limited understanding of the Christian presence in the community (one that, in my experience, is not necessarily confined to the more barbaric elements of the evangelical party).

    At present, the phrase is being used as camouflage for the decisions made in March and, perhaps, for the even greater blunder of failing to mobilise for the re-opening of churches on 5 July. I am dismayed and scandalised by the abject failure of the vast mass of churches to re-open for worship three weeks after the lifting of the ban. As such, I have reached the painful conclusion that a large portion of the current generation of Church leaders, at local, diocesan and national levels are shamefully wanting and that, instead of reaching out to the community, they are – to a significant extent – wishing to bury themselves on various internet portals. ‘Real’ worship permits the casual passer-by to come in off the street, whereas one has to be admitted to a Zoom service: what does this say about the ability of the Church to project itself to society at large?

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  2. I’d agree with Froghole that this expression has been around for many years. I first heard it in the late 1960s. As used, it is an example of the ‘either you believe this or your believe that’ variety of totalitarian thinking.
    I would also comment that it is not just the reopening of churches for regular worship that is lacking, but the continued closure of churches to casual visitors – who either want to visit a historic building or enter it for private prayer. Do the powers that be have an agenda here?

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  3. It might be worth considering the role of the definite article in this phrase, ‘The Church is the people’. ‘Church’ is indeed a polyvalent noun as Fr Anthony explains. ‘The People’ is coopted by those who seek confirmation for the imposition of their particular civil strategies as in ‘the British people’ who are held to endorse the view point of the speaker. That is what happens when we add the definite article which is intended, grammatically, to focus, define and hence limit the richness of the noun, making it particular. The way the noun and its article is used sheds light on the context, the direction of travel in the mind(s) of those who are speaking. Fr Anthony does us a service in highlighting how language can be used as an instrument of coercion . . .’The Church is the people’ says, ‘We all agree that this is so, don’t we?’ Beware the definite article!

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