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Church in an era beyond postmodernity

A hopeful view of the futureRev Suzanne Cooke shares her hopes for society and the Church as we begin to emerge from the postmodern era into a more relational time.

A TV commercial I was watching yesterday caught my attention – the final sentence went like this: “It’s less of the what and the where and the how, and more of the you and the me and the now”.   I picked up on it because it seemed to mirror a conversation I had been having earlier that day about trends in contemporary society. 

For around twenty years now the phrase ‘postmodern’ has been used to describe the era in which we live.  It’s a word that has become notorious for all the wrong reasons – for being impossible to define, obtuse and even nonsensical.  And so it can be, but, for the sake of argument and for those that don’t already have an opinion, I would say that postmodernity can be characterised by cultural phenomena such as the blurring of boundaries, the fragmentation of society and ideas around identity and a sense of dislocation and disconnection.  This is, of course, a short and hopelessly inadequate list, but it helps to set the scene, because postmodernity good, bad or indifferent is the cultural climate from which, I believe, we are beginning to emerge.   

But certainly in the 1990’s postmodernity was greeted with a degree of optimism, particularly by some who saw it as an opportunity to get away from old fashioned and restrictive ideas.  And there were Christians, such as Paul Roberts, the pioneer of alternative worship, who were very much at the forefront of envisioning ‘postmodern’ expressions of worship.  But he and others like him have more recently begun to question the fervour that surrounded those first heady days of deconstructive optimism and what they saw as a great opportunity for Christian theology. For, they say, how could they have missed the self destruct button that would attach itself to the great meta-narrative that is, for Christian’s, the central narrative, the heart and soul of their faith - The Bible Story? 

I however, never really saw postmodernity in the same way that people like Robert’s did. I never agreed that it put an end to the great over arching stories that we call ‘meta-narratives’.   What I saw was permission to walk away from another’s enforced command to see things as they did and an opportunity to invite the other to join me in dialogue around the great mysteries of life, our similarities, differences and the beauty of our shared stories and beliefs.  

But back to today.  I think a new era approaches.  It is an era that is summed up in the quote that I started with and that has been made possible by what has gone before.  I think many contemporary people are fed up with the kind of society that thinks the end justifies the means and thinks something is only of value if it meets some preset goal.   We cannot really know what this new era will look like.  In fact not knowing, not being too caught up in how something might turn out is partially the point I am trying to make. 

I think, I hope we are moving towards a time when how we relate to each other will become more important than making our point or being a success.  Again, we cannot know what effect this will have on our churches and on the communities of which they are a part, but my feeling is that not having a fixed idea of where we shall be in 50 years is healthier than trying to impose ‘our’ church on an unwilling community. 

The signs are out there if you look closely enough, positive signs that the Holy Spirit is at work in society.  You just need to look past the negativity and darkness that can so easily become overwhelming.   As a Christian I believe that these are signs that Jesus’ great command to us all is being fulfilled – ‘I give you a new commandment.  That you should love one another as I have loved you.’ John 13:34 

Rev Suzanne Cooke is the curate of St Mary’s Church, Watton and the founder of Soul Circus, a regular creative, experimental service supported by the Diocese of Norwich and the Youth Task Force.  You can find out more at www.soulcircus.org.uk

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