When I was in my mid 20’s my thyroid gland was removed. Firstly, an operation, then radioactive iodine which successfully wiped out any traces of the cancerous tumour. Through this experience I learned that this gland, which I had no knowledge of before, played an essential part in enabling my body to function. Fortunately, synthetic thyroxine is both cheap and easy to make so I live well by continually compensating for the lack of a functioning thyroid gland.
I share this as we reflect on the passage from 1 Corinthians 12:17-31. Paul uses the metaphor of a human body to talk about the church community. This is a rich metaphor and there are many insights to be found. In this short piece I will note a couple of points which I hope will be helpful in thinking about the church communities to which we belong.
Paul, in a jocular way points out that communities where each member had the same function would be disastrous. Just think about it! A body is a complex unity of different parts, interdependent on each other. The rich diversity is necessary for each part to carry out its own function, as well as enabling the work of the whole body. There are the visible parts, the parts that we recognise and honour, and then there are hidden parts whose function may be less noticed but may be fundamentally necessary. When something is not right with aspects of the body, then Paul reminds us that the whole body suffers.
I began with the experience of one small gland in my own body as a way of thinking about the often overlooked functions that keep our church communities working well. There are obvious church roles, those in formal ministry or leadership position, yet in most congregations, vital work happens outside those roles. This may be the faithful prayers of some individuals that sustain the life of the church, underpinning all the activity with a deep wellspring of spiritual grace. It might be the kindness of some, whose attentiveness to the needs of others ensures a community in which people are noticed in good ways and cared for unobtrusively. It might be the very practical acts of service that ensure the spaces in which worship happens are kept clean and tidy. Taking time to reflect on these less obvious but vital ways our church communities’ function can help enrich our understanding of ministry. Such work needs to be valued and where appropriate named and honoured. This is especially important in a time of changing patterns of leadership.
As the Church of Scotland faces these changes, it is good to remember how adaptable and supple bodies can be. We have learnt to recognise the strengths and talents of people who are differently abled. The capacity for people to develop creative ways of functioning when certain body parts are missing or configured in different ways, is at times remarkable. Often this requires changes to environments and expectations. It is all too easy to become fixated on ideal body types. Learning to recognise what we have to give and share can lead to innovative ways of being in the world. Such adjustments may require us to think and act in new ways, as we continue to build communities that bear witness to the Creator God.
For Paul, this body metaphor, emphasises the cooperative, interdependence of church communities. They are about how we collectively offer worship, serve our communities and witness to the love of God. All of us have a part to play and all of us are reliant on the faithfulness of those around us.
Dr Emma Percy
Senior Lecturer in Feminist Theology & Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen