Following is a brief but fairly comprehensive discussion of the term as it relates to the church, and church leadership, during our present period. The author is Rob Mackintosh, Executive Director of the Leadership Institute, Canterbury, England, who is an Anglican priest that teaches a broad range of areas on leadership in the UK and foreign countries, including Russia and Southern Africa.
Liminality is the awareness that as a group we have become largely invisible to the wider society. The experience of being marginal in contemporary culture accounts for much of the malaise currently affecting established churches and their leadership. Few have yet come to terms with how far this process has gone in late modernity. The Christendom phase of the Church’s history in the Western world is over; we may find ourselves back in the liminal role experienced by the Church in post-Roman Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries.
The world of late modernity is a de-centred world, and for Christians it is no longer our world. There is no longer a ‘centre-periphery’ dichotomy, rather a flux of ever-shifting and competing forces within the culture. In complex societies such as ours where there is no longer a coherent ‘centre’, we are all on the margin.
It is futile to attempt re-entry into the lost world of an earlier age; that door is firmly closed. Church leaders feel vulnerable, defensive, and confused about their roles in a de-centred world. In these uncertain times, clergy bear one of the most difficult roles in contemporary society. Congregations blame their clergy for the current malaise, failing to grasp that a wider cultural shift has marginalised the church.
The urge for the church to return to the former certainties of ‘Egypt’ clearly has a long history, and remains strong. Yet ancient Israel’s wilderness experience is a paradigm for the kind of changes that liminal places can bring for the future of the church. In both Hosea and Exodus the desert is the place where Israel enters her most profound reshaping experiences of God. There the potential for a new future is forged. God promises Israel that through the process of wilderness cleansing she will become a new people.
Reflection on where God may be leading and shaping the church for a new future will take new awareness, create new roles, and require exceptional wisdom and leadership competence over the next decade.