The new Archbishop of Canterbury is giving a lesson in ethics. What he’s actually talking about is changing the way the church functions.
Yesterday, the Archbishop didn’t zero in on the political mess the Church of England’s gotten itself into. The pundits on the sidelines are striving to get him to say something about women bishops or gay marriage. Welby mentioned several times his own “fear and trembling,” but I think he showed remarkable strength in not talking about those things – in not chattering on about the church in self-reflexive ways, focusing with profound insularity on theological method (as his predecessor did); in not taking a prophetic stance toward the issues of the world while ignoring the clutter of his own spiritual house (as our Episcopal Church, I’m afraid, too quickly does). Archbishop Welby showed great steel in turning our textbooks back to Aristotle and Jesus, in focusing our attention on a simple message: the church must be in the business of human flourishing.
In his inaugural sermon, Welby argued that the goal of the Body of Christ should be to enable human persons to flourish: in his words, to “make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.” The church has taken prophetic stances over the years, Welby acknowledged, positions which became manifest in social campaigns – freeing slaves and ensuring the safety of factory workers, among others.
Similar issues confront human society in the 21st century, he noted, but his analysis, interestingly, didn’t go from cause to cause. Rather, he quickly moved the conversation back to traditional Christian social thought.
Dissapointing media pundits and stumping secular critics, Welby’s message appeared, at first, to be about our work, our message, our cause and then, just as quickly, became a message of God. “Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human,” he preached. “Uniquely in all of human history Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who as living love liberates holy courage. …Courage is released in a society that is under the authority of God, so that we may become the fully human community of which we all dream.”
Early Christians adopted from Plato and Aristotle the concept that there is an end to which all human striving should be directed, a goal which is good for its own sake. The Greek word is eudaimonia, often translated as happiness or flourishing. In the Aristotelian worldview, eudaimonia is entirely egoistic: an individual’s self interest is to flourish, so a particular individual’s good is to flourish for the sake of her own good. That obviously wouldn’t do for the early Christian community whose Lord commanded them to love one another, so the Christianized concept of eudaimonia also had to do with mercy, justice, forgiveness, and community. Human flourishing from a Christian point of view is to strive towards the only goal which is good unto itself. That we call the Kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God involves people, but what’s good for people is not necessarily a good unto itself. That’s not an ultimate good. The kingdom of God has a church but what’s good for the church isn’t necessarily a good in and of itself. Better not chatter on about the church with incessant insularity. The kingdom of God is expressed, from time to time, in our social campaigns to make this world a more just and equitable and liveable place, but those causes are not necessarily the same as the reign of God. Best not confuse our social politics and theology. If we want to understand what it means to flourish, we’ve got to understand what it is to be of God, firstly, and to have our actions and words speak Him.
Although this is deep within our tradition, it’s also a new teaching for the church. It’s hard for many to understand, let alone embrace it. We, the church, allowed secular society to put us in the center of their world – first it was Constantine, then Charlemagne, then in America our own interpretation of the Bill of Rights. For centuries, we thought Christendom spoke for itself. Even when it’s been waning these past several decades we tried to bolster the buttresses, talking on and on about ourselves and our self-proclaimed mission and our business.
That’s all falling apart. Not the Way of Jesus, mind you. Not Christianity. Just the force of the predominately institutionalized shell.
And that’s why Justin Welby is the right man for the job, the right man, that is, at this moment. While bishop of Durham, he seemed uniquely able to speak the truth plainly. In an address in April 2012 to the Anglican Alliance for Development, Bishop Welby pointedly said, “The question that faces the church is that of what is human flourishing, good news, amidst the deep poverty…and utter spiritual bankruptcy and increasing material poverty?”
In that address, Welby named a profound truth: “Our good news,” he argued, “must be unique, because the radicality of the gospel call[s] us to a sense of what we are doing and saying utterly different from all other groups.” This can be unsettling. For those who have grown accustomed to Christendom this is a difficult teaching to bear. Yet almost automatically, Welby’s mind readily goes beyond insular theological methodology – a threat to those hiding inside the church – and criticizes the way of the world from nothing more, nothing less than the Gospel of Christ. To his credit, he already knows that world. When he mentioned “suspicion of the NGO industry, its thousands of employees and the tendency to be as donor dependant as the recipients of aid, with whom one is drawn in a grim dance,” Welby quickly added: “I know, I ran one.”
Authenticity is the litmus test these days, which is both an opportunity and challenge. We live in a time in which our message is heard only so long as the audience knows, already, the depth and quality of its source. It’s no longer sufficient to make grand speeches without mobilizing the People of God. Nor can we shirk from the obligation to speak a word of life in the public square; now, however, it requires the harder work of turning the hearts and minds and lives of those already among the body to influence those not yet. The new Archbishop put it as a question: “As Christians,” he asked, “are we simply a spiritual bit of the same tribe or, as self-proclaimed disciples of Christ, how is what we bring good news?” Reading Micah 6:8 (“do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God…”) and Romans 12:1-2 (“…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”), Welby reminded:
“the language of our good news is not GDP, output and so forth, though they are part of the means. It is human flourishing in a context of love. The tools of our good news [are] the unique ones of reconciliation and peace, with its fellow travellers of generosity, community and self-giving love. All aid outside the context of the grace of God leads to the abuse of power and the creation of dependency. So we are called not merely to do, but to be. The inner motivation matters as much as the outer.”
These days anyone and everyone can see directly inside, beyond the stuff we’ve projected in order to protect us – our beautiful churches and stately liturgy, our pomp and circumstance, our cathedrals and order, our tradition and customs. Real human flourishing is an inside job, and that matters a great deal.
In the annals of the church of my youth there was a great pastor who served for nearly three decades. He was renowned in the community and his sermons, legend has it, filled the pews, so much so they needed to build a larger church. The new edifice went up next to the existing building. It was a grand space, a long nave with a skinny chancel and grand pulpit. With regard to the particular functioning of this pastor, the new building featured two notable elements – the first, an expansive pastor’s study replete with fireplace, leaded-glass windows and balcony, located high up in the tower and only accessible via a steep staircase, so high that, obviously, accessibility and pastoral calls were not highly regarded. The second was an idyllic courtyard carved out of the space between the two buildings and which the congregation came to call ‘the garth’, itself a lovely, archaic phrase. This pastor, Dr. McGee was his name, wrote poems, too. The only poem I can recall was about the Garth Garden, how much he loved the simple, solemn quietude of a space set apart which featured, in his time, a bubbling fountain in its midst.
To me, nowadays, his sermons aren’t particularly compelling — they express the best of 1920s liberal Protestantism with snippets of bible verses thrown in. His poems, even the one about the garth, weren’t altogether timeless either. But that didn’t matter, not at the time nor in the decades which followed. It wasn’t what he wrote or said. It was the feeling and, in particular, the associations folks added to those feelings which mattered, and which have made Dr. McGee’s words into phrases which seem to reside, for some among the congregation, among the classics.
Distortions can all too easily morph into delusions which, over time, become distractions. I don’t know when I first came across George Herbert, the seventeenth-century English priest and poet who truly belongs among the classics, but when I did I stayed or tried to stay, to breathe his air, to remain. There’s something that seems pure in The Country Parson, Herbert’s description of the life and character of a country priest, living out one’s vocation in a little village, taking pride in the routine acts of daily prayer, serving the common person, taking rest as the fire crackles in the vicarage hearth at the close of day. A poet as well, Herbert is responsible for a collection of penetrating verse, The Temple.
Beware the delusion, however. We draw too closely a connection between a quiet, country life and the ability to think deep thoughts, to write lasting words. We, the reader, make the link between Herbert’s verse and text back to Herbert’s life. This is as true for lovers of George Herbert or those fond of Dr. McGee as it is for the wider television audience of Downton Abbey or those who remember the Vicar of Dibley or wish for the simpler antics of Fr. Tim in the Mitford series. Of course, anyone who’s actually read Herbert’s Country Parson is aware that I’ve painted pictures of a simple, bucolic life which is, frankly, nowhere found in his actual text, a piece of writing, it should be added, which is something of a laborious list of duties and pietistic expectations. I’m sure life in Downton Castle, itself, wouldn’t have been as romantic as we’d like to think in our daydreaming.
Maybe it’s limited to Anglo-philes, not to mention the entirely strange caste called Episcopal clergy, but George Herbert has long exerted a real influence. In the summer of 2004, I closed the chapter on a life in Chicago, a life I had come to treasure and enjoy, taking pleasure in that great city’s many cosmopolitan offerings. Off I went to the Virginia Theological Seminary to do my one-year Anglican ‘dip’, as it’s been called. A part of me (or was it my bishop?) told me that I was coming back to Chicago at the end of that year. I could have a wonderful, formative time but I wasn’t there to plant roots. When the time came, early on, to choose which parish I’d work at as seminarian for the year, I resisted the advice of most folks who told me to go across the river to Washington, DC, find an urban congregation and connect there. That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, they reasoned. That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, I heard, so maybe there’s something else.
I had spent a week before the beginning of the academic year with my aunt and uncle in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, the birthplace of the colony, locals are quick to say, but which is known by anyone who knows of St. Mary’s as the southernmost tip of the rural portion of the state known as southern Maryland. For that week under the hot August sun, I helped my uncle harvest grapes in his vineyard and, as the day closed, we sat under a great shade tree and drank wine and ate figs, hardly a noise to be heard except the crickets, no such thing as a traffic light, only the lush colors of a sunset and the brilliant nighttime stars and moonlight. On Sunday, I ventured with them to the Episcopal chapel which has been their worshiping community as long as they lived there and which, together with its parish church up the road, has served that community for centuries, pretty much ever since Europeans stepped onto the shores of this part of the continent, back in 1634.
“That’s where I’d like to spend this year,” I told the seminary’s director of field education. He thought I was crazy, wanting to drive more than seventy miles one way to my field education site, but he let me do it nevertheless. And thus began a year of leaving the busy-ness of northern Virginia and the insularity of a seminary community and hopping in my car on Saturday mornings to drive down and spend a weekend in the country. It was election season, as I remember, and the Kerry/Edwards signs which populated northern Virginia turned, in time, to a greater preponderance of Bush/Cheney signs once you got past the Washington, DC metro area. What I found in St. Mary’s Chapel and Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Mary’s City, however, was in fact a wonderful cobbling together of diverse people – watermen and farmers worshiping next to professors and defense contractors, those who came here recently kneeling at the same altar rail as those who can trace their family’s lineage back to the original settlers, just as countless generations of people had done in a colonial parish which feels, to us Americans, almost ancient.
True to his word, the parish priest who was, for that year, my mentor (and is now my friend), let me do almost anything and everything I could think of, which is when I also learned the truth underneath George Herbert’s Country Parson – that in a country parish you do have the opportunity and, indeed, challenge of being involved in just about everything: you’re not only the chaplain and liturgical functionary who works in the church; you wear a lot of other hats. You’re the closest thing many families have to a commonly-agreed-upon counselor in times of dispute or need; you’re a fixture at family parties and reunions; you are known throughout the community, even when you don’t wear your collar; you have a public role and, in time, you’ll bless everything from pets to yachts to vineyards to fire trucks. You are a public person which is the very origin of the term parson. For me, it was a year rich in learning and formation, a profound and eye-opening year.
At the end of that academic year, not even nine months after I first stumbled upon St. Mary’s County, I packed my bags once again and headed back to Chicago. I’d been called to serve as curate at a large urban parish, a call I was not only looking forward to but, quite honestly, a type of vocation – curate, then rector of a city parish, then who knows what – I thought I was going to be engaged in for the rest of my life.
Looking backward on my life I may have a different perspective but back then, while a curate, I was enjoying a great mentoring program but I was, as I probably told people at the time, bored. My duties were primarily functional and limited (I was only a curate, after all) and, as is often the case, I was doted upon by some within the congregation and held up as one who could do no wrong (I wasn’t the rector, after all). I wanted more and, yet, I also wanted less. I felt disconnected from the ground of that place’s being, divorced from the ground of my own priestly being, too, so haughty did I become when first ordained. In the back of my mind, I kept returning to George Herbert or, in truth, what I thought was the call of a simple, peaceful, holy, country life. Thus it was that the celebration of my time as curate was also my sending forth to a little country parish, nestled within the hills and valleys of St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
The layers of associations we’ve lumped onto figures such as George Herbert are a palpable force and, on some level, a siren song. This needs to be admitted. This needs to be dealt with, along with some intense denominational therapy, I’d say. In his compelling 2009 book, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him, Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the point that we’ve vaulted an image, no less a graven image of George Herbert, not the real deal. “Herbert has been, and continues to be, used as an exemplar, the exemplar for the English parson,” Lewis-Anthony writes. “Whether you are High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, whatever, Herbert is portrayed as the prototype of the pastor, teacher, almoner, negotiator, gentleman, scholar. He is Ur-Vicar, the Echt-Rector.” Further, though he was relatively unpublished in his brief lifetime, George Herbert’s fame not only grew posthumously (Lewis-Anthony: “this has always been the fast-track to canonization in the folk religion of the Church of England”) but the myth of Herbert became established lore, most interestingly, when Anglicanism was trying to find its distinct voice. In times of conflict, uncertainty, distraction, confusion, and the feeling that we are far from the ground of our being, we yearn for simplicity, purity, holiness. Often, in such moments, we find George Herbert or, rather, who we’ve turned him into.
Having served as a country parson for nearly six years now, I can report there is no idyllic ‘Bemerton parish’. There’s hard work and struggle, with enough silver linings to remind me why God is calling me here. There’s confusion and disorder and uncertainty, graced by moments of pure bliss in which I have, literally, felt God’s presence. There’s frustration and ego and pride which sneaks in, more often than I care to admit, and, at the close of most days, a true delight in simplicity. I knew something was up when, following one particularly contentious Vestry meeting early in my time, I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, so nagging on my soul was that one person and her downright stubbornness. Never before moving here had I ever awoken in the middle of the night. Never.
When a friend asked about the differences between a large, urban congregation and this smaller, country parish, I shared what was, at the time, an astonishing realization – that the issues between the two contexts were eerily similar, if not entirely the same. “That’s probably true,” she said to me, adding: “I’d guess that when you went from a larger church to a smaller one what you really traded was quantity for intimacy.” Intimacy is a two-edged sword. When intimately connected, as we are in small communities and country parishes, you love deeply and you fight powerfully. In this place, I’ve suffered – and suffered publicly, out in the open, at that. I’ve experienced crushing defeat and loss and, along with it, piercing shame and guilt. In this place, too, I’ve celebrated growth and witnessed depth, such things which only point to the authorship of a vibrant, living God. Here, I’ve achieved things I only previously believed, hoped I was capable of and I’ve been surrounded by love and warmth to a depth and degree I never imagined existed, not the least of which through the gift of my daughter who was born here. This place has been my cross and the working-out of my redemption, my bitterness and my land of milk and honey. And yet it’s not so on the surface. Not at all. The thread which weaves my little story in and out of God’s greater one is intimacy; without it, this is just a place and these are just people and this is just a job and that struggle is no failure of mine and that success just another notch on my resume.
The point Justin Lewis-Anthony makes is not only that we’ve vaulted the wrong image, not only that there is no bucolic Bemerton parish (…add to that list Dibley, Mitford, or whatever parish Downton’s in, for that matter), but that these delusions mustn’t be searched for. I take his point as a good one: there’s a disease in our church-ness, convincing us that church is supposed to be entirely gentle and calm and peaceful and lovely. The provocative comedian Eddie Izzard described it in this way: “Nowadays, Church of England is much more ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, much more of a hobby-type. A lot of people in the Church of England have no muscles in their arms,” Izzard carried on in a routine, traipsing about on stage like a wimpy, dorky priest. This is ruining our churches. We really don’t know how to engage our world and get out there, get messy. (For Exhibit A, I’d introduce into evidence the line-drawing of Chicago’s Church of Our Saviour – that bustling urban parish where I served as curate – hanging in my office. The sketch doesn’t include the apartment buildings behind the church nor the ones across the street, from which vantage point the drawing is made, nor does it include any hint of cars and people on Fullerton Parkway, nor anything that might tell you it sits squarely in a densely populated section of a major city. No, in this drawing, there’s an expansive lawn, no neighboring flats and, most beguiling, trees are sketched in where the rest of the city would, otherwise, be.) This is ruining seminary formation, as well; too many folks are running from the demands of their busy, hectic, professional lives into what they think is a simple and peaceable job, that of a priest, and how nice it’d be to live and pray and eat in a seminary community for three blissful years. As it turns out this, too, is ruining our churches. In the absence of bold, entrepreneurial, faithful leadership, we know what to expect. Taking Lewis-Anthony’s words as an indictment of our failure to truly grow congregations and do evangelism – a consequence of our inability to re-thinking priestly ministry – we are guilty as charged.
And yet once the graven image of George Herbert is smashed to bits, as it surely must be, we have for the first time the opportunity to come close to the person, the lived experience of a man of God, to see what he did with his experience. This is a really hard thing, to take George Herbert down from the library shelf. I’m thinking in particular of one of T. S. Eliot’s last books, his 1962 contribution to the ‘Writers and their Work’ critical series, Eliot’s George Herbert. The bulk of this thin, three-chapter work is spent tracing the connections and distinctions between Herbert and his literary and spiritual mentor, John Donne. Comparing one of Donne’s most famous religious sonnets (“Batter my heart, three person’d God…”) with Herbert’s poem Prayer (I) (“Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age…”) Eliot claims:
“The difference that I wish to emphasize is not that between the violence of Donne and the gentle imagery of Herbert, but rather a difference between the dominance of sensibility over intellect. Both men were highly intellectual, both men had very keen sensibility: but in Donne thought seems in control of feeling, and in Herbert feeling seems in control of thought. …[W]hereas Herbert, for all that he had been successful as Public Orator of Cambridge University, has a much more intimate tone of speech. We do not know what Herbert’s sermons were like; but we can conjecture that in addressing his little congregation of rustics, all of whom he knew personally, and many of whom must have received both spiritual and material comfort from him and from his wife, he adopted a more homely style.”
Eliot comes so close, let me say, to breathing George Herbert, describing his “intimate tone of speech”, picturing him surrounded by those “whom he knew personally.” Yet even in this there’s separation, a removal, the kindling of what becomes, in others, romanticization, delusion. Perhaps it was the Englishness which Eliot came to treasure and, in time, adopt or that he was commissioned to write a critical piece about Herbert but, nevertheless, it strikes me as odd that there’s such a remove from the real lived experience of George Herbert – analysis so devoid of intimacy that Eliot, in a sense, furthers the delusion, imagining “homely” homilies preached to “rustics.” Once vaulted there, Herbert resides permanently in the pantheon of the classics, rendering him as untouchable and statue-like as, to us Americans, George Washington is still.
What’s really standing in the way of growing the church is that we are downright afraid of the hard work involved in becoming the Body of Christ, the intimate and vulnerable work of becoming really human, really broken, really redeemed women and men who know themselves to be living out the story of God’s salvation. That description probably sums up the character of George Herbert, but we’ve become so distracted with the graven image, our own projected delusions. In his time Herbert took what he had – language – and used it in decidedly novel, penetrating ways. Language is what we all have, in fact; it’s the only thing we possess to express that which resides within. Of late, we’ve tried hiding behind the status quo and Christendom, but that’s falling apart. We’ve tried High Church or Low, chasubles and copes, ashes to go on street corners, but the world has said it doesn’t care about our wardrobes or churchmanship even while it may be amused by our gimmicks from time to time. What instead people seem to be searching is a lived story of redemption, experienced and expressed in the intimate truth-telling of real human persons.
This is vulnerable, frightening, new work. And yet this is Herbert’s life’s work and what he modeled for us, that is, until we meddled. Northwestern University’s Regina M. Schwartz offers, for the literary community, a new interpretation of George Herbert and, for the faith-based community, what I’d call a fitting method to renew focus. In her essay “From Ritual to Poetry: Herbert’s Mystical Eucharist,” Schwartz argues that “in an age when the sacraments were under fire and undergoing rapid revision,” George Herbert left behind the opportunities and worldly trappings he enjoyed as a university spokesman, took up a living in a little parish, and did a poignant thing. Boldly, he dug into his own life, warts and all, and drew connections to God’s life, which has no small amount of turbulence and pain but whose destination is always, already redemption. Herbert made the story of the interior life accessible and, most notably, sacramental. In the seventeenth century “poetry,” Schwartz maintains, “is called upon to carry the performative power of the liturgy.” This is a refreshingly different way to adopt the legacy of the Rector of Bemerton, considering Schwartz’s words:
“Unlike so many theologians, Herbert shows no interest in defining the meal served – in addressing the issue of the Eucharistic elements – instead, he attends to the process of conversation itself, the calling and answering. What is at the heart of Herbert’s mystery of the Eucharist is that an utterance could ever be heard, that a call could ever be answered, an offer ever received, an invitation ever be accepted, a conversation ever take place. For Herbert, then, an important aspect of this sacramental mystery is the mystery of language. …In [his] understanding of language, what is said and its relation to the referent – the sign to the signified – is less important than the activity of saying, than the conversation itself. …We have much to gain by framing the question as Herbert did: not economically but linguistically, in the context of conversation. For when we shift the trope from gift to conversation, we no longer imagine an exchange of goods; instead, we think of a response that evokes a further response. There is a world of difference.”
Realizing Herbert’s legacy should’ve been that of a man who knew, intimately, his own wretchedness and potential and one who knew, in turn, how to express with authenticity that place where God’s divinity meets our humanity, sans gimmicks, it’s all the more painful to admit that we’ve participated, we’ve directed the future of this particular illusion.
There is, indeed, a world of difference once we leave behind the graven images of cloistered garths and expansive studies; of bucolic parishes, whether Bemerton or Dibley or Mitford; of simple, blissful lives we’ll never be fortunate enough to have or find, though we may try and keep trying. There is a world of difference when we realize that the only possibility of resurrection is found in that kingdom planted within, and that the road to unmasking that mystery takes us straightaway through our humanity, indeed, demands that we become fully human, intimate with our joys and pain, our pride and anguish, our failures and achievements, our Crosses and our Easter Days. In this day in which none can hide behind pietistic pabulum, and which we, Jesus followers, ought no longer even if we may, no one wants our distorted signs and broken symbols, our treasured relics which speak confusion and, at times, pain to the world beyond. I won’t be so audacious as to stake a claim for what others want, but what the world certainly needs is our utterly true self, presented as a vulnerable and substantial offering, a sign of what new life looks like: intimately wedded, like the disciple whom Jesus loved, resting on the very heart of God. Again, for the first time in a long, long time, maybe ever, we’re coming to terms with this George Herbert, the only reason he’s made it through the ages.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
Watching Britain’s House of Commons have a lively chat about their church’s recent disapproval of women bishops, I had at first a feeling of ‘Bravo!’ as well as ‘Uh oh!’ As is often the case, it was a spirited chamber on Nov. 22 when Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, rose to field an urgent question as the Member of Parliament who is the liaison between that body and the group responsible for the oversight of the church’s vast property assets.
I heard smatterings of Jesus in the thoughtful generosity of the MPs — their eagerness to move established institutional structures, no less than their own, to embrace a society in which gender distinctions and previous social mores are giving way to greater egalitarianism and justice. The Labour Party’s Diana Johnson, who tabled the question, said it well: “…there should be no stained glass ceiling for women in our church. The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric by this decision. It appears that a broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds.”
They could easily get away with this conversation, of course. Sir Baldry reminded them that he himself couldn’t possibly justify the odd parliamentary procedures which enabled the General Synod of the Church of England to strike down a measure which was clearly supported by the vast majority of the church: 42 out of 44 dioceses expressed support for women bishops; counting the number of total votes cast, 324 voted for and 122 against; 94% of the bishops and 77% of the clergy voted for the measure; but it failed to achieve a 2/3 majority in the House of Laity, even though a significant majority, 64%, of them voted in favor of the measure.
It’s an odd thing when the State appears more inclusive and egalitarian than does the Church, the Body of Christ. A Canadian friend told me a few years ago that this was perhaps the one issue most besetting the Anglican Church there: how could they appeal to others to follow the teachings of Jesus when, in practice, they are less welcoming than their secular government? I’m aware we’re mixing issues here — church and state (fairly modern concepts) with Jesus and Empire (more ancient and biblical ones) — but it’s more than clear that Jesus himself and, certainly, a dominant strand in New Testament Christianity fostered profoundly egalitarian communities, gatherings which were radical in the eyes of their contemporary, stratified secular society and which were, therefore, incredibly attractive. Followers of Jesus have always had a difficult struggle with the ruling powers and principalities, such that 20 centuries after Jesus (and 17 or so after Christianity was perverted into a state religion) H. Richard Neibuhr contributed to the conversation in his now-classic text, Christ and Culture, helping people identify with integrity their position with regard to the relationship between the Way of Jesus and the ways of the world.
Thus my ‘Uh oh!’ moment. Jesus and the world, church and state have always been uneasy bedfellows. That’s a good thing, if you ask me, because the tension within that relationship is what has the potential to give rise to a profound, meaningful faith in God. The principle of moving the church along with the world — to make the church relevant or hip or up with the times — is therefore a dangerous principle, no matter the issue. It’s not inclusivity versus exclusivity, liberal against conservative, outdated giving way to modern. And if we, the Body of Christ, let secular politicians and pundits remain on the forefront of this conversation it will be stuck in those divisive, neatly categorized, but meaningless concepts. Look again at the Nov. 22 conversation in Parliament. The Conservative Party’s Eleanor Lang declared that “when the decision making body of the established church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society which it represents then its position as the established church must be called into question.” And the Church Commissioner agreed, adding that “if the Church of England wishes to be a national church, reflecting the nation, then it has to reflect the values of the nation.” Some people may put an exclamation point at the end of his statement because it’s boldly open-minded. I’d put an exclamation point because the principle it expresses is as frightening as hell! (And if you think it’s just talk, the Episcopal Cafe reports that there is scheduled a Jan. 18, 2013 Parliamentary vote on making it illegal “to discriminate against women in the Church of England.”)
Over on these shores, then, give thanks we don’t have an established church and, in fact, have a clause in our Constitution that prevents that sort of thing — the one, by the way, which doesn’t “separate church and state” (it drives me nuts when people use that phrase, taken from an 1802 letter of Jefferson’s talking about “…a wall of separation between Church & State”). Our First Amendment makes way for a vibrant church and a free state by not marrying the two: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
So let’s talk about a vibrant church. A vibrant church is one which does precisely what early Christian communities tried to do — build community of disparate folks, indeed, make family out of people who aren’t blood relatives and wouldn’t even socialize with one another. That’s the one and only way the New Testament shows how we’re supposed to reconcile all things to God in Christ. A vibrant church, then, is other-worldly and necessarily so because its organizing principle is in contradiction to the ways we would put things together. A vibrant church gives ordinary women and men a taste, albeit fleeting, that their lives are caught up in and wedded to the life of God, the creator and lover of all. A vibrant church is not easily described, and has few smatterings of worldly concepts. It’s neither conservative nor liberal, and it’s sometimes both. It’s neither stuffy nor outdated, and it delights in its eccentricity while it doesn’t take itself, at least its structures, too seriously. It has no problem putting random people together, sometimes people who would otherwise disagree, and it’s bold enough to referee those contests and call its members, all of them, to confess their pride and arrogance.
A vibrant church is one agent in God’s mission of reconciling all things through Christ, and I’d say it’s a pretty important agent. But in order to be vibrant, the church needs a large, disparate, somewhat disorganized, diverse, random collective of ordinary women and men, a sizeable group of people representing a significant cross-section of human experience and, especially, who this world would never, ever put together in a social club or institution of human construction. The institutional Christian church in the western world is hardly that body any longer. And Parliament hit that nail on the head this week, taking note that a big issue raised by General Synod — see Labour MP Diana Johnson’s quote, cited above — is that the established church has done a poor job of bringing the nation into the Body of Christ or, we should say, bringing the Body of Christ to the whole of the people. Affirming that fact, however, is decidedly not the same as saying what Conservative MP Eleanor Lang said, also quoted above; namely, that the church must get on with the times and reflect society. Doing so would only confirm for the increasing percentage of people, in Great Britain and the United States and everywhere else, that the church has become such a human institution that there’s no reason to participate in something so small and worldly and so devoid of its much more attractive, deeply spiritual commission.
This is not a problem reserved exclusively for an established church in a foreign land. We have abandoned our voice and public theologizing, yes, even we in America. And the “we” is not the state — not the politicians and the pundits, nor the marketers nor the secular institutions nor the school systems which stopped enforcing prayer long ago. It was never their job to enforce faith or, for that matter, even be Christian. It was our job, ours as the Body of Christ. It was our job to be counter-cultural, not the place to see and be seen. It is our job to do the things which this world says cannot be done, and that includes creating a safe space for diversity of all kinds, and that diversity must and should include theological diversity as well. The longer we fail to do this in our congregations and communities — and, add to that, the longer we let our own Episcopal Church be ruled by worldly institutional structures, determinining via legislation and policy who is in and who is out, even if the majority agrees — the more irrelevant we will become, not because the world is looking for another, better human construct but because it’s yearning for the opposite.
At least a group of people who call themselves “little Christs” and act like it, being at peace with disagreement and disorder because they go about practicing hospitality and seeking God’s blessing on the whole, messed up thing.