Nine Years ago, Nine Years from now

The list of nominees for Presiding Bishop (PB) of The Episcopal Church was just published.  (Or click here.)  The current person in the job is the Most Reverend – so, right there, being PB gives you a bump in adjectives – Katharine Jefferts Schori. She’s served for nine years and even though she’s young enough to have stood for election again she said, and I summarize, “No way!”

A Presiding Bishop is the bishop who is elected by the other bishops for a nine year term as the presider, the President and convener of the assembly (House) of bishops.  She or he has to be nine years younger than the mandatory retirement age (72).  It used to be the bishop with the longest tenure, the senior-most bishop in the House of Bishops, and only in the last century did the Presiding Bishop have to relinquish his – it was all him’s back then – diocese and serve in a new job. During this summer’s General Convention in Salt Lake City, the bishops will go away to a nearby church; they will pray and sing and cast votes. The one with the majority is the winner.  The House of Deputies, meanwhile, has to and will in all likelihood consent to the election. Later this year, the newly elected PB will be seated at the Washington National Cathedral, the seat of the Presiding Bishop, and he or she will move into the penthouse apartment at The Episcopal Church Center in New York – a posh pad where, I imagine, the PB will probably only occasionally sleep and probably seldom, if ever, actually get to just ‘hang out’ because s/he will, very likely, become much more acquainted with airports and life on the move over the next nine years than his or her own home. And we wonder why Bishop Katharine is willing to let someone else take the job?

I’m not going to add to what, it seems, we all think the Presiding Bishop should do or be. That’s already been written, and we’re going to be talking a lot about the future of the PB’s role at this summer’s General Convention in the conversations about restructuring the church; just Google “Taskforce on Reimagining the Episcopal Church,” or TREC.  It’s obvious that the next PB needs to have a real knack at administration and preaching and motivation and change. The candidate needs to be strongly rooted in Christ and fearless and adaptive and you can add to this list any other quality that goes along with being a faithful disciple of Jesus and, for that matter, any other buzzword we like to toss about – entrepreneurial being one I hope will quickly come to see its end. Also, and let me vent for a moment, the job qualifications have already been published in a profile and via a search committee, the purpose and role of which, I’ll be honest, I have no clue as to why they even exist, let alone are funded to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars: the only people voting on this job are already bishops and they all pretty much know each other. End of rant.

What I want to share, however, is that I am going to pray for these nominees and, in so doing, pray for the ongoing renewal of this church. I ask you, too, to pray that our staid and steady institution will continue – and I mean continue – to become more and more like the Body of Christ, serving this world boldly because we have a bold message, and less and less like a fearful, former-Forbes 500 company.

Because nine years is a long time.

Nine years.

Just think of where you were, personally, professionally, vocationally, in your walk with Christ nine years ago. Nine years is a long time.

For me, I was in a different city, in a different place, a very different chapter in my life. I had darker glasses and darker hair. (I still see brown hair on top of my head; it’s just the person I see in pictures of me has a lot more gray!) Nine years ago, I was not married nor was I, yet, a father. I wasn’t on Facebook, and I’m not sure I knew anyone who was. Some of my friends had joined this new thing called Netflix but I still walked to my local video store. Nine years ago, I had only one email address. I hadn’t heard of Twitter, and a hashtag probably sounded like something I’d order for breakfast.

1970’s “Runaway Besteller”!

Nine years ago I thought of The Episcopal Church as an institution, something kind of like the company for which I work and if I worked hard enough and played the company game I would find my way on to a happy and successful career. I thought I could venture from job to job, from ministry to ministry, from curacy to rectorate, from smaller church to bigger church and onward. I hadn’t yet accepted a call to Valley Lee, to St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to the Diocese of Washington.  Nine years ago, I was serving in a very impactful and formational curacy in the Diocese of Chicago.

Nine years is also a long time in the life of an institution. In 2006, the year Presiding Bishop Katharine was elected, the Episcopal Church had 7,095 parishes and missions; in 2013 (the last numbers on record) that number dropped to 6,622, a 6% drop. Nearly 300,000 active baptized members dropped off in those seven years; from 2,154,572 (2006) to 1,866,758 (2013), a 13% loss. Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), the only number that actually means anything, plummeted 18%; from 2006’s 765,326 to 2013’s 623,691. (Just look at how the minimal decline in parishes compares with the significant decline in people. To me, it says we are much quicker to save institutions than focus on the people.) The percentage of congregations with an ASA of less than 100 increased from 63% in 2006 to 69% in 2013 whereas the percentage of congregations with ASA of 300 or more decreased from 6% to 4% in that same time period.

In nine years the world changed. Society has been shaped more significantly and at a faster pace than in the nine years prior to this past near-decade, and that trend will only continue. I don’t blame Bishop Katharine or the leadership of the Episcopal Church, even though I am unafraid to call out failures. It’s that a lot of changes have happened and will happen and only more rapidly continue to happen nine-years after nine-years after nine-years.

What matters, what makes the difference, I’d say, is who we are as we stand in the midst of these changes, and where our values lead us. Standby, because I’m getting to some good news.

The most transformative and abundant change in my life in the last nine years has been fatherhood. There’s something about fatherhood, parenthood, family that tethers you in a profound and lasting way to this world. Some months ago, I heard a father interviewed and he described the moment he saw his son as the moment in which he became, he said, “hostage to the world.” It’s a phrase that struck me, pierced my heart and not in a negative way. Fatherhood means that you’re in it, for life. What a gift to be all in.

Nine years ago I’m not so sure I was all in in my own personal and vocational life, and not completely in my professional life, either. Nine years ago, I’m not so sure The Episcopal Church was all in, either. We didn’t seem completely in on our message of healing a broken world, of being a voice for the voiceless and, quite literally, becoming the kind of body that lives and breathes reconciliation.

We’ve had some hard fights these past nine years, and they only appear to be about about property and money and who owns what. Those are just symptoms. The root issue is whether we, as an institution, are all in in becoming the Body of Christ – whether we are prepared to put our resources and our substance and our physical presence, including our legacies and our histories and our money, into becoming the kind of people and the kinds of communities in which all are welcome and where Christ, in so doing, is made known.

I’ve learned this message and, to some degree, I’ve had to learn it the hard way. I’ve learned the most important thing is that my life is always, already wrapped up in Christ’s, and that if I have anything I have integrity and wellness. I’ve learned how important it is to be a good father to my daughter and a broken-yet-redeemed person of God. I’ve learned that honesty and vulnerability are so much more important than keeping up appearances in the world. I’ve had to learn that it is better to remain rooted in a community than keep thinking – and worrying – about the future. I’ve had to learn that it is my integrity in the here and now that makes a difference, and that our lives preach greater sermons than our words. I’ve learned through practice and I’ve learned through trial that I am invited, daily, to plant myself deeply, firmly in Christ. And, in fact, I’ve learned how much God transforms my simple gifts, say, a few loaves and some fish — but that God in Christ only does so when I’ve made that first step to pay attention and be still, when I’ve come to know that nothing, nothing can shake me from expecting God to do what God has said God would.

Nine years ago, St. George’s, Valley Lee was fearful and broken and scattered and uncertain. Nine years ago, this church didn’t know it had much of a future, and they really weren’t all in, either. And God brought us together. God didn’t bring me, the rector, to change and grow this institution. God brought me to a place which needed to learn new things and become a new body, so that I, myself, could also learn new things and become a new body, and that both of us, together, would grow in Him.

The numbers don’t show this growth; not yet, at least. The numbers currently show the opposite of growth. But anecdotally, which I know is not data, and across social media, which I didn’t even have nine years ago, I sense that a tide is shifting, the church is turning, and the Gospel is picking up momentum. I sense that more Valley Lee’s are coming online, more risks are being taken, and Christ is being incarnated in even more special and remarkable ways, ways we haven’t yet seen. Ever. And I expect or, at least, hope that over the next nine years we will be even more all in.

Blessing what God is having us Witness

The other big news to come out of Episcopal-world / South Carolina-edition this week is that the Rt. Rev’d Charles vonRosenberg, bishop of The Episcopal Church in SC (that is, those who’ve remained faithful to The Episcopal Church), “on July 8 granted permission for priests to bless the committed relationships of same-sex couples in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” according to an Episcopal News Service (ENS) report. “In authorizing the use of [The Episcopal Church’s 2012 authorized liturgy,] ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,’ vonRosenberg gave permission for priests to respond pastorally to couples who are in committed relationships, including those who have been married in states where same-sex marriage is allowed.”

This is big news, indeed. It represents not only a wider movement toward greater inclusivity but also, and chiefly, a process which has been grounded in substantial theological reflection over many, many years.  And that long and significant process has everything to do with the Holy Spirit’s apparent progress. As ENS reports, “Since [2012], more than 60 of the 110 dioceses of The Episcopal Church have allowed some form of liturgy for blessings of same-sex relationships. Regionally, 15 out of the 20 dioceses of Province IV – an area covering nine southeastern states – now permit the blessings. In the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, Bishop Andrew Waldo announced May 8 that he would permit the blessings.”

Then again, life-long covenants and the theology of human relationships is much more clearly a gospel issue than, say, property disputes – that being the other matter going on currently in South Carolina.

Some responded to my previous post about that other matter in SC – in which I called out the knee-jerk reaction of the anti-liberal conservatives as well as, in turn, the foolhardy anti-conservative liberalism – saying that, in doing so, I was choosing sides against justice. Sadly, they only prove my point that theological liberalism – which has been a genuinely orthodox Christian movement, yet hardly practiced in our church, or any church, today – is profaned nowadays, made into little more than an issue-determined litmus test for membership. That’s just sad.

But this isn’t that. This is a story worth telling.

That the majority of Episcopal dioceses have already approved this rite for blessing same-sex relationships, including most of the dioceses in the American southeast, and that ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant’ is meeting with such support is truly good news. On one level, it says that we are better able to move forward toward justice and inclusivity when we deal with more straightforwardly theological matters (not property, that is, even though the latter’s part of our mission, too). Accordingly, there will be deep conversation and prayer at 2015’s General Convention when the issue of marriage, itself, comes up, but let no one say this is the first time they’re hearing about it, nor let anyone say that the church hasn’t done sufficient and prolonged theological work around it.

I am reminded, on yet another level, that a huge part of the way the Holy Spirit’s helping usher forth this wider move toward justice is by bringing up such a topic not as an issue but an invitation, not as a political litmus test but, rather, a bright and open space in which we, God’s people, may ask how and in what ways God is blessing the lives of all God’s people: straight and gay couples alike; those who desire to have children, say, and those who wish to have no children, all the same.

Here’s a case in point:

I’m preparing to celebrate a wedding this weekend, and have been working with this couple for a long time. They are a wonderful couple. They know who they are and they know who God is calling them to become through their marriage. Specifically this weekend, they also know why and for what greater purpose they’re gathering friends and family. Like every other couple whose marriage I’ve celebrated, they live together; in fact, they have for 14 years! Like every other couple I’ve worked with (since 2013), when it came time to start planning the wedding liturgy, I showed them ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.’ And like every other couple since, they, too, adore and resonate with this newer language. They happen to be a man and a woman.  But this new liturgy, yes, for blessing same-sex relationships, is just as relevant to opposite-sex couples who are preparing to pray themselves into a life-long covenant as it for same-sex partners.

The language is more justice oriented, echoing profound themes of partnership and covenant. Compare the opening words of ‘The Witnessing & Blessing’ (scroll down to page 5), with those of the marriage service from the Book of Common Prayer .

See it? “A relationship of mutual fidelity and steadfast love,” instead of “the bond and covenant of marriage.” Or: “Christ stands among us today, calling these two people always to witness in their life together to the generosity of his life for the sake of the world,” strikes a different tone than “marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” Here, now, there is language of mutuality, partnership, balance, equal support, and, of course, love. Meanwhile, we’re still talking about a life-long, monogamous commitment.

I want to scream whenever I hear someone say “gay unions ruin the institution of marriage,” for, in fact, what I’m finding is precisely the opposite. I’m finding that, finally, all God’s people now have adequate language, fresh language to name eternal, holy truths.  We’re in a unique and rich moment as a church today. In the wake of a prolonged theological and prayerful conversation about human relationships and sexuality, following decades of discerning whether and how we are called to experience God in this work and these commitments, we are now able to utter new words which are truly new life for all couples — whether young or old, gay or straight, even those who are single and discerning or graying near the ears and married for 50+ years.

As we pray in that wonderful collect, “In the Morning” (BCP p.461), we have been given “the Spirit of Jesus” and, as such, our “words [are made] more than words.”  They are being made into new life.

Praying South Carolina

This morning in St. George, South Carolina, a very unfortunate trial begins, pitting the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina against The Episcopal Church (calling themselves in this case The Episcopal Church in South Carolina).  Those who’ve been even mildly following this tale will recall that in November 2012 a majority of the parishes of South Carolina, under the leadership of their bishop, the Rt. Rev’d Mark Lawrence, voted to leave The Episcopal Church.  Under the oversight of judge Diane Goodstein, the trial to determine, pretty much, who is the rightful overseer of The Episcopal Church in the Palmetto State is slated to last through next Friday, July 18.

It’s hard to know what to pray for today.  Peace?  Justice?  I suppose praying, as Jesus taught us, for “thy will” is a pretty good start. 

As it is, the whole affair seems unfortunate.  There is, on the one side of this fight, that egoistic vitriol and vaulted self-righteousness of those who cannot abide in participatory, representative movements of the Body of Christ; the very definition of what it means — or at least what it has meant since the 18th century — to be a practicing Anglican in this country.  And, on the other side, just think of all those (probably) millions of dollars being spent by The Episcopal Church on drawn-out legal affairs.  We should also admit that there has been such an emerging liberal orthodoxy in The Episcopal Church — the fundamental basis of which should shock no one — but which, unfortunately, nowadays, seems more aligned with secular progressive politics and less with sustainable, theological diversity in the Body of Christ.

It’s hard to know what to pray for today. 

In the meantime, then, while we’re being honest and holding at bay the agendas of both sides, don’t quote to me Paul’s injunction against taking a fellow Christian to court (1 Corinthians 6).  Neither, for that matter, do I want to hear how this process clearly goes against Jesus’ conflict resolution plan, as given in Matthew 18 (vv.15-20).  Jesus and Paul are right.  We are wrong.  Yet while those injunctions in the New Testament are clearly the stated goal of those who practice life in the kingdom of heaven — and for a while at least Jesus’ followers were more akin to bringing the kingdom of heaven a bit closer to earth — we, the followers’ followers, have created an institution of this world with power and prestige and, yes, property.  That’s why it’s in the secular courts; that’s why a secular judge is dealing with this matter, starting today, in St. George, South Carolina.  If you want to cast stones, throw them both ways.

Instead, though, I’d suggest prayer.  But it really is hard to know what to pray today.

MARK LAWRENCE Bishop of South Carolina

I’ll suggest, for starters, that Bishop Lawrence, himself, should re-learn how to compose a Collect.  Writing a Pastoral Letter to the Diocese of South Carolina yesterday, July 7, Lawrence offered “a prayer crafted earlier by the Very Rev. John Barr, soon to be retired rector of Holy Comforter, Sumter, which I have slightly adapted for this present trial:

Gracious and Sovereign Lord, we pray that your will be done during July 7—18th. May we want what you desire. Guide and be mightily present with Alan Runyan and the other attorneys who represent us and with those who testify on our behalf. May the courtroom be filled with the pleasant aroma of Christ, and at the end of the day, protect this diocese and its parishes that we might bring the redemptive power of the biblical gospel to the South Carolina Low Country, the Pee Dee and beyond. Let not our fear of outcomes tarnish our joy or deter us from the mission you have given us. Enable us to bless and not to curse those on the other side of this conflict. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And in the power of the Holy Spirit make us victorious over-comers wherever this road leads us. For we ask all in the name above all names, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

It starts well: praying for “your will,” and that we may “want what you desire.”  That the courtroom be filled with the “pleasant aroma of Christ” is a nice touch, although I don’t know what that would smell like, but then to pray that God “protect this diocese and its parishes,” those parties who, apparently, are preaching the “biblical gospel” is a bit heavy-handed.  That presumes your opponents really are something stinky!  I also have no problem with praying for your attorneys, but I’d also suggest that you may then want to pray for the attorneys who represent the other opinion.  “Enable us to bless and not to curse” is also a nice offering but, as you’ve stated, it’s for those “on the other side” and it’s hard to balance fighting language and peacefulness in the same line in the same prayer.

The gift of the Anglican tradition is that we’ve learned and, with the exception of Bishop Lawrence’s prayer, above, taught others how to write prayers that do not serve as a political rallying cries, issuing forth their own heavy-handed agendas.  Rather, we’ve developed the patient craft of praying Collects that enable God’s people to say, time and again, “thy will be done.”  This principle goes both ways: resisting those who are conservative just as much as those who preach liberal messages.  This principle is not only important but holy and good.  This principle which creates, in effect, a church constituted solely as a praying body, gathered under one Lord, Jesus Christ, is perhaps the only thing that will, in the end, save North American Anglicanism — positioning our Christian movement to be represented as the one, trustworthy place in our communities that’s authentically working on building true diversity and real community, grounded not in our moment but for eternity.

I’d say the Collect from last Sunday (Proper 9) is the perfect one to pray:

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Cost of the Present Model

There are a lot of reasons why we need to start exploring new models of ministry in the life of the Episcopal Church. Most of these reasons, for me, have to do with a genuine and gospel-based desire to be more collegial and collaborative and mission-minded – to get over ourselves, get outside of ourselves, and better form disciples of Jesus Christ. That argument goes over pretty well with the lay leaders I have the pleasure of working with at St. George’s, Valley Lee. I’m also blessed that several neighbor Episcopal congregations – their clergy and lay leaders – are also on board with this desire to do more and be more, together.

Pitching ‘collaboration’ and ‘mission’ to top-level leadership in the Episcopal Church comes with conceptual approval, but also hesitancy and critical distance from suggestions from the field, coupled with good, if not uselessly airy and idealistic wonderings about whether and how we can “tweak the existing system(s)” and who has the power and authority to do so anyway.  The further you get from day-to-day life on the ground in the Episcopal Church, the further you get from life as a parish priest or congregational lay leader, the more you see only the meta-data and larger trends.

Here’s yet one more reason why we need to start exploring new models of ministry: we can’t afford the current one much longer.

In 2012, the missions and congregations of The Episcopal Church brought in $1,303,458,185 in pledge and plate contributions. That’s based on the 6,667 congregations and missions – both domestic and non-domestic. Simple division gives us $195,508 as, let’s say, Average Pledge & Plate Giving. I know that pledge and plate giving is one part of determining the Parochial Report’s Normal Operating Income (NOI), and I know the NOI is more than pledge and plate.  But let’s use this $195,508 number for three reasons: first, Kirk Hadaway and the Episcopal Church statistics gurus don’t report the average NOI (and I really don’t care that much to search further); second, the latter – namely, pledge and plate – is the singularly most reliable, albeit lagging indicator of actual ministry-based participation and giving in a given community; and third, I’ve already written about how utterly useless and stupid the NOI is.

Take our average Episcopal congregation, then: St. So-and-So’s, with their annual pledge and plate offering of $195,508.

Let’s say they tithe to the diocese (give $19,551), leaving $175,957. Now let’s do the math.

Based on the clergy compensation scale in the Diocese of Washington, a priest with, let’s say, three years of ministry-related experience should earn at least $49,057 in cash stipend, but when you follow the diocesan personnel guidelines you’ll also factor in pension contribution (18% of the stipend is $8,830.26) and health insurance (two-person medical and dental in 2014 is $18,336) and a modest car and cell phone reimbursement (say, $5,000) and a continuing education line item (go with $1,000) and you’ll get the total amount budgeted to having a full-time clergyperson is $82,223, leaving a remaining $93,734.

In this day and age, as well, a congregation poised for growth needs a support staff. Factor in a competent parish administrator who, let’s say, only works twenty hours each week. That employee would earn at least $19,508 according to the Diocese of Washington lay compensation guidelines. Also, given the church’s well-intended desire to achieve parity between lay and clergy ministers, there’d be an additional cost to health insurance (one person medical / dental is $10,224) and a matching contribution to a retirement savings account, say, $2,000. Added up, such a vital minister would cost $31,732. (If the parish administrator were full-time, that position would cost $51,241 – leaving $42,493 for everything else we haven’t paid for yet.  Such a package would never fly, however, so let’s keep maintaining the delusion that there’s a plethora of people on the job market with sufficient skills and gifts who are waiting, just waiting for part-time parish administrator gigs. Two further pieces are also important to maintaining this delusion: for one, you’ve got to pretend that this 20-hour/week parish administrator is able to move mountains and accomplish everything everyone wants him/her to do in that span of time; and, for another, you’ll need to pretend that the former delusion also means that absolutely no administrative work will ever keep the rector at her/his desk and away from the ministry field.)

A part-time organist with a bachelor’s degree and a mere five years’ experience, one who’s contracted to work only ten hours each week, would earn $12,524. Let’s also be exceedingly kind to this fictional congregation and suggest that the music director, in question, doesn’t need health insurance and opts out of the church providing some measure of retirement savings. Looking at the numbers, though, a local colleague of mine just hired a new organist / music director and the going rate, she reported, that most of the applicants quoted was $300 per service. With 52 Sundays in the year and three extra services (certainly Christmas Eve and maybe one or two others) that’d be a total compensation of $16,500. Splitting the difference, then, between the diocesan scale ($12,524) and the actual going rate ($16,500) let’s say that a gifted and competent music director would cost $14,512.

Between the rector ($82,223), part-time parish administrator ($31,732) and very part-time music director ($14,512) this sample congregation would’ve spent $128,467 — and that’s not including someone to clean and, maybe, a bookkeeper and/or a nursery caregiver or, perhaps, a formation director or youth minister. Let’s pretend that the floors magically clean themselves and that there’s a sufficient network of volunteers. Even among that limited personnel pool – rector, parish administrator and musician – that’s 65% of St. So-and-So’s pledge and plate collection. That startling number puts an even finer point on the financial struggle of most congregations; Kirk Hadaway from The Episcopal Church, in fact, softens this reality by focusing on Normal Operating Income (NOI), not pledge and plate.  Based on a 2008 survey, Hadaway reports that congregations with an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) between 51 and 100 spent 52% of their total NOI on staff, and those with an ASA of 151 – 350 spent 51%.  Those percentages go down as the ASA gets smaller than 50 or larger than 350 (those with ASA between 1-25 spend 31% of the NOI on staff, 26-50 spend 45%; conversely, those with 351+ spend 49%), but that’s because in smaller congregations there is hardly any staff support and a congregation has to have a lot of people in order for it to sustain the idea that there can be a full complement of staff.  I know that ministry is more than paying staff positions, but it is hard to imagine that these reductions won’t have a negative impact on how the Episcopal Church is able to deliver meaningful, transformative encounters with the living God in the various contexts and communities across this country.   The unquestioned dominance of the one-parish/one-priest system is financially unsustainable, and we are quickly heading to a church in which there will be plenty of buildings but decreasing ministries. 

If you’re running the numbers in your head, St. So-and-So’s would, at this point, have $67,041 remaining. They would need to budget that money on heating gas and/or oil ($10,000?), electricity and other utilities ($7,000?), household supplies and modest kitchen expenses ($4,000?), office expenses and staples and copier leases and paper and information technology support and needs ($7,000?). They would need to find some money for communion bread and wine, and they’d barely squeak out enough to really support the ministry of the altar guild and provide for meaningful and dynamic worship experiences ($6,000?). They’d most certainly continue to defer maintenance on their buildings and grounds and I’d suspect that they would only have a little bit to invest in modest clean-up or capital improvement efforts ($5,000?).

This isn’t even mentioning Christian education programs ($10,000?) or social justice outreach work ($10,000?), ministry and mission that is the bread and butter of the Body of Christ. Apparently there won’t be much, if any money left-over for supply clergy or guest organists, so those key ministers, the clergyperson and music director and parish administrator, will be limited in their ability to go away on vacation or retreat. So much money is spent on presence and personnel and property, I’ll bet, that there’s not a lot of room for dreaming about mission and ministry and what we can be doing in the wider community to make disciples of Jesus. At this point, we’re down to about $8,000 remaining in wiggle room.

Add to this that even if the clergyperson has a truly missional calling and is ready to serve in this ministry context, the rector will, if s/he tries to follow the clergy compensation scale, price her/himself out of that congregation in less than five, probably fewer years of service there. That is to say, when that rector gets to eight years of ministry – this is, again, based on the Diocese of Washington’s 2014 clergy compensation scale – s/he will be eligible for such a cash stipend and comparative increase in pension, not including the obvious increases to health insurance and other costs, such that the clergyperson’s entire compensation package will consume any remaining surplus in the parish’s checking account and start to drive down spending in other areas. In short, the clergyperson has less than a five year ministry in that place, lest s/he be the very reason why the congregation has to raid their savings account or investment income in order to manage cash flow, pay the heat bill, buy sufficient crayons for the Sunday School, or provide substantial help to someone who is truly in need.

And it is sure to follow that a congregation with a nearly guaranteed turnover of clergy leadership every five years, on average, is a sure bet for a congregation that will only continue on a downward spiral in energy — sure it’ll spike with the new arrival but fall just as quickly thereafter — and a subsequent decline in time and giving and potential.

Not only can we much longer afford the currently dominant model of ministry in the Episcopal Church, but this is a time in which the moment is hot and, frankly, will quickly pass us by. Like it or not, we’ve arrived pretty late to the evangelism / mission game, but not so late that our numbers – our people and money, our total resources – are insufficient to the task at hand. We’ve actually got a healthier level of resources than many churches in our present situation.

But this is not a time to commission further studies or wonder who has the power to do what or ask fairly inane questions about how to transition the dominant system or shift the blame between diocese and congregation. No, this is a moment in which we know where we need to go and we have a pretty good stock of resources by which to do it.

So let’s do it.

Liturgical Renewal and the Blame Game

I really don’t get it.  Every weekend, leading up to and following Sunday morning worship celebrations, I see a sufficient spattering of good news and joy across the Episcopal Church.  Well, let me clarify: scrolling across my Facebook news feed (like many, I’m ‘friends’ with lots of folks in the Episcopal Church whom I’ve never met, and maybe never will) I read about baptisms and confirmations and well-attended adult forums and good Sunday Schools and great teachers and strong attendance and dynamic worship involvement.  In the context of my own parish, as well, our numbers are up and have stayed up and our giving is increasing and participation in ministries is strong and, most important of all, there’s a real spirit of joy and openness and laughter and spiritual growth and exploration.

But the other numbers, the real numbers, some may say, keep going down.

We know the state of those numbers all too well.  The National Council of Churches, for instance, reported that between 1992 and 2002 the Episcopal Church lost 32% of its membership, dropping to 2.3 million.  At the close of 2012, in fact, membership dropped to 1.89 million, a loss over the course of one year of nearly 29,000 people.  Between 2011 and 2012, 69 Episcopal congregations closed, leaving 6,667 parishes in 2012, an average of only 283 ‘members’ per parish.  2012’s total Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) was 640,142.  Given that 68% of the congregations have an ASA of fewer than 100, whereas only 4% have an ASA of over 300 that means the median Average Sunday Attendance is only 64 people, and I’ll bet they are increasingly getting older.

Wait a minute.  In the midst of all those truly depressing numbers, I forgot my point.

Oh, right.  Who do we blame?

Given that these declining numbers clearly show that we were getting it right not that long ago — in 1960 there were nearly twice as many (3,269,325) Episcopalians as there are today — somebody’s got to get blamed.  Somebody failed.  For those who remember 1960 and its apparent heyday and those who have some modicum of investment in the maintenance of major American cultural institutions, the hierarchical leadership of those obvious institutions are, obviously, most at fault.  The conclusion, therefore, is that we blame the seminaries, bishops, and clergy.  Their apparent failure of leadership has dwindled the flock; they aren’t offering much of anything so the people walked.  (There is probably some truth to this argument.)

In turn, the leaders of those institutions generally offer some vague and fluffy retort about cultural shifts and the ways in which the world fundamentally changed between then and now, coupling that argument with complaints about how little power they actually have and that they’ve never really been able to bring about the changes the world so desperately needs anyway.  (There is probably some truth to this argument, as well.)  So seminaries remind us that they’ve only got these potential leaders for three years, and it matters so much more where they’ve come from and where they’re going.  And bishops complain that they can’t act unilaterally until and unless parishes and clergy say they want it.  And clergy on the ground say their hands are tied by unwilling lay leadership.  And the vast majority of lay leaders are increasingly walking away, such as the numbers suggest, while those who remain are hunkering down into positions of guardianships of what once was.

Can we stop now?

Look, nothing positive is going to happen until we do the work of restoration from within.  We know the trend that’ll continue if we keep up our present patterns of blame and behavior.

There’s no lack of great work being done in liturgical renewal and leadership development.  There’s no lack of great ideas.  There is, however, a fundamental lack of real and genuine trust, especially between the orders of the church: bishops gather with bishops, clergy with clergy, laity with laity, all planning and strategizing and, yes, we know it, complaining about the other bunch.

What we haven’t tried, thus far, is to restore the whole, to restore some basic level of trust.  We haven’t been so good about wondering aloud and venturing together and putting forward a proposition and seeing where it lands and where the Holy Spirit might take it.  We haven’t been so good, frankly, at thinking the best of the ‘other’, so we try something new — we may even find life in that thing — but we’re all too quick to remind ourselves of the one or two people who will resist it and crush it, in time, so we go into the situation guarded, ready for a fight.  Guess what we get as a result?

What I suspect I’m seeing, at least anecdotally on social media, is the emergence of a new order of business.  I’m hearing about people, laity and priests and deacons and bishops alike, who are thinking out loud and asking truly open-ended questions:  Why do we do Christian formation only on Sunday morning?  Why do we do our pledge drive this way?  Why do we only worship in a church building and only on a Sunday morning?  Why do we hold our Annual Meeting / Diocesan Convention this weekend?  Why don’t we share ministries with other local congregations?  Why do we say that only these people are ‘members’ of this church?  In  countless parishes and communities and dioceses, there’s a growing interest in paying attention to the banal, the day-to-day, the lived experience of those people in that place.  And that’s been a long time coming.

For the first time, I’d say, we’re starting to carry forward into the local, lived experience of Episcopal Christians the ideas and ideals of the 20th century liturgical renewal.  That movement which gave birth to an ecumenical Council as well as, for us, a new Prayer Book had much more to do with the nature of church, writ large, and the vision of what it means to be the People of God, the Body of Christ than it did with how we worship, what furniture goes where, and what words we use.  The Rev’d John Oliver Patterson, then headmaster of the Kent School in Connecticut, wrote in a 1960 volume about liturgical renewal that “we deal…more with the rather drab realities of the situation at hand.  ‘Mystery theology’ must somehow be related to an 8:00 AM service; the doctrine of man must somehow be applied to Mr. John Jones’s specific situation; liturgical art must be thought of in terms of an exisiting building; and the holy fellowship, the mystical Body of Christ, in terms of St. John’s or St. Paul’s or Grace Church parish, its vestry, auxiliary, and men and women in the pews or absent from the pews.”  “My task,” he wrote, “is perhaps to bring that satellite out of orbit, back to earth in such a way that it will not disintegrate and disappear when it comes up against the friction and hard reality of this world’s atmosphere — nor land on a church and blow up the very people it is intended to inform and assist.”  (“The Pastoral Implications of the Liturgical Renewal,” in The Liturgical Renewal of the Church, 1960, pp.123 and following)

Patterson’s thinking is really quite creative and, from what I can tell, hardly put in practice; not then, not now.  He spends no small amount of ink, for instance, writing about creating a parish council — a collective group that would meet periodically to coordinate the interests of the whole, a group which would pay as much attention to relationships as the vestry does to those necessary and important fiduciary concerns.  A parish council could become, he argued, “an exciting, effective technique for drawing out and expressing the loyalty and talent of every cell of the body, if it is used as a means toward the great end.”  Why is it that in so many parish churches the vestry is the be all and end of all power and decision making?  The Canons have very prescribed duties for a vestry, and they are quite few.  Even if we’re not going to create another level of parochial bureaucracy (God help us!) couldn’t we organize ourselves in such a way to better share power and ministry and oversight, a vastly more decentralized system than we’ve had to date?

“Until we have set up the kind of parish in which each member has a chance really to be a parishioner, we are not going to get very far,” Patterson contends; continuing: “Until we have faced fairly and squarely the nature and function of the parish, we cannot successfully move forward in our work.”  It’s on this point, then, that he goes on to talk about worship and liturgical renewal — the list including architecture, furniture placement, involvement of children, Morning Prayer versus Holy Eucharist (this was 1960, after all) and a whole host of other issues.  That our worship life should reflect our common life and that the functions of the organization we’ve created should show forth what we believe about power and authority — whose it is, ultimately, and how we share it, being given it — seem, to me, to make perfect sense.  “Just as we must rethink our techniques of organization and administration, so that our parishes will show a sound doctrine of the Church,” Patterson writes, “so we must rethink the whole matter of ‘common prayer’ so that our services will reflect what both Scripture and tradition agree to be the Christian liturgy.”  In fact, I’d say, not only do these need to happen together but attention to the relationships and power and structure of the congregation, itself, has to happen before we go carelessly ripping altars from the east-facing wall or introducing new Eucharistic prayers or leading new songs.  A budget or an Annual Meeting is just as much a sermon, or is potentially so, as what happens in that designated slot in the liturgy on Sunday morning.

In this ongoing transition perhaps what those communities and congregations I see experiencing renewal on my Facebook news feed, irrespective of whether they’re balancing their books or packing their pews, are really doing is centering their common life on a few profound convictions.  For his part, the Rev’d Patterson offered three and they’re pretty compelling — enough, for me, with which to close this post:

“First: Jesus Christ is Lord.  He is the King of Glory and loyalty to Him must transcend all other loyalties of Christians.”

“Second: The holy Church is the earnest of His Kingdom.  In the holy Church, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christians are to realize on earth what they will manifestly be when Christ appears in glory.”

“Third: the Eucharist is the great action of the Church.  It is both the pleading of and the showing forth here and now of the accomplished act of redemption.”

The Stupid Parochial Report

This will shock anyone who’s ever tried to teach me math, but I like numbers.  I believe that established metrics and regular evaluation are key to moving forward or, at least, knowing where you are and how you got there.  And I like trying to figure it out.

Episcopal Church leadership likes numbers so much they ask those of us on the ground every year to fill out “The Report of Episcopal Congregations and Missions according to Canons I.6, I.7, and I.17 (otherwise known as the Parochial Report).”  I like how they just casually toss in the Canons, a not so gentle hint.  Due March 1 this is, then, a time to celebrate that it’s done for another year.

THE PAROCHIAL REPORT

In its current form, the report stinks.  We’re hardly measuring the right things and the bulk of it measures the wrong ones.

The first section measures membership.  How many people were added?  Who’d you lose?  That’s how you get Total Active Baptized Members.  Those who are active but not baptized or were baptized in another denomination or, my goodness, another Episcopal church get a separate line: “Others who are active.”  Does no one move to a different city and not get around to having their letter transferred?  Also, in my experience, a greater percentage of the “Others who are active” are more active than those among the Active Baptized.

The longer we spend on this the further we get from more accurate metrics.  Measurements which point to vitality have to do with participation and discipleship — not membership.  The closest thing the Parochial Report comes to measuring that is Average Sunday Attendance, in my opinion one of the only worthwhile metrics.  The report tries to find the underlying story when it asks about baptisms or confirmations or “Total Church School Students Enrolled,” but these measure enrollment, not participation; sacraments, not discipleship; attendance, not leadership.

And don’t even get me started on the Letter of Transfer.  In six years, we’ve done two letters, one in, one out.  If evolution is the case, I hope the Letter of Transfer is the first thing to go.

Copyright Cartoon Church
http://www.cartoonchurch.com

Recently, a member of a local congregation told me they’d like to transfer their letter to St. George’s.  They intend to stay connected to both congregations but want to transfer membership here.  I said “No.”  I don’t want theirs or, for that matter, anyone’s letter.  In fact, I want the idea that someone becomes a member at one parish which has one priest (or a team of clergy) and is defined over against the other local parishes, Episcopal and otherwise, to go away.  I’m looking for church as a gathering of disciples or, at least, a mixed bag of those who are, those who want to be, and those who are genuinely curious about the whole discipleship affair.  At least I want the institution called “church” to model this and no longer churn out measurement tools which are pre-programmed to tell us we’re not where we were back in 1957.  I guess that’d be the second thing I hope would evolve away.

More, this distraction is inhibiting the building we need to be doing.  Leaders at the height of the Baby Boom built new buildings and new parishes; today’s Parochial Report is a vestige of that time.  Today’s work, though, is to build networks across parish boundaries, connections across geographical divisions, mission relationships beyond the lines our predecessors drew.

In our diocese, the parochial reports trickle out via a notable tradition of public shaming.  Every year, the convention booklet publishes the list of errant parishes, listing the truants by name and in categories from bad to worse.

Last year, we were one of the tardy congregations.  The report forced us to count numbers we don’t categorize in the same way, and it didn’t allow us to use the numbers which point to vibrancy. Someone said, “File an addendum,” which I knew would be read but go nowhere.  A colleague said, “Just file it.  They don’t care.”

I’ve written elsewhere about the creative way this parish has found a more lively connection between mission and money, operations and ministry.  (Read here and here and here.)  In short, we’ve set up a completely decentralized budget.  It does two things well:  one, the operations of the church are supported by a lean, central operating budget; two, the ministries of the church rise or fall depending on the movement of the Spirit of God amongst the People of God.  We don’t fund outreach or Christian education, for example.  And the ironic good news is that they raise more money because they are free.  In turn, because our operating budget is so lean we can see, at a quick glance, what’s going on with operations.

We are growing, in part, because we’ve learned that operations and ministry are both mission and yet are not the same.  We’ve freed ministry from operations.  Further, we understand that operational functions are not only a vital part of the church’s mission but also support relational ministry.  This, in turn, gives a new validity to administrative functions and operations.

This budget strategy is healthy, life-giving and the only way to make a budget according to the logic of the Body of Christ, not the illogic of the world.  But it’s squarely in conflict with the assumptions behind the Parochial Report.

Our Normal Operating Income (NOI), then, is slim.  But that’s not all the money.  Even more small mindedly, the Parochial Report enforces a myopic view of expenditures and money raised.  Outreach expenditures are “Outreach from operating budget.”  According to this illogic, we report $0.00 given to build up our community and world.  In reality, we raised and spent $13,144.76 in 2012 and $9,767.71 in 2011, lots more money than we were ever able to give out of the centralized operational budget!  The report doesn’t even ask about Christian education or young adult or senior adult or youth ministry.

Beyond griping, here are five suggestions for revising the issues surrounding the Parochial Report:

1.  Determine new actual average measurements, in addition to Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), that might point to discipleship, leadership, and participation.  Poll church leadership and ask one question, “What are the things you do in the course of your week which tell you if something’s working and there’s growth energy?”  On the basis of what I’m sure will be a fairly universal set of responses, determine new actual average measurements.

2.Establish that Normal Operating Income (NOI) be determined by the total of four actual numbers: (a) total pledge contributions, (b) total ‘plate’ contributions, (c) any rental fees from parish properties, and (d) contributions from congregation’s organizations.

3. This will force and free up congregations to figure out other ways to budget the categories the Parochial Report currently determines as being inclusive of the NOI.  It’s likely they’ll stumble upon a decentralized budget like we use at St. George’s, Valley Lee.  They, too, will enjoy the healthy distinction between operations and ministry.  Moreover, they’ll see money given to support operations go up, if only remain the same.

4.  Make timely receipt of the Parochial Report without sufficient excuse and blessing from the Bishop or Ecclesiastical Authority the determining factor whether a parish or mission gets seat and voice and vote at that next year’s Diocesan Convention.

5.  Make 10% giving of NOI — the NOI I sketched, above — mandatory for all parishes.  If the diocese enables its congregations to find a life-giving connection between money and mission the diocese deserves 10%.  Counterintuitively, the reason too many dioceses abandoned mandatory giving is because institutional, diocesan leadership is unsure of their role as network builders and uncertain how to model a new way of being of the institution and, at the same time, free of the institution.

And while I’ll bet a lot of readers were with me right up until I said “turn it in on time or lose your vote” and “give 10% to the diocese” the larger point is this:  in an age in which people from all generations are happily walking away from institutions and institutionalism, the only choice remaining for those of us commissioned with leadership of these, face it, institutions is whether we propagate the old way (which a lot of us don’t believe in) or whether we use these structures to truly help people measure the areas in real life which impact joy, success, strength, and energy (positively or negatively).  When we revise our metrics, we might actually see more liveliness, vitality and growth than we’ve previously seen or appreciated.  We might, as well, see more clearly what’s standing in the way and needs to be removed or refashioned.  Who knows?  That awakening might actually make us more boldly the Body of Christ on earth, and more equipped to model it for others.

Such a life as killeth death

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.

GEORGE HERBERT
1593 – 1633

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.

A compelling and, yes, snarky book!

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.

EDDIE IZZARD

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.”

T. S. ELIOT

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.

Why Ashes? Part 3 – Initiation

Part 3 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

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There’s a deeper need under the desire for ashes.  And the church would do well to spend some time getting there.  There’s good and bad news in this.  Bad news: it’s hard work.  We’re talking about real evangelism which is a work of transformation – of meeting people where they are and helping them come to a new place.  It’s more than being present, more than gimmicks on street corners or at train stations.  Good news: it’s already in our tradition so we’ve only got to get back to what we unlearned long, long ago.

The problem is that the 20th century liturgical renewal resurrected a gross misinterpretation and, I’d say, dangerous theological message about ashes.  Historically, ashes were never intended for the vast majority of people; they were a specific and pointed sign.  When, in time, not only those who were doing penance but the entire worshiping assembly received ashes the symbol was, by definition, changed.  Ashes no longer signified that the bearer had come to terms with her spiritual, indeed, physical death.  Ashes were made into something which hinted at new life, a conflation of meanings not to mention a confusion of messages.

As I will argue over the course of this essay, this isn’t an innocuous thing.  Turning the symbol, ash, from a signifier to something pseudo-sacramental, something hinting at grace, risks two quite dangerous theological implications: first, it transplants the agent of transformation, namely, from God acting through the Body of His Son to our willing admittance of total depravity and the resultant act of smearing ash on our foreheads; and, two, it sublimates the role of those who are members of His Body to model good news and mentor others in being formed by the story of God’s salvation.

Ashes signify death or it’s better to say ashes signified it.   The Old Testament preserves apparent liturgical uses of ashes:  Mordecai dons sackcloth and ashes in the Book of Esther, after hearing the king’s pronouncement that all Jews will be killed (4:1); Job repents in the same way (Job 42:6); and Daniel prays on behalf of his people, saying “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Dan 9:3).  Even the Ninevites, those foreigners, knew to cover themselves in ashes when Jonah wandered through, prophesying their end (Jonah 3:5-6), and Jesus himself remembered that other towns weren’t as repentant as Nineveh (Mt. 11:21).  Ashes signified death.  More, ashes signfied that someone had come to terms with his spiritual and, indeed, physical death.  In his 2nd century writing on forgiveness and sin, De Paenitentia (On Repentance) , Tertullian wrote that the penitent must “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.”  Public penance was not only an established custom, but the penitent herself was, literally, covered in ashes, thus was the profound nature of this sign.  Even the powerful line in our funeral Committal service – “ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” – originated in the Last Rites of the church.  In some contexts, and as late as the 8th century, a person who was dying would be laid on the ground on top of sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes.   The priest would ask the person, “Art thou content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord in the day of judgment?”, and the dying person would reply, “I am content.”

It’s commonly agreed that by the 11th century the practice of public penance had ended and the entire worshiping community, on the first day of Lent, received ashes.  Leonel Mitchell records that “in 1091 a North Italian council ordered everyone to receive ashes ‘on Ash Wednesday,’” and there’s interesting evidence from the writings of an Anglo-Saxon abbot named Aelfric (955 – 1020): “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth.  Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”  It’s further notable that Aelfric mentions ashes being strewn on the tops of their heads, no mention of a delicate smudge or nicely shaped cross on the forehead.

Probably not disconnected from the Carolingian conquests and subsequent establishment of a Holy Roman Empire, sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries, Christianity took strides greater than even Constantine and Theodosius ever imagined in becoming a religion of the empire and upholder of the status quo.  Long before that period between the 8th and 10th centuries, the idea of a forty day fast leading up to the Paschal celebration, a fast which began on a Wednesday so Sundays weren’t included [a process, itself, which took no small amount of time; Gregory Dix argues it was around the later 7th century, Hatchett, the 6th] was not originally intended to be kicked off by what some call a Christian Yom Kippur or day of atonement but, rather, a day in which the final stage of intentional preparation for lifestyle conversion was initiated, and in which public penitents and catechumens were enrolled in the ultimate stage of their preparation.

When ashes were no longer restricted to those public penitents and catechumens — and their mentors — and instead distributed to the entire faithful, such a change altered significantly and, I’d say, negatively Christian practices of initiation.  It also re-defined evangelism, having made obsolete the role of those members already in the Body who helped bring someone from where they were to where they wanted to be in Christ, much like Barnabas did with Saul/Paul.   Noting that the traditions behind the Christian liturgical use of ashes “is not a ‘Roman’ ceremony at all,” Gregory Dix maintains that “[i]t seems to have originated in Gaul in the sixth century, and was at first confined to public penitents doing penance for grave and notorious sins, whom the clergy tried to comfort and encourage by submitting themselves to the same public humiliation.”  Ash Wednesday in its most original form had everything to do with a true, heartfelt desire on the part of a sinner to change her life and adopt a new one in Christ and the boldness of those already-initiated into Christ’s Body to go backward, in a sense, and embrace their life’s struggles and sinfulness all over again in order to bring a convert to the other side, to a new life in God, the lover of all.  So Dix: “Thus Lent in the form we know does not originate as an historical commemoration of our Lord’s fast in the wilderness or even as a preparation for Holy Week and Easter, but as a private initiative of the devout laity in taking it upon themselves to share the solemn preparation of the catechumens for the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.”  When we turned Ash Wednesday from the beginning of a “private initiative of the devout laity” and opportunity for mature Christians to mentor new converts to a public inauguration of the season of Lent, we further diluted the counter-cultural and evangelical emphasis of Christianity, a pattern which has clearly lasted up to recent days, to our loss.

In earlier centuries, as it turns out, the Christian church was perfectly comfortable using the symbol, ash, to signify death because they knew that the bearer was seeking conversion via sacramental preparation, namely, baptism, and that she was going to be properly mentored, indeed, loved into a new life in Christ.  When, post-Charlemagne, ashes were distributed to everyone it reveals that the church had already forgotten that it is, itself, a distinct and counter-cultural society, a kingdom unlike the empires of this world, and we see no longer any real traces of a process of initiation nor of mentoring.  That’s good enough reason, to me, for Cranmer et al to end the practice of imposing ashes.  And yet it came back, as it was perhaps prone to do.  When in the 19th and 20th centuries ashes returned in what Hatchett called “unauthorized forms” not only was the act so utterly disconnected from any real practice of Christian initiation or mentoring – Christendom was still in full swing – but the ashes, then, were altered to carry along with them some hint of grace or good news, as is evidenced in Howard Galley’s revision of Sarum’s ash blessing prayer, a prayer which offers some measurable notes of grace in BCP 1979.

Ash was never meant to be the conveyer of grace, nor for that matter is it even logical that it could bear that meaning.  Ash was meant to point to baptism, the smudge of death which would be washed by the water of new life.  And baptism, a new life in Christ, was meant to be the moment of grace, the only and ultimate moment.  Ashes do not nor have they ever, from their earliest introduction into Christian liturgical use, conveyed an “inward and spiritual grace.”  That requires a worshiping community, not to mention the actual sacraments of new life or at least serious preparation for them.  What the early church knew and practiced was that ashes signified that someone already recognized and had come to terms with their wretchedness and hoped to attain conversion of life.  Ashes, in themselves, did not and could not inspire that process.

The early medieval reforms undid this recognition and we, in these latter centuries, simply resurrected that misinterpretation.  As I suggested earlier, this isn’t an innocuous thing.  Attempting to turn the symbol, ash, from a signifier to something pseudo-sacramental, something hinting at grace, risks two quite dangerous theological implications: first, it transplants the agent of transformation, namely, from God acting through the Body of His Son to our willing admittance of total depravity and the resultant act of smearing ash on our foreheads; and, two, it sublimates the role of those members of His Body to model good news and mentor others in being formed by the story of God’s salvation.

This, then, is a much deeper issue.  This should frame our response to a more real set of pastoral needs, needs which require serious digging, not only into our tradition but also into the life issues and desires of those who might wish to set aside the values of an increasingly secularized world and ponder what life in Christ might look and feel and be like.  This world yearns for the Good News of Jesus and, thus, the presence of those of us who are members of His Body.  I suppose we’re trying to offer that, to some degree, via Ashes to Go.  But it’s gimmicky and confusing and misses the point, due mostly to our own theological ignorance.  We need to be talking about something deeper.

As I said in my first post in this series I’m encountering lots of young(ish) adults who wonder about rootedness and life’s meaning.  Many are seeking and most are genuinely interested in the Christian way of life, and yet their primary draw is not liturgical and they’re not really looking for symbols or sacraments.  They want to know about Jesus and about how a Christian lifestyle is better, more life giving than other alternatives.  They’re looking for a church to preach and live a message of real transformation, which looks like an identity change (baptism), and which gets practiced through participation in the Body of Christ (community & Communion).  They are not necessarily looking for a confused, distorted symbol that, at least in recent centuries, has had more to do with maintaining Christendom than with pointing towards that which is, in our story, actual new life.

The more hefty question, then, is what’s on the other side of Ashes to Go?  Perhaps a renewed approach to the Christian initiation of adults, a 21st century revision of what the early church the ‘catechumenate’.  Perhaps it’s an opportunity to begin to practice the harder work of evangelism, which is more than going outside our doors and being present.  Perhaps it’s time to re-learn the ancient practices of the how the early Christian communities welcomed newcomers and helped form them into the story of Jesus, the crucified yet risen Lord, practices which bind someone to a, yes, counter-cultural but entirely life-giving way of life in Christ.

We don’t need a liturgy for this work, nor for that matter do we need the distraction of strange costumes and unclear customs on street corners.  Instead, we need nothing more than authentic presence, modeling what life looks like as little Christs.

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Part 3 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

Why Ashes? Part 2 – Confusion

Part 2 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

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For me, it started with a really basic question:  Why ashes?  As it turns out, this question has nagged Christian communities nearly since ashes were introduced as a liturgical symbol or act.  Ashes had to do with initiation and life’s conversion, and yet they quickly became something else, something, I’d say, less.  What I’d like to see is a return, not so much to the original use of ashes, but rather to the spirit of a church which knew how to practice Christian initiation of adults and, for those already a part of the body, how to mentor and model a life of genuine faith and embrace that which is truly counter-cultural in an world of competing empirical interests – be it the first several centuries or, in fact, this 21st one.

Our pastoral response to increasingly secularized people should not be a continuation, indeed, reification of a centuries-long mishandling of this day.  Our response should be a renewal of the earliest spirit surrounding Ash Wednesday, revisiting the ways in which early Christians practiced initiation and helped form women and men in the story of God’s salvation.  Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be an invitation to the already-initiated, although that’s what it’s become.  Ash Wednesday should be about lifestyle change, about conversion – baptism, at its core.   That’s why, more than likely, I’ll be connected to a worshiping community (note I didn’t say “within the four walls of a church”) on future Ash Wednesdays to come.

Truly, why ashes?  I promise this is no ‘slippery slope’ argument, but consider this: Would it be right to venture forth with the pre-consecrated Host and offer folks at a subway terminal Christ’s Body and Blood?  Or would it be fitting to stand at a street corner with a bowl of water and offer baptism?

By and large, someone’s answer to a hypothetical question about Wafers to Go, say, is more quickly arrived at than their answer to whether or not ashes can be imposed inside or outside the context of a worshiping assembly.  Thus, the first point I’d like to offer is that there’s a very clear, very basic distinction between sacraments and ashes, and that’s something the church should bear in mind, not to mention take quite seriously.  Eucharist and Baptism, of course, are sacraments.  Ash Wednesday has a pseudo-sacramental quality about it.  Eucharist and Baptism share deeper layers of meaning as well as participate much more clearly in the story of God’s salvation.  Ashes were a later addition and not an entirely clear innovation, even at the time.  A body which is broken but gives new life is not only a profound spiritual concept but is also inherently woven to other levels of meaning of the Body of Christ.  Water points to Jewish purification rituals and Jesus’ action in the Jordan, not to mention the process the people of The Way developed for initiation and faith development, a process which was counter-cultural in its larger empirical setting.  Ashes, on the surface, suggest something compelling, but the connections are feeble, the nuances too great, and the revisions and human tinkering simply too obvious.

Why ashes? was obviously a question for Cranmer and those who participated in developing the Prayer Book tradition.  Significant portions of the Sarum Blessing of the Ashes were used in compiling the rite which was was, in 1549, offered as “A declaracion of scripture, with certein prayers to bee use the firste daye of Lent, commonlye called Ashwednesdaie.”  By 1552, the rite was re-named “A Commination against sinners, etc.” At least in common parlance it was called ‘Commination’ for the bulk of the Anglican liturgical tradition, up until the liturgical renewals of the 20th century.  One notable exception is found in the proposed but unsuccessful 1689 BCP in which the High Church party made some inroads in offering the new title “The Proper Office for Ash Wednesday” and drawing a more clear connection to “the due preparation of all persons for the worthy receiving the Communion at Easter,” and which was mentioned “was of good use till superstition corrupted it.”

The Book of Common Prayer, 1549

But where Cranmer, in the 16th century, used the gist of Sarum’s rite, he retained barely a hint of ashes in the liturgy itself.  Several key phrases from Sarum’s prayer of blessing the ashes find their way, in Cranmer’s text, into the second Collect following the Suffrages, but that prayer is an appeal to God’s mercy and the phrase “…of your mercy deign to bless these ashes which we have resolved to put upon our heads, etc.” is noticeably removed.  Even the words of the anthem which would’ve been intoned in the Sarum rite while worshipers received ashes is moved, in Cranmer’s text, to a final prayer and was, in 1552, changed from “antheme” to “this that followeth”, again, with no suggestion of ashes – or what many reformers feared to be a late-medieval innovation – being distributed.  Liturgical historian G. J. Cumming argues that there’s an equally strong connection to the Quarterly Excommunication found in the Sarum rite, indicating that Ash Wednesday, for the English reformers, wasn’t so much about ashes or interior life change but, rather, public discipline and the maintenance of good order.  Marion Hatchett says as much, suggesting that “one aim of English reformers was to restore public penance as a means of discipline.”

At least by the 16th and 17th centuries, then, the meaning of ashes – note, in 1549, it’s labeled “the first day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday” – was already disconnected as a symbol denoting interior change.  In fact, retaining the act of imposing ashes, an individual act, detracted from the larger goal of developing a properly-organized, truly Christian kingdom.  Thus the ashes were sublimated, being too disconnected, too ‘superstitious’.  By the time the Prayer Book distilled what its framers would’ve called the best of the tradition, the day commonly called Ash Wednesday had mostly to do with Christian kingdom-building: made clear in the introduction to the Commination in the 1662 version, “…in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons stood convicted of notorious sins were put to open penance, and punished in this world …; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.”  Ashes had become, over time, a communal practice.  And in the English reformation it was judged not necessarily an efficacious one, and thus removed.

But it was, nevertheless, called Ash Wednesday so in many local contexts ashes were used.  For the first time in an American Prayer Book, the BCP 1979 provides a proper liturgy for the imposition of ashes, albeit as an option.  Hatchett affirms that “many felt the need of a special service for Ash Wednesday.  Unauthorized forms, which frequently included the use of ashes, had come into use and seemed to meet a real pastoral need.”  The imposition of ashes was brought back, and perhaps it never really went away, at least in local contexts.  The church simply responded to people’s needs, not dissimilar to the claims made by those who are distributing ashes to go.

But what practices, then, were brought back?  The original intent or the misinterpretation?  And what were the people saying, in truth, when they said they wanted, they needed ashes?  And was it a need worth meeting, or rather one worth getting underneath, one worth transforming?  I would argue the latter, that what we’re offering is not the original use nor is it the most fitting understanding of ashes.  Rather, there’s a deeper need under the desire for ashes.  The church would do well to spend some time getting back there, which would involve work of transformation, not merely service.

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Part 2 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

Why Ashes? Part 1 – Pastoral Questions

Part 1 of a 3 part post.  Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions.  Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused.  Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

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Ashes to Go is imaginative and crafty, an inspired pastoral response to a real need.  Also it shows the pluckiness of several young priests who, I imagine, grew tired hearing a church talk and talk, to no end.  So they said, “Let’s do it.”  And they didn’t wait for official sanction or more thorough thinking-through, which I’m sure is no small reason for its attraction.

It’s ironic that the Episcopal Church’s awareness that, on one level, evangelical churches grow and, two, we weren’t so wise to simply adopt uncritically the term – to spur on a decade of evangelizing, for instance – has turned out to be a fairly dysfunctional relationship with “the ‘E’ word”, as I heard it called in another diocese.  We don’t want to let it go, lest we seem completely clueless.  So we mention evangelism, but with a critical distance.  We want to be close to the idea, just not the baggage.  I’ll bet the majority of times evangelism is used in the Episcopal Church it’s something of a straw man by which our approach is, at least, more nuanced or it’s slipped into conversations after the fact, and not without some uncomfortable recognition.  We’re a lot better at doing the business of the church and then calling it evangelism.  We’re not so good at setting out, firstly, to spread the good news.

That’s why Ashes to Go is refreshing.  It’s an excuse to spend a day offering a public, Christian presence.  It’s really and truly inspired, and motivated primarily by a definitively Gospel-based reason.

Thinking about Ashes to Go, in fact, has helped me identify another, equally strong need that’s emerging, at least in my context.  Lately, I’ve been meeting lots of young adults in my community, some of whom are connected, many barely so, to the congregation I serve; others are friends of friends; others have just moved in.  This is a prosperous and quickly developing area in our state, and yet its lifeblood is defense spending (which may be about to change significantly) and rootedness and life’s meaning are top questions among people entering their 30s and 40s.  Many are seeking and most are genuinely interested in the Christian way of life; case in point, most of the baptisms we’ve done in the last year have been adults or older children whose parents are coming back to church, for the first time in a long time.  Their primary draw is not liturgical and they’re not really looking for symbols or sacraments.  They want to know about Jesus and about how a Christian lifestyle is better, more life giving than other alternatives.

I applaud the inventiveness of Ashes to Go, but I wonder what’s being offered when and if those persons whom we meet decide, in time, to enter our congregations and take us up on the offer to help deepen their lives.  I haven’t bundled up with cassock and ashes to meet the masses, thus far, because the ashes aren’t the sign I’m hoping to extend.  In fact, the original significance of burned palms ground into dust has much more to say to my pastoral context than what became of them in the tradition, a distortion which has continued throughout much of our history and is culminated in today’s, frankly, confused offering.  Maybe we, the church, could stand to revisit the spirit of those which devised the tradition of imposing ashes, and not just offer them to go but present the Christian life as one in which to stay.

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Part 1 of a 3 part post.  Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions.  Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused.  Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.