WHERE’S THE SACRIFICE IN THE “SACRIFICE OF PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING”?

I’m struggling or, I’ll be honest, I’m continuing to struggle with the self-centered, fairly vapid ideas on the marketplace today about how people go about growing congregations or doing Christian ministry.

My particular lens, these days, involves the work we’re currently engaged in at St. George’s, Valley Lee: expanding our music program and helping take our worship life in new directions.  I’m finding a rich world of music and worship thought-leaders, both within and beyond The Episcopal Church, but most often there’s this underlying implication, this nagging insistence connecting growing music and growing churches.

Sure, those connections are there.  But they may not be related causally.  And I suspect they’re not linked as much as we might think.

Life-giving worship has everything to do with what the Prayer Book calls “the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” that very phrase which is grounded in scripture (Hebrews 13:15, Psalm 100:4) and which Archbishop Cranmer himself inserted in the original text.  That worship is a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” reminds us that the church is not about us — not about re-sacrificing Christ on the altar, not about a priest standing in persona Christi.  Worship is for the purpose of proclaiming, once again, the work that God in Christ has already done, namely, reconciling the whole of creation to its Source and Creator.  Worship is about God, adoring God just like the Angels and Archangels apparently do without ceasing for no other reason than that is “right and a good and joyful thing” to tie our story to the divine.

The problem, however, is that current thinking about dynamic congregations has more to do with technical, mechanistic, directorial, astonishingly secular business models of ‘leadership,’ models we’ve been fed as clergy and lay leaders in mainline (old-line?) American Protestantism.  Even more astonishing is that in spite of the obvious crumbling of those cathedrals of thought — consider, for instance, the effective shuttering of The Alban Institute — they’re the very same models we keep feeding ourselves, time and time again.

We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of cultural criticism and post-modern analysis.  I read this stuff, too, and I know it has, potentially, positive gifts, but I’m afraid too many of us mainliners are better able to quote cultural trends and talk about the end of Christendom than we’re able to re-tweet the words of Jesus in the gospels.

We’ve borrowed the language of post-modernity, whose self-critical apparatus was actually supposed to lead to some series of profound change, in order to prop up our decidedly modern, self-obsessed institution.  We steer close to and then quickly run away from the fact that that death, that seed which needs to die so it can grow into something new (John 12:24), also involves us, involves The Episcopal Church, and involves getting over the fact that we may not appear or even act as competently and be as effective as this secular world needs its so-called ‘leaders’ to be.  “‘Effectiveness’ is not a Scriptural concept,” writes the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony, “and neither is it one affirmed in traditions of Christian theological reflection.  The foundational model of the Christian Church, that of Jesus and his disciples, was expressed in a radical powerlessness.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah and I should know, p.33)

At St. George’s, we’re exploring a new model of music and worship.  I’ve promised I’ll more intentionally blog about this and share, at least, my own thinking.  Just last week, I already started doing so on the Episcopal Church Foundation’s ‘Vital Practices’ series (click here).  Similar pieces will come, both on this blog and at ECF Vital Practices.

Before we begin, though, we also need to be exceedingly clear about our purpose.  Ever since I arrived in Valley Lee, now, seven summers ago, we’ve been at work on a huge goal, and we’ve been pulling this thread through every other aspect of our life together at St. George’s.  We’ve revised our By-Laws and our approach to financing and budget-making.  We’ve effectively changed how we share ministries and authority and power.  Fundamentally, the goal is to make this institution, this organization in St. Mary’s County, Maryland vastly more like an unmistakably Christ-centered organism and less like a self-obsessed consumer of people’s time and energy, much more like the early apostolic fellowship of believers, a gathering that also drove them to serve and live more boldly in the world, and less like an institution that appears to take more it gives.

We haven’t yet touched Sunday mornings.  That is where we are right now, and it’s going to require the same level of clarity, self-critical reflection, strictly theological discernment and, perhaps, sacrifice as those processes which led to the other changes in the ways we function and relate to one another.  It’s going to require us to be honest about the purpose of worship and the role of music and, above all, to be exceedingly cautious whenever we stray near the dangerous, solipsistic thinking that growth in music will bring about growth in the church for the purposes of growing the institution called ‘church’.  To be fair, these pitfalls are already there in the dominant literature’s careless assumptions, forgetting at its core that there’s sacrifice involved in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

Some weeks ago, I invited the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony to join us at our southern Maryland Episcopal clergy gathering.  The Associate Dean of Students at the Virginia Theological Seminary, Lewis-Anthony is also the author of the wonderfully challenging book, If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him (subtitle: “Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry”) and has recently published an equally excellent book, You are the Messiah and I should know (subtitle: “Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a heresy)”).  His talk that afternoon was as thorough and challenging as his corpus of work — and, yes, as witty as is his clear knack at titles.  He’s helped deepen and challenge, for me, dominant strands of thinking about music and worship and the life and work of the Christian church today.

Take our southern Maryland Clericus as an example, you see.  A group that averages fifteen or so come out once a month from September through June for lunch and prayer and conversation.  From time to time, mostly when I get around to it, our afternoon is enriched by a guest conversation partner, someone to pick our brains or stimulate our thinking or, too often, someone who’s part of the institution called The Episcopal Church / The Episcopal Diocese of Washington and who may have a great idea or who has to suffer through listening to what we think is a great idea.  Mostly, however, our purpose is fellowship because, frankly, when we do get some brilliant idea — or when someone else’s brilliant idea is imported to our lunch table — it generally goes nowhere.  People on the bishop’s staff are busy taking care of what the bishop wants taken care of and when those rectors leave that lunch table they, too, are overtaken by the matter their senior warden needs them to think about or what the altar guild chairperson is busy fussing about this week.  The Christian church has figured out a remarkable way to serve itself — dioceses serve the goal of dioceses and congregations serve their own purposes.  Even more frightening, we’ve developed a whole language of management and ‘leadership’ to justify doing what we do and why we do it.

Because it’s about us.

But it’s not, is it?  It’s not about us, nor has the purpose and mission of the Christian church ever been. If we really are Christ’s body, we’d better start acting like that self-sacrificial organism and learn, in turn, what “glory” really means.  And if our primary gathering is worship, that work which we’re now focusing on at St. George’s, we’d do well to re-discover the particular role of sacrifice in that “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”.

For my own part, I’m considering Justin Lewis-Anthony’s words of caution:

“We do not know what we are talking about when we attempt to talk about leadership.  When we do talk about leadership, we are, unknowingly, not being theological, in the sense of speaking coherently about the God who revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures, in the traditions of the Christian church, and, pre-eminently, in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.  There is a savage disconnect, between attempts to treat leadership in a pseudo-theological manner and the real nature of leadership, which should become apparent in the remainder of this book.  We are, dangerously, attempting to yoke ourselves with unbelievers.  We are pretending that heresy can be put in the service of the church.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah, p.34)

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 HOME OF GOD

On a Saturday afternoon several weeks ago in Kentucky, a former Roman Catholic Carmelite nun, Rosemarie Smead, was ordained a catholic priest.  For obvious reasons this made something of a splash; perhaps some of you heard about it.  (Click here for a story.)

Rosemarie Smead ordained a priest, Saturday 27 April 2013. Source: Reuters

This past week, in related news, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, Robert Zollitsch, said at a conference on reforming the church it’s time for the Roman Church to at least consider ordaining women deacons.  This doesn’t have as much drama as the first story, but it may have more staying power and, if so, it’ll have much longer-term interest.

These kinds of stories are not only interesting because of what they report but what they represent – why it is that they get buzz.  Apparently, lots of people want to hear about this.  I’d suspect it’s because some dominant strands of Christianity show an apparent foolishness and close-mindedness about women.  The Reuters report about the Kentucky ordination cited a poll which revealed that 70% of American Catholics say they would be in favor of women being ordained priests.

Contemporary Christianity is, for some of us, recovering from a centuries-long failure to appreciate women in leadership positions.  The official reason the Roman church gives for why women can’t be priests is because Jesus chose twelve men.  That’s true, at least on the surface.  But I’m often struck that people who say they read their bible or those who claim to know the heart of the Christian tradition, inside and out, often fail to notice what’s actually going on there.  One doesn’t have to read between the lines; there’s no hidden story in the New Testament: the male-dominated Christianity that excludes women from leadership positions is not the kind of Way which Jesus practiced, and it’s not the religion of Jesus’ earliest followers.  Let me be very clear: for Jesus and the bulk of early Christianity, I can find no distinction between male apostles and female apostles.

Women are not only characters in Jesus’ life but, in fact, key players.  Jesus chose twelve male followers but it can hardly be argued, after looking up from the pages of any gospel, that there was only a set and select group of disciples.  Jesus’ mother, Mary, not only says “Yes” to God’s intervention in her life, she also ministers alongside him – all the way to the very end.  Jesus’ best friends were a trio of siblings, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha – whose home Jesus often retreated to in Bethany.  In John’s gospel, the first person to whom Jesus reveals he is, in fact, the Messiah is a woman: a Samaritan woman at the well.  And the first witnesses to the resurrection, the very defining concept of our Christian faith?  Women, all of them.  Then there’s Mary Magdalene, about whom much has been added through the ages, some of more ancient years designed to blacken her character, some of more recent years to take away the spotlight from her genuinely faithful relationship to Jesus.  Whatever you’ve heard about Mary Magdalene suffice it to say that the New Testament presents her as a shining exemplar of a truly great disciple and, no less, apostle of the Risen Christ.

Jesus’ gender inclusion continued in the movement which kept alive his spirit.  In Acts of the Apostles chapter 16 you meet a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth.  Paul met her and several other women in Philippi on one of his travel journeys.  Lydia became interested in the story of God reconciling the world in Christ, and she and her entire household were baptized.  Moreover, she became a major patron of the early church and founded a church in her home.  It should also be mentioned that Lydia is a self-made woman, of sorts: purple cloth was incredibly expensive, being made from a crushed shell from the Mediterranean sea basin; that’s why purple is the color of royalty — those of means and wealth were among the few who could afford such a dye.  There’s no Mr. Lydia:  just a wealthy, well-to-do, and self-assertive woman who helped the Christian movement significantly.  Read on and you learn of another couple who were leaders and apostles, Priscilla and her husband Aquila (Acts 18).  To the Galatians, the Apostle Paul stated emphatically that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)  The earliest forms of Christianity, just like Jesus’ own gatherings, were not only gender inclusive but they seemed to know no distinction between God’s acting through male or female leaders, for all indeed are one in Christ.

An all-male priesthood was made by us.  Not Jesus.  Not his earliest followers.  A hierarchical church which differentiated between women and men at some fundamental levels with exclusive consequences for leadership positions was also made by us, not Jesus.  And even though gender distinctions can also be found in the New Testament – most notably in the so-called household codes in which there’s an apparent pecking order: children obey parents, women obey husbands, husbands obey God (Eph. 5:22-6:5 or Col. 3:18-4:1) – the time of writing and origin of those documents seems to have more to do with a religion adopting the ethos of its culture and surrounding Roman imperialist society than following the clearly egalitarian and radical love-ethic of the God whom they knew as Emmanuel.

If you hear these words of mine as something like a politicized call to action or civil rights manifesto about inclusion for inclusivity’s sake, I apologize.  That’s not my intent, well, not my primary intent.  I’d like to take this another step, and at least in closing go a little bit deeper.  There is a spiritual message here.

Obviously, I don’t have an issue with raising up women in ordained leadership positions in the Christian church.  I do have an issue, however, with women being thrust into the maintenance and continuation of a centuries-long, male-dominated institution which has become known, for many, as “Christianity.”  This religion founded on the Way of Jesus is not enriched if we do little more than add women to the roster of traditional male roles.  (Interestingly, many of my female clergy friends have often remarked on how weird a feeling it is to put on the clerical collar for the first time.  Even priesthood’s dress itself – a backwards collar, no less – is a distinctly male article of clothing.)  I think what many are searching for is balance.

I don’t think that that 70% of American Catholics who say the church should be open to ordaining women as priests would be satisfied, entirely, by knowing that the celebrant or preacher or person baptizing their son or daughter could very well be a woman.  I think that that 70% is saying, in other words, they are tired of the ways in which the Jesus Movement which seemed so clearly bent on equality and life and justice became, in fairly short order, obsessed with power, position, posture, and wealth.  I think they’re calling for balance, at the very least, between the church which acts very much like a kingdom of this world and has, for centuries, nearly perfected an ethic of exclusion and judgment to now use its considerable wealth and voice to speak again the values of its Head: Jesus the holy child of God who modeled for us something truly profound and life-giving.

Whenever Jesus in the New Testament seems to describe what he’s about and the type of thing he’s trying to do, I’ve noticed he talks in surprisingly intimate, relational, domestic terms.  In the middle of his farewell address to his followers, according to John, Jesus urges them to love one another and goes on to say “my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Jn. 14:23)  What a rich and intimate expression: Make our home with them.  There’s no institution or power or organization here, no politics or positioning or structure.  The image Jesus uses is blissfully tangible, direct and comforting: home.

There is an untold level of transformative power in the home.  Home is where the heart is, we say.  Home is where real change, real growth, real life happens.

While in Chicago, I taught for years in a Roman Catholic high school for girls run by the Sisters of Mercy.  The Sisters of Mercy acted like good daughters of the Pope but under the surface – and you didn’t need to scratch too deeply – they were open-minded and spirited radicals, committed to doing works of justice and mercy wherever it was God was sending them, no matter what the church’s official leadership said.  (Case in point: they hired me, an Episcopal man, to teach theology to Roman Catholic girls!)  I loved the Sisters of Mercy for their spunky and radical spirit, and I value their tradition very much.

CATHERINE McAULEY
1778 – 1841

Founded in nineteenth century Dublin by Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy live and practice an intentional and, as I said, radical ministry that is, at the same time, kind of quiet.  They founded schools and hospitals, orphanages and what Catherine called ‘Mercy Centers’ – places which transform society from the inside out.  Catherine McAuley once remarked: “No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.”  This thesis, currently being tested with success in Afghanistan and other developing countries, is not predicated on sweeping political or structural changes.  Rather, Catherine argued, it’s about changing the values of the home, where women, at least in the nineteenthcentury, made their decisive mark.  If you can change the values of a home – if, for instance, because of her education a woman knows she has the power to exercise choices in life – then you change the neighborhood.  If the neighborhood changes, so might the city.  If the city, then the society, and if the society then, perhaps, the world.

I wonder what it might be like if Christians started exploring these cozier, homelier (*by which I don’t mean ‘unattractive’) and, frankly, simpler values of the One who lived as one of us: the Messiah who asked us to keep love alive so he and the Father will “make their home” in us.  Many are already striving for this balance and there’s much good news here.  For this very reason, I have to say that smaller churches such as St. George’s, Valley Lee are uniquely able to grow in vibrancy and vitality much more so than bigger church institutions – most notably those Cathedrals and dioceses and denominations which are shrinking and, if not shrinking, struggling to do little more than keep alive the tradition which built them years ago.  Perhaps the tradition of an overtly institutionalized Christianity is, these days, drawing its final breath.  If that is the case, and I suspect it is, we can say one positive thing: Jesus is not going anywhere.  Jesus is very much alive.  Nor is the movement Jesus began slipping away, but perhaps his Way which is predicated on those more intimate values of love and family, the home of God among us, is, these days, finding new life.

……….

From a sermon at St. George’s Church, Valley Lee, Maryland, preached on Sunday, 5 May 2013.  For the full text, click here.

REAL POWER, SHARED AUTHORITY – FRANCIS AND LUMEN GENTIUM

Moments following his election as Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio, now, Francis I eschewed the custom of going up to a high platform and sitting on a white throne.  Instead, he stood on the floor and greeted his brothers, one by one.  We already know he hopped on the bus instead of taking a triumphal ride in the Pope-mobile.  And the name Francis, he said, came to him when his friend said “remember the poor” – it’s also a name which speaks of purity, simplicity, and a man of the people.  Just yesterday, in his first Sunday as Pontiff (17 March), Francis gave his security detail a headache when he wandered out in public, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and pats on the back, not only before but after saying mass at St. Anna’s Church.

POPE FRANCIS
outside St. Anna’s Gate on Sunday, 17 March 2013

Image consultants call this very good “buzz.”  The secular media – which, let’s be honest, simply does not understand religion – calls Francis “spontaneous” and “a Pope of the people” and then, in the very same breath, says something about how conservative he is and that little is going to change in the Roman hierarchy.

The press he’s getting is obscuring the point.  Most likely, Francis is not doing what he’s doing for good popularity ratings nor does he see any contradiction between his theology and taking a stroll on the street corner to kiss babies near St. Anna’s gate.  This is not about publicity.  Neither is this is not about conservative versus liberal.

This is about the Roman Church and indeed the rest of Christianity coming into its own, bringing to fruit the ideas shared a half-century ago.  From 1962 to 1965, the Second Vatican Council was an opportunity, in the words of Pope John XVIII, to open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air.  It purported to carry on the essential teaching of the Councils of Trent (Catholicism’s 16th century conservative reaction to the Protestant Reformation) and Vatican I (the church’s 19th century engagement of the modern world which resulted in a decidedly more monarchical papacy), yet Vatican II also articulated a hope, as John XVIII said, for a “new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind…; that this certain and immutable doctrine be…reformulated in contemporary terms.”

Francis, I think, is trying to move our attention to Vatican II’s teaching about power and authority in the church, expressed in the Council’s 1964 document Lumen Gentium.  Specifically, Francis’ early actions suggest he might be preparing to turn the church for the first time into a body in which real power is claimed and authority is shared.  Vatican II did a new thing in trying to balance monarchical authority and conciliar decision making, and Francis is the first Pontiff who grew up with that approach.  Interestingly, in 1964 Francis was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio; he was not yet ordained and was teaching high school literature in Argentina.  It would be another five years before he became Fr. Bergoglio, SJ.  In that same year Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, was Josef Ratzinger – a well-respected professor, priest and theological consultant at the Second Vatican Council.  Francis lives and breathes the spirit of Vatican II in a way his predecessor simply could not.

Lumen Gentium is characteristic of conciliar thinking: it tries to straddle the line, draw continuity between what was and what should be.  In its third chapter, “On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in particular on the Episcopate,” it both affirms the real power of the papacy and (re)introduces concepts and practices of shared authority.  “[F]ollowing closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council,” in its words, Lumen Gentium acknowledges a monarchical papacy – not wanting to go against Vatican I:  “The pope’s power of primacy over all … remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.” (L.G. 3.22) That said, it also tries to enrich papal dominance by reprising the Catholic conciliar tradition:

“…the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. Indeed, the very ancient practice whereby bishops duly established in all parts of the world were in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity and peace, and also the councils assembled together, in which more profound issues were settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered, both of these factors are already an indication of the collegiate character and aspect of the episcopal order; and the ecumenical councils held in the course of centuries are also manifest proof of that same character.” (L.G. 3.22)

In case you thought this was about American checks-and-balances — checking unbridled monarchy by instituting shared decision making – the next line is a quick rebuke: “…But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head.”

The same journalists and media types who are trying to figure out Francis’ odd behavior would also call this strange.  In fact, Vatican II so confuses secular political thinking that hardly anyone these days is talking about it.  No one, that is, except the man in white.  This is deep in Francis’ heart and it’s certainly influencing his behavior.  Francis – along with many faithful Catholics, Roman and otherwise – sees no contradiction between claiming real power and sharing authority.  Lumen Gentium describes it in richly spiritual terms, seeing this “collegial union” as an invitation to practice more deeply what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth, expressing in our very existence “the bond of peace, love and unity.” (L.G. 3.23)

A highly vaulted Roman Curia, along with a Pope seen as ruler of the rulers of the earth, is what has gotten the church in great trouble.  That kind of thinking trickles down into very dangerous behavior.  For this reason, the butler who stole papal documents is a criminal but, to many, a hero.  To his credit, I suspect Benedict XVI tried to bring about the reforms that young Ratzinger described, but there is a world of difference between understanding something, envisioning something and having it as part of your world entire.  Part of me wonders if Benedict resigned because he knew that the reforms he dreamed of could only come about from the heart of one who embodied those ideals, one who grew up in that church, one who was younger than he.

But this is not only a message for and about the Roman church.  Similar to the ecumenical awakening which followed Vatican II, this is an opportunity for Catholics to lead the rest of Christianity.  Specifically, this is an opportunity to model for all Christians a church in which real power is claimed and authority is shared, a church in which there is no apparent contradiction between the two.

JOSEPH CARDINAL BERNARDIN
1928 – 1996

Many of us know all too well the dangers of monarchical leadership.  But what we also need to appreciate are the limitations of conciliar thinking, at least as a singly dominant organizational theory.  Power is still there; it’s always been there, it always will be.  Desperately needed in more conciliar churches, then, are leaders who have enough self-confidence to be honest about what power is and how they’re using it or striving not to use it.  One of the most dangerous things is eschewed power — which can become, in truth, a wide opening in which one may act as if consensus guides the process while, behind the scenes and because of power’s implicit yet subtle presence, effectuate its use in passive-aggressive ways which make the body ill.

This is our danger as Episcopalians.  We’ve confused shared decision making and consensus discernment with an utter abandonment of power, leaving power, then, in those dark corners from which no good can emerge and much bad still does.

There’s a story many Chicagoans know and treasure about the late Cardinal Bernardin — even I know and love it, and I’ve never been Roman Catholic.  In 1982, introducing himself to the priests of his new archdiocese, he said “I am your brother, Joseph.”  A clear departure from the style of his predecessors, Bernardin’s words were like a lightning bolt to that assembly and were quickly reported to the city and nation and world.  His biographer, Tim Unsworth, says “Bernardin set an entirely new style, one marked more by gentle leadership than feudal authority.”  As Bernardin showed us, there is no contradiction between claiming and using real power and sharing authority in the councils of the church.  Erring on one side or the other, I’d say, is where danger lurks.  Perhaps in Francis, then, we have an opportunity to get honest about call and responsibility, about owning and sharing — all of which are essential parts of maintaining those bonds of “peace, love and unity.”