A while ago, I found myself thinking about my time teaching high school in Chicago. In part, I was thinking about the experience of being a classroom teacher but it was more than that. I was thinking about the community into which I was welcomed and which truly helped form me as a person, as a Christian, as a servant, and — ironically — as a man. I say “ironically” because the Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School was a women’s school: a high school for women, led by women, which prided itself on raising up thoughtful, creative, faithful, strong, courageous women. And they did just that, in droves. Back then, I was one among, maybe, 9 or 10 male teachers. Most of the maintenance staff and a few of the administrative staff were also men. That made, oh, about 16 of us — on a good day. 16 amidst 1,800 students (all girls) and maybe 150 faculty and staff. It made finding a men’s bathroom, for instance, a bit of a challenge, but the good news is that once you found one the lines were always short!
It was, for me, a great experience to be in such a pronounced minority and, more so, to be part of a tradition which is, even today, counter-cultural, radical, different. It confirmed for me that those spiritualities which run against the grain of this world offer the greatest possibilities of new life.
I needed that, and I needed it (though I hardly knew I did) at that precise moment in my life. At 24 years young, I’d already experienced the odd faith formation of growing up in a Christian congregation which was in mourning that it was no longer at the center of the community and starting to die, and I’d just come out of three years of profoundly challenging, formative, but also spirit-numbing education at a predominately secular divinity school. I needed creativity, vitality, liveliness, and yet I couldn’t walk away from all that intellectual stuff I loved. I needed balance.
On a rainy afternoon in early June 2000, I went to an interview at a school which, I thought, wouldn’t even think to hire me to teach theology — a man, an Episcopalian, at that, and someone who’s never had any teaching experience, ever. I was so convinced they wouldn’t hire me that I didn’t even wear a tie. “I’m going there to get ‘interview experience,'” I told a friend. A few hours after I walked in and was given a tour and went through a round of interviews the Principal, Sr. Rose, offered me a job. I said I’d need to think about it. Walking out onto the circle drive which led to the school’s front doors, the morning rain had cleared and it was sunny and starting to get warm. I got in my car and knew I had to say yes. About 15 minutes later, I called back and accepted.
I’m forever grateful I said yes.
One reason, I suppose, I was thinking about all of that a while ago is because I was working on a sermon about women and Christianity. The New Testament lesson for an upcoming Sunday was from Acts of the Apostles chapter 16, in which Paul on one of his missionary journeys runs into Lydia, a “dealer in purple cloth.” Lydia gets baptized along with her whole house, and it’s surmised that Lydia not only became a Christian but also served as a patron and sponsor of early Christianity — she even founded a church in her own home. Obviously, I was thinking about early Christianity’s gender inclusivity which was, to them, nothing really to be thought about or discussed. They just did it. They welcomed men and women into leadership positions, because their Master and Lord had already done so. They didn’t practice inclusivity for a better marketing slant or to be more relevant or hip. That’s who they knew themselves to be, a new people in Christ, so to do anything different would be to defy their own nature.
One of my colleagues in the Theology Department, while I was teaching, used to reserve the Community Room — an expansive room down the hall from the theology classrooms. When the girls got to her classroom door, they noticed a sign which read something like: “Go to Lydia’s home (i.e., the Community Room).” There, they met their teacher dressed in beautiful, flowing purple fabric. She invited them to come in. They sat in a wide circle on the floor and lit candles and shared a meal and sang songs and read scripture and said prayers and reflected on their life. Then the bell would ring and off they’d go to their next class — geometry or chemistry or english or history or painting. Lydia was, to them, new, different, odd, unusual, counter-cultural.
Lydia was all those things to the secular communities in which early Christianity grew, too. Reading the New Testament, I’m often struck that so many of Jesus’ earliest followers were, in the eyes of their world, strange. And it’s not that they didn’t notice or didn’t care or get hurt — emotionally, perhaps, but I’m also thinking about the demands of physical persecution — but, rather, they simply couldn’t live differently than the way they knew to be in Christ. Spontaneity abounded. Wherever God the Holy Spirit was moving that’s where they went. Creativity pulsed through their message. They rejoiced when they could come together and wept when they parted, but they weren’t entirely tears of sadness. Conflict was rife. Because of which, I’ve always thought, they grew.
The Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Chicago is named after the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, who set out to do a new thing in nineteenth century Dublin. She set out to make that society a little bit more just and liveable, and her only viable option was to form a new religious order. From what I gather, reading a bit between the lines, Catherine wasn’t entirely thrilled about becoming in the world’s understanding a “nun.” This isn’t altogether clear from the history books which celebrate Catherine and the movement she started, but a lot of the treatment of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy and the Mercy charism, I found, were somewhat hagiographic and romanticized.
I’ve often wondered if today Catherine would’ve been a social worker or a Christian radical, but I suspect she wouldn’t have become a politician or establish a think-tank: Catherine’s gift was clearly relational, and she inspired women and, through them, men to join a movement which was fundamentally egalitarian and missional, a movement focused solely on meeting the needs of society as those needs currently presented — and present — themselves. It was the Sisters of Mercy, nicknamed the ‘walking nuns’ because without hesitation they abandoned a cloistered lifestyle and quickly responded to the needs of the poor, who travelled in the early days alongside waves of second generation immigrants, most notably the Irish, to New York and Boston and Chicago. It was those same Sisters of Mercy who established the first hospital and initial schools in late-19th century Chicago, that wild west, frontier town. In part they were nurses and caregivers and teachers and servants. On another level they were radicals — teaching young women basic skills so they wouldn’t need to be dependent on men; affirming that a woman’s voice is just as clear as a man’s; forging a place for balance and mission in a church and world, in many ways, ordered against such values.
I think it’s important that we, Christians, put in some hard work to learn a language and re-brand a set of symbols that are, at their heart, counter-cultural, challenging, different, other and, in that, profoundly life-giving. The cross is the very definition of such a symbol, isn’t it? Talk about strange, ironic, challenging and life-giving. This is a kind of Lenten discipline we’d be wise to invest in, kindling once again the value of being ‘other.’
It’s already a part of our story. Look no further than Lydia or Catherine or any of those women — and men — doing a new thing today.
“Every wise man therefore will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question. ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?'”
– John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit,” a sermon first preached in 1750
In the life of the church, March 3 is set aside as a day to celebrate the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, most famously known — if known at all — with some historical inaccuracy as the founders of Methodism, a misunderstanding the Episcopal Church calendar of saints is quick to correct with the title: “John and Charles Wesley, priests.” They were raised in a Church of England home, after all — their father, Samuel, was rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire — and the brothers were thoroughly Anglican. Being caught by the zeal of missionary activity in the world was perfectly in keeping with the English churchmanship of their native 18th century.
Not only because it’s their day but also because we presently find ourselves in a church obsessed with talking about mission, though seemingly leery of making that into a verb, it might be wise to spend a bit of time learning from our history. Let me go ahead and say it: a potential consequence of investing carefully in this will be the creation of a broad and truly united coalition of Anglican churches in North America, if not one Anglican/Episcopal church which knows how to live out Anglican comprehensiveness in the 21st century. Quite specifically, I believe the mission challenge of the Episcopal Church in the next several decades will be to find and forge a way in which conservative Episcopalians and those Anglican groups who have already left will find a place in a wider structure to return and form a much more comprehensive Anglicanism in North America, side by side with those of us who are already their brothers and sisters in Christ. As an Episcopalian, I don’t want to (continue to) make the same mistake that our forebears did when the Methodist controversy started to boil over.
Not unlike our own, the 18th century was a period in which the institutions of yesteryear had become so consuming that concepts such as freedom and independence were high on the list for anyone interested in charting a more vibrant future. Over the course of that century, such values obviously spurred creative re-thinking in the political sphere and equally creative missionary attempts in the ecclesiastical world.
It was certainly possible to do this work within the established institutions of their day; just look how long the British system tolerated the men whom Americans vault today as heroes: Washington and Adams among others. Likewise, the Church of England found a way to balance missionary zeal with their commission as a national church. Every Sunday and Wednesday, for instance, I pray the Mass in a chancel in St. Mary’s County, Maryland in which there sits embedded into the floor a large stone dedicated to a former rector of the parish, the Rev’d Mr. Leigh Massey. Massey, we’ve learned, was of Irish descent, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and at the tender age of nineteen and in the year 1723 — when John Wesley was twenty years old and a full twelve years before John would set sail for the colony of Georgia — Leigh became a truly missionary priest and rector of William & Mary Parish in the new world colony of Maryland. The stone in St. George’s chancel reads: “Near this place lies inter’d the Reverend Leigh Massey. He was educated at Oxford, the rector of this Parish, the darling of his flock and beloved by all who knew him. He died Jan. 10, 1732/33 aged 29 years.” (What appears to be confusion regarding the year of Massey’s death is attributable to the fact that Britain and the eastern portion of what would become the United States had, by that time, not yet accepted the Gregorian Calendar, a move that would become official by Act of Parliament as late as 1752.)
One very real danger, looking backward, is to be romanced into the deception that the church as missionary and church as institution are somehow opposing entities or concepts. They are not, nor have they ever been.
The fact is the divorce of Methodism from Anglicanism is a sad chapter, and was itself a prolonged and painful transition. There’s fault on both sides. For one, the Church of England didn’t help itself, failing to recognize that it was in some ways the very mission field the Wesley’s — and countless others, no less the Rev’d Leigh Massey — engaged which led naturally to the renewal or, at least, the desire to renew which they in time helped bring about. The equally and, maybe, more inflammatory evangelistic efforts of George Whitefield didn’t help the Wesley’s gain a wide audience in the seats of power of the church of their day. And yet they, John and Charles, were offering a much more thoroughgoing ‘Anglican Methodism’ than was the more stridently Calvinist Whitefield; the former brothers’ more Arminian emphasis on the necessary balance between justification by faith and works of mercy running clearly in line with the Caroline Divines, especially Jeremy Taylor whose most notable work is his profound devotional contribution, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living.
For another, the Wesley’s didn’t really help themselves. There was, it seems, a bit of the rogue in the Wesley DNA: at one point, Samuel took such a strident stand on an issue in his parish that the villagers burned down his house, nearly killing his young son, John. (Those biographers who make a big deal of this psychological trauma in the development of John’s theology have probably read too much Freud, although today’s United Methodist symbol — a flame and cross — is an ironic choice.) Likewise, John was equally staunch, the one noteworthy instance being the time he refused to offer communion to the daughter of a well-connected colonist — either because she refused to marry him or he, not wanting to marry her, nevertheless didn’t want her marrying the man she did, the facts depending on the particular biographer — an act which led to his being shipped back to England. Add to that that John, eventually, had enough with the foot-dragging of the church of his day and uncanonically commissioned elders, among whom Francis Asbury would become the most significant, to spearhead the organization of the church in America. Charles bitterly opposed his brother’s decision and even John, himself, feared for the direction of the new Methodist Episcopal churches in America, especially when in 1787 Francis, nicknamed by some “the American Pope,” changed the title ‘superintendent’ to ‘bishop’.
We, too, have become eerily skilled at making minor differences, mostly differences in emphasis, the cause and consequence of our divorce. Do you need an institution in order to do mission? Or do you need a mission to have an institution? Or, to God, do those distinctions make any bit of difference? From what I can tell, there’s no basis in these contentions for anything like a substantial argument, so let’s move on. But moving on, in practice, means that we would need to place obvious limitations on what we can and what we cannot institutionalize — meaning, specifically, what we can and what we cannot legislate or wrangle over at gatherings such as General Convention. If the devil’s in the details, that’s a big one.
Another very real danger is the tendency to calcify the Anglican theological tradition. Ever since the Church of England recognized that it had given birth to a worldwide family of churches, interestingly, on account of the American Revolution and around the time ‘Anglican’ began to become a term, itself, we knew we had a problem or, at least, an issue with authority. Looking back, removing the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the 16th century was still a safe thing to do, provided the king could exercise sufficient power. Once that power dynamic shifted, everything else did, too.
Ever since, there is and has become a contested core of Anglican thought and practice. Within, there is indeed a core; a way of being and thinking in a uniquely Anglican fashion. And it’s contested, sometimes with great vitriol, and it will continue to be so. That’s actually part of the charm of our theological tradition.
As I hinted earlier, the Wesley’s themselves were in many ways giving a contemporary voice to that contested core, aligning their evangelical and missionary efforts with the thinking of Lancelot Andrews and Jeremy Taylor and those Caroline Divines who preceded them by at least a century. So named for their support of King Charles (hence ‘Caroline’) and similar emphases to the reforms of Archbishop Wm. Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1640, executed in 1645), whose 17th century reforms stressed a sacramental and liturgical piety, the restoration of episcopal authority, and the downplaying of Calvinist themes and preaching, these heavily influential theologians (a.k.a., ‘Divines’) were not in many ways united in their conclusions or arguments but, strictly speaking, in their methodology. They drew heavily on biblical and liturgical sources, most notably the Book of Common Prayer, and sought to demonstrate the continuity of Anglicanism within the great, albeit broad Christian tradition. They placed a strong emphasis on patristic studies and brought back many of the Eastern (Greek-writing) Christian theologians that had long been dismissed from the largely Latin (Western) Catholicism of recent centuries.
Into this context, then, it’s very easy to place the emerging theology of John and Charles Wesley: they, too, emphasized a liturgical and bible-based method of working out one’s salvation; they, too, taught that regular attendance to one’s spiritual, sacramental life was important, and they steered away, as I’ve already mentioned, from a more dominant Calvinist stress on predestination and toward a the thinking of the 16th century Dutch Reformer, Jacobus Arminius, who affirmed that our works to some degree, while not justifying, have something to do with God’s plan of salvation.
Equally so, we have much to learn from our past. A friend lent me what I can only call a book-length rant, Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors (2004). Author Edward Norman’s contribution (?) was an insightful and somewhat fun read, if only for its caustic dogmatism and bold self assertions. The author, Norman, contends that contemporary Anglicanism is a theological mess. I’d say he’s right. Not wanting to legitimize this sloppiness or our church’s generally slipshod course, I can’t go so far as Norman does in tracing the root of the problem. Here, below, Norman establishes the thesis; note that he traces the issue back to the Wesley’s (whom he clearly likes) and those who came after them (whom he doesn’t):
“The genesis of Evangelical revivalism at the end of the eighteenth century suggested no threat to the Church of England’s unity, for it occurred within a general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism. It was possible for Methodism, for example, to continue to worship at parish churches for fifty years before they separated into a distinct denomination. But when the new High Church movement appeared, in the 1830s, the appeal to Catholic antiquity, and to the past unity of Christianity, divided the Church of England in a manner which was instantly recognized. … It is also true, as some others noticed, that the ritual observances complained of were not, anyway, authentic revivals of early Catholic uses, but Tridentine splendor re-defined in the sharp light of nineteenth-century Ultramontane extravagances. The outcome was the beginning of disintegration. At the very time that the word ‘Anglican’ was coming into familiar parlance, in the middle years of the nineteenth century, the Church of England was in fact losing the semblance of unity which the name was supposed to express. Since then there has been an uninterrupted internal crisis of identity. … The Anglican way — almost the hallmark of Anglicanism — is to compose vacuous forms of words within which hugely divergent viewpoints can be accommodated. It is the promotion of expediency over principle, and is the manner in which Anglicanism is held together. … Not much force would be needed to flatten the Church of England as a coherent religious institution. It is a house of cards.” (Norman, Anglican Difficulties, pp. xi – xii)
Apart from his witty command of the English language and regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Norman’s overall point, he seems to commit the other problem we should’ve learned from the Wesley years — a dangerous seizing up of one or several parts of the Anglican theological tradition. To Norman, what does the “general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism” mean, anyway? And who’s in the “general”? Likewise, even though I’ve stepped back with some critical distance from the Anglo-Catholicism in which I was formed, I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that such churchmanship and its related customs in any way voids the merits of that rich tradition within Anglicanism.
The Christian and, specifically, Anglican theological enterprise is much broader than we’ve made it. And if we want to talk seriously about mission we’d be wise to start by acknowledging the single-minded theological dominance in the Episcopal Church of a 20th-century Protestant liberalism, as well as get much more serious about reprising Anglican comprehensiveness and bringing back that truly contested core. Regardless of whatever theological tradition in which you find yourself at home and, as such, better able to articulate what God in Christ is doing in your life, it does not seem — nor should it be — an exclusive concept to welcome the more robust participation of those who work from a different, even completely different methodology.
And so I’ll close with a more personal reflection.
The Episcopal Church was really my saving grace while I was enrolled in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. I was starting to feel that academic theology, which I really do love, was beginning to work on my soul like paint-thinner does on old finishes. I looked and looked for a church community that could strike a balance between prayer and, yes, honest-to-God prayer to Jesus Christ as well as not forsake the intellectual and secular world in which we found ourselves. The campus ministry, Brent House, was led by a gifted chaplain, the Rev’d Sam Portaro, and I was initially brought there by a fellow housemate with whom I lived in intentional Christian community, a Ph.D. student named Randall Foster. Sam and Randall were certainly at opposite ends of the theological spectrum, but both men could speak in profound and powerful ways about Jesus and about their Christian life as well as the ways they carry out reconciling ministry in the world. Sam is a priest in the Diocese of Chicago and I am proud that he was one of the presenters at my priestly ordination. Randall is now a priest in the Diocese of Forth Worth (the Anglican Church in North America) and today, on the Feast of John and Charles Wesley, he celebrates the anniversary of his diaconal ordination. I, too, celebrate Randall’s ordination and I celebrate, very much, that Randall is a minister of Christ’s redeeming Gospel. I know without a doubt that Randall is a light to those who come into his path. It saddens me, however, that he and I can only claim our continuing brotherhood in the larger, less visible Anglican Christian communion.
When will that time come, I wonder, when we really will come into the one-ness for which our Lord prayed? Probably around the time when we learn from our mistakes, one of which occurred during the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, lights of the world in their generation.
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.”
A new television series aired this week. Adding to the plethora of shows about saving and fixing restaurants and bars, ‘Church Rescue’ features three church consultants who help local congregations improve their mission, build their flock, resurrect their mission and market, and find ways to improve their offering.
Congregations and faith-based organizations are facing a storm of issues, not the least of which are the new economic realities of this 21st century. These changes feel scary and there’ll be a greater deal of turbulence to come, but the reality is pretty simple: the old, established world and worldview and, add to that, economy – an economy in many ways created with no small amount of blood, sweat and tears by visionaries like Henry Ford; the economy which led to the birth of an American middle class – is coming to an end.
The world as we know it has shifted. And we are shifting with it. But we’re not alone. Take the Millenials, for instance, the generation of young adults who were born in the late 1980s and 90s. This first generation to come of age in the new millennium – hence their name – will also be the first generation in modern times to make less money than their parents. They’re not lazy or narcissistic, and it’s not that they’re ineffectual, having been coddled by their so-called ‘helicopter parents.’ It’s that what the institutional Christian church is dealing with now, as a first-world, not-for-profit, somewhat secularized institution, the members of this generation been dealing with their entire adult life. Ever since the early 1970s, since just before they were born, there’s been an increasing and encroaching wealth gap in America along with a fundamental stagnation, if not regression in the economy. Around that time, the mainline institutional church had already measured its high-water mark, being aware because their numbers were sliding downward.
Here’s a thought: why don’t we, the church, learn from the members of the first generation that is, already, living into that new world, a situation, for them, that isn’t better or worse or changed but is pretty much reality?
The Millenials know, firsthand, what economic stagnation and regression feels like. On the whole, they’re incredibly well-educated; after all, their parents told them that college and graduate degrees were key to success. But “the price of attending a public four-year college rose 54% from 1998 to 2008 while the typical American household earned less in 2008 than it did a decade earlier, adjusted for inflation [sources: College Board, Leonhardt]. Therefore, to pay for the education touted by parents, teachers and the government as critical to future success, millennials took on massive debt, a record-breaking $35,200 on average for each 2013 U.S. college graduate.” These young adults have also been hit hardest by the nation’s worse economic collapse since the Great Depression. Because those Baby Boomers who were thinking about retiring sometime in the first decade of the new millennium held on to their positions, being suddenly faced with diminishing nest-eggs, the debt-laden Millienials, who thought they could get a good job to pay off their student loans, found themselves facing huge unemployment or under-employment.
What the American economy has realized – the 2010 census revealed that overall household income, across the board, has stagnated – Millenials have been dealing with their entire adult lives and most middle-class Americans have faced for at least a generation. According to The Economist, “Current incomes are at roughly the level of the late 1970s. [But] the cost of everything from housing to education has risen steadily in recent decades. From a real income perspective [for] the median household, the picture is one of a generation of stagnation.” “From 2000 to 2010, when many millennials entered the workforce, median household incomes fell for the first time since World War II,” Dave Roos adds, continuing: “It’s hard to make more money than your parents when jobs are paying less for the same work. The wealth gap between older and younger people has also widened significantly over the past 30 years. A 30-year-old in 2013 is worth 21 percent less than a 30-year-old in 1983. Meanwhile, the net worth of the average 60-year-old today is more than twice as high as 1983. In other words, young people keep getting poorer, while old folks get richer.”
But there’s hope and I’d say it’s real, Christian hope. When polled, the Millenials report astonishingly high degrees of happiness, contentment and optimism. According to the Pew Research Center, “a whopping 88% of people ages 18 to 34 said they had enough money or would have enough in the future to meet their long-term financial goals. …Even among those who said they were unemployed and financially strapped, 75% said they would someday have enough money. Overall, nearly three out of four believed they would achieve their goals in life — or already had — which was slightly more than among older adults,” the Los Angeles Times reported, quoting Kim Parker, associate director of the Pew project: “It’s hard to imagine a time when there was this level of optimism among a group so hard hit by economic conditions,” Parker said. To find out why their optimism is so high, look at the way the Pew survey question was worded, Roos cautioned: ‘Do you now earn enough money to lead the kind of life you want, or not?’ “The Pew survey found that the youngest generation is surprisingly old-school in its life priorities,” Roos wrote; “Millennials chiefly want to be good parents, raise happy children and give back to society. How much money is ‘enough’ to meet those admirable, but not necessarily expensive goals? That amount will likely be different for everybody.”
The Millenials will earn less than their parents, according to the old economic model, but they are also the first generation in a long time to be engaged in creating a wholly new, substantially different world and, as a result, a newly ordered economy. That explains why, according to Roos, “their elders are less hopeful for them. Fifty-four percent of Americans over the age of 55 thought young people today were unlikely to have a better life than their parents, compared with 42% of those ages 18 to 34. Over the last two decades, people in their 50s and 60s have tended to be less upbeat about the chances of their children living as well as they do, according to data from the General Social Survey.” What the Millenials’ Baby Boom parents name pessimistically as loss is really just something they fundamentally cannot see. They can’t see that the old, ‘Fordian’ economy has passed away. They can’t see that, perhaps, such an economy is not the be-all and end-all of the world, itself, and they can’t see that something else, something creative, may very well be emerging out of the rubble heap of the old order. They can’t see that that something new is, in fact, emerging.
The world as we know it has shifted. And I want to step out here and say, in fact, God is in this change. The excitement embedded in the new ‘creative economy’, to borrow the compelling phrase from economist Richard Florida, and the ways in which social media is just the tip of the iceberg of these emergent voices is reason enough, for me, why their optimism holds real hope – real Christian hope – for our planet and society and, yes, for Christ’s church. For the first time in a long time, there are adults who know how to cross-pollinate ideas, how to truly collaborate without fear of ownership or sabotage, how to interact and ‘friend’ others – regardless of whether they work for the same company, went to the same school or share the same politics – and how to find a greater, common good and enter freely into relationships with people of different backgrounds, races, religions, traditions, and sexual orientations.
You better believe this is going to change the church, the way the institution we created in modern memory and beefed up in very recent years operates and functions. You better believe that this will feel, to many, like unsteady turbulence. With those, we will be patient; for them, we will make space. But you’d be wise to believe that God is also in this: that the Creator actually intends to reconcile it all, one with another; that Christ who lived and loved as one of us actually wants the vast human family at His expansive table; that the Spirit which has been moving in our midst for this long actually meant to light this fire. It is hard, so very, very hard, to resurrect a worldview and, with it, to rebuild an economy. But what’s so hard is also so good, so very, very good because it takes the holy risk of vulnerability – risking to share, risking to believe that God is in the future, just as He’s been in the past, risking to be set free from all that once weighed you down.
Adapted from a sermon at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 10 November 2013; click here for the link to the full sermon.
 Insights shared from Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class; see footnote below.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury is giving a lesson in ethics. What he’s actually talking about is changing the way the church functions.
Yesterday, the Archbishop didn’t zero in on the political mess the Church of England’s gotten itself into. The pundits on the sidelines are striving to get him to say something about women bishops or gay marriage. Welby mentioned several times his own “fear and trembling,” but I think he showed remarkable strength in not talking about those things – in not chattering on about the church in self-reflexive ways, focusing with profound insularity on theological method (as his predecessor did); in not taking a prophetic stance toward the issues of the world while ignoring the clutter of his own spiritual house (as our Episcopal Church, I’m afraid, too quickly does). Archbishop Welby showed great steel in turning our textbooks back to Aristotle and Jesus, in focusing our attention on a simple message: the church must be in the business of human flourishing.
In his inaugural sermon, Welby argued that the goal of the Body of Christ should be to enable human persons to flourish: in his words, to “make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.” The church has taken prophetic stances over the years, Welby acknowledged, positions which became manifest in social campaigns – freeing slaves and ensuring the safety of factory workers, among others.
Similar issues confront human society in the 21st century, he noted, but his analysis, interestingly, didn’t go from cause to cause. Rather, he quickly moved the conversation back to traditional Christian social thought.
Dissapointing media pundits and stumping secular critics, Welby’s message appeared, at first, to be about our work, our message, our cause and then, just as quickly, became a message of God. “Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human,” he preached. “Uniquely in all of human history Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who as living love liberates holy courage. …Courage is released in a society that is under the authority of God, so that we may become the fully human community of which we all dream.”
Early Christians adopted from Plato and Aristotle the concept that there is an end to which all human striving should be directed, a goal which is good for its own sake. The Greek word is eudaimonia, often translated as happiness or flourishing. In the Aristotelian worldview, eudaimonia is entirely egoistic: an individual’s self interest is to flourish, so a particular individual’s good is to flourish for the sake of her own good. That obviously wouldn’t do for the early Christian community whose Lord commanded them to love one another, so the Christianized concept of eudaimonia also had to do with mercy, justice, forgiveness, and community. Human flourishing from a Christian point of view is to strive towards the only goal which is good unto itself. That we call the Kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God involves people, but what’s good for people is not necessarily a good unto itself. That’s not an ultimate good. The kingdom of God has a church but what’s good for the church isn’t necessarily a good in and of itself. Better not chatter on about the church with incessant insularity. The kingdom of God is expressed, from time to time, in our social campaigns to make this world a more just and equitable and liveable place, but those causes are not necessarily the same as the reign of God. Best not confuse our social politics and theology. If we want to understand what it means to flourish, we’ve got to understand what it is to be of God, firstly, and to have our actions and words speak Him.
Although this is deep within our tradition, it’s also a new teaching for the church. It’s hard for many to understand, let alone embrace it. We, the church, allowed secular society to put us in the center of their world – first it was Constantine, then Charlemagne, then in America our own interpretation of the Bill of Rights. For centuries, we thought Christendom spoke for itself. Even when it’s been waning these past several decades we tried to bolster the buttresses, talking on and on about ourselves and our self-proclaimed mission and our business.
That’s all falling apart. Not the Way of Jesus, mind you. Not Christianity. Just the force of the predominately institutionalized shell.
And that’s why Justin Welby is the right man for the job, the right man, that is, at this moment. While bishop of Durham, he seemed uniquely able to speak the truth plainly. In an address in April 2012 to the Anglican Alliance for Development, Bishop Welby pointedly said, “The question that faces the church is that of what is human flourishing, good news, amidst the deep poverty…and utter spiritual bankruptcy and increasing material poverty?”
In that address, Welby named a profound truth: “Our good news,” he argued, “must be unique, because the radicality of the gospel call[s] us to a sense of what we are doing and saying utterly different from all other groups.” This can be unsettling. For those who have grown accustomed to Christendom this is a difficult teaching to bear. Yet almost automatically, Welby’s mind readily goes beyond insular theological methodology – a threat to those hiding inside the church – and criticizes the way of the world from nothing more, nothing less than the Gospel of Christ. To his credit, he already knows that world. When he mentioned “suspicion of the NGO industry, its thousands of employees and the tendency to be as donor dependant as the recipients of aid, with whom one is drawn in a grim dance,” Welby quickly added: “I know, I ran one.”
Authenticity is the litmus test these days, which is both an opportunity and challenge. We live in a time in which our message is heard only so long as the audience knows, already, the depth and quality of its source. It’s no longer sufficient to make grand speeches without mobilizing the People of God. Nor can we shirk from the obligation to speak a word of life in the public square; now, however, it requires the harder work of turning the hearts and minds and lives of those already among the body to influence those not yet. The new Archbishop put it as a question: “As Christians,” he asked, “are we simply a spiritual bit of the same tribe or, as self-proclaimed disciples of Christ, how is what we bring good news?” Reading Micah 6:8 (“do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God…”) and Romans 12:1-2 (“…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”), Welby reminded:
“the language of our good news is not GDP, output and so forth, though they are part of the means. It is human flourishing in a context of love. The tools of our good news [are] the unique ones of reconciliation and peace, with its fellow travellers of generosity, community and self-giving love. All aid outside the context of the grace of God leads to the abuse of power and the creation of dependency. So we are called not merely to do, but to be. The inner motivation matters as much as the outer.”
These days anyone and everyone can see directly inside, beyond the stuff we’ve projected in order to protect us – our beautiful churches and stately liturgy, our pomp and circumstance, our cathedrals and order, our tradition and customs. Real human flourishing is an inside job, and that matters a great deal.
In the annals of the church of my youth there was a great pastor who served for nearly three decades. He was renowned in the community and his sermons, legend has it, filled the pews, so much so they needed to build a larger church. The new edifice went up next to the existing building. It was a grand space, a long nave with a skinny chancel and grand pulpit. With regard to the particular functioning of this pastor, the new building featured two notable elements – the first, an expansive pastor’s study replete with fireplace, leaded-glass windows and balcony, located high up in the tower and only accessible via a steep staircase, so high that, obviously, accessibility and pastoral calls were not highly regarded. The second was an idyllic courtyard carved out of the space between the two buildings and which the congregation came to call ‘the garth’, itself a lovely, archaic phrase. This pastor, Dr. McGee was his name, wrote poems, too. The only poem I can recall was about the Garth Garden, how much he loved the simple, solemn quietude of a space set apart which featured, in his time, a bubbling fountain in its midst.
To me, nowadays, his sermons aren’t particularly compelling — they express the best of 1920s liberal Protestantism with snippets of bible verses thrown in. His poems, even the one about the garth, weren’t altogether timeless either. But that didn’t matter, not at the time nor in the decades which followed. It wasn’t what he wrote or said. It was the feeling and, in particular, the associations folks added to those feelings which mattered, and which have made Dr. McGee’s words into phrases which seem to reside, for some among the congregation, among the classics.
Distortions can all too easily morph into delusions which, over time, become distractions. I don’t know when I first came across George Herbert, the seventeenth-century English priest and poet who truly belongs among the classics, but when I did I stayed or tried to stay, to breathe his air, to remain. There’s something that seems pure in The Country Parson, Herbert’s description of the life and character of a country priest, living out one’s vocation in a little village, taking pride in the routine acts of daily prayer, serving the common person, taking rest as the fire crackles in the vicarage hearth at the close of day. A poet as well, Herbert is responsible for a collection of penetrating verse, The Temple.
Beware the delusion, however. We draw too closely a connection between a quiet, country life and the ability to think deep thoughts, to write lasting words. We, the reader, make the link between Herbert’s verse and text back to Herbert’s life. This is as true for lovers of George Herbert or those fond of Dr. McGee as it is for the wider television audience of Downton Abbey or those who remember the Vicar of Dibley or wish for the simpler antics of Fr. Tim in the Mitford series. Of course, anyone who’s actually read Herbert’s Country Parson is aware that I’ve painted pictures of a simple, bucolic life which is, frankly, nowhere found in his actual text, a piece of writing, it should be added, which is something of a laborious list of duties and pietistic expectations. I’m sure life in Downton Castle, itself, wouldn’t have been as romantic as we’d like to think in our daydreaming.
Maybe it’s limited to Anglo-philes, not to mention the entirely strange caste called Episcopal clergy, but George Herbert has long exerted a real influence. In the summer of 2004, I closed the chapter on a life in Chicago, a life I had come to treasure and enjoy, taking pleasure in that great city’s many cosmopolitan offerings. Off I went to the Virginia Theological Seminary to do my one-year Anglican ‘dip’, as it’s been called. A part of me (or was it my bishop?) told me that I was coming back to Chicago at the end of that year. I could have a wonderful, formative time but I wasn’t there to plant roots. When the time came, early on, to choose which parish I’d work at as seminarian for the year, I resisted the advice of most folks who told me to go across the river to Washington, DC, find an urban congregation and connect there. That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, they reasoned. That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, I heard, so maybe there’s something else.
I had spent a week before the beginning of the academic year with my aunt and uncle in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, the birthplace of the colony, locals are quick to say, but which is known by anyone who knows of St. Mary’s as the southernmost tip of the rural portion of the state known as southern Maryland. For that week under the hot August sun, I helped my uncle harvest grapes in his vineyard and, as the day closed, we sat under a great shade tree and drank wine and ate figs, hardly a noise to be heard except the crickets, no such thing as a traffic light, only the lush colors of a sunset and the brilliant nighttime stars and moonlight. On Sunday, I ventured with them to the Episcopal chapel which has been their worshiping community as long as they lived there and which, together with its parish church up the road, has served that community for centuries, pretty much ever since Europeans stepped onto the shores of this part of the continent, back in 1634.
“That’s where I’d like to spend this year,” I told the seminary’s director of field education. He thought I was crazy, wanting to drive more than seventy miles one way to my field education site, but he let me do it nevertheless. And thus began a year of leaving the busy-ness of northern Virginia and the insularity of a seminary community and hopping in my car on Saturday mornings to drive down and spend a weekend in the country. It was election season, as I remember, and the Kerry/Edwards signs which populated northern Virginia turned, in time, to a greater preponderance of Bush/Cheney signs once you got past the Washington, DC metro area. What I found in St. Mary’s Chapel and Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Mary’s City, however, was in fact a wonderful cobbling together of diverse people – watermen and farmers worshiping next to professors and defense contractors, those who came here recently kneeling at the same altar rail as those who can trace their family’s lineage back to the original settlers, just as countless generations of people had done in a colonial parish which feels, to us Americans, almost ancient.
True to his word, the parish priest who was, for that year, my mentor (and is now my friend), let me do almost anything and everything I could think of, which is when I also learned the truth underneath George Herbert’s Country Parson – that in a country parish you do have the opportunity and, indeed, challenge of being involved in just about everything: you’re not only the chaplain and liturgical functionary who works in the church; you wear a lot of other hats. You’re the closest thing many families have to a commonly-agreed-upon counselor in times of dispute or need; you’re a fixture at family parties and reunions; you are known throughout the community, even when you don’t wear your collar; you have a public role and, in time, you’ll bless everything from pets to yachts to vineyards to fire trucks. You are a public person which is the very origin of the term parson. For me, it was a year rich in learning and formation, a profound and eye-opening year.
At the end of that academic year, not even nine months after I first stumbled upon St. Mary’s County, I packed my bags once again and headed back to Chicago. I’d been called to serve as curate at a large urban parish, a call I was not only looking forward to but, quite honestly, a type of vocation – curate, then rector of a city parish, then who knows what – I thought I was going to be engaged in for the rest of my life.
Looking backward on my life I may have a different perspective but back then, while a curate, I was enjoying a great mentoring program but I was, as I probably told people at the time, bored. My duties were primarily functional and limited (I was only a curate, after all) and, as is often the case, I was doted upon by some within the congregation and held up as one who could do no wrong (I wasn’t the rector, after all). I wanted more and, yet, I also wanted less. I felt disconnected from the ground of that place’s being, divorced from the ground of my own priestly being, too, so haughty did I become when first ordained. In the back of my mind, I kept returning to George Herbert or, in truth, what I thought was the call of a simple, peaceful, holy, country life. Thus it was that the celebration of my time as curate was also my sending forth to a little country parish, nestled within the hills and valleys of St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
The layers of associations we’ve lumped onto figures such as George Herbert are a palpable force and, on some level, a siren song. This needs to be admitted. This needs to be dealt with, along with some intense denominational therapy, I’d say. In his compelling 2009 book, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him, Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the point that we’ve vaulted an image, no less a graven image of George Herbert, not the real deal. “Herbert has been, and continues to be, used as an exemplar, the exemplar for the English parson,” Lewis-Anthony writes. “Whether you are High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, whatever, Herbert is portrayed as the prototype of the pastor, teacher, almoner, negotiator, gentleman, scholar. He is Ur-Vicar, the Echt-Rector.” Further, though he was relatively unpublished in his brief lifetime, George Herbert’s fame not only grew posthumously (Lewis-Anthony: “this has always been the fast-track to canonization in the folk religion of the Church of England”) but the myth of Herbert became established lore, most interestingly, when Anglicanism was trying to find its distinct voice. In times of conflict, uncertainty, distraction, confusion, and the feeling that we are far from the ground of our being, we yearn for simplicity, purity, holiness. Often, in such moments, we find George Herbert or, rather, who we’ve turned him into.
Having served as a country parson for nearly six years now, I can report there is no idyllic ‘Bemerton parish’. There’s hard work and struggle, with enough silver linings to remind me why God is calling me here. There’s confusion and disorder and uncertainty, graced by moments of pure bliss in which I have, literally, felt God’s presence. There’s frustration and ego and pride which sneaks in, more often than I care to admit, and, at the close of most days, a true delight in simplicity. I knew something was up when, following one particularly contentious Vestry meeting early in my time, I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, so nagging on my soul was that one person and her downright stubbornness. Never before moving here had I ever awoken in the middle of the night. Never.
When a friend asked about the differences between a large, urban congregation and this smaller, country parish, I shared what was, at the time, an astonishing realization – that the issues between the two contexts were eerily similar, if not entirely the same. “That’s probably true,” she said to me, adding: “I’d guess that when you went from a larger church to a smaller one what you really traded was quantity for intimacy.” Intimacy is a two-edged sword. When intimately connected, as we are in small communities and country parishes, you love deeply and you fight powerfully. In this place, I’ve suffered – and suffered publicly, out in the open, at that. I’ve experienced crushing defeat and loss and, along with it, piercing shame and guilt. In this place, too, I’ve celebrated growth and witnessed depth, such things which only point to the authorship of a vibrant, living God. Here, I’ve achieved things I only previously believed, hoped I was capable of and I’ve been surrounded by love and warmth to a depth and degree I never imagined existed, not the least of which through the gift of my daughter who was born here. This place has been my cross and the working-out of my redemption, my bitterness and my land of milk and honey. And yet it’s not so on the surface. Not at all. The thread which weaves my little story in and out of God’s greater one is intimacy; without it, this is just a place and these are just people and this is just a job and that struggle is no failure of mine and that success just another notch on my resume.
The point Justin Lewis-Anthony makes is not only that we’ve vaulted the wrong image, not only that there is no bucolic Bemerton parish (…add to that list Dibley, Mitford, or whatever parish Downton’s in, for that matter), but that these delusions mustn’t be searched for. I take his point as a good one: there’s a disease in our church-ness, convincing us that church is supposed to be entirely gentle and calm and peaceful and lovely. The provocative comedian Eddie Izzard described it in this way: “Nowadays, Church of England is much more ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, much more of a hobby-type. A lot of people in the Church of England have no muscles in their arms,” Izzard carried on in a routine, traipsing about on stage like a wimpy, dorky priest. This is ruining our churches. We really don’t know how to engage our world and get out there, get messy. (For Exhibit A, I’d introduce into evidence the line-drawing of Chicago’s Church of Our Saviour – that bustling urban parish where I served as curate – hanging in my office. The sketch doesn’t include the apartment buildings behind the church nor the ones across the street, from which vantage point the drawing is made, nor does it include any hint of cars and people on Fullerton Parkway, nor anything that might tell you it sits squarely in a densely populated section of a major city. No, in this drawing, there’s an expansive lawn, no neighboring flats and, most beguiling, trees are sketched in where the rest of the city would, otherwise, be.) This is ruining seminary formation, as well; too many folks are running from the demands of their busy, hectic, professional lives into what they think is a simple and peaceable job, that of a priest, and how nice it’d be to live and pray and eat in a seminary community for three blissful years. As it turns out this, too, is ruining our churches. In the absence of bold, entrepreneurial, faithful leadership, we know what to expect. Taking Lewis-Anthony’s words as an indictment of our failure to truly grow congregations and do evangelism – a consequence of our inability to re-thinking priestly ministry – we are guilty as charged.
And yet once the graven image of George Herbert is smashed to bits, as it surely must be, we have for the first time the opportunity to come close to the person, the lived experience of a man of God, to see what he did with his experience. This is a really hard thing, to take George Herbert down from the library shelf. I’m thinking in particular of one of T. S. Eliot’s last books, his 1962 contribution to the ‘Writers and their Work’ critical series, Eliot’s George Herbert. The bulk of this thin, three-chapter work is spent tracing the connections and distinctions between Herbert and his literary and spiritual mentor, John Donne. Comparing one of Donne’s most famous religious sonnets (“Batter my heart, three person’d God…”) with Herbert’s poem Prayer (I) (“Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age…”) Eliot claims:
“The difference that I wish to emphasize is not that between the violence of Donne and the gentle imagery of Herbert, but rather a difference between the dominance of sensibility over intellect. Both men were highly intellectual, both men had very keen sensibility: but in Donne thought seems in control of feeling, and in Herbert feeling seems in control of thought. …[W]hereas Herbert, for all that he had been successful as Public Orator of Cambridge University, has a much more intimate tone of speech. We do not know what Herbert’s sermons were like; but we can conjecture that in addressing his little congregation of rustics, all of whom he knew personally, and many of whom must have received both spiritual and material comfort from him and from his wife, he adopted a more homely style.”
Eliot comes so close, let me say, to breathing George Herbert, describing his “intimate tone of speech”, picturing him surrounded by those “whom he knew personally.” Yet even in this there’s separation, a removal, the kindling of what becomes, in others, romanticization, delusion. Perhaps it was the Englishness which Eliot came to treasure and, in time, adopt or that he was commissioned to write a critical piece about Herbert but, nevertheless, it strikes me as odd that there’s such a remove from the real lived experience of George Herbert – analysis so devoid of intimacy that Eliot, in a sense, furthers the delusion, imagining “homely” homilies preached to “rustics.” Once vaulted there, Herbert resides permanently in the pantheon of the classics, rendering him as untouchable and statue-like as, to us Americans, George Washington is still.
What’s really standing in the way of growing the church is that we are downright afraid of the hard work involved in becoming the Body of Christ, the intimate and vulnerable work of becoming really human, really broken, really redeemed women and men who know themselves to be living out the story of God’s salvation. That description probably sums up the character of George Herbert, but we’ve become so distracted with the graven image, our own projected delusions. In his time Herbert took what he had – language – and used it in decidedly novel, penetrating ways. Language is what we all have, in fact; it’s the only thing we possess to express that which resides within. Of late, we’ve tried hiding behind the status quo and Christendom, but that’s falling apart. We’ve tried High Church or Low, chasubles and copes, ashes to go on street corners, but the world has said it doesn’t care about our wardrobes or churchmanship even while it may be amused by our gimmicks from time to time. What instead people seem to be searching is a lived story of redemption, experienced and expressed in the intimate truth-telling of real human persons.
This is vulnerable, frightening, new work. And yet this is Herbert’s life’s work and what he modeled for us, that is, until we meddled. Northwestern University’s Regina M. Schwartz offers, for the literary community, a new interpretation of George Herbert and, for the faith-based community, what I’d call a fitting method to renew focus. In her essay “From Ritual to Poetry: Herbert’s Mystical Eucharist,” Schwartz argues that “in an age when the sacraments were under fire and undergoing rapid revision,” George Herbert left behind the opportunities and worldly trappings he enjoyed as a university spokesman, took up a living in a little parish, and did a poignant thing. Boldly, he dug into his own life, warts and all, and drew connections to God’s life, which has no small amount of turbulence and pain but whose destination is always, already redemption. Herbert made the story of the interior life accessible and, most notably, sacramental. In the seventeenth century “poetry,” Schwartz maintains, “is called upon to carry the performative power of the liturgy.” This is a refreshingly different way to adopt the legacy of the Rector of Bemerton, considering Schwartz’s words:
“Unlike so many theologians, Herbert shows no interest in defining the meal served – in addressing the issue of the Eucharistic elements – instead, he attends to the process of conversation itself, the calling and answering. What is at the heart of Herbert’s mystery of the Eucharist is that an utterance could ever be heard, that a call could ever be answered, an offer ever received, an invitation ever be accepted, a conversation ever take place. For Herbert, then, an important aspect of this sacramental mystery is the mystery of language. …In [his] understanding of language, what is said and its relation to the referent – the sign to the signified – is less important than the activity of saying, than the conversation itself. …We have much to gain by framing the question as Herbert did: not economically but linguistically, in the context of conversation. For when we shift the trope from gift to conversation, we no longer imagine an exchange of goods; instead, we think of a response that evokes a further response. There is a world of difference.”
Realizing Herbert’s legacy should’ve been that of a man who knew, intimately, his own wretchedness and potential and one who knew, in turn, how to express with authenticity that place where God’s divinity meets our humanity, sans gimmicks, it’s all the more painful to admit that we’ve participated, we’ve directed the future of this particular illusion.
There is, indeed, a world of difference once we leave behind the graven images of cloistered garths and expansive studies; of bucolic parishes, whether Bemerton or Dibley or Mitford; of simple, blissful lives we’ll never be fortunate enough to have or find, though we may try and keep trying. There is a world of difference when we realize that the only possibility of resurrection is found in that kingdom planted within, and that the road to unmasking that mystery takes us straightaway through our humanity, indeed, demands that we become fully human, intimate with our joys and pain, our pride and anguish, our failures and achievements, our Crosses and our Easter Days. In this day in which none can hide behind pietistic pabulum, and which we, Jesus followers, ought no longer even if we may, no one wants our distorted signs and broken symbols, our treasured relics which speak confusion and, at times, pain to the world beyond. I won’t be so audacious as to stake a claim for what others want, but what the world certainly needs is our utterly true self, presented as a vulnerable and substantial offering, a sign of what new life looks like: intimately wedded, like the disciple whom Jesus loved, resting on the very heart of God. Again, for the first time in a long, long time, maybe ever, we’re coming to terms with this George Herbert, the only reason he’s made it through the ages.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
Watching Britain’s House of Commons have a lively chat about their church’s recent disapproval of women bishops, I had at first a feeling of ‘Bravo!’ as well as ‘Uh oh!’ As is often the case, it was a spirited chamber on Nov. 22 when Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, rose to field an urgent question as the Member of Parliament who is the liaison between that body and the group responsible for the oversight of the church’s vast property assets.
I heard smatterings of Jesus in the thoughtful generosity of the MPs — their eagerness to move established institutional structures, no less than their own, to embrace a society in which gender distinctions and previous social mores are giving way to greater egalitarianism and justice. The Labour Party’s Diana Johnson, who tabled the question, said it well: “…there should be no stained glass ceiling for women in our church. The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric by this decision. It appears that a broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds.”
They could easily get away with this conversation, of course. Sir Baldry reminded them that he himself couldn’t possibly justify the odd parliamentary procedures which enabled the General Synod of the Church of England to strike down a measure which was clearly supported by the vast majority of the church: 42 out of 44 dioceses expressed support for women bishops; counting the number of total votes cast, 324 voted for and 122 against; 94% of the bishops and 77% of the clergy voted for the measure; but it failed to achieve a 2/3 majority in the House of Laity, even though a significant majority, 64%, of them voted in favor of the measure.
It’s an odd thing when the State appears more inclusive and egalitarian than does the Church, the Body of Christ. A Canadian friend told me a few years ago that this was perhaps the one issue most besetting the Anglican Church there: how could they appeal to others to follow the teachings of Jesus when, in practice, they are less welcoming than their secular government? I’m aware we’re mixing issues here — church and state (fairly modern concepts) with Jesus and Empire (more ancient and biblical ones) — but it’s more than clear that Jesus himself and, certainly, a dominant strand in New Testament Christianity fostered profoundly egalitarian communities, gatherings which were radical in the eyes of their contemporary, stratified secular society and which were, therefore, incredibly attractive. Followers of Jesus have always had a difficult struggle with the ruling powers and principalities, such that 20 centuries after Jesus (and 17 or so after Christianity was perverted into a state religion) H. Richard Neibuhr contributed to the conversation in his now-classic text, Christ and Culture, helping people identify with integrity their position with regard to the relationship between the Way of Jesus and the ways of the world.
Thus my ‘Uh oh!’ moment. Jesus and the world, church and state have always been uneasy bedfellows. That’s a good thing, if you ask me, because the tension within that relationship is what has the potential to give rise to a profound, meaningful faith in God. The principle of moving the church along with the world — to make the church relevant or hip or up with the times — is therefore a dangerous principle, no matter the issue. It’s not inclusivity versus exclusivity, liberal against conservative, outdated giving way to modern. And if we, the Body of Christ, let secular politicians and pundits remain on the forefront of this conversation it will be stuck in those divisive, neatly categorized, but meaningless concepts. Look again at the Nov. 22 conversation in Parliament. The Conservative Party’s Eleanor Lang declared that “when the decision making body of the established church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society which it represents then its position as the established church must be called into question.” And the Church Commissioner agreed, adding that “if the Church of England wishes to be a national church, reflecting the nation, then it has to reflect the values of the nation.” Some people may put an exclamation point at the end of his statement because it’s boldly open-minded. I’d put an exclamation point because the principle it expresses is as frightening as hell! (And if you think it’s just talk, the Episcopal Cafe reports that there is scheduled a Jan. 18, 2013 Parliamentary vote on making it illegal “to discriminate against women in the Church of England.”)
Over on these shores, then, give thanks we don’t have an established church and, in fact, have a clause in our Constitution that prevents that sort of thing — the one, by the way, which doesn’t “separate church and state” (it drives me nuts when people use that phrase, taken from an 1802 letter of Jefferson’s talking about “…a wall of separation between Church & State”). Our First Amendment makes way for a vibrant church and a free state by not marrying the two: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
So let’s talk about a vibrant church. A vibrant church is one which does precisely what early Christian communities tried to do — build community of disparate folks, indeed, make family out of people who aren’t blood relatives and wouldn’t even socialize with one another. That’s the one and only way the New Testament shows how we’re supposed to reconcile all things to God in Christ. A vibrant church, then, is other-worldly and necessarily so because its organizing principle is in contradiction to the ways we would put things together. A vibrant church gives ordinary women and men a taste, albeit fleeting, that their lives are caught up in and wedded to the life of God, the creator and lover of all. A vibrant church is not easily described, and has few smatterings of worldly concepts. It’s neither conservative nor liberal, and it’s sometimes both. It’s neither stuffy nor outdated, and it delights in its eccentricity while it doesn’t take itself, at least its structures, too seriously. It has no problem putting random people together, sometimes people who would otherwise disagree, and it’s bold enough to referee those contests and call its members, all of them, to confess their pride and arrogance.
A vibrant church is one agent in God’s mission of reconciling all things through Christ, and I’d say it’s a pretty important agent. But in order to be vibrant, the church needs a large, disparate, somewhat disorganized, diverse, random collective of ordinary women and men, a sizeable group of people representing a significant cross-section of human experience and, especially, who this world would never, ever put together in a social club or institution of human construction. The institutional Christian church in the western world is hardly that body any longer. And Parliament hit that nail on the head this week, taking note that a big issue raised by General Synod — see Labour MP Diana Johnson’s quote, cited above — is that the established church has done a poor job of bringing the nation into the Body of Christ or, we should say, bringing the Body of Christ to the whole of the people. Affirming that fact, however, is decidedly not the same as saying what Conservative MP Eleanor Lang said, also quoted above; namely, that the church must get on with the times and reflect society. Doing so would only confirm for the increasing percentage of people, in Great Britain and the United States and everywhere else, that the church has become such a human institution that there’s no reason to participate in something so small and worldly and so devoid of its much more attractive, deeply spiritual commission.
This is not a problem reserved exclusively for an established church in a foreign land. We have abandoned our voice and public theologizing, yes, even we in America. And the “we” is not the state — not the politicians and the pundits, nor the marketers nor the secular institutions nor the school systems which stopped enforcing prayer long ago. It was never their job to enforce faith or, for that matter, even be Christian. It was our job, ours as the Body of Christ. It was our job to be counter-cultural, not the place to see and be seen. It is our job to do the things which this world says cannot be done, and that includes creating a safe space for diversity of all kinds, and that diversity must and should include theological diversity as well. The longer we fail to do this in our congregations and communities — and, add to that, the longer we let our own Episcopal Church be ruled by worldly institutional structures, determinining via legislation and policy who is in and who is out, even if the majority agrees — the more irrelevant we will become, not because the world is looking for another, better human construct but because it’s yearning for the opposite.
At least a group of people who call themselves “little Christs” and act like it, being at peace with disagreement and disorder because they go about practicing hospitality and seeking God’s blessing on the whole, messed up thing.