Saturday, May 3, 2014

Buildings and Ministry: Part II

Yesterday I wrote a post on this blog entitled Buildings and Ministry: Part I. Part II, found below, probably won't make much sense if you have not yet read that previous post, so I encourage you to go back and read that before continuing...

I ended that post with some  "why?" and "what if?" questions. Why is it that the Church mostly remains "stuck" in a bygone era - at least in terms of our buildings? Might it be possible that the buildings themselves are keeping us from becoming the Church God is calling us to be? I don't presume answers to these questions for every place in our diocese; context matters. But we must not be afraid of the questions. The biggest one of all is this: does it serve God's reign of justice and mercy when we begin to serve the building (and all of our energy and resources are focused on it) rather than the building serving the God's mission? On this one I do have an answer: no. When this happens, and we worship what is not God, the tradition calls that idolatry. 

Yet it's very rare in the church that we ask these hard missional question from a place that is not laden with emotion. And I get that. I was a parish priest for two decades. We are a people of the Incarnation. Buildings matter to us because place matters to us; our faith journeys are not "generic" but specific and tied to people and places along the way. We don't worship a God confined to the heavens but a Word-made-flesh who has dwelt among us.

So that font matters. I mean that one right there in this congregation. Even when we know that we are being baptized as living members into a living Body that is ecumenical and diverse, the particularity matters. And we should own that. When we were incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ at that font ninety years ago, we were held there by parents and godparents and a beloved rector who are now part of that great cloud of witnesses. If we close our eyes we can still see it all very clearly. Our church buildings  matter to us for the same reason that our homes do. I have had more than one parishioner who has told me of a home where they have been settled for forty or fifty years, "I'm going out feet first." Telling that person that they would have community and care in an assisted-living facility doesn't easily trump those connections - even when that is the right decision.  

So people want to be buried from that same building where their journey began, and has continued, places filled with memories and stories. And there is more than nostalgia here; places of prayer become "thin" places - sacred spaces. And I truly do get that. And we should all get that. 

But that is not the end of the conversation if in fact a building does not serve God's mission any longer; it's just the beginning of the grieving process. We don't just discard it; out with the old and in with the new. But like families that have those difficult conversations with aging parents, we need as church leaders to have these same difficult conversations in our congregations. 

My former parishioners often heard me joke that when someone says "the tradition" what they really mean is the parish as I remember it from my youth.  So let's give credit where credit is due: the people who built the buildings in Worcester in the latter part of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century were visionaries and Stephen Earle was a creative genius. But we honor them by remembering that they were a people of faith before they had buildings. They set out to praise God by creating sacred spaces set apart for Word and Sacrament and they did that well, and with love, and creating places of beauty where so much has happened.

So I am sure that at this very place in this very post there is someone worshiping in one of these hallowed places who has just stopped breathing for a moment. So let me allow my inner pastoral instincts to take over right now and say: breathe in and breathe out. 

I am, although it would surprise many, in a lot of ways a conservative when it comes to the liturgy and the tradition. Or maybe more accurately, I am a gradualist. There is so much to honor from the past; from the faith of our fathers and mothers that has lovingly been passed on to us. But that is only the first part of that song and the problem is that we have forgotten the next part. The faith of our fathers and mothers needs to be living still and it is our job as witnesses to pass it on to our children and our children's children so it can be for them, too, a living faith. 

So I don't think it would be wise to sell all the buildings and start over. Or maybe it would be wise, but it scares the hell out of me, too. All I am saying is that authentic discernment uses both our heads and our hearts to listen to the living God. And idolatry keeps us from that God. We put our trust in what is penultimate rather than ultimate. 

So it would be way easier for us if we were at square one rather than trying to do retro-fits. It might therefore be helpful to imagine for a moment that there were no Episcopalians in Worcester at all - or at least no buildings for Episcopalians to worship in. If we were simply a group of people looking for a place to pray and to do ministry in 2014, what kind of buildings would that require? I submit to you that Stephen Earle is not our guy for this work nor would the strategy emerge that would have five different buildings in different parts of the city without adequate parking. What I envy most about those non-denominational types who plant churches is that they can consider parking and solar panels and insulation. They aren't dealing with ancient heating systems and cavernous spaces. 

So it is worth asking such a question, I think. And then once we have such challenging conversations to ask: given we are at point "a" and it might be good to get to point "b," what are the next steps we could take today to move in that general direction?

When a tragedy destroys a church building - by fire or earthquake or a new highway coming through - the immediate temptation is to rebuild a museum, to make the space exactly as it was. But if the congregation has strong and visionary leaders when such things happen they resist that idolatrous temptation. They start to ask questions like "what worked and what didn't?" The end of a building is not necessarily the end of a congregation. In fact very often it leads to new life. On the other hand, I see too often how the continuation of a building "as is" becomes all consuming. There is no time or energy to do ministry beyond the four walls because it takes all of a congregation's energy to keep the heat on. And if the choice comes to whether to preserve the building or hire a full-time rector, would you believe that more often than not the decision is for the building?

So within the DNA of Worcester there in fact have been buildings destroyed: fire, interstate highways, and tornadoes have all taken a toll on buildings. It is not accurate to say in Worcester, "it has always been thus." That is an a-historical and completely false statement. Not to mention the fact that even in the buildings we do have, there have been changes along the way.

Let's consider two of those: the altar and the pews. Both can cause major fights. Any Episcopal Church built before 1979 (when The Book of Common Prayer was last revised) was most likely built for Morning Prayer three times a month and Holy Communion once a month. The altar was against the wall and the priest's back was facing the people. In the 1970's and 1980's altars moved out so the priest could face the people, and in some places (where possible) there was a subsequent move out from a few feet from the back wall to even closer to the people, often then moving the choir to a space beyond the "table." 

This isn't the place for a lengthy discussion of liturgical renewal and the reasons for these changes. But this I can tell you: it doesn't really help a priest to say that the reason we are doing this is because of "tradition" because the early church worshiped standing around a table rather than kneeling in pews and facing the priest's back. The "tradition" is how I remember the church when I was growing up! 

In my previous parish, during a time of major renovations where the altar and choir did reverse spaces and we removed the altar rail, we did not remove the pews and replace them with chairs. Nor did we cushion the pews although several people suggested we do that. I don't want to re-live that discussion here; the church was pretty bold in the changes they made at the time and they created a space that better worked for the congregation we were becoming and most congregations can handle only so much change at once. But I do hope at some future date the time will be ripe for one of my successors to guide God's people through that change. Who really likes sitting in a pew? Our spiritual forebears were clearly smaller people than we are, both vertically and horizontally!

What would happen if we removed all the pews from all of our congregations by fiat? (Don't worry, I don't think that directive is coming any time soon.) But what if it did? I suppose some people would leave because without "my" pew it would no longer be "my" church. But think of how much easier it would be, at least for a time, to welcome newcomers. No rude glare to someone who comes in for the first time and didn't get the memo that they are not supposed to sit in that third pew from the rear on the left because "everybody" knows that pew belongs to Mildred and her long deceased spouse and her three grown children who now live in Miami, Chicago, and London respectively. No matter; don't you dare sit there...

Now I know that the same could and probably would happen with chairs. But here is the thing: chairs can be moved. If there are twelve people at an 8 a.m. Eucharist they can be set up differently than on Christmas Eve. It's harder to "own" a chair than a pew. And maybe that would be good for a congregation.

Moving the furniture, especially pews and altars, is a move from preaching to meddling. I get that. And I've been there in the midst of liturgical changes as a pastor. It's painful when people cannot make that move; when they need to kneel to receive the Body and Blood of Christ and now you are the one who took "their" rail away. (Even if it was a group discernment.) Conflict-averse clergy and lay leaders cannot take the risk of making such dramatic changes. 

The point is that the building does change and if Stephen Earle walked into his three buildings in Worcester today he'd immediately notice that they have changed since the latter years of the nineteenth century. And while I did not know the man I suspect he'd be glad about that and then ask: but why haven't you changed this yet? Clearly this no longer works...

Does the building serve the larger purpose of forming disciples to bear witness to the risen Christ? Is it serving the mission of God? And if not, how might it be adopted to do so? We must dare to ask these questions, for the sake of the gospel. We must remember that we are, even in buildings we have inherited, still a people and not just a steeple. 

So we need to find ways to have these conversations. We need to move beyond the very real emotional attachments we develop and take the risk of asking: what is the mission of God here and now, and how we can develop spaces for doing that necessary work? Would we be the Church without this building? 

If you want to watch Episcopalians squirm,just try raising questions like this an an Annual Meeting. But here is what I think: we'd be better served by doing that that raising seventeen questions about the $423 more that was spent on heating oil this year than last. 

And we do well to remember that the "tradition" goes back even more than two thousand years - back to our Hebrew ancestors. What guidance does Scripture offer to us in this conversation and how have we been missing it (right before our very eyes) because we have confused the "tradition" with the way we remember the Church when we were growing up, or perhaps even a little further back than that, to the latter part of the nineteenth century when Episcopalians went on a building frenzy in Worcester County?

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