Friday, March 11, 2016

Keeping First Things First

Recently I gathered with a bunch of Episcopal clergy-types for whom I have the utmost respect. As often happens in such settings, however, the conversation turned quickly to grief and loss for the Church that no longer exists. You can say that the mainlines have been sidelined, or that Protestant hegemony is no longer. Either way it involves loss...

There are many ways to frame this and many responses. I agree with the overall contours of the conversation, however, which goes something like this: we are living in a post-Constantinian, post-Christendom world. On a more local level, the big buildings we Episcopalians built in the nineteenth century no longer serve the mission of God in the twenty-first century. There are ample places to read about this and most people who love their congregations experience it first-hand. For clergy trained to serve a Church in a different time and place, however, it can feel like the rules have changed. 

I don't dispute any of this. In fact I agree completely. But I find that when the conversation is mostly among clergy-types (and I spend a lot of time in those circles) that whining too often replaces healthy grief. Actually "whining" is probably unfair. It's closer to despair. Too often it feels narcissistic and myopic. The result is that creativity and hope are blocked. Maybe we just need to have one big long cry. But then we need to get back to work!

After the Babylonian Exile, and the destruction of the Temple - out of which emerged the Biblical texts themselves - visionaries like Second Isaiah and Ezekiel, and worker-bees like Ezra and Nehemiah emerged. There was loss but that didn't mean God was finished. There was work to be done.

In the Book of Job, Job finally seems to get unstuck when God reminds him to consider the great big world beyond him - the world that includes sun and moon and stars and Leviathan. Unlike Job's friends, God doesn't seem to dismiss Job's grief. But God does seem to want to reframe it, and maybe help Job snap out of it. Go outside on a starry, starry night, Job!

I think in a similar way we do well to get some historical and global perspective. Doing so reminds us that it has always been hard to be the Church. If our historical memory goes back past the 1950s we might remember that the Episcopal Church had to be built from scratch in the United States in the early part of the eighteenth century, with some support from our friends in Scotland (but not so much England.) We began as a Missionary Society. Remembering those roots could be really, really helpful right now in terms of reclaiming our identity. 

Going back further, the Reformation makes recent tensions in the Anglican Communion look like a cakewalk. Going back still further, when Julian of Norwich said "all shall be well," she said that in the context of the Plague, in which a third of Europe died. "All shall be well," Julian insisted. She wasn't saying that the Black Death wasn't real, or that the world wasn't a mess. She was insisting that God is still God. She was either mad or a saint. Then again maybe those aren't always mutually exclusive.

Before her was St. Francis of Assisi - who lived at a time when the Church was a corrupt mess. "Rebuild my Church," God whispered to good old Francis. And I think God says ditto to us. 

Yes, the Church needs to be reformed, rebuilt, re-imagined. But this is not the first time in human history that God's people have faced challenges. The saints lived not only in ages past - they live now and we are called to wake up, and get to work. 

God is God, with or without the Church. God's mission is in the world - a mission the Church is called to participate in. But the Spirit blows where She will, with or without the Church Pension Fund, and with or without big steeple churches.

The center of gravity has shifted and continues to shift and this causes loss and confusion and even despair. And plenty of whining. There may indeed be more "nones" in North America than Episcopalians but the Church in Africa is growing - and even when we may have some theological disagreements, we can celebrate the work being done and join it where possible. We can also hear the words "the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few" with new insight as we seek to be faithful in our own North American context. 

God is indeed doing a new thing. Our job is not to be bitter or nostalgic or to say we really prefer the old thing. Nor is it our job (in my humble opinion) to hasten the demise of the institutional church - to "blow up" what we feel no longer "works" as we look dimly through a very dark glass. Our call is the same as it has ever been: to be faithful disciples, part of one holy catholic and apostolic faith. To do the work God has given us to do. This requires faith, hope, and love. Especially love. 

1 comment:

  1. Ditto for the Catholic Church, Rich. Thank God Pope Francis sees his work through a set of lenses similar to those you describe in this post. It's not about the institution or the buildings or even much of the dogma. To be "saved" (whether it be an institution or an individual) is for the seer to be transformed. This only happens when the seer sees with new eyes.