Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Priesthood of All Believers

I've never been much enthused about the Reformation. While the Roman Church of its day was full of abuses (as it and others are still today), which needed correcting, a whole lot of the mystery of faith and the corporal aspects of Christian life seem to have been tossed out, with dull literalism, anti-sacramentalism, and individualism taking their place, enthroned on pulpits rather than bishop's chairs.

Yet I'm beginning to see more and more of value in the extent to which the Protestant view attacked the notion of priesthood and the Magisterium that governs it as the keepers of holy mysteries, indeed, of the keys to the kingdom itself. Looking upon recent events in the Episcopal Church and the Christmas ceremonies in the Vatican, I'm struck by how important it is that the laity understand and appreciate that they are, indeed, living members of the body of Christ. As such, they need to strive to be mature in faith and witness, not act as children ever in need of instruction and oversight or as young or old delighting in the cult of personality, goggling, fawning, and destroying those they place in the limelight.

Earlier this month, Fr. Matthew Hopkins wrote with regard to this passage from the Archibishop of Canterbury's Advent Letter,
the gift shaped by the Holy Spirit which decisively interprets God to the community of believers and the community of believers to itself
At best, that fragment of a sentence should read
the gift shaped by the Holy Spirit which interprets God in and with the community of believers and continually forms and re-forms that community itself.
The Archbishop completely objectifies, makes passive, “the community of believers,” which, for this Anglican, is about as far from Anglicanism as one can get.
(Rev. Michael W. Hopkins, December 15, 2007).

In other words, even with regards to understanding and interpreting Scripture, the laity has an active, vital role to play as part of the larger community of believers.

This doesn't necessarily mean congregationalism in the usual Protestant sense, but it does mean that the clergy is not the sole repository for and guardians of the faith, the kind that was "once delivered" and must be jealously kept under glass, free from air or light or human touch.

It also means, I think, that sooner or later we all, Protestants and Catholics alike, need to let go of our notion that clergy are somehow supposed to be some sort of species of the semi-divine or at least measured in those terms. So many of us want clergy to be somehow better than the average person, not simply accountable for misconduct, as we all must be, but somehow radiating holiness or, at the very least, at all times striving to do so, while at the same time being our friends, neighbors, mother and father figures, and the teachers and preachers who tell all those in our lives and in our worlds who displease us that they should behave differently, prophets and advocates of all of our own personal agendas.

The problem, as I see it, is not simply the occasional "toxic" congregation, where these attitudes take the form of a group dynamic that can be very harmful to all involved, institutionally and personally. The problem is the extent to which those, both the sometimes believers in the pews and the skeptics and non-believers on the outside, expect moral and spiritual super-performance from the paid professionals, either as consumerists, who want return for our money (those of us who invest) or simply as frail human beings who would like to believe that if only we tried harder -- as those who have taken religious vows presumably are or should be doing -- we would be living in the City on the Hill or whatever our vision is of living the holy life here on earth.

Those of us who are Christians, especially those of a more Catholic bent, want our pastors and priests to be iconic in some special and distinct way -- not just iconic in the sense that all who seek to follow Christ hope to reveal a glimmer of the face of the divine imaged in all of us humans, but as humans whom we expect to re-present themselves as Christ himself, to not just follow or serve the Good Shepherd, but to act as though they are Him. This is dangerous, not only in relations with clergy, but in what it means in how we think of ourselves as non-clergy. Always looking up to clergy to lead -- although many lead well -- all too often leaves us waiting for directions, for mission "strategies," for planned evangelism (i.e. marketing), for community-building, for building-building, etc. It keeps us from taking action, living full lives in Christ as not just as individuals, seeking our personal salvation, but as his corporate Body here on earth, we, the people, the one holy and apostolic Church, lay and ordained alike. Priests have important roles to play in celebrating the sacraments, administering resources for mission and worship, facilitating and focusing the community's efforts at providing Christian fellowship and service to the wider community, but we, too, have important and vital roles to play in teaching, preaching, ministering, and, on occasion, even prophesying.

There is so much work to do for Christ, as individuals and communities, that we cannot afford to just sit in the pews or even bring the dishes to the pot-lucks. What brings me the most hope of late is seeing laypersons in the Episcopal Church reach across parishes and dioceses, across miles and nations, to each other. But if we are to do more such good work, I think we have to start at home, as well, seeing every single one of us as vital parts of the whole. We need to stop conceiving of ourselves and acting as communities around ministers but instead work at becoming ministering communities. We need to stop the busyness of putting our priests on pedestals, sometimes tearing them down, only to look for new ones to raise up to replace them, and instead plant all of our feet firmly on the ground, everyone working together to imitate and serve Christ.

As I recently heard in an ordination sermon:
We need to remember that it is baptismal ministry that is primary and basic to the life of the Church, and it is only when and where clergy and laity both believe and embrace that truth that the mission of the Church can be advanced. Those of us who are ordained, while exercising ministries that are essential to the Church’s life, do so to support and empower the ministry of the all the baptized, the vast majority of whom are lay people. Without you, our ministries have neither context nor purpose.

* * * *

This priesthood belongs to the whole Body of the Faithful; it is the priesthood shared by all the baptized.

And what do we have to offer? In and of ourselves, whether lay or ordained, all that we have is the widow’s mite. We have our own limited and fallible humanity— imperfect and broken, flawed in so many ways, prone to making stupid and idiotic mistakes, seemingly unable to offer the perfection that God has the right to expect. But the incredibly Good News of the Gospel is that this is precisely what God wants. God wants the imperfect, broken and flawed human beings that we are, to reach out to the world, because each and every human being on the face of the earth is made of the same stuff, experiences the same challenges, and must deal with the same flaws.

It’s all symbolized in the widow’s mite— it seems like so little. But it’s not the amount that’s the focus here. It is our willingness to offer who and what we are and have. That is our call; and that is how we exercise our priesthood.
Not just to clergy, but the call of the priesthood to all believers. Each of us, with our own mite to offer.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Day

Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the whole earth.
Sing to the LORD and bless his Name;
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.

Psalm 96

Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence!
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!

Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness;
let the whole earth tremble before him.
Tell it out among the nations: “The LORD is King!

(choir door)

(The Lady Chapel)

(Tiffany windows in The Lady Chapel)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

Still looking for my Christmas music CDs. Can't find my Mahalia Jackson, so this will have to do.

Hard to believe it's Christmas Eve already. It's been warm and grey and muddy of late, the two feet of snow that fell the other week melting, freezing, and melting again, patches of grass beyond the four-foot high mounds left by the snow plow. Maybe we'll have a touch of snow later today.

All those weeks of Advent and I'm still not ready. Ran around with the kids shopping on Saturday just to spend some time with them before they left yesterday to visit Grandpa, aunts and uncles, and cousins who all will be congregating in the Midwest. The kids finally went out and got a tree together on Thursday and Friday night decorated it. My son and his girlfriend disappeared upstairs, and my daughter and I watched Princess Bride on t.v. Yesterday went to early mass, drove them to the airport, and finally did some shopping myself.

Now they're gone. Had a bit of heart failure last night when I frantically text-messaged them when they should have arrived two hours earlier, when the last I had heard from them from Detroit was that their connecting flight was on time. Turns out that the wind gusts in Milwaukee were so bad that they had to circle around for an hour and almost went back to Detroit. Thank God they landed safely.

Today looms so long. I should be at church from 4 p.m. until 1 a.m. or so, unless we decide to come home for some of the 7-9 p.m. break between services. Have scarcely seen my husband, which, of course, is usual. Among other things, he had to write two sermons for last week (one an ordination sermon), and three for this long weekend -- Advent IV and two for Christmas Eve (one of the latter going to be recycled over for use Christmas morning). We'll probably just sleep tomorrow afternoon. Then it's back to work on Wednesday. Gift exchange, such that it is, probably will wait until later in the week when the kids return.

I wonder sometimes how other clergy families manage. In the beginning it was good to participate in something far more important than family gatherings, and to get away from the football t.v. fests, the delicate maneuvering around delicate family matters, the restless children, the focus on gifts, and what to do afterwards other than eat and eat and eat and fall into a carbed up stupor. Now it's just a time to try to be inconspicuous and avoid frayed nerves and tired, aching bodies. It's a series of performances, which each year have their own little glitches but the show always goes on. Nothing wrong with that -- indeed, as Children of the Story, it is vital that it gets played out in all of its splendor.
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news,
But she just smiled and turned away.
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.

And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
(Don McLean, American Pie)
So let the music play on, the church bells ring, and those three men and their good women carry on. It sure beats the alternative.