Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Worship as an Offering

Presentation of Christ at the Temple by Hans Holbein the Elder, 1500-1501 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

Mary was a devout woman and so she was anxious to do all that the Law of the Lord required, not because she felt coerced or put-upon, and not because she was afraid of the consequences if she didn't, but because her entire life was one of saying "Yes" to God.  Remember, that's how it all began, when the Angel Gabriel came to her, announcing that she would give birth to God's Son.  She said, "Yes -- let it be according to your word."

One of the great truths about human life and our relationship with God is that we have been given the freedom to choose -- we choose whether or not we will be a part of the life which God offers, and we choose whether or not to seek God's will.  And God waits for our free participation.  Mary said, "yes," and in that response she was blessed.  That's why she has always been seen by the Church as the first example of what it means to live the Christian life.  It means living in joyous response to the will of God.  Because Mary said "Yes," the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, and the miracle of the Incarnation took place.  By the power of God she conceived in her womb, and the perfect union of humanity and divinity was accomplished.  That's why Mary is among the blessed and that's why Christians down through the ages have always shown great love and devotion to her.

This feast also reminds us of something that is essential to the whole idea of worship, and that is that worship is something that we offer, something that we give to God.  In the Temple scene where Mary and Joseph stand by the priest, holding their baby and offering their sacrifice, there is something very simple and natural -- something wonderfully objective.  They did not perform this act because they thought it would make them feel good inside.  I suspect that they would have been shocked if anyone had asked if they got anything out of it.  They may well have been moved by a beautiful act of worship, but that's not why they did it.  They were simply fulfilling their obligation -- participating in the religious observance of their faith, something that completely transcended their own feeling or convenience.

Worship is both an offering and an experience:  it is something we offer to God and it is also intended to put us in touch with and give us an experience of the 'holy.'  But we need to avoid the temptation of becoming so totally focused on our experience that we lose sight of worship as offering.  Far too many people have developed a twisted idea that worship is a kind of church program whose primary focus is on the worshippers, and making them feel good.  If the reason we come to church is to give ourselves some positive strokes, then what we're engaged in isn't the worship of God but the worship of self -- and that, it seems to me, is the supreme blasphemy.

Worship is giving glory to God, offering our praise and thanksgiving, and acknowledging our dependence on God for everything that we are and ever will be.  It's a time to be reminded of what it means to be God's people, and to join with our sisters and brothers in Christ in receiving the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.  That's what we're to get from it -- the sacramental assurance that we belong to God and that nothing in this world has the power to change that fact.  There are times when it is not particularly fun or exciting, there are times when we don't particularly feel like it, but we do it anyway because that's part of what it means to be God's People.  In fact, I would argue that it's precisely when we don't feel like it that we need it all the more.  We need to reject the temptation to be consumed by our own feelings, and instead place ourselves before the one who knows us, inside and out, because God is the one who can bring us wholeness and strength.

So we give thanks on this feast day for our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our light and our salvation.  We give thanks for the example of Blessed Mary and her loving and willing obedience to God's will.  And we offer our worship in the way in which God delights -- gathering around the altar with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven to lift our hearts and voices in praise and thanksgiving.

Excerpt from a sermon given for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, February 2, 1997, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Dekalb, Illinois by Fr. James M. Jensen.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Stopping the World

Last week I stumbled upon a video featuring a talk by Fr. Terry Martin on evangelism (follow link here to video at EDOW site).  I listened attentively, hearing much I had heard or read before, including the Stopping the World stories, the ones that had first drawn me to Jake's place, which I later came back to from time to time.  My blog began when these stories meshed together in my heart and mind with those of my husband and his family, and the Good Shepherd story he used in a sermon given not long after his mother's funeral.  Both struck me as Wounded Healers, in the best sense, and I began to understand Jim in different, deeper way, finally knowing how the man and priest were one and the same.

But last Saturday, during a dark time, was the first I heard these stories told with Terry's face and voice.  I listened and the tears started streaming down my face.  I heard  "in all things God works for good" and "God redeems the most terrible of situations," and all I could think was, "yes, sometimes, maybe for you, but no, sadly no, not for me."  It was not a lack of faith or conviction of hope in a global sense, but rather an overwhelming feeling that redemption was over for me, that all that I had been through in life, good and bad, all I had struggled for, had come to nought, and had ended in a flood of despair and heartache that was choking all life from me, so that for me there simply was no hope of redemption - not ever.

This week has been full of turmoil of all kinds.  Yet I awoke this morning with an odd realization:  John, my first husband, was diagnosed with a Type 4 glioblastoma, had brain surgery to remove a golf-ball sized malignant tumor, was told he had less than six months to live, miraculously recovered, went into remission, and lived another fourteen years.  During that time, we resolved our marital differences by separating and divorcing, and I was able to learn to love him again, recall what was best in him, and be there to support him in ways I never could have done had we stayed together.

Jim died suddenly and brutally, each step of the way during his last moments going horrifically wrong, a kind of nightmare scenario from all the medical shows we watched on t.v., which somehow ended up being eerily quiet and heartbreakingly real.  In the time since, I have grieved and will continue to grieve much.  But I have also come to love him more and to better know the best in him, each and every day, and he has been here to support me in some ways he never could have had we stayed together longer here on earth.

So, maybe instead of cruel irony, despite the deep despair and loss, maybe there is redemption after all.  I do not believe that God engineered these events, made them part of his grand design, for the sake of my benefit, instruction, or suffering.   Yet I am beginning to see that God has been redeeming this most terrible situation, for me and others.  It just takes time, patience, and a willingness to listen for it.

[Note: The link to Fr. Terry's video from his website no longer works for some reason.  You can still see his video talk if you go here: and scroll down to Video-Based Small Group Courses and look for the videos from the Diocese of Washington.  Then if you click on the WindowsMedia link next to Terry's name, you can see it from there.]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Cup of Sorrow

"Now I look at the man of sorrows. He hangs on a cross with outstretched arms.  It is Jesus, condemned by Pontius Pilate, crucified by Roman soldiers, and ridiculed by Jews and Gentiles alike.  But it is also us, the whole human race, people of all times and all places, uprooted from the earth as a spectacle of agony for the entire universe to watch.  "When I am lifted up from the earth," Jesus said.  "I shall draw all people to myself" (John 12:32).  Jesus, the man of sorrows, and we, the people of sorry, hang there between heaven and earth, crying out "God our God, why have you forsaken us?"

"Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?"  Jesus asked his friends.  They answered yes, but had no idea what he was talking about.  Jesus' cup is the cup of sorrow, not just his own sorrow but the sorrow of the whole human race. It is a cup full of physical, mental, and spiritual anguish.  It is the cup of starvation, torture, loneliness, rejection, abandonment, and immense anguish.  It is the cup full of bitterness.  Who wants to drink it?  It is the cup that Isiah calls "the cup of God's wrath.  The chalice, the stupefying cup, ou have drained to the dregs," (Isaiah 51:17) and what the second angel in the Book of Revelation calls the "the wine of retribution" (Revelation 14:8), which Babylon gave the whole world to drink.

.   .   .   .   .

In the midst of sorrows is consolation, in the midst of darkness is light, in the midst of Babylon is a glimpse of Jerusalem, and in the midst of the army of demons is the consoling angel.  The cup of sorrow, inconceivable as it seems, is also the cup of joy.  Only when we discover this in our own life can we consider drinking it."

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup?

The Thirteenth Station

The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you.

Because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

All you who pass by, behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my hear is poured out in grief because of the downfall of my people. “Do not call me Naomi (which means Pleasant), call me Mara (which means Bitter); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”

Her tears run down her cheeks:
And she has none to comfort her.

Let us pray.

Silence is kept

Lord Jesus, you consoled Mary and Martha in their distress, you wept at the grave of Lazarus your friend, dry the tears of those who weep and comfort us in our sorrow that we may go forth strengthened in your love. Amen.

Holy God,
Holy and Strong,
Holy and Immortal,

Have mercy on us

Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England
The Archbishops’ Council 2000
Stations of the Cross.doc.5 — 26 March 2004

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Is there such a thing as a "healthy" congregation?

Is there such a thing as a healthy congregation? The short answer, I think, is no. There may be moments in time when a snapshot might capture group traits and behaviors suggestive of a strong, relatively stable system for nurturing spiritual growth and ministry. But there can no more be healthy congregations than there can be perfect marriages.

So what? Isn't the point to try, to work on developing and maintaining group dynamics that approach the ideal? And after all, isn't one of the cardinal points in a systems theory such as Peter Steinke's that "wholeness is not attainable"? What's wrong with using systems theory and other psychological and sociological models to help people get along better and learn to work better together?

Nothing really, at least not when sensitive, thoughtful people use them in situations that cry out for help. If systems theory or anything else can get people to step back from conflicts that are strangling a community and learn better ways to manage differences in the future, so much the better.

The same is true for many tools widely available and touted as essential parts of a Human Resources tool kit (or, if you will, medicine bag) for congregations, clergy, and dioceses -- survey forms, focus group studies, long-range planning programs, etc. Used sparingly, appropriately, by those who are not only trained in how to use them but also gifted in their ability to relate to people, to listen, understand, and assist, rather than diagnose, direct, or control, these may be helpful. The problem, however, is when everyone is using them, all of the time, regardless of whether the congregation is suffering from a condition or situation that the tools might help remedy or whether they are being applied by those who know how to use them effectively.

It is like taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications or even going to counseling to try to achieve the perfect balance in mood, mind, attention or energy. While it is good to seek help when we need it and learn what we can and should change about ourselves and our circumstances, it also is important to recognize the limitations of medicine, technology, and self-help in general, to make sure that we do not blind ourselves, with a flurry of self-improvement activities, to the pain and suffering of others, the stark reality of our flawed natures, and the urgent need to be in right relation with God before we can even begin to hope of peace and the joy of knowing God's saving grace.

To put it more simply, when we put so much of our time and energy in employing assessment tools and trying to implement social engineering, we run the great risk of our methods becoming the message. I think that is really the point of Ed's sermon (see below). Do we want to be seen and known as those who construct and maintain "healthy congregations" or those who go forth into the world living the Good News, imitating Christ rather than checking off items on a congregational assessment checklist?

Of course the proponents of these methods will argue that they are, in fact, serving the greater goal by helping us live in communities that will better nurture our spiritual growth and provide encouragement and support for serving others. I understand that is the goal, indeed the hope, of their efforts, and I mean no disrespect for those who have thought deeply, listened carefully, and worked diligently and faithfully towards that goal.

Yet I still must ask the questions. I have seen time and time again groups of laypeople and clergy who have attended countless hours of meetings, seminars, and workshops, who have heard truly inspirational speakers, read books and articles about what the church should be doing and how it might best weather the storm of sweeping changes in our culture, economy, social groups and interactions. We listen, become more hopeful, and sometimes we feel we have learned a lot. Other times we share these ideas with those in our parish and brainstorm as to how we might implement them. Yet, truthfully, what becomes of most of it? Even when we think we see some small positive results, have we really gained much other than the pleasure of a few moments of wistful hope that things are not as bad as they seem to be?

As far as professional assessment tools are concerned, their benefits in terms of efficiency may be outweighed by the mixed messages they send. No matter how expertly constructed, their structure and content imply certain expectations and ideas about what makes a healthy congregation. Even the best designed and administered surveys have a slant, suggesting which characteristics are negative and which are positive. For example, satisfaction with things they way they are or doing them the same way is seen as negative, while greater willingness to change and experiment with new ways is seen as positive. Likewise, ranking the extent to which congregational life sparks "energy" and "enthusiasm" implies that the failure to produce that kind of response indicates either that the congregation is not spiritually alive or that it is not lively enough to attract outsiders.

More tellingly, significant parts of these surveys assess levels of satisfaction with certain aspects of congregational life. While it may be useful to find out what people are really unhappy about, discovering it with this kind of exercise gives the message that the congregation is comprised of customers to be satisfied, and that by scientifically cataloguing their likes and dislikes, they will have a better chance of being matched with the pastor of their dreams (shades of E-Harmony).

It is debatable whether professional surveys, consultants, and the data and reports they produce give enough benefit for the dollar over the old ways of open-ended survey questions distributed by mail or in church, lay people puzzling over what they receive in return, and group meetings and flip chart data. They certainly have the advantage of having others do the hard work of collecting and digesting information and presenting it in a format that is attractive and easy-to-read for both the congregation and, in the context of a search process, candidates for clergy positions. But the point here is not which survey methods are best or even how often or how they should be done, but rather to suggest that these assessment rituals have become increasingly important for not only the ways in which the data is used to direct and shape congregational life, but also the way it makes us think that the "health" of our congregations is a matter of vital and ongoing concern, which can be measured according to scientifically informed criteria and measurement tools.

The larger implication is that there are, in fact, objective ways to identify and "treat" unhealthy conditions, and that we must be ever diligent in seeking out congregational "disease" and doing all we can to rid ourselves of it. This adds a whole new layer of meaning to the need for any organization to listen to its members, face problems, and deal with them before they get out of hand. Instead of taking us away from the notion that our clergy are merely hospice workers caring for an old and dying institution, it merely reinforces that idea. It also supports the view that unless we do something quickly and effectively, in terms of dramatic life-saving efforts, with the best tools that science can provide, mainline Christianity will die out entirely.  Finally, it suggests that what the church is most concerned about maintaining is the congregation as a functional social unit rather than nurturing the faith of the people who are its members, wherever they may go.

I'd like to suggest a metaphor that may be more realistic and helpful than the medical one -- a forest, rather than a corporate body plagued with disease or mental or emotional dysfunction. For a long time forests have been viewed either as a natural feature of the landscape or as something to be managed for a particular human use, such as hunting grounds, parks, or a crop that produces timber for fuel, building, or commerce. However, it was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that people began to think seriously about applying scientific knowledge and management techniques to preserve and protect large areas of forested land from rapacious harvesting and expanding areas of human habitation and agriculture, and to maintain others to provide a controlled but steady supply of timber and other wood products for human use.

Managing forests and forestland, however, turned out to be more difficult than some first imagined. It required more than just limiting the destructive effects of human activities. Fire, disease, variable weather conditions, soil composition, and other factors could impact forest growth and health, and human interventions sometimes worsened rather than improved the situation. As the science of ecology developed, forests began to be viewed as part of larger ecosystems and life cycles. Even the timber industry began to replace clear cutting with more sophisticated planning, selective cutting, and planting that promoted diversity and better conditions for the soil and the other flora and fauna that inhabited the forest's ecosystem.

A critical turning point came with the understanding that the so-called "climax" forest -- the stage with maximum maturity-- was only one stage in a larger cycle of growth and death, one which might produce variable results depending changing conditions, and one which, in any event, was not static. So while one might find a mature stand of trees and want to preserve it, for aesthetic or commercial reasons, as is, it was only one stage that could not be extended indefinitely. Without fire, decay or wind damage, the forest canopy would become so thick that it would stifle or prevent all undergrowth, including young trees needed to someday replace the mature ones when they die. Therefore, using human means to protect the mature trees from decay, disease, and fire might, in the end, do more harm than allowing them to die naturally to allow new plant and tree growth on the forest floor.  So while the results might seem better than clear-cutting or other thoughtless means of seeking short-term human ends, even well-intentioned human meddling can sometimes cause great harm as well.

I like to think of congregations in much the same way, although the life cycles are less regular and predictable. It is, I think, impossible to create and sustain indefinitely what many would consider a mature, spiritually "healthy" congregation. Yes, a good measure of intention is needed to make a religious community spiritually alive, hospitable, nurturing, growing, and relatively conflict-free (or whatever characteristics make one "healthy" and "mature"). But I think if people were really honest, there's a good deal of luck involved, as well. How often do any of us experience -- if we ever do -- a time in a congregation where most of these supposedly necessary elements fall into place? Once in a lifetime, I'd say, and then for maybe at most two to five years.

The reality that many have to face is that the stars are not always going to be aligned to produce the results we want, no matter how hard we try, no matter how diligently we study, tinker, and maneuver to try to create them. More important in today's world is that the ecosystem, if you will, has changed dramatically. With greater geographic mobility and displacement from family members, weaker ethnic and social ties to religious institutions (with the exception of some minority and new immigrant groups), less support and involvement from the moneyed upper classes, and overall less social pressure to be affiliated with and participate in a particular religious community (with some regional variations), we are bound to have fewer numbers, more frequent losses, less stability and continuity overall in terms of the identity of the members, their ages, family and social connections, and the extent to which they can provide steady financial support. With an ever-changing group of people, less financial resources, more reasons not to attend and less pressure to stay, if conflict arises or simply if something changes that is not to one's liking, little or no denominational loyalty, it's no wonder that congregational life is ever more fragile and precarious, without there necessarily being something seriously wrong or defective about the people involved, their goals, or their individual spiritual health.

In fact, it could be argued that the more passionate and serious people are about religion, the greater the possibilities of conflict and instability than back in the days when church was just "a Sunday habit or a social club." Filling the pews with fairly happy, comfortable people who enjoyed the social life perhaps more than hearing a challenging sermon or having a stimulating leader or group for Bible study, may have once acted as a kind of buffer -- or perhaps simply played the role of a steady Martha who minded the teas, took care of the kitchen, baked and gathered old clothing for the poor, as compared to the sometimes unsettling behavior of the seeking Mary. At the same time, the law of averages might have meant that the larger numbers and the social pressure that kept the successful business people and others with better skills at management and social relations coming to church regularly meant that it was easier to get a ready supply of people who might excel at the more practical aspects of church governance.

This, admittedly, is idle speculation. The demographic trends, however suggest that the decline in numbers and influence among the mainline churches is not so much because of any declining religiosity in the general population but rather because of dramatic changes in the social environment that have largely removed the non-religious reasons for joining and attending church regularly. It may be that the "spiritual but not religious" types were always around in larger numbers than we might imagine, but they once had compelling reasons to warm the pews on a regular basis, as well as a more positive view of religious institutions and religious people.

The mainline churches may still harbor hopes of reversing those trends or, at very least, preventing any further losses. But at some point they are going to have to choose. One option is to keep pursuing efforts at marketing, trying to find and ride the waves of consumer demand and satisfaction, against decades of evidence that what sells is the certainty of fundamentalism combined with the enthusiasm and zeal of evangelical fervor and the money and facilities that go with greater numbers and passion. The other option is to stay the course, tighten our belts, and work with what we have, and focus on nurturing strong, intentional faith communities, whether we lose numbers and buildings and, in some places, meet in small groups and at odd locations.

I think what we have now, at least in the Episcopal Church, is a schizophrenic course that tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, we talk a lot about innovation, new ways of doing things, and now and then check our consumer satisfaction thermometers. On the other hand, we say we want to improve the quality of the communities we have, make them deeper and richer. But what we do is try to measure how far they fall short of the climax forest ideal, with its towering hardwoods and lush undergrowth and sun-drenched floors -- a warm and welcoming place with wise, benevolent preachers and teachers, little or no conflict, and the absence of troubled, contentious people, doubters, and depressives. And instead of patiently waiting for congregations to grow deeper roots and stronger limbs, with the time-tested means of worship, prayer, and mutual love and support, we tell them that what they need most is more energy, more flexibility, different arrangements of furniture, and more lively and contemporary music. So we want our congregations to be spiritually and socially "healthy" and "mature," and, at the same we distract them with assessment tools, fast-talking consultants, systems theory, and innovative liturgies, and constantly remind them that they are not drawing in greater numbers or enough young people.

I think it is time to step back and do less in the way of measuring and engineering and just let the trees grow.  We cannot keep obsessing about the right soil conditions, acidity, temperature, and the like and frantically applying more and more fertilizer and pesticides.  If we keep doing this, we will have no trees at all, let alone the occasional climax forest when the trees reach their full maturity, before they decay and fall or are taken down by wind or fire.

One of the most memorable moments I ever had in an adult Christian education class was a film series on the Epistles of St. Paul.  The narrator traveled to the places where the cities once stood that held the congregations to which Paul wrote.  With a deserted hillside behind him, the narrator explained that not only were the Roman cities gone from those locations, but Christianity was gone as well, and Islam had taken its place.

There was something remarkably calm and matter-of-fact about what he said.  It was not some great tragedy or a waste of time and effort on Paul's part.  Times change and the faith takes root wherever it can, for awhile, at least, and then starts over.  All we can do is keep planting the trees and tend them with care and love.  God alone will decide when we are done.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Jesus as a Congregational Development Specialist?

Listen to Fr. Ed Hunt's sermon of June 27, 2010 here  (or from here)

THE GOSPEL Luke 9:51-62

The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Luke

Glory to you, Lord Christ.

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Congregational Vitality By The Numbers

Elizabeth Kaeton and Lisa Fox have begun an important conversation about assessing "congregational vitality" by the numbers. Elizabeth quotes a recent article in Progressive Christian by Rev. Dan R. Dick, a Methodist minister, "Measuring Faith: Metrics are no way to assess spiritual vitality." He writes:
Mainline denominations are in a panic. They're losing members and resources, and they're responding to the crisis with the best models that business schools can buy. The trouble is, the church of Jesus Christ isn't a business, and to run it like a business may be one of major reasons that Protestant churches are in trouble numerically, and have so little moral influence on society today.
This is, I am afraid, nothing short of heresy -- that all the efforts to make over, rebrand, cut costs, and tightly manage the Good Ship Mainline may have caused it to sink even faster than anything Post-Modern Western culture has ever done to it.

Part of the problem with the business model is that it relies on quantifiable goals and assessment tools. As Elizabeth observes, one point the article makes is "that we confuse 'indicators of vitality' with 'activity' and they are not the same."  In the Methodist Church, like many others, the first "indicator of vitality" is "Average worship attendance as a percentage of membership" -- or, as Lisa translates: 
… the number of people who plop their butts in the pew on any given Sunday and how much they drop into the offering plate. That is to say, we worship at the Golden Calf known as ASA [average Sunday attendance] and finance.
As Rev. Dick knows, however, ASA

...will not tell you anything more than how many people attend worship. True measures of spiritual growth and development must measure how a person is progressing in his or her relationship with God and Jesus Christ. This requires a set of standards, of which, worship attendance should certainly be one. But this should also include some measurement of prayer, study of scripture, service to others, relationship to the covenant community, etc.
The obsession with growth and numbers reflects much more than the latest wave of anxiety over the Great Decline (in churches X, Y, and Z; in mainline Protestantism; in Western Christianity -- take your pick).  It goes back nearly fifty years to the Church Growth movement, which spawned many of the consultants who have been advising, training, and leading clergy and church officials for decades. Their quasi-business-sociological model of church, (modeling both what church is supposed be and how it should be "done"), has gripped our imaginations and absorbed our attention for so long that few question anymore its underlying premises, let alone its hopes of success in reviving Christianity in the Post-Modern West.

In recounting the history of these developments, Professor David A. Roozen suggests that the measure-by-the-numbers (i.e. Church Growth) proponents have now prevailed to the point that "mainliners" have largely capitulated to adopting their methods, if not all of their goals: 
One of the more helpful consequences of all the attention given in the late 1970s to the original research and commentary on the oldline membership declines was a questioning of whether or not membership trends were an appropriate gauge of the/a church's faithfulness.  Although the debates were often clouded in obtuse abstractions and subtlety overlaid with the typical, academic deconstructive strategy of caricaturing one's opponent, two issues dominated.  One was whether evangelism (pro-membership growth) or social justice (highlighting the costliness of discipleship) was the primary purpose of the church.  A second was whether or not God would provide the blessing of growth to faithful congregations.  The pro-growth position within the latter was that while membership growth per se was not the primary purpose of the church, God surely intended for faithful congregations to grow.  Two generations (and two generations of continual membership declines) later the debates continue with two major differences.  One is that they seem less intense and less direct, perhaps because after forty years of losses few mainliners are against recruitment and/or development efforts that can be, correctly or incorrectly, passed off as evangelism, and social justice has lost its edge as denominational identities have become more diffuse and contested.  Perhaps more importantly, the last decade or so has witnessed an increasing emphasis on multi-dimensional notions of congregational vitality, with an especially strong surge of interest and prominence being given to "spiritual vitality."

Hopefully other[s] ... will vigorously and dialogically explore the variety of possible normative definitions of vitality, including my own personal preference for the affinity between multi-dimensional approaches and post-modernity.  The latter notwithstanding, the major thrust of my analysis will focus on membership growth for three reasons.  Most importantly and comforting, all empirical studies including multi-dimensional measures of congregational vitality of which I am aware show that membership growth is significantly related to other possible indicators of vitality.  That is, congregations that show high levels of mission outreach, spiritual vitality, financial health, lay involvement, etc also tend to be growing. More pragmatically, membership growth is the most concrete and statically robust measure of vitality available in the largest national sample survey of congregations (over seven times larger than the next largest) available for multivariate analysis.  Finally, there is a much more substantial body of social scientifically informed literature on membership growth than for any other of the currently debated measures of congregational vitality. 
Choosing a measure of congregational vitality is a debatable enough decision in itself, but it begs an equally vexing and even more foundational question.  When dealing with theological, spiritual or religious matters, why bother with measurement and human statistics at all?  It is a question that has haunted religious research since its outset: and as Smilie has reminded church growth researchers, Barth presented as far back as 1948 a particularly clear and passionate argument against confusing membership trends with questions of faithfulness.  It is beyond this paper to argue the case for the value, much less necessity, of using human agency in general, much less a social scientifically informed rationality in particular, as a vehicle for God's purposes.  Therefore let it suffice to note but two major dimensions of such an argument.  One would build on the simple fact that the dismissal of human agency occupies an extremely minimal space in both the long history and contemporary currency of Protestant theology, especially that of liberal Protestant theology.  A second, more defensively deconstructionist tact, and one more specifically in regard to the statistical measurement of changes in growth, would use Smilie's rejoinder to Barth as a point of departure:  "Some observers, unable to relieve themselves of 'all quantitative thinking,' might observe that Barthians in Europe have succeeded in lowering membership and participation without necessarily lifting the quality of life of the body of Christ." 
David A. Roozen, Oldline Protestantism: Pockets of Vitality Within a Continuing Stream of Decline.

While Roozen acknowledges that other "normative definitions of vitality" are worth exploring, saying in effect that numbers are not everything, nevertheless he maintains that they are the best indicator of "vitality," in part because there is the most data and research on them.  No doubt most people involved in mainline churches would agree, both for the pragmatic reasons he cites and the fact that such measures have long been fundamental to the way clergy, congregations, and hierarchies operate.  On a local, regional, and national level, ASA drives just about everything and is the one measure that has been slavishly (if not always accurately) recorded for generations in virtually every congregation.  It has also driven successful non-denominational movements, such as Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Church.

One can hardly dispute that ASA is a rough and telling measure of the prospects for survival, as there is an inevitable correlation between the numbers in the pews and the money in the plate available to pay staff and maintain buildings, not to mention support various ministries and outreach.  As ASA figures continue to decline across the board, they are no longer merely the canaries in the coal mines but rather a rough and ready indicator of when doors will close, properties will become vacant, and local financial resources will be lost for supporting higher levels of church administration and ministries. 

Consequently, it is practically impossible to do anything but keep an anxious eye on ASA and to employ all the resources available to mitigate potential losses.  It also is tempting to seek radical life-saving measures, even if they risk further alienation and loss, because they promise to abandon all the ways of doing and being church that apparently have done little or nothing to reverse the demographic and cultural trends that have taken away the power, influence, and presence the mainline churches formerly enjoyed.  While once there was some patience and willingness to listen to those who warn of the danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, many now believe that it is far better to act quickly and decisively on the best that "social scientifically informed rationality" can offer.

So far it seems that the best such rationality has to offer is a data-driven sociological model that is often blind to local circumstances and the spiritual, psychological, and emotional health of the people involved.  Lisa Fox presents a compelling case for allowing laity considerable freedom to explore and evaluate their own needs, without undue influence from the so-called experts, and to instead be guided by non-anxious clergy and lay leaders, with love and patience and confidence that they can find their own way with their own rationality and more than a little help from prayer, reflection, and the occasional gusts of the Holy Spirit.

For all the talk of the "Listening Process" with regard to issues of human sexuality and theology that divide Anglicans worldwide, true listening is something that is often neglected on the local and diocesan levels.  Like their counterparts on the national and international scene, parish and diocesan leaders are sometimes dead set in their own convictions of what must change and who must effect those changes -- come hell or high water -- and anything but change is simply unthinkable.  Even, or perhaps especially, in times of transition, when vast amounts of time and money are spent in employing consultants to conduct surveys, focus group meetings, and planning sessions, the Listening Process is nothing more than a masque, artfully designed and acted to call forth private agendas (however informed by social science and expert advice), with the results often well known ahead of time.

The problem, however, is not so much the process as determining whose needs and concerns are going to be heard.  Church officials inflamed with the desire to evangelize (albeit in its narrowest and crudest sense) often want to focus only on those who are absent -- youth ages 15-35 and those who have grown up with little knowledge of or experience in living as part of a religious community.   Consideration of the needs of those outside the established church no doubt is necessary to countermand insular and parochial thinking among those lost in delusions of what the church once was and always should be. On the other hand, ignoring the needs of those already active and desirous of spiritual growth, and focusing almost exclusively on those who may never cross the threshold, can seriously undermine the health and confidence of the existing community and make it even less attractive to outsiders.

Too often the anxiety-driven agenda of the so-called experts -- and all those with a stake in it, employed by the church, research institutes, and consultants -- engages in overkill when it confronts the local church culture.  In order to make sweeping changes based on what the research says is required for numerical growth, the ideas and experience of those already present are often ignored or dismissed out of hand. The prevailing assumption is that most congregations or parishes are in some kind of diseased state that must be restored to health and vitality (why else would their numbers be static or declining?).  So any excuse for doctoring is welcomed and, despite lean times, often well funded. ["The task of church leadership is to discover and remove growth-restricting diseases and barriers so that natural, normal growth can occur.” - Rick Warren.]

The disease model really takes over full force whenever a church loses its pastor, when the very first thing the congregation is supposed to do is create as much distance as possible from not only the person who is gone, but just about everything and everyone associated with his or her ministry.  This is supposed to be a "healing" period because loss of any kind is presumptively traumatic and life-threatening.  The subsequent period of "self-study" is one in which the focus is on what was lacking or misdirected before and hardly ever on what was valued and working well for the community. Suddenly, everything is up for grabs, with only lip service given to the past (often in the form of a reimagined history, which conveniently foreshadows the new goals of the appointed change agents).  Thus, rather than attempting a smooth transition and proceeding as if one staff person were to be replaced with another, the congregation is intentionally led through a period of great upheaval, during which it is supposed to wholly divest itself of its immediate past and welcome the opportunity to take off in a totally different direction -- in other words, "healing" by amputation.  [See the process described in CDO - Interim Ministries - Book 1 and The Fundamentals of Interim Ministry, which prescribes constant change as the hallmark of transition periods: "There is a time when innovations become routine, then they become the new orthodoxy and then they become a barrier to the future. In many cases, the questions remain the same but the answers are different because circumstances are different. The art in the successful management of transitions is to develop a system that works when change is the only constant."]

I am acutely aware that some may question my objectivity on at least this aspect of the process (knowing that my current parish is undergoing transition as a result of the untimely death last year of its rector, my husband).  However, this has been a passionate concern of mine for a long time (in fact, long before I even met my husband).  I have seen this kind of forced upheaval happen time and time again, first and foremost when I was a member of a congregation and its Search Committee in another denomination (Lutheran), which, even in the 1990's, was guided by the same Church Growth principles that continue to direct the attention and operations of most mainline churches today, including the Episcopal Church.

There we lost our pastor of sixteen years, when he left to take care of his wife stricken with cancer.  And the first thing we did was sit through an excrutiating public "exit interview" with him and the bishop's assistant, who explained all that our pastor had failed to accomplish during his ministry that we would have to undertake in the future.  Then we went through the usual self-study.  Although we found enough positives to present to the candidates, it was clear from all our resources and advisors that we were supposed to reinvent ourselves and somehow do much "better" - never mind our healthy ASA, continued influx of new members even during the interim, the use of our building by numerous community groups, including AA and Al-Anon, the Boy Scouts, and a non-church community organization serving young moms and their children - not to mention our on-going three large adult study and prayer groups that met on Sunday mornings,  a Sunday School full of children, various women's groups, and week-day prayer groups.  Yet we must have been doing something wrong because we had not appreciably increased our active membership beyond 250, and we were made to feel we were selfish and not sufficiently  concerned and focused on the unchurched and evangelism.  So, of course, the only solution was to make radical changes in our liturgy, get rid of the sung Eucharist and the kneeling rails, shorten the service, and get people in and out quickly - as all the focus group studies said that was what the unchurched hungered after.

Then and now radical change seems to be the mantra because church never is good enough, and no one dares to say their congregation is anything but defective, if only because they have had the same leadership for awhile and have not gone through the kind of churchspeak colon cleanse required during times of "transitional ministry."  If you did it before and you liked it, it's time for something else.  Unless people are being drawn in like flies, there must be a new and better trap out there to attract those unfortunate enough not to have found Jesus in the person of our particular congregation.  

There is nothing wrong with aspiring to do more and better - indeed that is what we all strive to do.  However, even the best of those who work tirelessly and faithfully to improve and grow the Church, unwittingly get caught up in unexamined assumptions and beliefs about not only what the future must bring but what must be sacrificed now to bring that supposed future into being.

What I find most heartbreaking is the attitude many of our leaders have towards the "graying" population in the pews.  Instead of drawing upon their knowledge and experience, and whatever wisdom they may have gained in their life-long spiritual journeys, they are at best relegated to what some have called the Old Church Chapels, their piety and practice being dismissed as something that inevitably must die out, as something that is no longer valued or needed by Post-Modern culture.  For many it is simply inconceivable that such people could evangelize or nurture faith and witness among others without radically transforming themselves and their communities into something more marketable and, presumably, more easily understood by those not yet conversant in their ways.  Of course their financial contributions are still welcome, but not much more -- unless they, too have, drunk the Church Growth kool-aid.

This attitude, fortunately, is not shared by all.  There are some, like Diana Butler-Bass, who still find merit in at least some elements of tradition and have some hope that they may be used to help build and nurture intentional communities of faith.  But even among those who express compassion for those who follow the "old ways," there is a growing conviction that those ways must and will be cast aside in favor of whatever will emerge from their ashes.

Take for example, William Floyd Dopp's The Tale of Two Churches. He writes of 80-year old Earl and his "beloved old chapel church [OCC]," where he was married a hoped to be buried. Dopp acknowledges that "to tell Earl that the world has changed and that there is no place for his beloved chapel would be too cruel."  While the emerging mission church [EMC] has a "moral obligation" to treat Earl with "love and compassion," and to meet the needs of those like him, there is no doubt that the OCC has "come to the end of its days" and it will be replaced by the EMC.

Similarly, Thomas Brackett has no doubt that the old ways must be abandoned.  Taking the view of the unchurched, he writes:
Now to my point on vending machine meals. There is nothing more dull than going forward to receive “a crisp and a shot” from robed holy people, in my humble opinion, though we have made it desirable and “holy” through many years of tradition and back-pedaled theology. Those of you Insiders who love the Eucharistic celebration as it is, please block your ears and bear with me! The Liturgical Lifeboat is still a means of grace for you and I honor that.
Yet, he sees that
Many of our church leaders are realizing that, for most of their careers, they have been offering a kind of hospice ministry to their congregations and dioceses. It is not just the flagging attendance and the graying of our denomination’s membership that push them to acknowledge the ennui of our beloved institutions. It is also the noted absence of fresh visions and dreams that would normally bubble up from our younger members. There seems to be a fresh hunger for the Spirit’s promise to give above and beyond anything that we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20-21).
(From Midwifing the Movement of the Spirit - Part 3.)

There may be some truth in what Brackett says.  But too many have taken the consequences of that truth to the extreme of being ready and willing to sacrifice existing churches and their members to the altar of the new emerging ones.  Instead of investing church resources into "planting" new communities in new places or even abandoned buildings, existing congregations and parishes are targeted for makeovers that not only fail to attend to the spiritual needs of their current members and make use of their time and talents, but sometimes actively drive them out. [See Leading Congregational Change: A Practical Guide for the Transformational Journey, by Jim Herrington, Mike Bonem, James H. Furr, a guide recommended by most mainline churches as well as Rick Warren, which explains how resisters to change are to be identified and purged, if necessary.  Summary here.]  And oddly enough, sometimes declining numbers and unhappy congregants are viewed as sure signs of progress. [See, Dan Hotchkiss, Don't Underestimate System Delays, quoted in The Lead, who writes: "Whatever patterns of behavior were preventing growth before need to be changed, and in the short run that is likely to repel more members than it attracts." "Remember that in general, the most frequent first sign of success in planning is that people get less happy."]

Although I've witnessed a series of aggressive attempts to make over a vibrant but numerically static congregation in the Lutheran church (ELCA), based on these principles and strategies, the real danger is not so much what I hope are rare instances of planned demolition, but rather the way the ideas behind the Church Growth and some of the Emergent Church movements feed a larger misconception of the current state of Christianity as both a faith and a social institution in the U.S. 

An example of how many perceive our churches can be seen in this sermon from Reverend Hillary Crute Johnson of Bernardsville United Methodist Church, Bernardsville, NJ.
However, over the last 40 years, the Methodist church has been in decline. Congregational development experts are finding that people aren’t leaving their faith, but they are leaving our church and many of the main line denominations. I have been told in seminars that on any given Sunday only 30% of Christians are actually in church. There are many reasons for this, but it should suffice to say, open your newspaper, look at the lifestyles of your family and your neighbors, think about your own feelings about church and you get the picture of why the church is failing to attract people today. If I could get most people of the people who have shown interest in our church here on any given Sunday, we would have about 30-35 people, which is the average attendance for churches in our area. But, other events and obligations or distractions keep most people from coming to church.
. . . .

This past year, I have been on a mission trying to discover what has happened to the Methodist church: a church that has roots in visible, life changing ministry that has begun to dry up and decline; and how can we recover our spiritual center and reform ourselves so that our dry bones live once again and have the impact in the world that we once did?
This is, in many respects, an excellent, thoughtful, soul-searching sermon.  Rev. Johnson, like many others I have quoted here, has some great insights into what is going on in the world around us and is dedicated to doing all she can to bring life and hope to her church and her community.  However, some of those ideas and dreams are tinged with not only understandable anxiety about the Great Decline but  assumptions about how and why mainline churches are suffering this decline.  Most telling is the nostalgic view of the past in which the church once had "impact in the world."

The irony is that the views of Congregational Development and Church Growth experts, and those that they educate and train, are based on sociological research and an understanding of history that now appear distorted and outmoded in light of recent work by leading sociologists and historians of religion.  In the past, their fields were dominated by those who studied religion within the confines of particular religious movements and institutions rather than from the larger perspective of society as a whole.  Also lacking was a cross-cultural understanding of what "religion" is, or rather how Western ideas of a division between the secular and the religious aspects of human life and culture have led to an ethno-centric notion of what, in fact, religion is in all times and places - one that has long shaped the way religion has been conceptualized and studied.  [See generally, authors and essays at The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere.]

Of particular relevance to the Great Decline of the mainline churches in the U.S. is the work of Jon Butler, Howard R. Lamar Professor of American Studies, History, and Religious Studies and Dean, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Yale University.  Professor Butler views religious culture and institutions in the U.S. in the late 20th and early 21st centuries against the backdrop of what he has learned of them from his research into the 18th and 19th centuries, most notably detailed in Awash in a Sea of Faith - The Christianizing of the American People (Harvard U. Press 1992).  In a 2004 interview with the History News Network he points out that we, as a nation, are much more religious than we were at our founding:
If we went back to the religion of the Founding Fathers we would go back to deism. If we picked up modern religion, it's not the religion of the Founding Fathers. Indeed, we are probably more religious than the society that created the American Revolution. There are a number of ways to think about that. Sixty percent of Americans belong to churches today , 20 percent belonged in 1776. And if we count slaves, for example, it probably reduces the figure to 10 percent of the society that belonged to any kind of religious organization.

Modern Americans probably know more about religious doctrine in general, Christianity, Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, than most Americans did in 1776. I would argue that America in the 1990s is a far more deeply religious society, whose politics is more driven by religion, than it was in 1776. So those who want to go back would be going back to a much more profoundly secular society.
Also, the role of religion in the U.S. today is vastly different than it is in England and other European countries.  [Listen to his excellent lecture on "The Surprise of Religion in 20th Century America," available as a Yale University Netcast audio recording here.]  Consequently, the dichotomy many, such as William Floyd Dopp, have drawn between the nearly empty churches and cathedrals in Europe and the brimming stadiums of Christians gathering in various African countries, does not necessarily inform the present or predict the future of Christianity in the U.S.  Yet we, especially us Episcopalians, see ourselves in the shadow of the Church of England and other European churches, which we take as the ghosts of our Future Church.

Most important, those pesky numbers may not mean at all what we think they mean -- the Great Decline of the role of religion in general and Christianity in particular in the U.S.   While the mainline churches may have been diminished in numbers, social prestige, and political influence,  Christianity appears to be very much alive.  As Butler recounts in his lecture, he once advised a visiting European who was interested in learning about the role of religion in U.S. culture to rent an auto and drive cross country from New York to the Midwest.  The visitor took his advice and was amazed at what he saw, all the churches of all sizes and shapes, that dotted the countryside, in rural, suburban, and urban areas, in virtually every nook and cranny of the places where he traveled.

This is not to say that everything is rosy or not much changed.  Butler recognizes that enormous changes have occurred.  Nevertheless, he puts them into the perspective of early American religious life and demonstrates how the halcyon days of American churches in the 1950's and 1960's represent a level of membership and participation that was unrivalled in history and arguably artificially high because of the various historical circumstances and events that produced them.

From this perspective, it is not clear that we are in the great crisis of faith and disdain for religion that many would have us believe.  What we see passing are those social and historical forces that were the tides that left us awash in "a sea of faith."   Churches, especially immigrant churches, were critical to the settlement and social organization of American communities from the 19th century through the explosive growth in population in general and of suburban communities in the 1940's, 1950's, and early 1960's.  Religion was for most people not simply a matter of faith, belief, or commitment to its tenets, but rather a critical part of personal and familial identity to an extent unparalleled in other Western countries during the same time period.  In the U.S. there was no state church or, for the most part, any parish boundaries that encompassed all (whether participants or not), which served as the larger context in which people lived their daily lives but often did not play much of a role in forming their social identities as family, class, ethnicity, and geography.  Instead, in the U.S., churches were an important part of people's identity -- for many, the center of their social lives, and for recent immigrants, the source of important ties with their distant homelands.

So what do all these numbers really mean?   Well, for those of us in parishes that struggle to pay utility bills, repair and maintain buildings, and keep professional clergy and musicians employed, the numbers do represent critical losses and real threats to our continued existence as the organized bodies and institutions that we have been.  For others, they mean less influence in local politics and other community affairs, less visibility overall, and fewer resources and networks for assisting the hungry and poor and others in need.

But one must seriously and earnestly ask what does any of this have to do with the spiritual life and "vitality" of our congregations and parishes?  And why do we even posit the notion of a "healthy" church?  Back when the pews were overflowing and social pressures brought in both adults and youth, as largely captive audiences, did our numbers contribute in any significant way to the spiritual growth and development of either individuals or the corporate body of our churches?  Yes, they gave us more breathing room, a more diverse group of people, more complex and regular social interactions, but at the same time, we had more than our share of dysfunctional leaders and communities, probably more resistance to change, more abuse by tyrannical clergy, cliquish and exclusive lay leaders, and more social snobbery and emphasis on appearance largely for appearances sake.  If we are truly honest with ourselves, the good old days were not as good as we would like to remember.

More important, the current climate of hyper-consciousness of the respective "health" of our parishes - whether measured from the standpoint of numbers, mission work, orthodoxy, or Bible study - may be causing more anxiety and ultimately depression than the demographic and financial changes.  Although hope, salvation, and transformation is at the heart of the Gospel message, the reality has always been that we, both as individuals and as groups, do not develop, grow, or progress in straight lines or all together at the same time.  It is bad enough that families are breaking up more often because they cannot tolerate differences or stages of maturity or lapses in care or fidelity, rough spots that once had to be weathered through no matter what.  While some of those families are no doubt better off being no longer yoked together in mutual destruction and infliction of emotional and sometimes physical pain, just as some parishes may be better off dying rather than staying within the stranglehold of petty tyrants and obstructionists, church families should not be looking for ways to split or purge themselves of inconvenient persons or ideas. 

There is enough to divide us nowadays in terms of the culture wars and the theological differences that some tie to them.  Yet time and time again we put ourselves under the microscope searching for flaws, calling in experts to fret and fuss over them, study and implement "systems theories" to engineer different social structures, and impose the latest trends in liturgical innovations, programs, and even schedules in an effort to market our hyper-conscious over-anxious groups and leaders to those on the outside, in hopes of not only replacing those we have lost due to death, disaffection, or relocation, but filling our pews and our parish halls with greater numbers of people, expecting somehow that an influx of newcomers will mean an escape from our old bad habits, a shot of adrenalin and enthusiasm, and some dollars and hard work besides.

Let me suggest a radical alternative. Why don't we stop treating our parishes like lab experiments in social engineering or business start-ups, stop trying to remodel and reinvent them, and just try to do our best to follow Christ in our hearts, minds and deeds?  Why don't we start focusing on acts of kindness, compassion, and understanding, strengthening our bonds of friendship, spending more time in corporate worship, mission, fellowship, prayer, and study? Why don't we stop constantly beating the drums for change, change, change, and simply be mindful of new things we might try and new kinds of communities that we can sponsor and help grow, without dynamiting and discarding the communities we already have to make way for those imperfectly visioned by hypothetical constructs of who seekers are and what is needed to reach and serve them?  Let us make the best use we can of the new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking of those active in Emergent Church and other new movements, be willing to sponsor their experiments, even when the numbers do not show worldly or immediate success, and at the same time ask them to be more open to what we have to offer, to learn from our experience, and the acquired wisdom of the gray-haired persons who have been so faithful for so many years. 

And, finally, let us remember that while not everyone will want to seek us out or join our numbers, nevertheless, we have - without doing some new or different thing - reached some who have never been baptized or attended a church before, who nevertheless wandered in one day and were moved by what they saw us do and be together, gathering for Holy Eucharist, not in assembly line dispensation of wafers and wine, but in reverent and grateful joy in receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, so as to grant us strength and courage to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mother's Day Redux

One thing that I found peculiar in my early years attending an Episcopal church was that there was nothing really in the way of celebration for Mother's Day, other than a line or two in the Prayers of the People.  It probably should have been a relief, and it certainly was more sensitive to all those who for one reason or another might not want to or need to celebrate, especially in the time-honored traditions of the corsage, brunch en famille, and whatever else it might take to make Mom feel like Queen for a Day. But at the time I felt somewhat short-changed.  There I was well into middle age, in my early 40's, with two young children in tow, having finally earned my stripes and, I thought, deserving of some recognition for doing the physical and emotional work of mom, dad, cook, wash woman, babysitter, pet caretaker, teacher, recreational director, negotiator of neighborhood playtimes, places, and playmates, and full-time worrier about how we would pay the bills and have enough left over to eat the next week.  Nevertheless, pretty much what I got out of it was a regular Sunday at church and home to do what I could to make my own mom, who ordinarily was visiting, feel fussed over herself. (The dad in this picture was usually off taking it easy).

Several years later,  I discovered that the absence of the full regalia of Mother's Day festivities in church was not so much an Episcopal thing as what I sensed was the jaded view of the rector hidden behind a lead-encased safety wall of "It's NOT in the Book of Common Prayer" and hence a Hallmark holiday, not a religious one.  I never had much reason to question it, as he knew I was easily silenced by the spectre of the Liturgically Correct -- except that I made it clear after we were married that I didn't much care if only the Aussie side of the family believed in honoring mothers as "different but equal" -- once we were in the privacy of our own home, I wanted my cards and flowers all the same, thank you very much.  He went along ("submitted" might have been the word he would have used), and I did my best not to stir up his ghosts of mothers past.

Well, this was the first year without my favorite curmudgeon, and although I do miss him terribly every day, I must say that this Mother's day was really no different than any other, perhaps a bit better.  My daughter not only got up and took me to church, but rather than make me hobble on crutches through the snow and sleet to a restaurant, she went shopping and bought and made some of my favorite foods - scallops, crab cakes, and creamed spinach - gave me a beautiful card, which she bought herself (with no stepdad to remind her), an azalea plant (my favorite from the time I kept one alive all one semester in London), from my son as well, who remembered to call.  So, indeed, it was Mother's Day as usual....

Except, by golly, it was Mother's Day in church, and Liturgically Correct, no less, having walked right through the door of Common Lectionary for Easter 6C, Acts 16:9-15, Lydia's Conversion.  Although I was not unmindful of the difficulties the day poses for many, especially some close to my heart, it was after all lovely to hear an honest and straightforward acknowledgment of the contributions women make, at home and elsewhere, with no sticky Hallmark sentiments or the idolatry of American civil religion -- a fine and welcome sermon.

At the same time, it was wonderful to know and hear that Easter was still in season, with these extra touches: Sursum Corda (S 120) (Ambrosian Chant), Sanctus and Benedictus (S 128) (W. Mathias), The Lord’s Prayer (S 119) (Plainsong), Christ Our Passover (S 152) (Ambrosian Chant), and Agnus Dei (S 165) (W. Mathias).  Yes, "God" and "King" and "Lord" and "Mercy" "Father" "Son" and... all those words.  I loved them all, finally beginning to hear and understand the different parts of the liturgy in ways I had not for a long time, it gradually coming back to me.

And what a glorious hymn we sang on that snowy day to our God and King:
All creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voices, let us sing:
Alleluia, alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beams,
thou silver moon that gently gleams,

O praise him, O praise him,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong,
ye clouds that sail in heaven along,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice,
ye lights of evening, find a voice, (R)

Thou flowing water, pure and clear,
make music for thy Lord to hear,
Alleluia, alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
that givest man both warmth and light, (R)

Dear mother earth, who day by day
unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise him, Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
let them his glory also show: (R)

And all ye men of tender heart,
forgiving others, take your part,
O sing ye Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
praise God and on him cast your care: (R)

And thou, most kind and gentle death,
waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
and Christ our Lord the way hath trod: (R)

Let all things their Creator bless,
and worship him in humbleness,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
and praise the Spirit, Three in One: (R)

Words: after Francis of Assisi (1182-1226); paraphrase of "Canticle of the Sun" by Francis of Assisi.
Lasst uns erfreuen  - Oremus Hymnal

Extraordinary photos:

With full choir:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother, Daughter, and Holy Spirit

Mother's Day, that sometimes peculiar and awful holiday, has come and gone.  But it made me think, once again, of the predicament in which Christian women find themselves, in a tradition so bound up by the Father-Son relationship, the fire and wind of the Spirit notwithstanding.  It is one thing to say that the Father-Son formula is merely relational, and like so much else, that women are simply supposed to identify with masculine words, symbols, and metaphors as universal rather than gender-specific.  It is another to actually ignore what it means to be the daughter who, even with the best of fathers, is not and can never be the same as a son to a father or a grandson to a grandfather, or what it might mean to imagine a mother directing her son or daughter to be flogged and strung up on a cross as an act of love for all humanity (though one can and does imagine a mother at the foot of the cross, mourning yet another act of violence on yet another child). 

We generally are not given a choice in thinking in more abstract, less literal terms -- at least two of the three "persons" (hypostases, if you will) of the Trinity are conceived in terms of two males in a parental-child relationship.  The intimacy of that kind of relationship, and the humanity that attaches to the whole, not just the Son, does not readily or easily imply that all are welcome through adoption, at least not without first going through the Son, the "firstborn of all creation."  So it is no wonder that feminist scholars and theologians have sought ways to not only bring back the women who were part of the history and tradition from the beginning, but also to use more "inclusive language" that literally includes women, mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, and all females.

While there certainly is no need to have every other word in the liturgy or elsewhere refer to God in terms of masculine pronouns, the Christian religion, like Judaism, is based on an understanding and experience of a God acting at specific times and places in history, which is handed down from generation to generation in the form of written accounts of the experience, some deemed sacred and integral to the understanding.  One can be open to change, new experiences and new understandings, which build upon and sometimes supersede the past.  But, well, the Story is the story -- as it began and it lives on -- and the rich literature (and to some extent the liturgy) that expresses it cannot be entirely shorn of its time and place without losing some of its essential meaning.

Of course people can seldom agree on what is "essential," especially with regard to religion.  That is why it may be good to keep as much messiness as one can, or, to put it another way, language that is rich in metaphor and not wrenched from its historical and cultural context.  That does not mean that new words and images cannot be added, but it seems that we lose something important if we seek only that with which we can mostly closely identify.

Carla Pratt Keyes makes this point in a sermon, reflecting on the the writings of Kathleen Norris:
[R]ecently I read some of Kathleen Norris’ reflections on “God Talk.”  She suggests that too often (and despite our best intentions) our conceptions of God – like our language for God – can become a kind of idolatry, a way of making God small and manageable, safely confined to our comfort zones. So often, she says, one hears people say, ‘I just can’t handle it,’ when they reject a biblical image of God as Father, as Mother, as Lord or Judge; God as lover, as angry or jealous, God on a cross. I find this choice of words revealing, [Norris says, no matter how real the pain they reflect]: if we seek a God we can “handle,” that will be exactly what we get. A God we can manipulate, suspiciously like ourselves, the wideness of whose mercy [we also have] cut down to size.”1
Carla Pratt Keyes, "The God We Know" (sermon preached at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA, June 7, 2009).  [n. 1 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (Riverhead Books, NY, 1998) 214.]

This led me back to Kathleen Norris, whose writings have affected me deeply over the years, beginning with Dakota: A Spiritual Biography. Her struggle with the language of the Christian tradition -- the Bible, hymns, liturgies, and prayers, in general, and all that is Christological in particular -- sounded much the same as my own.  I read Rosemary Radford Ruether and other feminist theologians, but simply could not swim the tide, even as much of it informed and enlightened me. 

Norris wrote about this at some length in Amazing Grace.  In a chapter entitled "The Feminist Impasse," she recalls a Benedictine nun, who translated Hebrew texts, who once said to her, "Does it ever surprise you that God chooses to reveal in such a fallible fashion?"  Whereupon Norris expands:

And this is the key, I think. In a religion based on human incarnation of the divine, when ideology battles experience, it is fallible, ordinary experience that must win. My initial appropriation of the Christian religion, which in its early stages often felt like a storming heaven's gates, had been based on a fallacy, on the notion that religious faith could provide me with a coherent philosophical system. Feminist theology especially had seemed a safe place in which all my stances could be argued and defended, as in an impregnable fortress. But I found I could not breathe there; I found no mystery. I am surely not the first Christian or last Christian to seek to forsake the fallibility inherent in Jesus' incarnation as a sure thing.

It was the false purity of ideology that I had to reject, in order to move to the more realistic give-and-take of community. Not a community of those who would share my presuppositions about feminism, but an ordinary small-town church congregation, where no one would much care for the heavy-duty theology in which I had been immersing myself. I could still employ it, as a useful guide for navigating Christian seas. But I could also learn to look to the strong women of the congregation, who often seemed to incarnate a central paradox of the Christian faith: that while the religion has often been used as an instrument of women's oppression, it also has had a remarkable ability to set women free.

It took me a long time to shed my feminist anger so that I could see that the women of Hope and Presbyterian were faithful Christians precisely because they knew liberation when they saw it. As rural women in a remote part of the Great Plains, they had not received much assurance from the outside world that their lives were worthwhile. The second wave of American feminism had largely passed them by; it seemed to belong more to city and college life than anything they knew. But Jesus had told them that they were worth a great deal, and it was as Christians they embraced their human dignity.

And they found their sufferings had been sanctified not because they were doormats or duped by a male conspiracy but because Jesus, too, had suffered and now gave them strength.
Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999) pp. 135-136. 

This to me is at the heart of what I think should guide not only liturgical revisions but all those in leadership positions in the church -- a deep understanding and appreciation of the admittedly "fallible, ordinary experience" of Christian women and men, children and mothers and grandmothers, throughout the ages.  For all those who have distorted and exploited it, there are so, so many more who have found hope and faith and courage from both the language and rituals given by the church and from their own prayers and devotion. 

Ordinary experience is often deemed not good enough, not capable of inspiring Great Awakenings or, for some, even the Great Emergence (at least as seen from the lofty heights from which Phyllis Tickle observed that Christianity requires literacy and social stability, which is apparently why she felt there were no real Christians other than those in the monasteries during the Middle Ages).  And ordinary Christian language may be seen as oppressive, mindlessly clung to by those who have not immersed themselves in liberation and feminist theologies.  So the elderly man or woman who has recited the King James version of the Lord's Prayer since childhood must be the first to be discomfited, to be told that their religious experiences and beliefs are of a bygone era, and the new and improved religion is about to finally emerge, far better than anything seen or known before -- which would not be so bad if there were any truth to it, instead often nothing more than an expensive marketing campaign, fueled by a cottage industry of self-styled experts and consultants, who have little more to offer than a fervent belief in the New Coke or Windows 7 editions of mainstream Christianity and secret hopes that young people will come in droves, like ants to... well, Coca Cola.

Norris addresses this, as well, in Cloister Walk, where she confesses that "if you're looking for a belief in the power of words to change things, to come alive and make a path for you to walk on, you're better off with poets these days than with Christians."  Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997)p. 154.  She notes,
It's ironic, because the scriptures of the Christian canon are full of strange metaphors that create their own reality -- "the blood of the Lamb," the "throne of grace," the "sword of the Spirit" -- and among the names for Jesus himself are "the Word" and "the Way." (p. 155).
She explains the difference between poets (and those who would read like them) and church professionals as follows:
Poets believe in metaphor, and that alone sets them apart from many Christians, particularly those educated to be pastors and church workers…. One difficulty that people seeking to modernize hymnals and the language of worship inevitably run into is that contemporaries are never the best judges of what works and what doesn't. This is something all poets know; that language is a living thing, beyond our control, and it simply takes time for the trendy to reveal itself, to become so obviously dated that it falls by the way, and for the truly innovative to take hold.
(pp. 155-56).  As an example of what not to do, she cites
the drearily abstract version of the Lord's Prayer that liturgical scholar Gail Ramshaw has dredged up from the 1960's: "Our Father, who is our deepest reality." God is merciful, and most of us can now grasp how vapid these prayers are. (p. 156)
and contrasts this with the language of metaphor:
Metaphor is valuable to us precisely because it is not vapid, not a blank word such as “reality” that has no grounding in the five senses. Metaphor draws on images from the natural world, from our senses, and from the world of human social structures, and yokes them to psychological and spiritual realities in such a way that we're often left gasping; we have no way to fully explain a metaphor's power, it simply is."

Finally, as a poet she must embrace language that some would like to eradicate:

I refuse to give up on such metaphors like "bride" and "kingdom" just because they have been so ill-served by Christian tradition -- the Vatican especially demonstrates a consistent ability to literalize metaphors within an inch of their life. And I reserve my right to a love of literature, even when it is John Donne saying "no man is an island."

Where the ideologues on both the liberal and conservative sides of the inclusive language issue seem to fall short is in humility, accepting the fact that language is far more than a tool for transmitting ideas, and even the most well-intentioned people cannot control a living tongue.

I find that my religious perspective helps me here. In a religion centered on what in Christian convention is termed the "living Word," even our ridiculously fallible language becomes a lesson in how God's grace works despite and even through our human frailty. We will never get the words exactly right. There will always be room for imperfection, for struggle, for growth and change. And this is as it should be.
Amazing Grace, p. 137-38.

As both Kathleen Norris and Rev. Keyes point out, humility is required on all sides.  We have to listen to one another and not be so convinced that there is only one, good way to read a text.  Norris gives a wonderful example in the following:

One of the most remarkable passages in Bill Moyers's book Genesis is an exchange between two feminists, Karen Armstrong and Carol Gilligan, and a black theologian, Samuel Proctor. The women do their best to convince Proctor that God is murderous, angry, vindictive -- and they imply, immature -- a God who in a fit of pique brought on the great flood that is described in Genesis. But he keeps asserting the black experience:"Black people identified themselves with Daniel in the lion's den," he says, "the Hebrew boys in the furnace, the Israelites coming out of the Flood. They saw the Bible in the context of their own experience, and they kept it alive... They took ... the Hebrew Bible saga, and made it their own story." Where the women see nothing but a false assurance in the sign of the rainbow as the flood ends, Proctor insists that "it's not just a rainbow" but a sign of hope for oppressed people. "Black people could have put God on trial, he says, but instead we put white supremacy on trial... People had gunpowder and ships, and they used their freedom [to go out] and enslave others. But... in time, we can correct these things. I'm living with that bow in the cloud right now. And if I'm the last optimist left, I don't mind that at all."
Amazing Grace, pp. 319-320. 

Of course, one can just as easily find other passages that provoke the opposite response: anger and pain and frustration in reading stories of people exploited, treated in dehumanizing ways, sometimes tortured or killed, in circumstances where there seems to be nothing in the narrative that recognizes any kind of wrong being done or even suggests that one should sympathize or empathize with those being ill-treated.  These cannot and should not go unnoticed, but can or should they be banned or excised or should they be there if for no other purpose to demonstrate the fallibility of the writers and the fallacy of taking it all as sacred, unerring text? 

No doubt it is one thing to tamper with translations or otherwise bowdlerize the text of the Bible and another to judiciously excise passages for use in Psalters, lectionaries, or liturgies.  The more difficult questions lie when what is being proposed (if it ever is) is a fairly thorough expungement of words like "Lord" "Father" and "Son," "kingdom," "reign," "rules" or phrases like "blood of the Lamb" as archaic and replacement with abstractions cleansed of all problematic connotations or disturbing images -- or in the realm of gestures and "holy hardware," prohibiting kneeling, genuflecting, reverencing the altar or a cross, use of crucifixes, candles, vestments or altar linens, triumphal music, anointment with oil, sprinkling "holy" water, or maybe even baptism itself (marking those who are Christ's "own" as distinguished from all who are not). 

Whatever happens and when -- and certainly some changes, perhaps many -- are inevitable, I would hope that there will always be room for "fallible, ordinary experience."  Christianity certainly has had and probably will continue to have very dark moments, as there seems to be no way to insulate its adherents or its institutions from those who would seek power and exploit others.  But no amount of tinkering with the language is going to keep people from finding ways to distort and misconstrue the Gospel message -- new language being just as capable of being twisted and misused as the old.  We need clergy and lay people to help forge the bonds of Christian community, to help one another through times of hardship and pain, to celebrate times of blessing and joy, to work hand in hand, to take time to pause and listen to one another, and learn all we can from each other's encounters with God and struggles through life, both that which has been recorded in the past and that we can share from the present.

In the meantime, there may be many of us who will continue to struggle with so much he-manness in the language, the difficulty of relating to any god clothed in the trappings of a king, emperor, lord, or husband, or standing aside while all the Prodigal Sons get the favors, and the women sweep the hearth or gather up the crumbs from beneath the table.  But for others perhaps we can share how we have explored amd shaped the words and gestures and rituals in ways that free rather than enslave us, that bring humility rather than humiliation, and strength and courage, rather than weakness and submission, in the face of those who seek to assert power over us, so we can turn our hearts and souls to the one who is indeed greater than us all.