Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lords and Ladies in Church

It is strange to be spending yet another Sunday morning home in bed (not because I want to but because I am taking special care with a broken leg).  There was a time when Sunday was the high point of my week, when I entered the holy space I found in church, bowed my head in silent prayer, confessed my sins, and emptied myself so I could offer myself up to God's will and purposes for my life.  I used to hear and ponder each word of the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, holding one or another up to a different light each time, wondering how I could have closed my heart and mind to the traditional words and images for so long.  I fed my hunger and quenched my thirst for God in the Eucharist, beginning on my knees, imagining tears running down my cheeks and my face grazing on the hem of Christ's robes, thinking of the Prayer of Humble Access, whether spoken or not:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou are the same Lord, whose property is to always have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
And when it was over, the hymns ringing in my ears, the shadows of my soul giving way to light, being raised to a shaky but quiet confidence in my ability to cope, yet again, with whatever came my way, then I could relax and smile, for a change, seek out especially those I had not seen since the week before, find out what had been going on in their lives or simply chatting about whatever people chat about when they can stop and rest and not have to immediately rush off to the next appointment or task at work or home.  As I got to know people better, I would learn more of their struggles and joys, getting to know each better as individuals.  But from the beginning I had this sense of deep companionship with so many who seemed to be there for the same reasons as I, because they loved it so.

Somehow I lost that long ago.  At first I thought it was simply some diminishment in the zeal and focus I had as a newly converted Anglo-Catholic, who had only recently returned to any kind of church, after more than two decades of a conflicted devotion to the secular humanism of the halls of academia.  But I must confess, as time went on, it was as much a function of finding myself, of all people, suddenly thrust into the role as clergy spouse - one that never, in my wildest dreams, I imagined playing, which, unfortunately led me to not play it much at all.  As Jim would repeatedly and correctly point out, I had no cause for discomfort or dissatisfaction among the people of the parishes where he served.  While I'm sure there were some, perhaps many, who were and/or are critical of how I behaved or, to the extent they knew me, of my opinions and beliefs, thankfully no one told me how they felt or acted in any way that made me feel unwelcome or uncared for. 

Nevertheless, somehow I could never entirely lose my awareness of what church was like before compared to what it was like afterwards.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not forget the joy and anticipation I used to feel when it was wholly my choice to go to church, when my efforts to get there, despite fatigue or boredom or the struggle to get young children up and dressed and get on the road, despite some quarreling and fussing, were all my own, when no one would really care but me whether I got there or not, when the sense of wonder and satisfaction of making yet another week, of filling up my heart and mind with "good things" and letting go of all the grunge was something I could bask briefly in, during coffee hour and the rest of the day.  And then, of course, there was the knowledge that people used to seek my opinions on church matters, wanted me to serve on committees and councils, listened closely to what I had to say, and taught me how to do the same for them, to interact on delicate topics, to share our faith stories, all of that rich life of being fully part of a congregation -- not to mention having a pastor who just might, if I tread carefully, listen to what I had to say as well.

All that changed, seemingly overnight.  Yes, it was largely due to my own thinking, not what others on the outside demanded.  I always felt I had to be in church every Sunday at at least one service (and felt guilty when I did not do two - though rarely went to two), had to be on time (though as the years went on, I didn't always even manage that), dressed and groomed reasonably well, and be sure not to walk through the doors cursing my children or in a foul mood because they (or I or all of us) behaved so badly on the way to church. Once I got to church, there was always the dilemma of where to sit, what to say, and what to do.  Although I shied away from (shirked my responsibilities?) acting as The Rector's Wife, nevertheless, there were always little things - like if I sat anywhere in at least the front half of the church, people would stand or sit or kneel following my lead (an odd sensation for someone as self-conscious as me, which always blew my efforts to convince myself that no one was really looking at me) - a dangerous thing because with my ADD-addled brain, my mind could easily drift and I would be rudely awakened by the fact that I could not rely on others to cue me as to what to do because if I got it wrong, chances are that most would follow. Then there was the hostess thing - I could not do it, had no experience with that sort of thing, was used to years of avoiding having anyone visit my home, let alone entertaining (due, in part to my natural introversion, in part to years living with my first husband, an alcoholic who never recovered to the point of not living in squalor and filth or conforming to social niceties).  I froze in fear, let others continue with what they had done before the new rector came, and, at times, hid behind those women who had done it all as second nature when they were wives or daughters of clergy.

In both parishes, I finally retreated to the choir stalls, despite my obvious lack of vocal skills, and embraced both the company of the choir members and the music directors and our collective love of music (not to mention the incidental benefit of being able to wear just about anything or the same thing week after week under my choir robes).  While I did have to worry about hiding my voice, no longer did I feel like I was The Wife -- I was just another member of the motley crew that comprised the church choirs (thank God for them, each and every one!).  Yet it still was hard, in fact almost impossible, to recapture what I once felt in corporate worship, the time spent deeply contemplating the words and letting the music sink into my soul, being emptied and then filled with the Holy Spirit, my life and week renewed all at once, with others experiencing much the same thing.  Instead I was focused on having the next piece of music ready, not allowing my mind to drift very far, trying to recall the trouble spots in the music, thinking about my breathing (though often not getting it right), lifting my body to get as much breath as possible, and trying not to get my choir robes tangled in the kneeling rail or dropping a hymnal or prayer book to the floor.

Truth be told, Jim did not get it, not at all.  He thought I was stark raving mad.  Typically, once he discovered he could not "fix" whatever problem I was having (and yes, as a wise and experienced counselor, he often had good advice about many things -- though he also often did not have the patience or insight with me as he had with others - inevitably), he just didn't want to hear about it anymore.  Before we were married, he promised me he would stick with me (or rather I would tag along with him) on Sundays after services or at other church social occasions, knowing my fear of crowds and disease among those I don't know well.  But it soon became clear to me that after more than 25 years as a parish priest, he had it down, could "work the room" like a Chicago politician and do it well, making each person feel even his passing attention.  So I stood back and let him go, even if it meant hugging a wall somewhere or leaving sooner than I should have.  And although he told me time and time again that I could go to church or not, in our parish or elsewhere, I kept going, every Sunday I was in town, come hell or high water.  And at times I contemplated, and even made a few efforts, at finding a spiritual director who could help me get my prayer and worship life back on track, but I never followed through.  So for days, weeks, and finally years, I went through the motions and tried to make myself content with the glimmers and glimpses of the divine that came through at times, despite my inattention, and kept a running silent monologue in my head directed to God, but seldom found the time or space to stop and carefully listen to what God might be saying to me in response.

Every once in awhile, especially when we talked about Jim's upcoming retirement, I'd think about what I might do once I was "free" of my status as rector's wife. I knew that where we would live would depend in large part on whether there was the kind of Anglo-Catholic church he would like to join. I wondered whether I would really want to join him there or find my own place, maybe even in another tradition - Quaker, Unitarian, Orthodox or Roman Catholic.

Yet here I am, today, swept off my feet, as if struck by Dorothy's tornado, thinking that, after all, there really is no place like "home."  And by "home" I do not mean simply our parish, which finally has become truly home in more ways than I can describe (though I may always have some difficulty there with the ghosts of memory flooding in at unexpected times).  I mean back home in the Eucharist and the Episcopal liturgy.  The hunger and thirst are very much with me again, in palpable ways.

It remains to be seen whether it is as real as I imagine - or rather, more importantly, whether I will finally follow through as I ought and need to do.  But while I can still indulge in flights of the imagination, I recall that passage from Kathleen Norris that struck me so keenly when I first returned to church in my late 30's, after nearly twenty years of wandering in the wilderness:
“When some ten years later I began going to church again because I felt I needed to, I wasn’t prepared for the pain. The services felt like word bombardment – agony for a poet – and often exhausted me so much I’d have to sleep for three or more hours afterward. Doctrinal language slammed many a door in my face, and I became frustrated when I couldn’t glimpse the Word behind the words. Ironically, it was the language about Jesus Christ, meant to be most inviting, that made me feel most left out. Sometimes I’d give up, deciding that I just wasn’t religious. This elicited an interesting comment from a pastor friend who said, ‘I don’t know too many people who are so serious about religion that they can’t even go to church.’”

“Even as I exemplified the pain and anger of a feminist looking warily at a religion that has so often used a male savior to keep women in their place, I was drawn to the strong old women in the congregation. Their well-worn Bibles said to me, ‘there is more here than you know,’ and made me take more seriously the religion that caused by grandmother Totten’s Bible to be so well used that its spine broke. I also began, slowly, to make sense of our gathering together on Sunday morning, recognizing, however dimly, that church is to be participated in, not consumed. The point is not what one gets out of it, but the worship of God; the service takes place both because of and despite the needs, strengths, and frailties of the people present. How else could it be? Now, on the occasions when I am able to actually worship in church, I am deeply grateful.”
-- Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993) (pp. 94-95).

This brings to mind the discussion that has been going on among some of the proposed removal of the word "Lord" in our prayers, sparked, in part, by Fr. Dan Martins' recent post, An Openness in the Process of Liturgical Change.  I'm afraid the lawyer in me tries to avoid the process issues (I get weary of shop talk, at times), and it is still not entirely clear to me what is being proposed and to what extent any changes would be optional and, regardless, which would likely be widely implemented.  I am simply dumbstruck at the idea of such changes.  Yes, I know all about Prayer Book idolatry, and I listened carefully to what Jim, the once dyed in the wool Anglo-Catholic, had to say about the 1979 Prayer Book wars, how he insisted on making the changes, as required, in his parishes, and how he said he finally came to prefer the new Rite II Eucharistic prayers, both the language and, more importantly, the theology reflected in them.

But, but, but..........   First of all, I first came to the Episcopal Church in retreat from sudden and radical changes I was experiencing in my first church home, after the years in the wilderness, an ECLA Lutheran congregation.  The new pastor, who had come, in part, as a result of my vote for him and recommendation, as member of the Search Committee, had decided to change, among other things, the way the congregation took Holy Communion (standing, by intinction, after filing down the aisles "like the Roman Catholics," as the good Lutherans saw it, instead of kneeling at the extraordinarily long altar rail they had in their lovingly constructed modern Scandinavian sanctuary), decided to eliminate entirely the Prayer of Confession in the liturgy, and with it, more or less banished the use of the kneeling rails in the pews.  In private talks with the pastor, I learned that his theology was greatly influenced by Tillich, he had a negative experience with high liturgy as a child in a foreign country (his parents were missionaries) attending an Episcopal school, and that the changes he proposed were ones he could defend with great vigor and authority based on "solid research" and recommendations by the latest experts and consultants on Church Growth.

In the end, I can honestly say I did not become confirmed as an Episcopalian simply because I was annoyed with the Lutheran pastor and preferred Episcopal worship.  I spent a long time struggling with what I should do, torn between my love of and loyalty to the people of the Lutheran community, who had welcomed me and my family with open arms when I most needed them, and the way my heart and mind were flooded with the words of the Book of Common Prayer, how those words opened so many windows to the Christianity that I fought so hard against for many, many years, worried about Christian and American exceptionalism, patriarchy, intolerance, and what seemed to me the odd obsession with the violence of the Cross and the fuzzy, barely lukewarm, underwhelming story of the Empty Tomb (which only reminded me of the shivers I got from Lake Michigan winds on the Easter Sundays of my youth).  All that fell away, bit by bit, and once seemed to come tumbling down, with the sounds of the bells and the Mathias Gloria and the lights coming up during Easter Vigil.  Yet I asked myself over and over, was it all theatre, aesthetics, a love of music, and a too-easy willingness to be taken in by it all?

In the end, it was not so much the Episcopalians who drew me in but my Lutheran friends and family, who urged me to follow my own piety, who joined me many times in worship at the Episcopal church, and came to appreciate, at least in part, what I found there.  And every day, every week, it seemed I found something new, in the Psalms I used to read silently before mass, in the lectionary readings, in those many moments in prayer when my mind cleared of all that was troubling it and I either heard God speaking to me or I was enveloped by a sense of peace, warmth, and clarity, like I had never known before.

During most of this time I was scarcely conscious of the rector, who happened to be Jim, or of his excellent sermons.  Due largely to my experience with the Lutheran pastor (who, despite all, I regarded as a friend, a good teacher and theologian, liturgical matters aside, and a source of wisdom and resourcefulness in dealing with my family problems), and partly due to my natural desire not to want to follow anyone's lead (at least no one human), my focus was on the Episcopal liturgy and all I could find to read about the Anglican church and its theologies.  The Oxford Movement fascinated me, and I loved the idea of combining what struck me as a Romantic view of Catholicism, which nevertheless aimed at the best of it -- the emphasis on the senses in worship, seeing, hearing, tasting, and feeling, an unapologetic embrace of beauty and ritual -- all aimed at taking that experience of holiness, in awe and humility, out into the world to serve the poor and the needy, with grace, humility, and gladness of heart.

Whether I got any of it "right" is certainly debatable.  But what I definitely got wrong was that the Episcopal liturgy I loved was any safer from radical changes or clerical tampering just because we all professed to be joined in Common Worship as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, rather than any singular theologies or rigid doctrines.  I had no idea what "low church" was or that it even existed.  I had no clue that there were evangelicals or charismatics, let alone Calvinists, schismatics, those still recoiling at the very idea of women clergy and bishops, not to mention, in the 1990's, the ever widening rift occurring over the issues of same-sex love and marriage.  And I had no idea that the Episcopal Church had its share of tyrants and oversized egos in the ranks of clergy and bishops, some of whom made their Lutheran patriarchal counterparts look like Ward Cleavers in comparison.

The one thing the Episcopalian Anglo-Catholics had that the Lutherans did not was an unabashed delight in and reverence for the use of things - the stuff - (what Maria calls the "Holy Hardware") in our liturgies and our worship spaces. We - or at least some of us - could unapologetically have icons, votive candles, colorful vestments, delicate lace altar linens, and complex music galore.  We could chant the Great Litany, have our crucifix on Good Friday, along with the Solemn Reproaches (yes, cleansed of anti-Semitism). We knew very well that all these things, and the sights, sounds, and smells that go with them, are not to be exalted or worshipped themselves but rather are windows that can reveal the God among and with us.  It's not that we can't let our hair down, take to the streets or the woods, the cities or fields, and follow Christ anywhere and everywhere he may lead us.  But we are not afraid of words and images, exploring the light and shadows that fall from each, placing our doubting Thomas' fingers into their wounds, and trusting our own senses, as we confront our God directly through them, without too much concern for what the clergy or anyone else says about we are supposed to think about it all.

Well, at least that's my own take on it.  And I was heartened to read what I took as similar thoughts in Cecelia's reflections on Saints and Intercessions.  Strangely enough (or maybe not), there seems to be a deep connection between Norris' Protestant women of the Great Plains with their worn Bibles and kneading bread dough and the Roman Catholic women with their rosaries and devotion to Mary.  They know, through heartache and childbirth, through brutal weather and grinding poverty, who their Godde is. And, to be quite frank, they don't give a shit what he, she, or it is called, whether their statues were created and erected by the patriarchal minions of the Vatican or their Bibles given to them by hell and brimstone preaching Calvinists. They work with what they have, and they hold their re-creations and re-imaginings dear, even at times when they may not fully recognize their own artistry and the subversion of authority that it sometimes requires.

The irony is that here in the Episcopal Church in the U.S., many of us pride ourselves with the power and influence the laity has in church affairs, notwithstanding our hierarchical structure. Progressive leaders in the House of Deputies and on Standing Committees and vestries throughout the church have had a large and important influence on how we try to steer our way through the current challenges and obstacles posed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and many others in positions of authority in the wider Anglican Communion.

But when it comes down to it, many of our clergy (not to mention bishops) continue to run things like little Napoleons, at least when it involves matters of liturgy and worship practices.  Yes, of course, many have considerable knowledge and expertise, gained through education and experience.  Many, however, really do not, having spent little or no time in seminary studying liturgics under the guidance of someone thoroughly informed and educated in such matters.  But that is hardly the point (or perhaps one that has been lost long ago).

What I find most disturbing, even or especially among those clergy I admire most, is their all too easy confidence in what they need to do to discomfit their parishioners, especially when it comes to moving the "furniture" and "props" around and changing the "script" from time to time.   The assumption is that people in the pews are children and/or sheep that do not know what they need and must be herded and, at times, disciplined by taking away what comforts them.  Christ, in their view, called us to leave our things behind and follow him, whether hungry or thirsty, and any one who clings to the status quo is to be mocked and vilified.  And here we are, decades away from my first encounter with the Church Growth gurus advising the Lutheran Church, full of the seeds of destruction of the so-called Church Planters, some of whom genuinely want to reach out and bring the unchurched into entirely new communities, in which they can feel at home and invested in, but others are all too quick to engage in slash-and-burn agriculture, ready and willing to exploit the natural tensions between clergy and laity, and encourage both clergy and laity to expel or shun anyone who stands in the way of change (which is always translated as necessary "transformation").

Am I crazy or paranoid, just yearning for something that never was or whose time has passed, lost in a state of spiritual immaturity, have allowed myself to get lost all these years in my husband's shadow?  Perhaps.  But I wonder if I am the only one who came back to church not because it was cleansed of all the images and symbols and words I once found so off-putting, but because I wanted to finally explore all of them, with sometimes reckless abandon, to find, if I could, how they held such power for so many for so long, or simply how I could refashion or re-envision them in my own way of relating to God.  And what about all those who have stuck with the church from childhood on, who have gone through all sorts of personal trauma and turmoil, relying on the words and rituals they know so well?  How did the faithful become the enemies of the future of the church?  The obstacles to personal and institutional growth and transformation?

Do you think I am exaggerating?  Aside from the third-hand scuttlebutt I used to hear from around the diocese, and the countless books and conference materials Jim brought home from the experts, I have been alarmed by some of what I read between the lines in these articles.  Their basic ideas are quite sound, their goals are certainly admirable and well founded in the Gospel, but if one reads and listens carefully, there are signs of increasing disrespect for laity or anyone who asks questions or in any way wants to preserve traditions and customs in the church. 

Sometimes it is quite subtle.  I think much of it comes from the new recognition that the cause is pretty much lost as far as reconstituting or revitalizing mainline churches in anything like their former forms.  The anxiety and urgency for change seems to be increasing exponentially as church membership, participation, and financial resources decline year by year, with the consequences now hitting especially hard in the wake of the financial crisis. 

I understand these feelings all too well - I lived with a clergy person who worried and despaired over it every day of our lives together and, in fact, spoke of it at some length during the two-hour drive we had together the afternoon of the day he died.  I have read and thought and fretted over it myself for some time.  I don't have the answers - or at least none that anyone wants to hear.  It may be that church as we know it will die, just as predicted by many, and maybe, just maybe, despite all these last-ditch efforts at engineering a different outcome, it will be o.k.  Maybe we cannot control the social and economic changes that have brought us to this juncture.  Maybe we should not try, at least not if it means deliberately destroying what has been so powerful and meaningful to people in the past, even if our buildings are emptying and the heads bowed in prayer are getting grayer every day.

I do not want to project my own likes, preferences, and perceived needs onto my parish, wherever it may be, or on the church at large.  I certainly am well aware of the dangers of doing that, have struggled long and hard over these issues, and will continue to do so.  But on the other hand, I feel the need to stand up and ask some tough questions of those who now say, in effect, that we need to give up the notion of church as a social institution with any kind of regularity or influence in our daily lives and communities, that we must become bands of committed true believers, like first or second century Christians, freed of all connection to structures of power and authority, ready and willing to subvert the world order and focus on Christ-directed Kingdom building, as we should have been doing all along.

I "get" what many of you are saying - in fact, that is largely why I left the church in my teens and twenties, in retreat from the smug, exclusive social clubs of the 1950's and early 1960's, with our Sunday clothes, hats, and white gloves, and WASPish manners and superficial morality.  But you know, if it had not been for those years, when I only attended church because it was expected of me, and my parents only sent me because it was expected of them, I most likely would not have been willing to try it again later, or had any notion that individual "spiritual journeys" are of little worth without the mutual support and nurture and call to action that comes from living in community.

I know we cannot turn back the clock, and it was not all that great to begin with.  But both commonsense and the more I read about the long process of secularization in the West, the more convinced I am that we must seek a truly social solution to the problem of the decline of churches.  Arguably the decline is not the result of dramatic changes in mores or beliefs but rather the fact that large segments of our society here in the U.S. (and in Europe) are no longer structured around religious institutions.  Although Americans have maintained a great deal more religiosity than Europeans, for various reasons, I think we have been hit hardest by increasing mobility and dislocation from our original homes and families.  As one sociologist has put it, we are now seeing "the effect of geographical and social mobility in breaking up dense communal relations, permeated by religion, and in breaking up the unity of the generations." (Professor David Martin, Cambridge lecture, 2005).

Perhaps the one thing from the past we do need to try to recreate are "dense communal relations, permeated by religion."  By this I do not mean going off and living in isolated, segregated communities.  But I do mean truly embracing the idea and goal of living as Christians in community the best we can in our diverse world.  We may no longer have the same kind of social, economic, geographical, and family ties to bind us as did our grandparents and great grandparents.  But we do have new ones, arguably as strong or stronger, even when "virtually" linked, than the old ones.

I am not sure how this may all play out in terms of the nuts and bolts of organization, meeting face to face, and what implications  there are regarding property ownership and maintenance.  But what I am fairly certain of is that we are shooting ourselves in the foot when we so cavalierly talk about dispensing with those who want the so-called "status quo" and when we turn our parishes over entirely to the whims and desires of clergy and bishops who back up their prejudices and frustrations with local conditions with so-called expert advice on what the church must do to survive.

Some of this cavalier attitude, or words that can be taken as supporting such an attitude, can be found in the following articles:

The Ending, Dying Church - Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones
Faith Matters, Where Did the Mainline Go Wrong? - Walter Russell Mead
Quit Thinking of Your Church as Family - Anthony B. Robinson
Expecting Too Much Too Soon - excerpt from this article by Dan Hotchkiss
Membership Down - Dr. John B. Chilton (with observations from Thomas Brackett)

While they speak compelling words of inspiration, what they strike me as doing is attempting to herd people off into smaller and smaller groups of "true" and zealous Christians, separating the wheat from the chaff.  While the new and improved church may welcome people of all ages, colors, sexual orientation, and socio-economic classes, it has little patience with or desire to keep anyone who does not present herself or himself as a "mature" Christian (often taken to mean those who will go along with any and all change supposedly for the good of The Other, as dictated by those in charge, whether it be an individual or group that has taken over).

Although the goals are worthy, I wonder if we will lose something important if we become so impatient and frustrated that we are not willing to work at keeping or building communities "permeated with religion" that have a mix of ages and degrees of "spiritual maturity."  And part of creating and maintaining communal relations must rest on some measure of stability in our liturgies and the theological terminology used in corporate worship. 

Aside from the "process" and the policies that may ensue from it, I would hope that many of our clergy and consultants would allow a measure of "transformation" in themselves, which would respect laity in general and so-called "popular" religious practices in particular.  If the Ladies, old or young, want to kneel before "The Lord" as they always have, mutter the rosary while the priest is speaking, well, why the heck not?

Let the Sunshine In

A fond goodbye

What Jim might have said had he had the time to say goodbye:
There is a rhyme by Clarence Day which says what I want to say: 'Farewell, my friends, farewell and hail; I'm off to seek the holy grail; I cannot tell you why; remember, please when I am gone, 'twas aspiration led me on; tiddly-widdly-toodle-oo, all I want is to stay with you, but here I go, goodbye.

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P.S. For anyone who wants ready access to albums with selected photos of Jim (same ones posted before - someday I will find better ones), they are public at Facebook here and here.