Drumming in church: some first steps

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By Jacob Slichter

I am one of several percussionists at Saint Paul’s Chapel in New York City. Under the guidance of our music director, Marilyn Haskel, we accompany congregational music with hand-percussion instruments. Visitors from out of town often come up after the service to express their interest in introducing hand drums and percussion to their churches back home. “How do we start?” Here are some of the principles that have guided us at Saint Paul’s.

Find instruments that cover a range of timbres—Eager as you may be to rush out and load up on drums, this is can be an expensive mistake. Consider instead building a palette of timbres, one that includes such elements as blocks, bells, shakers, tambourines, finger cymbals, etc. Let your current musical repertoire and the acoustics of your worship space inform these choices. In any given space, certain instruments will speak clearly, others will be easily lost, and still others will prove unwieldy. Many stores have an exchange policy, which will allow you to audition different instruments until you find those best suited to your particular environment and music.

Start where you are—While the percussion instruments you bring into church may have their origins in West Africa, the Amazon, or the British Isles, you are free to make whatever music you want with them. Alas, many concern themselves first with the question of learning authentic rhythms, but this can wait. Listen instead to the music your congregation is already making and begin there. Listen to the mood and personality of the music, to the natural ebb and flow of the groove (that mysterious element that makes you want to move your body as you listen), to the shape of the rhythms already present in the melodies.

Then think about how you can support these elements. Simple, easy parts can always do the job; even beginners can make great music right away. Listen to and then answer the melodies and countermelodies, support the bass motion, and so forth. Resist the urge to “liven things up” with percussion; music that works well is perfectly alive. What it wants is support and accent, not a personality transplant. Learn to listen thoughtfully, a skill infinitely more valuable than hand speed and dexterity. Give me the percussionist with hands of clay and ears of gold any day.

In time you’ll gain a natural sense of how rhythms from other musical traditions can be imported (perhaps with modification) into your church’s musical repertoire. At Saint Paul’s, we play a percussion postlude, an excellent time to strut out rhythms from West Africa, or, as we’ve done, from the drumbeats on James Brown tracks.

Always pay attention to the acoustics of the worship space. A cathedral where each note reverberates for several seconds may call for a sparser accompaniment than what you can get away with in a room with a carpeted floor.

Prepare—I favor making rehearsal attendance mandatory for anyone who wants to play. If possible, members of the percussion ensemble should be able to take the instruments home for individual practice.

In the best case, the ensemble (or lone percussionist) would have a chance to rehearse with singers, but if that’s not possible, make sure to sing through the music before coming up with parts. (I did a workshop at St Gregory’s Church in San Francisco, famous, among other things, for its use of liturgical dance. There, we danced through the various steps before coming up with parts that supported the dancing.) Ask yourselves, “Is accompaniment even necessary for this piece?” (While you’re at it, get your organist/pianist to ask herself the same question!) Why rob the congregation of the chance to hear the glory of their unaccompanied singing?

Use rehearsal time to plot out arrangement ideas such as staggered entrances of the various percussion instruments. Practice maintaining eye contact with each other. Establish the framework for improvisation. “Do an extra little something on the high drum during this section,” etc. If possible, practice with a metronome. Even better, make the additional purchase of a cheap Dictaphone and listen back to yourselves so you can make adjustments.

Be Givers, not Takers—Music joins your congregation in community. Let the percussion support, empower, and open up that experience. Be members of that community, not performers looking for an audience’s admiration. The minute you think of yourselves as performers, you cut yourself off from the congregation. The result will be playing that overwhelms or otherwise obstructs their musical experience.

Let your whole body listen to the congregation around you. Feel what they are feeling. Let them speed up and slow down if that’s what they have to do. Herd them together when they stray apart from each other, but avoid becoming rhythmic enforcers who club the congregation from joy into obedience. Remember that sometimes the most exciting thing a congregation can experience is the sound of their own voices, unaccompanied.

Don’t pick up a drum to get your ya yas out. Pick up a drum (or set it down) to bring the full pleasure of music making to those around you. As you feel their pleasure, you will have found the true power of drumming.

Jacob Slichter is a writer and musician who is a member of St. Paul's Chapel/Trinity Church Wall Street. He serves on the board of All Saints Company, where he has consulted in the development of Music That Makes Community, and he leads drumming workshops for interested congregations.

A spirit of wildness

By Donald Schell

The first time I saw a woman in a clerical collar, I had just completed my first year of seminary - summer of 1969. I recall that moment in the restaurant, glancing up to see a group of three or four people waiting for a table and noticing a man in a collar and then this woman.

I flinched and looked away and then, as if compelled, glanced up again. My stomach clenched. Those body responses won’t allow me to deny that my being, body and soul, so far as I knew either, responded with instant fear and disgust. I don’t remember feeling angry, just threatened and forced to acknowledge an impending loss.

I had just completed a year of Princeton Seminary as a Presbyterian. I was transferring to General Seminary to begin studies for Episcopal priesthood. At twenty two I thought I’d found the answer I was looking for in a church that combined honest inquiry and what I judged to be catholic practice.

I knew ‘Protestants’ ordained women, and this woman had to be one of ‘them’ because my new tribe didn’t ordain women. . .yet. But seeing her, I felt myself witnessing handwriting on the wall.

A couple of years later, my confessor and spiritual director, Br. Paul Wessinger, SSJE, a priest whose catholic credentials I trusted completely, said to me, ‘Donald, I don’t see that it will unchurch the church. Maybe the Spirit is up to something here. We’d better prepare ourselves to learn.’ I thank God for Paul’s timely words. (And I know he meant to include himself in the learning.)

Today I thank God for the women clergy who have proven some of my wisest and best colleagues. And I remember Br. Paul’s word of wisdom with deep gratitude. He opened something for me, an invitation to watch what was happening and listen to my experience with a more open heart. He helped me welcome the Spirit and accept the gift of new colleagues.
“When the Spirit of truth comes, S/He will guide you into all truth.”

So, I confidently say, in this the Spirit was up to something much, much bigger than my small, tidy interpretation of catholicity or history, and it’s useful to remember being so wholeheartedly wrong.

I take some pride in being a person who likes to learn, actually loves to learn. In that pride, Jesus’ promise in John’s Gospel that the Spirit will guide us into all truth feels exhilarating. Sometimes it’s harder to remember that pain and fear are also part of learning. Why is that so? Because learning demands unlearning. Each new and richer piece of provisional knowledge (‘now we know in part’) costs letting go of a previous, cherished, and possibly provisionally useful bit of provisional ‘knowledge.’ The way of learning is a way of Not Knowing, venturing, as St. Paul tells us, beyond any knowledge that passes away, and into love. Ouch.

While I’m at it, let me add another embarrassing confession to recalling my horror at seeing a woman in a collar. This one comes from a year or so later. For a class in apologetics at General Seminary, a classmate was polling his fellow seminarians opinions about the legitimacy of gay men (remember we weren’t ordaining women yet) among the clergy. Blithely and confidently I wrote that I saw no obstacle to a gay man being ordained as long as he either chose to get married (obviously, I meant ‘to a woman’) or was celibate - ouch again.

I knew some of my fellow seminarians at General were gay, but only a vague idea of who they were, and it didn’t occur to me that the guy taking this poll was working something through for himself. And at the time I would have been surprised to learn that my friend and fellow student Gene Robinson was struggling with questions like those in the questionnaire.
“The Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth.”

How many Anglicans around the world have stories like these? How many such stories are still unfolding?

Like the first Christians have to make peace with a Spirit who broke free of circumcision and kosher laws to do a new thing, we’ve had to let go of church and the faith (as we thought we knew them) to embark on a journey of uncertainty. Traveling in the Spirit’s company, we know less than we once thought. The steadier knowledge is that we ARE learning (sometimes at least) to welcome the disconcerting, disorienting blast of the Spirit’s mighty wind (or gentle breeze coming when we least expect it and from the ‘wrong’ direction).

Looking at the sweep of that Holy Wind over the last seventy years, I have to think the Spirit either trusts us astonishingly or is very, very impatient with us. We’ve been challenged to a lot of change. We’re in at least a third generations of unlearning in order to learn, of not knowing, for the sake of love. Consider this chronology:

1944 ordination of Li Tim Oi, first woman priest in the Anglican communion, a scandal that Archbishop William Temple tried to hide or undo, but Hong Kong was too far from Canterbury.

1950’s the weekly ‘parish Eucharist’ and ‘coffee hour’ hints at something deeper in the suburban expansion of the church across America.

1967 Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper launches twelve years of Trial Use and at least two decades of Anglican churches around the world discovering unity (or not) in shape and form of locally distinct liturgies.

1970 General Convention permits admitting unconfirmed children and adults to communion, a step toward the reforms the drafters of new liturgies were working for – restoring Baptism as full and complete incorporation into the Body of Christ

1974 Retired bishops ordain eleven women to the priesthood in Philadelphia (ahead of General Convention canonical authorization).

1976 General Convention authorizes ordination of women

1976 The Proposed Book of Common Prayer declares the Eucharist “the principle act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major feast” (borrowing this language from the Presbyterian Book of Order).

1977 Paul Moore ordains out lesbian deacon Ellen Barrett a priest.

1978 Lambeth Conference accepts ordination of women as a province-by-province option – for a moment acknowledging that change and discovery happen in different ways in different places and on the Spirit’s unpredictable timetable.

1981 St. Gregory’s Church, San Francisco formalizes an explicit invitation of ALL to communion, “Jesus welcomes everyone to his Table, so we offer communion to everyone…”
1989 Massachusetts ordains Barbara Harris their Bishop Suffragan, first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion.

1989 Penny Jamieson ordained bishop of Dunedin (New Zealand), first woman diocesan bishop in the Anglican Communion.

2004 Gene Robinson is ordained the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion.

2010 Mary Glasspool is ordained the first openly lesbian bishop in the Anglican Communion.

I don’t expect all our readers would make the same chronology. We might argue about some of the pieces, and I’ve deliberately left off most of the push-back, the moments of protest and attempting to undo what it looks like the Spirit’s doing in all this. Here’s a simple and important example of pushback:

1971 House of Bishops asks that children be instructed in the ‘meaning of the sacrament’ before first communion.

In that time when my gut tied in a knot at the Spirit’s work raising up women for leadership and I accidentally and naively marginalized a seminary classmate, I stumbled on Henry David Thoreau’s lovely saying, ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.’ And I started to get (still learning this I know) that the Spirit that blows where it will is the wildest thing of all.

What would my younger self have thought when, twelve years after I was ordained an Episcopal priest, I had the privilege of being invited by the Presbytery where I’d grown up, to join Presbyterian colleagues ordaining my mother or when, twenty years after that, Bishop Otis Charles and Felipe Paris asked me to preside at their relationship blessing?

“The Spirit will lead you into all truth,” so our path will always be unlearning in order to see the bigger truth. But the chronology (like other startling discoveries the church has made over the past two millennia) keeps hinting at two things: that we are seeing the fulfillment of the prophet’s promise, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all humanity,’ and that, as Gregory of Nyssa said so plainly sixteen centuries ago, ‘The Body of Christ is all humanity.”

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.

Well, I do declare!

By Greg Jones

"I Do Declare." "Well, I declare." "Well, I do de-clay-uh.”

This is the stereotypical Southern phrase, no matter the exact parsing. Of course, in my many years in Virginia and North Carolina, I'm not sure I've actually heard anyone say it -- except for actors and folks pretending to talk 'Southern'.

On my favorite show The Office, the main character pretended to be a Southerner in one episode, and he said, "Well, I do Declayah" over and over again.

Of course, it's not just a stereotypical Southern phrase, it's British as well. For centuries, English priests, professors and government workers all had to swear allegiance and declare the supremacy of the English Crown in all matters.

The oath began ... "I do declare that no foreign prince, person, prelate, states or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within this realm. So help me God, etc."

And this should come as no surprise, because the English concept of Kingdom was built upon belief not only in the divine right of kings, but in the sacred power of oaths -- of allegiance, loyalty, supremacy, and so on.

In the medieval mind, the bonds between lord and servant, between Crown and Mitre, between God and King, were all forged in the power of uttered promises. Sacred oaths.

These ideas predate the Middle Ages in fact, and, have survived into the present -- a good bit anyway. Our country was born in just such a declaration ... when the signers pledged to each other their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in solemnly publishing and declaring independence from the crown.

Yes, I still believe in oaths and promises and declarations.

I think when we say, “I do declare that…” or “I believe…” or “I will with God’s help…” we a bit of magic happens.

In my view the words we use in oaths and vows are life-changing, life-defining, and life-affirming; and those magic words have a life of their own.

A promise. An oath. A Declaration. These are not just words. These are logoi ... proclamations ... utterances ... made not of letters, but of souls.

In Acts, the Holy Spirit comes upon the followers of Jesus Christ gathered in his name. The sacred wind, the designing fire of the cosmos, lights them up, and they speak. Not murmur. Not hub-bub. Not babble. No, they speak ... in language ... about God.

They're declaring about who God is, and what God wants, and how God is going to speak through everybody to everybody.

This isn't talk-is-cheap-talk. No this is Utterance. As the literal translation of Acts 2.4 says, “They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

This word for utterance here in Greek is rare (only in the Bible three times total; and all in Acts.) The word has to do with speech that bursts forth from inside ...like a volcano ... an eruption ... a declaration.

The Spirit of God gave them utterance, so the truths of God could burst forth from within them to be testified and heard all around them.

Can you speak the Truth? Can I?

What are you talking about in your life? What sort of speaking are you doing? Is it all conversation? Or survival? Or fellowship? Or interrogative? Or rhetorical? That’s all well and good, the speech of everyday life is what it is.

Birds whistle, dogs bark, and people talk, talk, talk. But, let me ask you: Have you anything to declare? Is the Holy Spirit of God setting your brain and heart on fire with love for God and neighbor and self? Has the Spirit of God given you utterance? I think so.

I think the Spirit of God has been poured out on all of us who call on Jesus; and we have within us words which need to bubble out and forward and around.

These words, these declarations, make up our life together in community where God speaks to us and through us.

The Spirit of God is so real, friends, and this wise lady of Scripture does declare. What part of her declaration of independence from sin and death is bursting forth within you to be uttered?

What do you declare?

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C., a trustee of General Seminary and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

How to stay awake in church

By Leo Campos

The treasure which is our liturgical service is often squandered when we go through it by rote. There is so much that goes on in a typical Rite II service that, in theory, people should be riveted. But the truth is that we suffer from too much familiarity with the service. Many of us can probably recite the whole service by heart.

I, personally, do not enjoy changing up the service just for the sake of novelty. I think that this betrays a very dangerous attempt at entertainment. I think that the onus of paying attention is not on the liturgist but rather on the disciples participating in the service. The service is simply a mirror upon which we can see reflected the Face of Christ. To put it more bluntly, if you find the service boring whose reflection are you seeing in the mirror?

Having said this there are a few places in the service where special attention will reward even the most bored disciple.

Be very attentive to the sermon. Take notes. Follow with your Bibles (do Episcopalians ever bring their Bibles to church? Why not?) Engage the priest. I am aware that not all are blessed with fantastic oratorical skills, and that the quality of sermons vary substantially from person to person and from week to week. Nevertheless I have never known a priest not to spend time on a sermon, wrestle prayerfully to find some appropriate imagery and a good story to pin the readings to, and try to impart some message, some Good News, to their flock. These efforts deserve a charitable, large-hearted hearing from us disciples. As Benedict puts it, "Listen with the ears of your heart".

In talking about listening one great trick for staying awake is to really pay attention to the congregational recitation and responses. For example during the reading of the psalms: is the recitation today low or high energy? Do you hear new voices? Try to listen to the congregation reciting the Creed together. Feel the unity of expression. Try never to speak over anyone, instead modulate your voice so that it disappears in the congregation. This does not mean whispering, it means listening harder.

Be very attentive to the recitation of the Nicene Creed. Take your time studying it at home. Be aware of the filioque clause and what it means. Struggle with the various concepts proclaimed. Be aware of the historical background to the Creed. In the words of St. Reinhold "Learn it. Know it. Live it." Listen further all the way back in history and all across the globe in hundreds of languages: the same Creed. In your own church for decades, centuries even, the same Creed has been recited. Allow yourself to be gathered up in the great cloud of witnesses.

Be very attentive to the recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Make effort to mean every word of it. Get lost in the idea of the Kingdom coming. Make a profound bow when you ask for forgiveness of sins. Ideally bring up at least one person you need to forgive right there and then, and then bow. At different times in my life different lines of the prayer have seemed of particular import and would stay with me throughout the day.

Our Eastern Orthodox friends have a great way of reciting the Lord's Prayer with multiple genuflections and what-not. These bodily movements not only force us to pay attention to what is being said, but it also encodes the very words into our flesh and bone - the prayer then moves from being "informative" to being "formative".

As a final "trick" to stay awake in church: during the Eucharist itself make a deep bow every time the name of Jesus is mentioned. You will be surprised (or not) at how often you find your mind wandering.

I believe that if we make the effort to engage the liturgy our own spiritual lives will deepen considerably. What "tricks" do you use to stay awake in church?

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

It's not easy being green

By Adam Thomas

Every February of my college years, the entire student body suffered from a mass case of seasonal affective disorder. The campus of Sewanee is one of the top five most beautiful spots on the planet, but the beauty of the Domain was difficult to appreciate during that dreadful month. What neophytes mistook for simple fog, veterans of Sewanee winters knew was in reality a low-hanging raincloud that hovered over the campus, sapping students of the will to do anything besides curl up under a blanket and nap. The weather lasted for weeks, and when the sun finally broke through the clinging barrier, we students discovered our vigor once again, as if by some sudden leap in evolution, we had developed the ability to photosynthesize.

A version of this same seasonal affective disorder hits Episcopalians every year within a few weeks of Pentecost. We look out over the vast expanse of the upcoming liturgical calendar, and we see nearly a month of Sundays with seemingly no variation, with nothing peculiar to distinguish one day from the next. It’s a sea of green, and without the concurrence of wedding season, the Altar Guild would forget where the paraments are stored.

We call it the season after Pentecost – even the designation gives it the sound of an afterthought. At first glance, those legendary church year framers seem to have measured the year wrong. They only programmed six months! What’s there to do with the rest, those twenty-odd Sundays after Pentecost that stretch on interminably during the dog days of summer and into the heart of autumn? Truly, we blanch at the long months and wonder if the Holy Spirit has enough juice in those Pentecost batteries to get us to the first Sunday of Advent.

The other liturgical seasons are nice and short; indeed, no other season creeps into double digits. Epiphany gets the closest, sometimes reaching as high as nine (watch out 2011!), but it can’t quite get there. And the short seasons always (and satisfyingly) lead somewhere: Advent moves to Christmas Day; Christmas season to the Epiphany; Epiphany season to Ash Wednesday; Lent to Easter Day; Easter season to Pentecost. Each season is like crossing a river or lake to the next feast or fast on the other side. But the season after Pentecost is an ocean, and Christ the King Sunday is in the next hemisphere.

So what do we do to combat the spiritual lethargy that can result from so many Sundays of unvarying green vestments? Well, we could try to split it into more liturgical seasons. So, starting with the Sunday after Pentecost, we’d have the season of the Trinity until mid-August. Then, beginning on August 15th, we’d have the season of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the end of September. Then, we’d have Michaelmas until Advent. There: three more manageable seasons for us modern people with our tweet-sized attention spans.

While this divvying up of the calendar has a certain appeal (especially to all the Anglo-Catholics reading this), I doubt the Church would go for it. So, where does that leave us? Our churches are still stuck in six months of monotonous green! The seasonal affective disorder will attack. Parishioners will fall away! (I know, I know – mostly because of summer holidays, but just go with me on this whole long liturgical season thing.)

Instead of lamenting the six months of green, let’s use the green season to our advantage. Don’t completely shut down program for the summer. Rather, take your cue from the liturgical color. Spend time each week or each month discussing how both the church and the individual can become more environmentally friendly. Devote education time to the intersection between theology and environmental sustainability. Set goals for the parish to meet by the end of the season after Pentecost to reduce consumption. Go paperless for the entire season to cut down on waste. Move service times to earlier in the day and turn off the A/C. Encourage people to bike to church or carpool. Have a light bulb changing party and replace all the lights with CFLs (the curlicue ones). Check out websites like nccecojustice.org for more ideas.

By taking positive steps to live into God’s pronouncement that we are stewards of creation and by staying active through the long days of the season after Pentecost, we can stave off that seasonal affective disorder. Even when the liturgical color hasn’t changed in four months, each Sunday is still a celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. Every Sunday we worship God, who through the Word brought all creation into being. The best way to praise God for that mighty creative act is by preserving it so countless generations to come can also praise God for God’s creation.

It’s a good thing the Green Season is so long. There sure is a lot to do.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

Chastity, now

By Richard Helmer

In starting discernment to become a member of a spiritual community of The Episcopal Church, I have been invited in recent months to study the three classic evangelical counsels as they have been articulated as vows beginning with the mendicant orders in the twelfth century: poverty, chastity, and obedience.

As a parish priest, husband, father, and ever aspiring pianist, the one counsel that has captivated me most recently has been the vow of chastity. It has spoken most deeply to my perfectionistic desire to control outcomes in every relationship in my life -- far beyond its often narrow interpretation regarding fidelity in sexual conduct.

Chastity means setting aside dominance and control and seeking instead a new way to relate to the world and to God.

Having spent an increasing amount of time in conversation with married couples in recent years, the most commonly destructive dynamic in any relationship I have found has to do with a failure of chastity. But I don't mean sex outside the marriage. By chastity in marriage I mean the challenge of setting aside the stubborn drive to control or change person we most cherish. When couples learn this, the effect in their relationship and family is simply astonishing. Anxiety and anger levels drop almost immediately. There is a renewed simultaneous sense of freedom and connection. Spouses allow their partners to grow. Parents allow their children to seek accountable maturity. Needs are articulated. Resentments are set aside. Rather than using or abusing the relationship to change others, the relationships by themselves become transformative. Everyone is changed.

I've discovered the same truth in my walk with the congregation I serve. When I began viewing parish ministry through the lens of chastity, I soon felt far less anxious about outcomes of our various forms of service and worship. I was able to let our lay leadership step forward and engage more creatively in ministry at every level. I was less apt to get tangled up in the inevitable power games that all communities encounter. I was able to better articulate my own perspectives without expecting simple assent or agreement. I was able to hold my precious agendas more lightly. I was able to more clearly see and exercise pastoral authority when the community needed it. Frankly, I am less interested in numbers for the parochial report and parish programs for my resume than I ever have been. Chastity in this ministry is, for me at least, a spiritually life-saving discovery.

Chaste leadership serves and seeks to set example rather than manipulate or control. Chaste leadership is honest about the power it holds and seeks to exercise it with transparency, deliberation, clarity and the good of others first and foremost in mind. And chaste leadership learns to live with the reality that we are never in full control of outcomes, that consequences bad and good flow from every action, and that ends rarely if ever justify means.

Chastity deserves a thorough study by everyone presently involved in the tired crisis of the Anglican Communion. The desire to manipulate outcomes, to control others, to dominate an otherwise messy situation inherited from our colonial, modern past is all about unchaste approaches to relationship. And our late great crisis is rife with unchastity. We see it a lot in bishops and clergy attempting to manipulate the situation to their own ends. We see it in the floundering of the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury attempting to control through appeasement and veiled threats. We see it in the unwillingness to acknowledge our actions within our own Church have unforeseen consequences for everyone -- both good and bad. We see it in the grasping and grandstanding at many levels. We have already seen the failed outcomes of dishonest ecclesiastical legislating that is inherently unchaste for its attempt to placate rather than humbly hold the truth. And we know too well the abuse of reports and non-binding councils as instruments of shadow law, and the potential of distorting covenant into a tool of manipulation. Finally, we see clergy and laity alike standing behind all of these efforts aiming for a piece of the action -- following the siren call of our conflicting visions of what a church "should" be: one that is made in our image rather than God's. I'm as guilty of this form of unchastity as anyone.

But there is good news. Chastity has been in evidence in the increasing number of voices of those who recognize our disagreements as a Communion, but yet insist that costly communion in Christ is far more valuable than agreement.

Chastity has long been in evidence by those courageous, oft-threatened "firsts" of our faith who inhabit dangerous positions not for power or the quixotic pursuit of perfection, but simply by being who they are and following God's call as best they can. The consecrations in the Diocese of Los Angeles are some of the most recent examples of this form of chastity.

Chaste behavior has been in the quiet but transformative story-telling and building up
of authentic relationships across the divides of gender, class, race, culture, sexuality, and ideology all across the Communion recently. Chastity allows us to be ourselves by allowing others to be themselves. Chastity makes it known when we are encountering oppression and articulates our needs as they arise. Chastity seeks honest accountability. Chastity sets aside the weapons and metaphors of war for an honest, authentic justice. Chastity endeavors to shed the harbored resentments and unmet wants of our brief lives and move forward in renewed relationship.

Ultimately, chastity is about humility and seeing the reality that people around us are not means to an end, whether ours or anyone else's. For years, the Church stressed chastity in sexual terms for a number of reasons. Perhaps the greatest among them was that sex in patriarchal societies was often about dominance and objectification: a means to an heir or means to gratification, economic improvement, or status. We might claim we are beyond this today in some ways, but in contemporary Western culture we have perpetuated this lack of chastity in new ways: through commercialism, through sound-byte politics, through commodification of just about everyone and everything. The lesson is that the Church still has a great deal to learn and teach about chastity in our own day.

Chastity demands we return to what is real, setting aside the spectacles of objectification, and learn again to see ourselves, others, and the world through Christ's loving eyes. Chastity calls us to embrace our humility and acknowledge our lack of control -- to some degree over ourselves, and to an even greater degree over others. Chastity asks us to hope rather than to expect, to forgive rather than to condemn, to cultivate rather than destroy. Perhaps most importantly, chastity insists that God be God, not a projection of our own desires. Chastity towards the divine is captured in that critical turn of phrase in the Lord's prayer: "thy will be done..."

No one ever said chastity is easy. Yet our attempt to tame it by confining it to monasticism or sex ignores its enormous potential for transformation in our everyday lives as a Christian people. For at the end of the day, chastity calls us to live more into the love with which God loves us: a chaste love that frees and empowers us to be who we were made to be -- a people of and for our loving God.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

Setting liturgical expectations

By Derek Olsen

The Episcopal Church is a religious institution. However you feel about that—and feelings about institutional religion are many and various—St. Paul reminds us by way of the Ephesians that, of the many purposes for an institution, there is one fundamental purpose that must never stray from our sight:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16, NRSV)
This fundamental purpose is best named as Christian maturity. The body’s ability to present love in thought, word, and deed both inside and outside of itself is directly related to the spiritual health and maturity of each of the members who make up the body. Paul is absolutely clear that the yardstick is Christ and that any knowledge or equipping conducted by and through the church must lead us into our fullest resemblance of Christ.

That’s the big picture. Now—how do we get there? Or, to state it more clearly, what steps do we as members and leaders within congregations take to realize this goal in our midst?
Personally, I think that we have to do it in steps, and that we have to proceed from a number of angles at the same time. I’d like to take up one such angle today, tagging it with the requisite notice learned from so many cereal advertisements: this is a nutritious part of your complete Christian diet; insufficient on its own, but powerful in combination.

As inheritors of the Anglican way, we must begin with the conviction that Christian maturity has a corporate liturgical component. Coming to worship is important. Why? The first and primary reason proceeds directly out of our Baptism. In Baptism we become members of the Body of Christ—and that’s not simply a metaphor, the Church teaches that it’s a mystical reality. The first and primary reason that we gather as a liturgical community is that together we are a literal and mystical expression of the eschatological Body of Christ. It’s the deep truth behind that whole “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there also am I” thing. When we gather together as members of the Body, we form the Body and, through our worship, take on a role within the interior life of the Trinity as the Body of Christ gives praise and glory to God the Father in and through God the Holy Spirit. Naturally, this is most perfectly expressed in the Eucharist where we participate in own Christ’s self-offering.

(Consider that next time you’re tempted to sleep in; do you really want to miss out on participating in the Trinity’s interior dialogue?)

There are other reasons as well, though none can match this first in importance. Christian formation into the language and habits of the Body is a high reason on my list. From this point you know the items on the list as well as I do: drawing strength from fellowship and mutual encouragement, sharing our joys and sorrows and helping bear the burdens of others, organizing to express God’s love in tangible works of mercy, and so on and so forth.

To boil this down to practicalities it seems that a first step of Christian maturity, then, is to set some basic expectations for community life. Stated in its most crass and clear form, we expect butts in pews. Furthermore, we expect those butts to be in pews when the community gathers. Now, many parishes have some sort of notion about this; it’s usually not expressed formally but is part of the lived culture. But we have to make sure what message it is that the lived culture is communicating. At one parish of my acquaintance, a member stated the cultural message to me explicitly: “here we expect that people ought to come to church at least twice a month or so…” I was shocked. I get that not everyone’s a church mouse. I’m a parent of children whose weekends are quickly filling with activities; I know about Sunday morning games and meets and such. But is this the expectation that our communities want to send?

At this point, we’ve got to stop and address the issue which is probably on your mind because I know it’s on mine: Do we have the right to set expectations for other people’s religious observance?

I’ll give you a second to ponder that…

Feel free to scroll back up and take another glance at the quote from Ephesians that kicked this whole thing off…

And after having said that you should know what it is that I’m going to say.

We certainly do have the right to set expectations for other people’s religious behavior because they’re not in it for themselves just like and you and I aren’t in it by ourselves. That’s the problem with that whole Baptism thing; it means that we are tied together, bound together by spiritual ligaments within the Body of Christ. If we are not encouraging those in the Body to rise to the maturity to which we are corporately called, we’re failing ourselves as well as them.

But what about being open and inclusive, you might say. What about being non-judgmental? What about “meeting people where they are”? You’d be quite right. Our mandate gives us the right to set an expectation; it does not give us the right to compel, cajole, or harass. Part of the real tension here is that while the Body must work corporately, the individual members must grow into their own maturity. We must point in the right direction, but there is no known way to force a person into maturity, spiritual or otherwise. Rather, we must set the norm, and then invite individuals to a clearly defined place of greater maturity.

Let me hit this from another angle. As I write, I have in my mind’s eye a guy like myself and like the guys I know at work. He’s an early thirty-something, married, with a kid or two. Maybe he grew up in the church, maybe his wife did, but for whatever reason drifted away. Now they’re at the point where they’ve feel some vague sense of obligation to show up at a church once in a while “for the sake of the kids.” We want to meet this guy where he is. And, in truth, he’s already taken the first step towards greater Christian maturity—that’s the one that got him over the threshold. Meeting him where he is means thanking him for that step and encouraging and engaging him. The next step means presenting a non-coercive vision and expectation of weekly attendance.

I can’t necessarily tell you what that ought to look like; it’ll be different in each community. Ideally, weekly attendance should be its own reward. Reverent worship, engaging faith formation, caring community should all reinforce the expectations. The expectations should be clear, but never pharisaical, never bludgeons nor codes of conduct. Hopefully, after a time this guy should look forward to coming to church every week, and be clear that he’s doing it for his sake, not just for the kids.

Those are the first two steps towards corporate liturgical maturity—getting people in the door in the first place, and then proceeding to weekly attendance. But, all too often, that’s where our expectations end—and that’s a shame. The American protestant experience has a certain amount of sabbatarianism to it. That’s the notion, proceeding from the 4th commandment, that the Sabbath day should be kept holy that in former days were taught in churches and enshrined in civil practice. The old Blue Laws that kept me from buying beer on Sundays in Atlanta were a hold-over from it. The up-side of sabbatarianism is that until this generation, civic and community organizations didn’t schedule things on Sunday mornings. That has, of course, changed. The down-side still lingers with us. The down-side is this notion of separation: if Sunday is holy, it means, by extension, that the other days aren’t, or that the other days don’t have to be. The down-side is an assumption that if one goes to church on Sunday, the week’s religious obligations have been met.

The next step towards Christian maturity is breaking the chains of the sabbatarian fallacy. Don’t get me wrong; we should keep the commandment and keep the Sabbath holy in ways that make sense to you and your community. But the idea that Christian responsibility—and Christian liturgy—are done by Monday morning has got to go. We need another expectation beyond weekly attendance. Luckily, we have it.

The very first sentence of substance in our Book of Common Prayer, after the Ratification, after the Preface, lays out the next ideal: “The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts, and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in this Church” (BCP, p. 13). Speaking liturgically, speaking with an eye to Christian formation and Christian maturity, I’m in favoring of dropping the reference to “the Lord’s Day” on the grounds of redundancy. The Eucharist is the principle act of worship on all Feasts; we don’t go to church on Sunday because it’s Sunday, we go because it’s a Feast of the Resurrection that happens to recur on a weekly basis.

This is a subtle shift. Some may say overly subtle, but I don’t think so. For the next step in Christian liturgical maturity is recognizing that there isn’t a separation in our lives between God’s time and our time—it’s all God’s time. We gather as a community to mark the feasts with Eucharists no matter on what day they fall. We mark each morning and evening with prayer, ideally in physical community but more likely and practically in spiritual community. But our communities need to uphold these expectations. Eucharists should be offered on feasts; if Daily Morning and Evening Prayer aren’t offered publicly, congregants should not only be instructed in the use of the Daily Offices but also reminded of their place in our lives. Again—the community has a responsibility to set the expectation.

In Paul’s Ephesians passage, one of the traits of the mature is a fundamental groundedness. Paul expresses this with a negative formulation: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Being rooted, being connected to firm foundations, this is a trait of maturity from the liturgical perspective as well as the theological. Thus, maturity means that spiritual adventurism has passed, a rootless desire for liturgical novelty has likewise passed.

We are called in Baptism to live into the full stature of Christ. Paul rightly uses the language of maturity; we must “grow up” into Christ. Furthermore, one of the fundamental purposes of Christian communities is to nurture the whole community towards maturity that we may best do what we are—an expression of the eschatological Body of Christ. Our communities are failing in their calling if they are not setting expectations and drawing a clear path towards maturity. How’s your community doing?

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

To see and respect

By Deirdre Good

The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) here in New York City is currently exhibiting photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) until June 28, 2010. There are rooms full of 300 black and white photographs of ordinary and famous people at significant events or doing everyday things somewhere in the world between 1929 and 1969. Many have never been seen before. Cartier-Bresson has been called one of the great portraitists of the 20th Century. His photographs record every important event of the 20th Century: liberation of the Nazi camps, the Communist revolution in China, Gandhi's funeral. If you can't visit New York, the exhibit moves on to the Art Institute of Chicago (July 24 to October 3); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (October 30 to January 30); and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (February 19 to May 15). It's also online here

From the age of 22, Cartier-Bresson began to travel. He became a photojournalist in 1937 when he went to London and photographed not the ceremony or the king but people at the Coronation of King George VI. The French weekly magazine that paid for his work was displeased that he did not take any pictures of the Coronation. Instead, he turned the camera onto the public most of whom had been up all night to get a good view. They'd also survived the abdication crisis of Edward VIII the previous year. For Cartier-Bresson, the significance of the event lay not with the carriage or the king but with the people who were there. In one photo a sea of people stand or sit on a monument in Trafalgar Square looking beyond the camera. Below them a man sleeps on the ground. Now he will miss the event he's stayed up all night to see. But the picture shows he was there. In another photograph, an elderly man in a top hat peers between two ladies. One of the women is lost in a reverie with a hand to her open mouth while the other gestures with a gloved hand as she speaks to the man. In Cartier-Bresson's photographs ordinary people look just as good as famous people.

After his visit to London and for several decades, Cartier-Bresson was everywhere. His images of people are arresting. He understood that sensitivity and geometry make a great photograph. Women on a hilltop in Srinagar, Kashmir hold their hands out in prayer. Their feet conform to the line of the distant mountains while their outstretched hands match the flow of the river. In the photograph of a bicyclist, symmetry of curvature matches the bicyclist's turn to the curve of a staircase. Listening to DeGaulle in Aubernas, France a row of women on descending steps fold their arms in shadow wearing almost identical dresses and headscarves. Only on the dog's head does the sunlight shine down. He is looking the other way.

The moment of taking the photograph, Cartier-Bresson says, is when the subject takes me. "I'm receptive and I shoot." You don't so much prepare to take a photograph as concentrate in the silence, and be receptive. "Don't think," he says, "the brain's a bit dangerous. You have to give satisfaction to your eye."

The French philosopher Simone Weil has a similar sense of waiting only she puts it into a spiritual perspective by stressing the importance of attentive, receptive waiting. She wrote in her journal: “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” In her short life and in her writings she explores how attentiveness could enable spiritual growth. Not by means of willpower but only by means of receptivity and openness would someone discover truth.

Simone Weil believed that we need this discipline of attention if we are to know God. But she also believed that it was necessary if we are to know, and to help, other persons. Thus, expectant attention combines contemplation with action. In her book, Waiting for God, she says, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”

Witnessing someone's distress leaves us uncomfortable. It is hard for me to look the homeless person I pass on the street in the eye, to watch someone cry or be in pain, or to listen attentively to a story of suffering. I want instead to be anywhere else. Simone Weil reminds us that the first principle of helping another is not action. It is to see and respect the other. She repeatedly notes that the greater the suffering of the other person, the harder it is truly to see and hear that person. We have to work at this kind of discipline so as to be fully present to the other. For only by attending to someone else first will we be able to consider what to do next. Yesterday on the street, I looked closely at a homeless person who inhabits our neighborhood. I saw that he was shredding tiny pieces of paper from a newspaper and as he shredded them he said, "She loves me, she loves me not. She loves me, she loves me not."

I wish I could see a photograph of Simone Weil if Cartier-Bresson had ever photographed her. They lived in the same country at the same time. Perhaps he would have caught on camera her concentration. She would have liked his photographs of factory workers and peasants in ordinary life and at moments of great transition. Perhaps they would have seen in each other a similar self-effacing desire to observe. Might they even have spoken candidly of the preparation and effort such an attitude demands? And would they have discussed the politics of socialism and anarchy for which each showed such sympathy? After all, an exhibit of Cartier-Bresson's photographs only shows what the artist and the museum choose to let us see. Why not imagine what we might want to see as well?

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Who are Britain's new Conservatives?

By Adrian Worsfold

The British have a new government, a coalition government after its three party based first past the post system failed to produce a majority for one party.

New Labour had, basically, come to its end. The one time big tent centre to the left spread of the party's appeal had hollowed out its own base support, at least in England. Having gone on to lose so much acquired middle class support it returned to rediscover its base, all perhaps too late. Gordon Brown was a manager of detail, but lacked vision and taking decisions ahead of the curve. On the other hand, memories of the Thatcherite Conservatives were ever continuous, and the Conservative leader David Cameron was untried and unknown as to whether his Big Society just meant a smaller State and Thatcher mark II. Then arose Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who seemed to shine from nowhere with his communication skills in the almost presidential debates, except that in the last week some of the policies were hammered by the critics and he started to sound repetitive. Labour in fact fought a last minute rearguard campaign to some effect, and Cameron also had a last minute flourish.

The Liberal Democrats' vote went up by only 1% from last time, but the number of seats fell. Their 23% produced 57 seats, Labour's 29% of the vote produced 258 seats, and The Conservatives' 36% produced 306 seats. Others received 28 seats from 12% of the vote. There is a delayed vote in one constituency, where the front runners normally are the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and remain opposing each other there. Meanwhile, David Cameron has made a virtue of fixing a coalition with the Liberal Democrats that followed intense negotiations, and he was also pushed this way further by not one of his allied Ulster Unionists winning a Westminster seat, a joining that, in my view, potentially undermined British honest brokering regarding the parties in Northern Ireland. The new one seat win of the non-sectarian Alliance Party from there ought to side with its sister party, the Liberal Democrats, but it may retain independence.

Many who supported the Liberal Democrats voted in order to keep the Conservatives out of power. However, when a broad left coalition was tested, it was not so much the necessity of bringing in left-wing nationalists, the Green and Alliance that was the problem, but that significant numbers of the Labour Party itself who had lost the will to make such a coalition and to carry on in power.

The actual outcome coalition seems to be giving David Cameron the opportunity to modernise the Conservative Party further towards the centre and to actually do some of the reforms New Labour considered but never did because of its self-sufficient majorities. Originally Tony Blair, who openly warmed to the liberal tradition, had considered 'bringing in' the Liberal Democrats and introducing voting and constitutional reform, but there was a lack of necessity. He missed this opportunity like he missed entering Britain into the euro currency. In fact he missed a lot of things and then seemed to enter into his own junior coalition with President Bush, assisting the ongoing draining of support from Labour.

I voted Liberal Democrat and yet, in a Labour-Conservative marginal, was tempted to vote Labour despite not wanting to offer it positive support. However, I am a liberal in political economy and religion, and so I voted my first choice, and it is a largely misunderstood ideological position.

The Liberal Democrats are the combination of the historical Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party that broke away from a left wing Labour Party in the 1980s. The Liberals are themselves descended from the Whig Party, so that the Whigs and the Tories were the land owning elites who rotated political power. The present Conservative Party descends from those Tories who were in favour of free trade. The Liberals attracted the middle class industrialists and the urban radicals, and increasingly became more social liberal and welfare reforming than economic liberal - yet still individualist - but in terms of government were superseded by the collectivist socialistic Labour Party, whose high point was the considerable nationalisation and socialisation of business and welfare immediately after the Second World War. The Conservatives adopted the welfare state with mixed economy as part of its 'national party' outlook, but under the revolutionary Margaret Thatcher adopted what is known as 'Manchester Liberalism', or economic liberalism, that of private wealth and public basics. Whilst she flushed out inflation, a lot of price inflation was held down by far eastern competition. Tony Blair, in privatising further, and in further liberalising finance, had much in common with his main predecessor, except that he poured money into collaborative not competitive public services, some of which were provided by private firms under contract. A lot of this public and private wealth generation was through private lending, which, along with consumer and property debt(and inflated property prices being where the inflation went), led to the debt crisis that we have today.

Back in the days of the two party social democratic consensus, the Liberal Party shrunk to 3 seats and 2% of the vote in 1955. Jo Grimond (1913-1993) became its philosopher leader, building the Liberals as pro-ideas and anti-interests (neither unions nor business), and an opponent of bureaucratic state action as the means to social change. He favoured local decentralisation and participation in decision making structures by individuals in communities with freedom of choice as foundation rock. This was therefore a radicalism different from Labour at the time.

Such liberalism was consistent with the Liberal past, and it is why liberalism never stretched into the collectivist industrial working class. This is also parallel with the Unitarians as religious liberals, who could run many a Sunday school and welfare organisation to draw in 'outer ring' working class children and parents, but it was never itself able to convert its radicalism into a religious form of socialism. Unitarian religion had its origins in middle class English Presbyterian merchants and then in urban capitalism; it drew on the ideology of the Scottish and French Enlightenment. They were once Manchester Liberals, thus economic liberals that became, with social conscience and radical outreach, social liberals. Incidentally, Labour Churches were a flop: from the beginning, working class movements were secular. Whilst the Church of England was feudal at base, all the denominations were middle class in agitation for reform and in people. There were chapels of the 'respectable working class' and exceptions among dangerous primary industry workers, but these were exceptions. Nevertheless the middle class intellectual socialist did draw on some 'respectable' denominational and post war 'Christian socialist' roots as well as purely secular socialist ideology.

The Church of England was long called the Tory Party at prayer, a label broken by the anti-traditionalist Manchester Liberalism (and 'couldn't care less' stance) of Thatcherism, whereas New Labour looked to the different faiths for some ethical values and sought to give a leg up to the lowest (while the upper end of the social scale became richer and richer). So what now?

In my view, the current government of a minority of Liberal Democrats nevertheless represents exactly the Jo Grimond ideological position, including those untested parts of New Labour that this government seems intent on embodying and enacting. If Thatcher's was an economic liberal government, this is a social liberal government, and Cameron seems suddenly to relish the fact.

Yet it is a difficult ideology to explain. It just seems unusual and different. The Unitarians have the same problem, in that the 'Just what do you stand for?' question has such an acquired, long term, difficult to address, answer. Here is an answer. It is about the liberty of each individual to believe as wanted but responsibly, drawing on the resources of the different faiths and an awe for the wonder of science, and to do it in dialogue inside communities (very equalitarian congregations), and to be socially aware and active, to basically uphold the dignity of the cultural and biological human individual and all of life around.

In religious terms it is not left and it is not right. This, I believe, is also how to understand the new government in Britain intellectually. It will be about political reform, ideas over interests, anti-bureaucratic and decentralising, and for individuals in communities. But not a lot of people may understand it, and many a Conservative may be upset.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

Should the Episcopal Church go out of business?

By George Clifford

A February item reported at the Episcopal Café’s Lead intrigues me: Methodist Church in the UK to go out of existence? The Rev. David Gamble, President of the U.K.’s Methodist Conference said that he was willing to end the separate status of the Methodist Church for the sake of the “Kingdom.”

From a sociological perspective, the Episcopal Church (TEC) has suffered both a striking numerical loss in membership (almost 30%) and an even larger decline as a percentage of the nation’s population (almost 60%). In 1960, TEC had 2.9 million members, equaling 1.6% of the U.S. population. Forty-eight years later, TEC had fewer than 2.06 million members, or only 0.65% of the U.S. population.

From an organizational perspective, TEC struggles with declining revenues. For example, the national Church budget for the 2010-2012 triennium is $23 million smaller than for 2007-2009. The current recession, especially for entities such as TEC that are heavily dependent upon endowment income, has accentuated financial difficulties. Underlying the recession, the real cause is declining membership.

Less obvious although pervasive, a huge proportion of TEC’s revenue and fixed assets yield small returns in congregations whose primary organizational focus is survival. The median average Sunday attendance in TEC congregations was 69 in 2008, continuing a long-term decline. My point is not that small congregations are of less value than large congregations are, but that small congregations necessarily devote a far greater percentage of their resources to maintaining their physical plant than do large congregations. In fact, keeping the building open and maintained often consumes such a large portion of available revenue that insufficient funds remain to pay clergy adequately, let alone fund ministry and mission programs. The building, instead of being a means to an end, becomes the congregation’s de facto raison d’être.

These are not newly identified problems. Richard Kew and Roger White wrote about these dismaying trends in their 1992 New Millennium, New Church and 1997 Toward 2015: A Church Odyssey. Numerous articles, blogs, and speakers have all addressed the same concerns. Yet the downward trends persist, perhaps even accelerating in spite of the earnest efforts to reverse them by many individuals and Church organizations.

So … what if we think the unthinkable? What if we followed the lead of the Rev. Gamble, President of the U.K. Methodist Conference, and wonder whether TEC should go out of business – for God's sake?

Rather than immediately react with a heartfelt, uncompromising negative couched in expletives, pause for a couple of moments to reflect on some realities and possibilities instead of the impossibilities. First, fifty years from now the church in the United States (its worship, community, structure, facilities, and leadership) will almost certainly look vastly different than today’s church. The shift away from the way of being church that I personally cherish is already underway. In the last couple of decades, thousands of mostly non-denominational congregations, many with rapidly growing membership and diverse patterns of being church, have emerged. Living in denial benefits neither God nor the growing non-Christian majority. Pro-actively adapting to a rapidly changing context and constituency will afford the church more leeway in defining and shaping its identity and form than reactively struggling to survive.

Second, TEC is not alone in facing these challenges. Other Churches – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ to name a few – have experienced similar, large declines and face parallelchallenges. While not wanting to underestimate differences in ethos, liturgy, polity, and theology that divide these Churches, the substantial commonalities between various Christian denominations dwarf those differences in contrast to the competing forces of secularism, new age spirituality, and eastern religions. Businesses that pro-actively respond to changing markets and merge from strength tend to thrive. Businesses that react to market changes and merge in an effort to survive rarely recover.

Third, the real work of the Church – becoming God's people by striving to increase the love of God and neighbor – occurs primarily in local congregations. A dismayingly small and decreasing percentage of diocesan, provincial, and national expenditures supports missions and ministries that would not happen if left to local parishes. Endorsing and supporting chaplains for federal ministries (military, Veterans Affairs, and prisons) is an example of one such ministry. Much of the work of Episcopal Relief and Development is another example. Instead, most of what happens at the diocesan and national levels is “overhead,” essential as a means to an end but not, per se, why the Church exists. Bishops, for example, perform critical tasks teaching, confirming, ordaining, organizing and deploying ministries but those instrumental tasks support the life and work of local congregations. As much as I love and appreciate my bishop, my parish does not exist to support him. Similarly, most diocesan and national staff offices exist as a means to support the life and ministry of local congregations.

Imagine … several small, geographically adjacent congregations of various Churches laying aside their idolatry of buildings and accoutrements to unite as the people of God, worshiping in homes, served by a single member of the clergy, and using their consolidated resources to engage in expanded ministry and mission.

Imagine … large and medium size, geographically adjacent congregations sharing a single physical plant while retaining their distinct identities, cooperating in diverse projects that might include feeding the hungry, offering different styles of worship, establishing an institute for lay spiritual formation, etc.

Imagine … seminaries and judicatory staffs of different denominations consolidating to reduce expenses on physical plant and internal administration while better serving their constituent congregations.

In 1991, while on the staff of the Navy Chief of Chaplains, I conducted a feasibility study for consolidating the Navy, Army, and Air Force Chaplain Schools into a single school. I concluded that consolidation would save as much as 35% in operating costs per annum, provide a more comprehensive program, better prepare chaplains to function in the joint environment predicted to become the norm for military operations, and still permit each service to meet its unique needs. The Chief of Chaplains rejected my recommendations. Neither the Navy nor the other services wanted to surrender control of any aspect of their programs. Several years ago, budget constraints and the new standard of joint operations forced the three chaplain schools to consolidate.

Over the last century, the pace of social change has accelerated and will most likely continue accelerating. We Episcopalians, with our emphasis on incarnational theology, should recognize that the Church, the incarnated body of Christ, is no more immutable than is a human body. Indeed, the Church remains faithful to its call as the intentional community of God's people only by adapting to changes in the larger society.

Visions of the future Church vary greatly. I proffer my intentionally provocative imaginings as a catalyst for further creativity. Nobody has urim and thummim (or even the twenty-first century equivalent, a reliable computer model) with which to discern the future. Furthermore, I’m far from sanguine about the prospects for any unified body that might emerge if several American denominations unexpectedly achieved organic unity in the next few years. I’m also mindful that most of the ecumenical movement’s twentieth century momentum foundered on doctrinal and structural shoals. On the other hand, I know that staying the present course will only lead to continuing declines. (Remember the definition of stupidity: repeatedly performing the same actions, each time expecting a different result.)

Genuine renewal requires new wineskins. Ethos, liturgy, polity, and theology are all part of the wineskin, human efforts to savor and to communicate God's ineffable, transcendent love manifested in the Christ. Change necessarily entails conflict. Out of creative, well-managed conflict over the church’s future new wineskins will emerge from which the next generation can drink deeply of God's timeless and unconditional life-giving love.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

Jesus Christ is Lord of The Episcopal Church and of All Creation

By W. Christopher Evans

An on-line mentor of mine and of many, Dr. Louie Crew, was recently asked a rather odd question, “Who is the temporal head of The Episcopal Church?” The question implies still again a swoop-in understanding of Jesus Christ’s presence, as if Jesus Christ somehow goes absent (rather than often hidden) in the interim or interregnum outside of word proclaimed from the pulpit or sacrament presented at the altar, something like John Mason Neal’s infamous first stanza:

Christ is gone up; yet ere he passed
from earth, in heaven to reign,
he formed one holy Church to last
till he should come again.

On the contrary, by word proclaimed, as bread and wine, and I would add, in psalms sung, we again encounter the terrifying, liberating news that everywhere and always Jesus Christ is present, presence, and Lord. By the power of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s own promises, Jesus does not ever leave us behind—ever. Our own Eucharistic prayers remind us of this again and again:

“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again” (BCP, 363).

All hinges on that little word “is” as Zwingli’s and Luther’s own battles remind us. Christ is risen! Not in the past. Not merely in the future. By sheer Self-gift, here and now, Christ is risen, taking into God’s own life once-for-all by means of himself flesh, matter, creation. Is risen declares, Jesus overcomes, reigns, and makes himself anywhere and everywhere to be present and explicitly available in psalms, by word, and as bread and wine—and among sisters and brothers called to praise and proclaim his Name. But nowhere is creation not his own. This is, after all, the creation which he himself speaks, no sings, into existence.

Our “peculiar realized eschatology” (F. D. Maurice) or “inaugurated eschatology” (Arthur Just) or eucharistic eschatology (myself) stands in radical contrast to and rejection of the popular End Times christologies of Left Behind and similar series. God in Christ never goes absent to swoop in at the End and clean up the mass by seeming hatred of that which he has made. Rather, Christ is our beginning, our principle, our end who never lets us go—this is the heart of the Reformers’ rebuke in justification by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Nowhere is this care more obvious than in the lines from Wisdom 11:24 in our Ash Wednesday Collect: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent” (BCP, 217).

That much of American Protestantism has devolved into a degenerate Zwinglianism should not let us absent this radical reminder of Christ’s lordership here and now and always and everywhere. “Christ will come again” is not merely future promise of Consummation, but present promise fulfilled in psalms sung, by word proclaimed, and as bread and wine—and among we who are his own Body sent forth to live it. And just the same, by a creation always being sung into existence. Nowhere can we not turn and not be surprised to find declaration of our Lord Christ’s reign and presence. And though our Lord Christ remains often hidden, we should not think him not speaking or absent. See the Sparrow. The Ant. The Raven. The foreigner. The widow. The orphan.

So, when I hear this question then, I want to respond, “How we try to wriggle our way out of being subject to and disciples of Christ.” For my answer to this question is this: The spiritual and temporal Head of The Episcopal Church is our Lord Jesus Christ.

F. D. Maurice made much of Christ’s headship. Christ’s headship not only implies oversight and rule, but constitutive and creative power. This is the Lord who speaks us into existence and redeems that same existence in each and every moment. This is the Lord of whom we are members bodily by Holy Baptism—and, Maurice would remind us, God’s own from the moment of our creation, despite all appearances to the contrary. Baptism into Christ in Maurice’s, as with his mentor Luther’s, christology is not a one-time event, but our true and only and ever-present reality, stance, hope, and only ontology always and everywhere. We are God’s own to whom God in Christ has come once-for-all. Having received ourselves anew from God by death into and life in our Lord Christ through life-giving waters, live it. Live as the children of God we are created to be “from the beginning” and when “God began to create.” No, in all things, creation, redemption, life, death, Jesus Christ is Lord.

While a division of spiritual and temporal may be meant to properly divide Creator and creature, by doing so in this fashion, it undermines the Resurrection and comes close to denial of the Ascension. By taking flesh into the heavenlies, God in Christ will never let his creation go, but indeed, takes creation into Godsself for once and always:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen (BCP, 226).

We should expect to encounter a Who, Lancelot Andrewes tells us, our Lord Christ, wherever two or three are called together in psalms sung, by word proclaimed, and as bread and wine. And not only there, but in all of creation, for it is this same Lord Word who speaks all, this same Lord Wisdom who “orderest all things mightily” for us though the Evil One gnashes and we follow suit. Both of time and eternity, Jesus Christ is Lord!

What a spiritual and temporal division of Christ’s lordship also suggests is somehow matters of flesh and blood are of lesser or no concern to God than those matters spiritual. The Incarnation and the Crucifixion tell us contrary-wise. Matters of flesh and blood precisely reveal the Spirit or not. Division of body and soul and spirit in this manner is unbiblical. We are persons bodily. The Resurrection of our Lord reminds us that we will not be so, that is, persons without a body, changed though we may be. Flesh matters. Matter matters. God pitches God’s tent among us in our Lord Christ.

Both in matters spiritual and matters temporal then, indeed in all things, Jesus Christ is Head of the Church. We Episcopalians, as Bishop John Skinner of Scotland preaches to us at our inception and constitution as a Church, will be non-established:

Hence it is evident that the church as constituted by Christ, must be allowed to be independent on the state, or these apostles must be considered as guilty of disobedience and sedition. And the succeeding bishops, for the first three hundred years after Christ, must lie under the same charge: for they held religious assemblies, governed their clergy and people, and executed all other parts of their sacred function, not only without leave from the state, but very often in direct opposition to it. (John Skinner, “The Nature and Extent of the Apostolical Commission, A Sermon Preached at the Consecration of the Right Reverend Dr Samuel Seabury, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, by a Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Scotland.).

Our Deputies in General Convention, our bishops, all are, but they never stand in Christ’s stead. We have no vicar of Christ. No one stands in Christ’s place. Rather as our priests present to us, each of us as creatures of God’s singing, as members of Christ’s own Body redeemed point to and profess and proclaim and bless our one Lord in all things. Any power, authority, governance we have rests in him or stands not at all. And not just us, for our Lord Christ is not only Head of the Church, he is Head of All Creation. William Stringfellow reminds us again and again that nowhere is the Word not speaking and present and active in working to bring all into conformity by redemption to God’s will. This world and the world are God’s in Christ Jesus despite all appearances, despite our denials, despite our not knowing, despite our sins, despite our open rebellion. This is what we, Christ’s own Body are called to profess and proclaim and most importantly, hymn: “Jesus Christ is Lord!” By those four words as creed, empires have been brought to their knees and oppressions made to cease, by them we laud Christ as head and only and blessed: Holy, holy, holy.

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular

Making a home for artists and writers in the Church

By Donald Schell

Sometimes a tradition begins by accident. I was thirty-five years old, and eighteen months into founding our new congregation, and I invited congregants to a weekend silent retreat I’d hoped to launch a practice of silent retreats in my new congregation. The Spirit had something else in mind.

Someone had suggested we go to a retreat house tended by a vowed Episcopal hermit, Maggie Ross. Sister Maggie’s retreat house was deep in redwood forest north of the Russian River. She lived in a cottage some distance from the house where we’d be staying. We’d have to cook for ourselves - with propane, like the lights, because the house was off the grid. It sounded perfect.

I told our congregation of twenty somethings about my previous experience with silence in community and common prayer in a setting of silence. I said we’d be roughing it a bit and that we’d get to meet a hermit who had a pet raven, but she wouldn’t talk with us because she was a hermit and we’d be in silence. I may have mentioned that Maggie Ross was a writer, but it was the year before she published The Fire of Your Life, so all I knew of her writing was that it was part of her daily practice as a vowed solitary.

It so happened that a few months before the retreat we’d started a congregational writers’ group. We did writing exercises in the group and shared what we were working on, whether fiction, poetry, memoir, or essay writing. As we packed up our food and gear to drive up to Cazadero together, I noticed that everyone coming on the retreat was part of our congregation’s writers’ group. When we gathered after our first long silence on Saturday evening, everyone had journals and notes, prayers, poems and reflections from the day’s silence. We read and listened in wonder. We’d mostly used the writing to get to a place of deeper truthfulness. I think that was Sister Maggie’s observation. Watching us during the day in the embracing quiet of the redwood forest, she’d decided to break her usual pattern and sit down with the weekend group.

As it turned out, our shared prayers that weekend were very simple – sung grace at meals and a quiet Eucharist one evening. By the end of the weekend we knew we’d begun something we wanted to continue. What had been planned as a silent prayer retreat had become a writers’ retreat, a weekend of luminous silence for creativity. We scheduled with Maggie to return the next year and planned how to invite other writing friends.

In time Maggie left the country to live her hermit’s life the edge of a regular monastic community, and we moved our annual weekend to St. Dorothy’s Rest, a retreat center that offered us the additional support of a cook who prepared our meals. Gradually other artists joined us – composers, a dancer, painters, a potter-sculptor, photographers, and an iconographer. We’ve gathered every Labor Day since 1982, continuing to fold new participants in to the group. Sometime in the early 1990’s we added a second weekend in the spring. The group grew to twenty-five or thirty people. We continued to welcome beginners and professionals, people bringing work in progress or people wanting to try something. We asked everyone to declare on the first night of the retreat what he or she’d be working on. To encourage people to explore creative practice outside the safety of their familiar medium and spark something new, a composer might offer a music composition workshop or musical improvisation workshop for writers and painters, or an actor would lead a couple hours of expressive movement work. In such offerings, writers regularly found quirky, inspiring, provocative invitations to write.

When we opened the retreat to writers and artists beyond our parish community, we had to define ourselves and how we were gathered. If we were no longer a church group of artists and writers, what would we be? Our core group of planners decided we could welcome all kinds of artists and writers so long as we made clear that some of the work presented might be Christian or explicitly spiritual, and that prayer at meals and a Eucharist open to all would be part of our gathering.

Welcoming artists and writers who weren’t Christian stretched our own openness to hear experience and imagination shaped by those artists’ visions and hopes. We came to recognize how essential the Spirit was to all creativity, but we didn’t worry whether our non-Christian participants welcomed that language to describe what we experienced together (though many did). Sr. Maggie’s wisdom confirmed our ongoing discovery that even when experience is truthfully told, what we personally believe, and what the church teaches are in a dynamic tension. The Spirit is present in that tension challenging, enlarging, and re-defining us and our faith.

Over the decades, this gathering helped shape the spirituality of our congregation.
- We learned that anyone can be creative.
- We learned that the desire that moves us to create is never satisfied
- We learned that faithfulness to vision for a work may carry an artist through passionate trial-and-error, and into frustration and failure on the way to realizing the vision.
- We learned that faithful desire makes people patient with suffering and fires that patience with hope.
- We learned that creativity CAN be shared before work is done if a welcoming, encouraging community is willing to see or hear another’s unfinished work and say “I wonder…”
- We learned to respect and listen to the artist’s vision as we shared experience of new work, and that made us readier to collaborate with anyone taking a new initiative in the congregation.

Two years after we started the retreats, a painter attended our St. Gregory’s Sunday liturgy for the first time. She told me she kept coming back to St. Gregory’s because it was the first time she’d felt like an ordinary, normal person in church. She felt welcomed as an artist: we had learned something of the essential humanity of creative work.

Later, when people visiting St. Gregory’s began saying they were amazed at how many artists and creative people we’d attracted to the congregation, I responded that the congregation had helped many of those artists and creative people emerge. Some visitors couldn’t believe that this many creative people hadn’t walked into church as artists. But even skeptics, if they stayed, learned startling things about their own God-given creativity. All kinds of other creative and collaborative projects sprang up in the church’s life. We learned to gather around vision and help people articulate it. Sometimes we found ourselves growing into the discipline of moving gracefully from a leadership role in one project to a supporting, following role in another project. We found that creative practice, like contemplation, moves us again and again to say, ‘Thank you.’ We glimpsed why our Great Thanksgiving is our response to God’s creative gift of God’s own presence to us in the flesh, Jesus.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.

Seeking efficiencies and improvements in the deployment process

By George Clifford

Conversations I hear about the clergy profiles and search process managed by the Church Deployment Office (CDO) reveal widespread dissatisfaction and make me wonder if a better, lower cost alternative exists. Many clergy, dioceses, and parishes have already informally opted out of the CDO system. Concurrently, The Episcopal Church faces continuing revenue shortfalls forcing program reductions. As difficult as change can be for some people and organizations, now seems a propitious moment to explore options for improving service while saving money.

LinkedIn is not only free but the premier social networking site for professionals seeking employment and organizations seeking to hire executives. What would happen if TEC utilized LinkedIn, instead of the current CDO system, for helping clergy (and lay employees) and employers (parishes, dioceses, etc.) in the call process?

A couple of preliminary disclaimers are important. Although I have a LinkedIn account, I’m far from an experienced LinkedIn user. Nor do I stand to benefit financially if my suggestion is adopted.

A task force of stakeholders and highly proficient Episcopal LinkedIn users can probably develop a workable set of tactics and policies with relative speed and ease. Hundreds of self-identified Episcopalians already use LinkedIn. Some have connected through existing LinkedIn groups that include school alumni, parishes, ministries to help job seekers, and several dioceses.

To stimulate creativity, suggest the viability of relying on LinkedIn, and to initiate a conversation, here are a few, broad-brush ideas on how TEC might employ LinkedIn for its clergy placement system:

First, TEC could organize two or three user groups. The organizer controls membership in the group, offering a means to exclude the “unwashed.” One group would consist of Episcopal clergy (and perhaps those interested in lay positions); this group would be similar to the CDO profile database. Another group would consist of parishes and other organizations wishing to hire a member of the first group. This second group would be analogous to the CDO database of employment opportunities. A third group possible group would consist of diocesan deployment officers, bishops, and other key players in the call process.

Second, each group might have standard forms or information that each group member completes. This would allow for as much flexibility as a resume designed by the person seeking a call and as much structure as the current profile system for both individuals and calling parishes and organizations. This information could easily include links to a priest’s blog, website of parishes previously served, or a recruiting congregation or organization’s website.

Third, many (most?) participants in this plan would probably know one or more current LinkedIn users, Episcopalian or not, who could provide free, local, and timely coaching. This might increase, compared to the CDO, the number of individuals seeking a call and calling organizations who participate, additionally enhancing the value of replacing the CDO system with LinkedIn.

Fourth, LinkedIn provides apparently adequate security for the personal information (name, address, telephone numbers, email, etc.) that the system requires. Otherwise, LinkedIn’s millions of current users would not find the system sufficiently secure. LinkedIn users must establish a free account with password protection, preventing most unauthorized access to data.

Fifth, LinkedIn’s search capabilities probably match or exceed those of the CDO present system. In other words, the change should not degrade but may improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the current system. This also might increase the number of individuals and organizations choosing to rely on the system, again improving effectiveness and efficiency. If LinkedIn did not provide an adequate search capability, neither Fortune 500 companies or professionals seeking positions that pay six figure salaries would bother using LinkedIn. Although the content and tasks of ministry differ greatly from secular positions, the recruiting (or call) processes are very similar.

Sixth, the Episcopal Church would own no infrastructure nor encounter any fees for utilizing LinkedIn. System improvements would be compliments of LinkedIn. CDO personnel could serve as field consultants. Alternatively, TEC might capture some portion, or all, of the CDO budget as cost savings without any program reductions. A free process that works 90-95% as effectively and efficiently as a proprietary system looks like a very good value in today’s austere fiscal environment.

The current CDO system reflects pre-internet thinking, awkwardly updated for the personal computer and then internet eras. Current planning anticipates replacing the printed version of Episcopal Life with an exclusive, online version; the online version already distributes more content in a timelier manner. Prompted by decreasing reliance on newspapers for information, increasing use and availability of the internet, and a continuing need for good stewardship (i.e., to reduce costs), dioceses are replacing legacy communication systems with internet based solutions. Adoption of a clergy placement system based on a free, social networking site for professional placement, such as LinkedIn, will similarly move TEC away from another legacy system with its frustrating limitations and unnecessary costs.

Rumor has it that the CDO is developing a proprietary, interactive system to replace its current system. If so, this probably represents a second-best solution. The Church might exercise better stewardship of its limited funds by not purchasing proprietary computer code, funding beta testing, etc. Instead, using TEC resources to research the most effective search modality and best indicators of a good fit between a priest and parish would probably yield bigger dividends.

For example, which search modality is most likely to produce a rector who stays at least five years: a diocese recommending a single rector time-certain candidate; a targeted search in which the diocese recommends approximately five candidates; or the traditional parish-centered search process? In a minority of instances, an excellent choice as rector may beneficially stay a shorter period of time, e.g., a parish with a recent history of great trauma that needs much healing. Nevertheless, five years is a reasonable proxy for a good fit. Complementing that metric with annual data about number of baptisms, number of confirmations, average Sunday attendance, and operating budget would further refine the accuracy of the assessment. Furthermore, those search modalities require increasing amounts of time, ranging from several months to find a rector time-certain to as much as two years for the traditional search. Vacant cures, even with an excellent interim, generally inflict a toll on parishes. Search processes are also expensive. Yet no research exists about the effectiveness of each of the three search modalities.

God calls us, individually and collectively, to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us. As much as we, God's frozen chosen, may prefer stolid immobility to change, the business of being the Church is always a means to an end and never an end in itself. Upon what other antiquated modus operandi does TEC rely to its detriment and financial loss? Do other, free alternatives exist that TEC can adapt and adopt to become a more effective, efficient steward of the resources God's people have entrusted to our care?

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Feeding the ego, starving the Church

By Richard Helmer

I commented on a thread at Episcopal Cafe on Monday on the subject of church growth. Frankly, the subject is starting to wear quite thin on me, because it so often turns to matters of institutional preservation, which is not only deadly dull, but I am increasingly convinced deadly spiritually.

Standard congregational development schema I was taught to appreciate involve the transitions between various sizes of parishes -- family, pastoral, program, etc. The jargon goes on from there, and leads. . .well, where? Nowhere much in my view, and many of our leaders are left scratching their heads and wondering why. We often talk about "cultural change" in our congregations as though it is somehow divorced from and devoid of the language of the Gospel, which is not simply about system theories or whatever else is hot right now, but about the mysterious transformation of the human heart and transformation of the human family by God's loving grace and our active embrace of that through prayer and service to others.

I write this all with a straight face. I am a child, both literally and figuratively, of the institutional church. I am beholden to it at present both by vow and income, and I indeed wish to see it thrive and flourish. But it will most certainly not by navel gazing and hand-wringing, nor by romanticizing the blip of high mainline attendance in the 1950's, from which we are still declining. . .or perhaps a better word is recovering, as we move towards a more real place in a world where people are free to seek out spiritual community that nourishes their hearts, minds, and being.

I'm all for congregational development, building the church up and all that. Just ask anyone in the parish I serve. Our numbers right now are good and modestly improving, though, not because we've been good congregational developers and I've taught the theory well, but because we've identified the tangible spiritual needs in our community and have begun the hard work of addressing them. Because we've identified gifts in our community for leadership and ministry and empowered them. Because I've struggled to set aside the egotistical notion that I, as parish priest, can "save" the church and at times have managed to get the hell (literally and figuratively, again) out of the way.

At the end of the day, a lot of congregational development writing and talk is about ego -- feeding the ego by possessing "how to grow a church" through specialized knowledge or methodology. Or feeding the ego by romanticizing a supposedly greater past. Or feeding the ego by projecting current trends in a straight line and claiming we have control over the future, or at least some special knowledge about it. Or feeding the ego because "my family and I depend on this job." None serve us or the Christian Gospel at all well. We need to stop if we are to move forward. Idolatry is one way to talk about our egotistical obsessions. Idolatry is one way to talk about much of our chatter over church growth.

Growth is not the goal here. It is only the natural, God-given outcome of living faithfully into Christian mission. And growth has a great deal less to do with numbers than it does with the vibrancy of ministry and the freedom of the Spirit to move in community.

Here are my thoughts, for what they are worth:

No one wants to join a community wringing its hands and navel gazing over its own demise.

Nor does anyone want to simply become a number to prop up a flagging institution.

The real questions we need to be asking are those like these:

Are we endeavoring to be faithful to the Gospel and to our God?

Does our institution serve our mission of Christ Jesus to transform hearts and reflect God's work in the world? Or do we distort our mission to serve the institution? This is a simple (but not easy) matter of correctly ordering the carts and horses.

Are people finding spiritual nourishment, hope, and empowerment for ministry and service in their communities both within and beyond the walls of the Church?

If these criteria are being addressed with intention in people's real lives and grounded experience, growth of all kinds may very well follow. If they aren't, institutional death is a natural outcome.

We all fear death of institutions we love, of course. But at the end of the day, and indeed in God's gracious reign, we are not children of the institution.

We are God's children. We are people of the resurrection. And that's what truly matters, even as we face decline in many places.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

Refreshing the parts that prose can't reach

By Martin L. Smith

Sitting on my balcony the other day with a glass of beer, I found myself breaking into a smile at the memory of the slogan Heineken ran for several decades: “Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.” I have always felt this catchphrase cries out to be adapted to help us realize the power of poetry in developing a vital and imaginative inner life. Poetry is able to refresh the parts of our heart and soul that prose cannot reach! Poetry can penetrate and rouse the richest and deepest dimensions of our humanity. And maybe poetry is more important to us now than ever before as we are bombarded with information through the media, most of it utterly banal—clogging our heads, but not reaching the inner springs of feeling and action deep within.

Many of us have had the experience of responding to poems so viscerally that we are physically and emotionally shaken as they speak to us. We have a heightened sense that somehow the opposites of life – birth and death, connectedness and brokenness, love and fear – are being held together. We hold our breath on the brink of being suffused with meaning. Words glow on the page and like magnets seem to pull us out of our usual harried state into a place where we recognize our own right to be passionate, to be human beings on a divine quest.

Researchers have made some intriguing discoveries. The typical length of the line in poetry in cultures the world over is virtually identical, taking between 2.5 and 3.5 seconds to pronounce. There is a convincing theory that when words convey meaning to us in this short package, followed by a tiny pause before the next line, it allows the input to pass from one hemisphere of the brain to the other, and so our receptivity is fully opened and our consciousness unified. No wonder human culture and religion has placed such value on metred poetry and song in the sharing of meaning, and in ritual. No wonder that pages and pages of text or hours of speech seldom have a fraction of the effect that a short poem committed to memory can have as it lodges in our consciousness and continues to illuminate and challenge us from within.

I am sure I could write an entire spiritual biography by stringing together the poems that came to me unsought as visiting angels at the right time year after year. About 15 poems of Rilke that I learned 40 years ago shaped my whole way of feeling about God: “we feel round rage and desolation the finally enfolding tenderness.” I look through the pages, worn round the edges from use, where I have copied out the poems. Here’s the Tao Te Ching and Li Po. Here are the poems of David Whyte: “always this fire smolders inside. When it remains unlit, the body fills with dense smoke.” e.e. cummings: “all which isn’t singing is mere talking.” Rumi. Mirabai. Machado. W.H. Auden. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Peguy. None of them deliberately researched. We just come upon the poems when we are ready.

In a beautiful poem, Seamus Heaney remembers the counsel given in confession by a Spanish priest: simply, “Read poems as prayers.” Wise man. It sounds simple, but it is actually challenging. We often complain to ourselves that our prayer is dry, we aren’t motivated, we feel distracted. We rationalize our avoidance by telling ourselves that we are in a state of doubt, religion doesn’t feel very real to us at the moment etc. etc. But in fact we are simply refusing to take responsibility for nourishing and stimulating our imaginations, without which prayer is bound to shrivel up. We need to open ourselves to the kind of language that “refreshes the parts” that the prose of everyday working life and entertainment doesn’t reach, the poetry of holy scripture and the ecumenical scriptures given us by poets in the larger human family.

Poetry as source for prayer is not only a solitary practice. It cries out to be shared.
What a marvelous thing it would be if we opened the space in our lives to read and share poetry with one another, and made gifts to one another of the vibrant meaningfulness of the poems that have spoken to us personally. A rather subversive practice, actually, because it would probably have the effect of rendering us even more impatient with the church’s institutional addiction to cliché-ridden “church-speak” and the mind-numbing verbiage generated by its obsessive controversies.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

The inconsistent Archbishop of Canterbury

By Adrian Worsfold

I find it increasingly difficult to measure any consistency between the Archbishop of Canterbury's lectures and his actions regarding the Anglican Communion. Contast his statement to the recent Global South gathering in Singapore, in which Mary Glasspool's election and forthcoming consecration cannot stand, and about which he is in conversation with a number of unstated people regarding the consequences, and his lecture given to the Christian Muslim Forum Conference of Scholars dated March 22nd. Here is the first of some choice cuts:

A very significant part of the Christian tradition, especially the Christian mystical tradition, is the conviction that you will never have said enough about God. If God is infinite then you will never run out of things to say. And you'll never come to a place where you can say, 'all that has to be said about God has now been said'. Our speech about God brings us constantly to the edge of a mystery which is at one and the same time dark and even alarming, because it throws out all our preconceptions, and yet is also inviting, because we know it is a mystery of endless love and invitation and welcome. So the process of talking about faith, for Christians who've inherited that particular strand of Christian reflection, is always a process of coming to the point where you look into a mystery. Your words, you believe, are true, and yet they are not a truth that allows you to say there's no more to discover.

Why can he not translate this breadth and generosity to the Anglican Communion?

Personally I have completed my transition from an Anglican identity to Unitarian (again). I do not believe in the significant doctrinal claims of Anglicans, regarding incarnation and resurrection, for example. The answer as to whether I believe in these is no. I prefer the emphasis on freedom of individual belief, of difference coming together. I will still attend Anglican evensongs, I cannot participate in chunks of any Eucharist, and I can still present theological material for as long as wanted.

I participate in a congregation that has attracted a Muslim into regular attendance. It simply could not happen in an Anglican church. Unitarian churches change when people join them, whereas in Anglicanism the people should change to fit in. The ignorant charge made against The Episcopal Church, that it has somehow become Unitarian, is rubbish. Your Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, on also joining Islam, and dressing for that worship, was found to be incompatible with your Church, and Rev Kevin Thew Forrester failed to get sufficient consents for being a bishop, due not so much to his additional Buddhist spirituality but his actual liturgical revisionism. The Church retains what seems to a Unitarian a highly dogmatic liturgy, one that retains an outsider's view of Christianity that it is, above all, a cult of an individual, the saving personality of Jesus Christ.

Yet, bizarrely, that presentation of the Archbishop of Canterbury to a Muslim-Christian scholars' conference is hardly out of place in many a Unitarian church. Here are some more choice cuts:

When I see some of the great classics of comparative religion of a certain kind, whether it's the work of Professor John Hick, or Fr Hans Küng, my worry is that these are people who are eager to persuade everybody that their differences don't really matter in the way they thought they did, that everyone is really asking the same questions, and that it ought to be possible to find the same answers,

But of course they're not asking the same questions... 'What must I do to be saved?' may be a Christian question, but I doubt very much whether it's a natural Muslim question or even a Hindu question – or a Buddhist question where the question might be 'What could I do to be released?' (which is a slightly different category). My point is that in dialogue I start questioning my own questions. I look at myself and say 'Is that the obvious or only way of asking the question?' 'How do I listen to someone else's questions and see how mine relate to them?' In other words, in dialogue I discover the things that are not necessarily at the forefront of my mind.

And that surely is a very significant aspect of dialogue: the discovery that we don't know even what we don't know. And we must, in attention and listening find that out if God is to do what God wants with us.

A Unitarian is very well aware that different religions have developed different languages and questions. Some Unitarians might think they have a Hick-like Universalism or a Kung-like global ethic, but others are aware that their own concepts derive from a Judaeo-Christian humanist background. My own are religious humanist, liberal Christian and Western Buddhist, and where real absence meets non-realist presence.

It seems to me that I could have given the substantive parts of the Archbishop's lecture, with the smallest of tweaks. But I combine this outlook with a view of full social inclusivity, of welcoming difference and complete liberality in interpretation. He combines it with a conservatism of bureaucratic Church interpretation and a narrative biblical approach that involves the wearing of blinkers. I don't get the connection between his breadth and his narrowness, and I don't think I am alone.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

I am the good mother

By Ann Fontaine

The second Sunday of May is the Hallmark High Holy Day of Mother’s Day. The creation of this commemoration was supported by Julia Ward Howe in her Mothers’ Day Proclamation, and the day was set aside in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson as a day to honor mothers whose sons had died in war. Since that time it has become a day of difficulty for many clergy and preachers.

Every year I wrestle with how to balance the almost idolatrous honoring of mothers by the greeting card, flower, and gift industries and the reality of “mother” for many. While many have wonderful mothers whom they wish to honor, others had abusive mothers and flee from activities on Mothers’ Day that only salts their wounds. Those who wanted to have children and could not and those whose children have died also find it difficult to sit through a service when the focus is on something they have yearned for or lost.

How might we approach this day? Embrace it? Ignore it altogether? Add prayers for all sorts and conditions of mothers and non-mothers? Transform it? All hold possibilities

We can embrace it in the spirit of Hallmark - celebrate an idealized image of mother. Give thanks that it is a well-attended Sunday as mothers and grandmothers ask their children and grandchildren to go to church this one day that is not Christmas or Easter. Give out flowers to all mothers who attend our services. Sing hymns and songs glorifying motherhood. One priest I know changes the words of Faith of our Fathers to Faith of our Mothers, recognizing that most of us attended church because of our mothers, not our fathers.

We can ignore it. Let it slip by unnoted even though many women will be wearing corsages sent by their children. We can hold on to the Anglican tradition of celebrating Mothering Sunday during Lent, usually mid-March. Transformed from a Roman celebration of the goddess Cybele on the feast of Hilaria, to a festival honoring Mary, the mother of Jesus and by extension all mothers. Marked for many years as the one Sunday when domestic servants were allowed a day off to see their mothers. Perhaps there can be movement similar to the idea that churches should not sing Christmas songs during Advent.

Another possibility is offering prayers but not preaching on the subject. Offering prayers for those who are mothers whether kindly or abusive, for those who have mothered us regardless of gender, for those who grieve death of a mother or of a child or the inability to be a birth mother can raise the awareness that the church understands the joys and difficulties of this day for many. The following is an example by Melissa Roberts:

God of mysteries, I don’t know why Mom [insert reason mother left]. Despite all the changes in my life, I miss her. Remind me that I am Your beloved child, with whom You are well pleased. You, O God, will never abandon me. Heal me in body, mind, and spirit when I feel that my mother abandoned me. Lead me to others will nurture and guide me as a mother should and let me, also, share the love of a mother with others, in the light of Your love. Amen.


Yet another idea is transformation. This seems to be gaining favor with many both in and out of churches. As early celebrations called for an end to war current celebrations add the honoring of women for the work they do providing for their families, changing unjust laws, risking jail or death for a better life for their communities and the world, and working for a safe healthy world for all children. The US State Department recently announced the winners of the Women of Courage for this year. A developing activity for Mothers Day is called Standing Women. Women, men and children stand in silence at 1 p.m. local time for five minutes as a call to action on behalf of the world and our communities, as a type of mothering of the whole world into wholeness:

We are standing for the world’s children and grandchildren, and for the seven generations beyond them.
We dream of a world where all of our children have safe drinking water, clean air to breathe, and enough food to eat.
A world where they have access to a basic education to develop their minds and healthcare to nurture their growing bodies.
A world where they have a warm, safe and loving place to call home.
A world where they don’t live in fear of violence – in their home, in their neighborhood, in their school or in their world.
This the world of which we dream.
This is the cause for which we stand.

One year Mothers’ Day fell on the same day as the reading from the Gospel of John. After talking about the difficulties and joys of the day, I paraphrased the reading as a way of taking another look at the gospel and mothers:

Jesus said: I am the good mother. The good mother lays down her life for the children. The hired caretaker, who is not the mother and does not care for the children, sees the fearful thing coming and leaves the children and runs away -- and the children are snatched and scattered. The hired caretaker runs away because s/he does not care for the children. I am the good mother. I know my own and my own know me, just as my Mother knows me and I know my Mother. And I lay down my life for the children. I have other children that are not of this family. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one family, one mother. For this reason I am loved, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from the Holy One.
What do you do in the church you serve?

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Departures

By Margaret Treadwell

Departures takes on the tricky subject of death and won the 2009 Academy Award for best foreign film. Masahiro Motoki plays the protagonist who suffers a startling job loss after which he decides to learn the Japanese trade of being an encoffineer – one who prepares bodies for burial. The various families who gather to watch the beautiful ritual he creates for their departed loved ones are in various stages of acceptance, denial, anger or sadness, reminding viewers that when a person has unfinished business with the deceased he or she will struggle longer and more intensely with grief.

We often think of only one response at the time of death – grief, but it’s much more complicated than that. While director Yojito Takita focuses the eye of the camera on death, Departures paradoxically becomes a movie about the value of life and how we confront our own lives. It made me ask, “How can human beings prepare for the death of a parent, husband, wife, child or beloved friend in ways that add value to our lives as well as to the lives of our family members?” I think the film’s response is:

• Honor your own life and develop your passions
• Create the best possible relationships, especially in your family
• Believe in a Power greater than self
• Seek satisfying work that contributes to the well being of others, and learn to do it well
• Understand that all of the above actions will benefit future generations beyond your own

Four months after my mother’s death at age 99, I know that my years spent developing relationships with extended family have been an invaluable preparation for the loss of both my parents. In 1996, the year my father died, 18 of my first cousins from his family had never met or had only passing acquaintance with each other. Our fathers, seven brothers who lost both their parents way too young, married strong women who preferred their own family of origin. As my mother explained it, “I just liked my family and your father was contented with them too.” Drifting apart is the way many families solve the unresolved emotional attachment to their parents, siblings and larger family.

In our generation, we cousins of cut-off parents were repeating this pattern, joining our spouse’s family like an “appendage.” But now our fathers were dying and when a childless uncle’s bequests made it necessary to locate all of us, we began to bridge those distances out of legal requirement. My cousin Betty and I decided the fun way to fulfill this duty was to create the first McDonnell Family Reunion, a biennial event now since 1996.

For 14 years we have developed our friendships through sharing play, secrets, laughter, and celebration of joyous life events – new marriages, babies, personal successes and yes, death. I believe the lighthearted pleasure we share is what keeps us returning to reunions and staying in touch throughout the year. We’ve mourned the loss of our cousin Barbara through a tragic death and now my extended family has sustained my nuclear family during this tender time of my mother’s death. During these last fragile years, three beloved cousins from her side were consistent companions by telephone, and as my cousins from Dad’s family grew to know and admire “Aunt Flo,” she also developed an interest in them. They reciprocated with calls, notes and visits. Expanding the circle was life giving for both Mother and me.

Only children are especially susceptible to feeling like orphans when both parents have died, but on Mom’s Nov. 14 funeral day, cousins surprised me by coming from Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee and south Alabama and sending notes from Guatemala, Vermont, Illinois, Texas, Kansas and Florida. Their presence meant the world, and their continued involvement has prevented the orphan perception from taking hold.

As intimated in Departures, we can never really prepare for death, but we can prepare our lives to accept death as a further step in making important connections. When the going gets tough, one conversation with an extended family member can work wonders to give perspective, a smile and a sense of calm. How fortunate that this is the year for Reunion 2010 on Mobile Bay.

Margaret M “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice.

Daily prayer that works for us

By Donald Schell

How many tries did it take to start a morning prayer practice that worked for my wife and me? I've lost track.

Maybe I should say “re-start a regular practice of daily prayer” because what made me want to be saying prayers was daily morning and evening prayer at General Seminary 1969 - 1971, and even more my first four years as a priest at the Episcopal Church at Yale from 1972-76, where twenty or so of us gathered to sing Evening Prayer and Eucharist every Monday through Friday in term. Those four years were a gift and joy that were hard to leave when I went to be rector of a parish in Idaho.

The students in our college chaplaincy lived and studied in walking distance of Dwight Chapel on Yale’s Old Campus, so our 5 p.m. daily office and Eucharist slipped easily into a slot when their afternoon studies were either done or becoming half-hearted, and they found friends, song and prayer a welcome respite. Finishing our prayers at 6 p.m. meant many of us would go to dinner together afterwards in the dining hall of one of the Yale colleges. The memory of those four years kept me wanting to ‘re-start’ something daily.

My first year in Idaho I made a closet in our house into a chapel and went to it frequently to pray the psalms appointed for the day and sit silently for fifteen minutes of praying the Jesus Prayer. For a new rector facing a congregation upset at the new 1976 Proposed Book of Common Prayer, the prayer time was a lifeline. One of the two times I’ve heard Jesus address me happened in that homemade prayer place. It was a hearing in prayer that changed everything, but even so, there were days I skipped whispering to myself, ‘I should do this every day.’

In 1980 when we moved to San Francisco to help Rick Fabian found St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, he and I planned to gather our nascent congregation for some kind of daily prayer as we’d done with the students at Episcopal Church at Yale, but finding a daily time to gather proved much more difficult than it had been at Yale. Proximity and parishioners who shared living schedules had been our gift in the chaplaincy setting.

From its beginning, even when the group was very small, St. Gregory’s drew from all over the city and across the Bay Bridge in Oakland and Berkeley. Many urban churches, particularly those with a distinctive character, ‘destination churches,’ face this challenge. Twenty minutes away by car on Sunday morning became an hour in weekday traffic. It took St. Gregory’s about twenty years to find its way to a daily morning prayer, twenty years and a handful of committed laypeople who lived quite near.

Meanwhile, repeatedly and sporadically I tried to find a daily prayer practice my wife and I could share. At one point I’d become an associate of one of our Episcopal monastic orders, but to make certain I could sustain their associate’s rule of life, I first prayed the daily office for a whole year, 365 days. She was supportive and encouraging, but not part of the experiment. At the end of that year, I wrote to the religious community’s director of associates and asked to be enrolled. Then almost immediately something in me suddenly balked at being accountable to someone else for doing what I’d done freely for the year previous. My daily prayer discipline came a crashing halt, so I sent my letter asking to be removed from the associate’s list a few weeks after I’d received my acceptance letter in the mail.

There were more bumps on the road, but each one had the same outcome – thinking, believing, wishing I or we wanted to be praying daily, looking for a structure, not finding one or trying one on for a while and not seeing my way to make it stick.

What changed in 2001 when my wife made her first trip to Africa with her new work as International Programs Director for the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance? [ES1] On the way she and Sally and Bill Rankin (Bill’s GAIA’s president) spent a couple of days in England with Bill’s old seminary classmate from EDS, Peter Selby, an Englishman who’d returned to the UK and had become bishop of Worcester. Bishop Selby and his wife welcomed Ellen and the Rankins to their official residence, the medieval bishop’s palace, and Ellen accepted the bishop and his wife’s invitation to join them for morning prayer in the chapel attached to the palace. Mrs. Selby told Ellen how much pleasure she and her husband took in their long history of daily prayer, and Ellen came back saying, ‘We’re just going to do this.’ And we did.
We did and it stuck. What was different from my and our previous attempts?

Well, first of all, I must confess, it was different that the priest, me, wasn’t in charge. I have a liturgist’s determination about what shared prayer should look like. Ellen took a different tack, “We’re going to keep this really simple. Let’s just read some Bible and a couple of psalms, have some silence, offer intercessions as we’re moved to, and say the Lord’s Prayer.” In substance that’s what we’ve been doing for the last nine years.

Another change in circumstance is that our children were mostly grown up. Our youngest was in high school when we began, and he could get himself ready to go in the morning.
And we settled on morning because (now beyond the happy domestic chaos we’d known when we had to get various children up, dressed, and off to school), we knew we could make morning a dependable time.

Our existing morning routine offered another kind of support. For some years I’d been making us tea and a simple breakfast to have in bed together. Before we began daily prayers we’d been having a quiet time for conversation as we watched the morning begin. After our breakfast in bed, I’d leave to go to Aikido (a self-defensive martial arts which is also part of my daily spiritual practice). The pre-morning prayer routine had me getting up at 6.

Our new routine to accommodate morning prayer moved wake-up to 5:30. When I was thirty, that hour would have seemed insane. In my 50’s it seemed easy. And now I particularly love the season when I’m making tea and oatmeal in the dark and we can watch an entire sunrise from first hint of green-blue light on the horizon to a line of gold, to sun rising above the mountains to make the waters of San Francisco Bay shine.

Ellen’s simplification of morning prayer rested on doing something we wanted to do. Without me trying to make it ‘right,’ we’ve also given ourselves permission to shape it beyond the lectionary, and to allow ourselves reflective conversation on the texts we’re reading.
When the Prayer Book daily office lectionary had us reading stories of David the shepherd and David the King, Ellen said she wasn’t getting the sweep of the story and asked if we could just start over and read through I and II Samuel a chapter a day. We did and so enjoyed (and sometimes stumbled over) the folkloric sweep and often-recognizable political propaganda that portrayed a sometimes ruthless, sometimes tragically impulsive leader as the founder of the Messiah’s line. When I read a review of R. Crumb’s graphic novel of Genesis, I said I hoped we could read that after we finished I and II Samuel. We’ve been reading Genesis for the past month and a bit, reading a chapter a day. The skeptical cartoonist’s patient illustration of the whole book, a frame at a time, slows us down to see and hear what the familiar stories actually say. The repetitions and contradictions of the stitched together sources are even more evident in the frame-by-frame format.

What we’ve found in this homemade morning prayer is something we love doing and look forward to, continuity between speaking and silence, between conversation together and prayer and listening (sometimes perplexed or very impatient). It’s a long circuitous route finding our way here from the daily office and Eucharist at the Episcopal Church at Yale, but it’s in very similar territory – shared prayer for one thing, a praying that fits the actual rhythm of our day for another.

Most of all, we stuck with a daily practice that was shaped by desire and pleasure, and we’ve that our morning prayer remains a pleasure not only in our times of gratitude and joy but even in times of uncertainty and fear.

Covenant, communion, personhood, wholeness: A conversation to pursue

By Kathleen Staudt

Father, we pray for your holy catholic church
That we all may be one.

We say this most Sundays, gathered around the altar in whatever local congregation we belong to. I’ve been thinking lately about this prayer as one of the many in our liturgy that both holds up a vision and confesses our very deep brokenness. And it has resonated particularly over the past few weeks when for various reasons I’ve been reading, side by side, Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas’s classic Being as Communion and Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Because I’m a word-person I’ve been playing with the consonance in the language between these two writers -- Orthodox theologian and Quaker retreat leader-- and finding a dissonance -- perhaps a fruitful one -- with some of the language about “covenant” that have come up lately on Episcopal Café. As a church and in our personal relationships, we are often living divided lives. Both these writers remind us, in different ways, that ours is a God who calls us to wholeness and unity. So what does that mean? My thoughts about this are still a little unformed but I’m hoping that putting them out there, partly in response to things I’ve been reading lately on the café, may elicit some discussion that will help me think more clearly.

So here goes.

Theologically and spiritually, in conversations about “covenant” and “communion,” I have been wondering whether we’re missing the point, or forgetting what these words mean because of the way their meaning is being distorted or manipulated in the political discussions within the Anglican Commuinon.

Just to remind ourselves of what we know: “Covenant” in Hebrew Scripture is about the relationship between God and God’s people -- “you will be my people and I will be your God” -- bad things happen when the covenant is broken, but ultimately it is God’s desire to restore it. “Again and again, you call us to return,” we say in our Eucharistic prayer, acknowledging this part of the story.

The “new covenant” established in the Eucharist is also about relationship between ourselves and Christ, and again, it comes from God’s side. We live in brokenness, all the time, in relations to these covenants -- we fail to live up to them. But I don’t think that our tradition can deny that the call to live into a covenant relationship with God is fundamental to our identity as Christians, however we express that identity. And so how to live into a covenant with God that demands something of us as a human community and as separate persons within that community is a worthwhile topic for theological reflection.

Living in covenanted relatinship with others is part of our human effort to imitate and reflect back the faithfulness of God. Zizioulas takes it further: he says that since our God is a unity of “persons in communion,” we live into our identity as persons made in the divine image through our relationships with one another. This is what it means to be made in the divine image; to the extent that we violate and distort human relationships, or seek dominance over one another, we are dimming the divine image in ourselves; this is called “sin.” In this view, Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” becomes primary, and love becomes a way of being to which we are continually called home. The Eucharist draws us together as a church to remind us of this.

A covenant IS different from a contract because it rests not on defending the interests of individuals but on setting terms that will preserve the relationship, through mutual consent. Our growing cynicism about the language about “bonds of mutual affection” in the Anglican Covenant debate is distressing to me because that language does express an ideal we are called to live into, with God’s help and despite our human brokenness.

I welcomed with interest the discussion on Episcopal Café about the covenant of marriage, and how it compares with the monastic life, in a discussion that I think was meant to get us thinking about the manner of life we are called to as Christians in relation to one another. Objections can legitimately be raised that it is seems exclusive to focus only on marriage and monasticism as models for covenanted relationship -- but I would like to see us have the conversation about what it means to live in covenanted relationship -- what does Christian marriage mean in an era of sexual freedom and gender equality? For those who can agree that marriage is not dependent on gender, can we have this discussion now? Surely people who have been denied the opportunity to marry have important thoughts to contribute to a discussion of what Christian marriage means. And through that discussion we might come to a fresh theological consideration of other relationships to which we give ourselves in love and commitment.

The point, in the marriage conversation, is that we’ve so lost track of covenant language that we can’t even talk about what we aspire to in our theology of Christian marriage (“in it is represented the union of Christ and the Church” we say in the liturgical prayer: what do we mean by that? Or do we avoid the whole conversation because it’s couched in sexist language? Or can we talk about how we’d translate the idea into language we can embrace? Can we peel of the layers of abuse/oppression in these words and get to some kind of understanding of the nature of the relationship with God that these words, this image of Spiritual Marriage holds? Or do we throw it out altogether, and if we do, what happens to the Biblical challenge to live in covenant with a God who is passionately engaged with us and who exhorts us to love one another?

If I were to announce in a contemporary assembly that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is no male and female but all are one in Christ “-- would people be offended by not being mentioned in the list? ((why did he leave out black or white, gay or straight, old or young, married or unmarried, east or west, north or south -- is he snubbing some group or other by exclusion? I exaggerate, but among liberals I think this can be a common distraction in our conversations - we focus on who seems to be excluded and sometimes miss the point) -- Paul of course is saying that there is a greater wholeness to which we are called, in which we find the fulness of our identity as human persons made in the image of God? Isn’t the point is that there are NO divisions in the divine life of Christ? And isn’t the invitation to hold up that vision, even amid our brokenness, and to admit that we all contribute to that brokenness, by those we exclude or allow to be excluded?

Similarly, even if few of us make profession to a monastic community, what are the expectations of monasticism that can help us in our human relationships? Joan Chittister suggests, for example, that “Benedictine spirituality is about caring for the people you live with and loving the people you don’t and loving God more than yourself. Benedictine spirituality depends on listening for the voice of God everywhere in life, especially in one another and here.” Is this an ideal we would like to retain as part of our identity as Christians and as Anglicans? How might it translate into our everyday situations. Why is it so difficult for us to have this kind of conversation?

I’m wondering what happens if we try on the Eastern Orthodox language and think of our particular selves in terms of “personhood” rather than in terms of “individuality.” It would be countercultural for us, in the post-enlightenment, individualistic west -- but it seems to me that this might help us to look more closely at the formative effect of our relationships in the Christian life -- how we shape and are shaped by one another, growing into the divine image, without denying the dignity of each and every human being. It seems to me that this may be what Parker Palmer is getting at when he invites people to live “undivided lives.”

None of this helps with what should be done about the Anglican Communion, the “Covenant,” etc. I don’t know where that will go; but I hope that our frustration over the politics and the difficulties of cross-cultural conversation (sketched out beautifully in Marshall Scott’s recent post on the café) will not lead us to become cynical about the abiding call to unity in Christ, or to fear serious discussion about what is radical, counter cultural and hard about the call to love one another, to live into covenanted relationships, and to recognize our deep identity in communion with persons very different from ourselves.

To desire unity in Christ is to come face to face with our brokenness; but isn’t that unity what we are called to as persons made in the image of God and called to be in communion with one another? The Covenant, the dream, of a God who desires relationship with us, is still the invitation we are called to hear. The brokenness is real, but so is the promise.

Reflecting on all of this (with apologies if it seems very disparate) I am led back to Verna Dozier’s wisdom, who sums it up when she writes: “We have all failed the dream of God. The terribly patient God still waits.”

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Mountaintop removal

By Adam Thomas

I recently moved to one of the top ten most beautiful spots in the world. I live a three-minute walk from the Atlantic Ocean. I can see a lighthouse from my living room window. I bought a new car. I started working at a new church, which is as beautiful as the town surrounding it. The people at church are wonderful. The trees and flowers are exploding with spring colors. And to top it all off: it’s Easter, the happiest and most celebratory season in the church year. I know I am blessed, radically blessed.

So, why am I having trouble finding something to write about? Why am I having difficulty elucidating God’s presence in my life, at this, one of my life’s most idyllic moments? You’re probably thinking: “Adam, go back and read your first paragraph and quit complaining.” Fair point. But my difficulty is symptomatic of a deeper spiritual malady, which (strangely enough) a simple recitation of my blessings actually exacerbates. I’m sure this malady affects more Christians than just me, so let’s do a little diagnosing.

Our walks with God are topographically interesting. For the most part, we walk the straight path, which Isaiah and John the Baptizer proclaim is the way of the Lord. But sometimes, we meander through desolate valleys, in which simply finding the tiniest token of God’s presence is drink for our arid souls. Other times, we climb mountains, atop which we touch the very face of God and can never imagine a time when our spiritual energy will need recharging. The valleys and peaks, the lows and highs, are the times we remember.

We remember the smile the stranger gave us in the frozen food aisle when we’d forgotten that God was still around. We remember hearing the choir singing choral evensong and how our hearts soared into the very heart of God during the first chords of the Magnificat. We remember the smell of disinfected despair when we sat overnight in the hospital room. We remember standing on a literal mountaintop and breathing in the wind of the Spirit and seeing the patchwork creation spread out below us.

These valleys and mountains shape our lives as Christians. Some folks have Grand Canyons and Himalayas. Others have dry streambeds and foothills. But the slope of our lows and highs matters little. For this discussion, let’s agree that our walks with God have valleys and peaks. The spiritual malady I mentioned a moment ago severely limits our ability to process the peak category.

By removing the mountaintop receptors, the malady keeps our souls from gathering spiritual nourishment from the peak times in our lives. Our minds know that God must be moving in our lives for life to be so full of blessing. But our souls have trouble metabolizing that blessing into the nutrients that sustain us while we search for God’s presence. Without that sustenance, we cease our active awareness of God until there is a noticeable change from “good” to “bad” times. When the paradigm shifts from “good” to “bad” – that is, from mountain to valley – we enter spiritual survival mode and begin frantically looking for God, only to have the walls of the depression limit our sight.

The disciple Peter is patient zero for this spiritual malady. When Jesus calls him out of the boat, Peter walks on the water as if he’s ambling down a garden path. Walking on the water is a spiritual mountaintop, but the paradigm shifts quickly. Peter notices the waves around him, and he starts to sink. Only when he is floundering in the surf does Peter reach up his hand for Jesus to rescue him. Peter could have taken Jesus’ hand while walking atop the water, but he waits until his valley moment.

Like Peter, I forget to seek God when things are going well. When I’m on a mountaintop, I rarely open my eyes to take in the glorious view. Through an intellectual exercise, I know that I am blessed, but this blessing fails to filter into my soul. Only when the jaggedness of grief or deprivation assaults me do I begin my tardy search for God anew.

I know I’m not alone in dealing with the spiritual malady of mountaintop removal. If you suffer from it, then know that there are steps to address it. Take a few moments to look at your life. Orient yourself on the topographical map of your walk with God. Where are you in relation to your most recent valley? If you know that you are no longer in the valley, force yourself to do more than think about your blessings. Rather than an amorphous abstraction you call “blessing,” separate each small blessing into individual shimmering lights of grace. Write each one down. Then thank God for the blessings individually, and be creative. Thank God with action, not thought. If your blessing is having enough food, go feed someone who is starving. If your blessing is living near the ocean, go stomp around in the shallows. If your blessing is being a member of a loving family, go tell them how much they mean to you. If your blessing is the song in your heart, go sing.

Once you’ve acted out your thanks to God, don’t stop. Actively seek out ways to thank God for God’s blessing in your life. Every morning when you draw your first breath, decide to look for God’s presence that day. Then over time, you may see the ground beneath your feet rise into a mountain. And you will notice just how close is the face of God.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

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