By Kathleen Staudt
I have been teaching for years about the ministry of the laity, resonating with Verna Dozier’s writing about “the Church, the people of God” as opposed to “the Church, the Institution.” I have explored with people the implications of our baptismal covenant and more recently reflected deeply on the catechism’s account of the ministry of the laity: “to represent Christ and his church, to bear witness to him wherever we may be, and -- oh yes – almost an afterthought, “according to the gifts given us, to take our place in the life, worship and governance of the Church.” (BCP, p.855) The work of the Church, I’ve been telling people for almost a generation, is primarily in the world, carried out by “the church, the people of God.” The institutional church & its leaders sustain and nurture us in our ministries. That’s the idea, anyway.
And now I find I am taking my own place in the “life, worship and governance of the Church,” by serving as the Rector’s Warden in my congregation. I've thought of myself mainly as a "spiritual formation person.," a mission-minded Christian. So why am I spending all this time on budgets, finance, "maintenance?" As we put all these resources into maintaining and sustaining a building, staff, and program, I need, for my own sanity, to ask: What are we doing here? Here, in this place where the church building stands: on a busy thoroughfare leading into Washington DC, just inside the Capital beltway, on the edge of a suburban neighborhood.
Some insights about this came to me recently on “parish beautification day,” when some of us came over to church on a Saturday morning to do some deep cleaning and setting-to-rights in the aftermath of major work on our new HVAC system, the centerpiece of our capital campaign. My assigned job was to take a rag, a bucket, and some Murphy’s oil soap and wash down the tops of our solid oak pews. I had to empty the wash water every other pew because it was black with the soil from all those human hands, supporting themselves as they stood, sat and knelt at worship. I thought of Gerard Manly Hopkins’s poem, “God’s Grandeur,” where he says that “all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil, /and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” Real people, bringing with them all the mess and muck of life, come here to worship and pray and be together at our lively worship services in this place, and we leave our marks. For a moment my job felt like the rite of foot-washing we are called to on Maundy Thursday, acknowledging the soiled humanness of all of us, our need to be washed in order to participate in Christ.
As I worked, together with my friends Quinton and Abudullah, washing floors and pews in various parts of the sanctuary, a woman came in the front door, which we had left open. She wondered if she could fill a bag of food from our food closet; she’d lost her job and this would help her to make ends meet this week. We welcomed her gave her a bag,, and showed her where the pantry was -- and reflected, among ourselves, at our own blessedness at having enough, right now, in these hard times, when so many people are struggling economically.
Indeed, it seems that many in the local community are turning to our presence on this corner in hopes of finding a place of help and welcome. More and more, in these difficult times, the rector reports that homeless people are coming to our door in search of food, warm clothing, access to social services. A community of homeless people is forming under the beltway overpass, just a quarter of a mile down the road. We are clearly being called to some deeper discernment about how we can best and most responsibly provide the right kind of help to our near neighbors in need. The church building, with its carving of Our Saviour, arms outstretched, over the front door, says to the world, “There is help here.” Somehow the building and the people alike are called to give solid form to that help.
“The church is not a building/ The church is not a steeple/ The church is not a resting-place/ The church is a people,” goes a song my children learned in Sunday school. But now it seems more complicated than that. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes somewhere that “the church of Jesus Christ takes up space in the world,” and our buildings and the way we use them is one way we do this. As I enter my 2nd year of a 3-year term in leadership, I am praying for clarity about how we are called to use what we have – in building, staff, and other resources—the nitty-gritty, institutional stuff that we support with our regular givings and thanks-givings – to be the presence of Christ on this corner, for those around us and for all who come through our doors.
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.