The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’ Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”
Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, Acts 15:12-22a (NRSV)
The topic in the reading from Acts is whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity should be circumcised. James’ statement that we ought not to “trouble” them is quite an understatement, all things considered! But the story brings up those “seven little words” we too often hear in church communities–“But that’s how we’ve always done it”–and its sibling, “We’ve never done it like that before.”
Now, this mindset is not the sole province of churches. Twenty years of teaching medical students and having gone through “the training years” myself have taught me those seven little words are uttered a lot in medicine, too. I learned many things a certain way for no good reason other than “That’s how the people who trained me learned it.” Yet, if we look at this literally, we would still be having students draw intricate line drawings of cells with colored pencils in their Histology class, we’d have students procure their own teaching material for Gross Anatomy via the “Resurrection men” and late night trips to the cemetery, and interns would be on call every other night–a situation we now know is dangerous to patients.
I remember when the school I worked for first considered using prosected (already professionally dissected) material rather than have students dissect “their” cadaver from stem to stern. The hue and cry was palpable. People gave all sorts of reasons why this was something all medical students “must” do for themselves–but as I heard all the reasons, I wasn’t hearing very much “them” I was hearing “I”–“I, an anatomy professor, won’t get to work with them in a certain way.” “I, a surgeon, had to do that, and even though I don’t really believe working on a formalin fixed body is the same as a live one, this was a rite of passage for me.” The actual educational basis for the change (the students could be learning something else essential to their learning to become physicians, rather than be doing “grunt” work in the anatomy lab for hours at a time every day) became overshadowed by all these “I’s.”
At some point in a church’s life cycle, change occurs that creates anxiety in a parish. Sometimes it is internal to the local parish (a new priest, the death of a beloved parishioner, or financial trouble, for instance) and sometimes it is external (The consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop, and, prior to that, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and prior to that, the ordination of women.) The tendency is to take three steps back, and say some version of “the seven little words,” and make the hurt about us. The problem is that anxious people in anxious parishes tend to react in a way to relieve their own anxiety, rather than act for the good of the parish. Times of change in the shared life of a parish are precisely the times we should be giving up control and allowing God’s process to take control rather than reacting through individual control to relieve anxiety.
It is for this reason, I believe, that our BCP has many prayers specific for the life of the parish. It’s obvious that “parish anxiety” has been with us in our Christian history since the first days of the early church, from this passage. I’m sure the decision that the Gentiles need not be circumcised was met with great anxiety among part of the church (and great relief among another part of the church!) We historically call St. James “James the Just,” but it might, in this day and age, be more valuable to think of him as “James the Non-Anxious Presence.”
How often in the day-to-day life of the parish–in vestry meetings, before worship, together as committee members–do you actually sit down and pray about your shared life in the parish, as opposed to reacting to it? How frequently do you use the tools already available to you in our beloved BCP?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid