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Moving Towards a Healthier Church

Moving Towards a Healthier Church

written by Terri C. Pilarski

The first time I heard of the feminization of Christianity was around 2005, give or take a year. It came after some of my parishioners had listened to a conversation on the radio that was broadcast by Focus on the Family. That program claimed that the reason people were not coming to church anymore was because the church was becoming too feminine and as a result Jesus himself was being feminized. 

I admit that when they told me this, I laughed, a silent-inside-myself laugh. 

In my experience as a priest the church was hardly feminine. We used male pronouns to talk about God. Admired leaders in the church were predominantly men. Actually, most of the leaders in the church were men. Up to that point I had had no experience with the feminine in the church, except for the stories of me and my sisters who were doing our best to be priests and Rectors and figure out what leadership meant for us. In those days I was so grateful for Julian of Norwich, and others like her, who offered me a vision of God that included female and male.

As I reflect on the saint for today, October 9, Sir Wilfred Thomason Grenfell, I remember that conversation with my parishioners so long ago. Turns out that way of thinking is not something that Focus on the Family figured out. The idea that the church has become too feminine actually goes back to the 19th century and two authors in England: Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley. These two were novelists and social critics who felt that ascetics and effeminacy had weakened the church. They argued that the appropriate recourse was to equip the church with rugged and manly qualities. Aspects of this concept were perhaps good because they focused on having a healthy, strong body (at least for men) through exercise and sports. Grenfell was influenced by these authors and this concept. 

Grenfell was born in Cheshire in 1865. As a young man he studied medicine at the London Hospital Medical School. He was also active in sports, particularly cricket, boxing, rugby, and rowing. Holy Women, Holy Men describe him this way:

“In 1887, following his medical qualification, he joined the Royal National Mission to Deep-Sea Fisherman as a medical missionary, serving in Iceland and the Bay of Biscay. During a visit to Labrador in 1892, Grenfell was appalled by the near-starvation, poverty, and ill health of the British workers there. Devoting himself to their nurture and improvement, he built the first hospital of the Labrador Medical Mission in 1893, eventually opening boarding schools, hospital ships, clothing distribution centers, and the Seaman’s Institute at St. John’s, Newfoundland, often with money he raised himself with speaking tours and books. In 1912, he organized the International Grenfell Association, with branches in Newfoundland, the United States, and Canada, and this organization supported his work and ministry for the remainder of his career.” He died in Vermont in 1940, having retired 5 years earlier due to poor health.

Isn’t that ironic? Grenfell yearned for healthy churches, healthy bodies, healthy minds, and healthy spiritual lives. Yet, despite his efforts to be healthy, he succumbed to illness. Isn’t that just the way life works out? 

I can’t tell you how many articles, books, workshops, or conversations I have read and had over the last twenty years about what it means to be a healthy church. So very many… and most with a sense of panic and fear that the church is dying. And, if it is dying there must be a cause. I suggest that there are probably a lot of reasons, but the feminization of the church is probably not one of them. Nor is a more robust masculine church the answer.

I am a proponent of lifting up many ways of knowing God, other people, and ourselves. In 2010 I participated in an NCC workshop, led by the Women for Justice Working Group, called The WordsMatter Project. It was a project that considered using expansive language for God, for self, and for other people. It was a group on the forefront of a world that is becoming less binary, less exclusively male/female, and more expansive. Sadly, the NCC closed its women’s ministry department and this project was short lived. Still, the two years I worked on it, and with the other women and men who participated, have left a lasting impression on me. 

I believe in having healthy bodies, that exercise is good for us. Go out. Be healthy. Challenge yourself. Be strong. Men AND women. A rugged, strong Christianity does not need to be for men only. 

Likewise, the softer, gentler side of faith is not only for women, but for men too. The damage of patriarchy in part, is the insistence that a particular definition of maleness is superior to all other ways that human beings express themselves. Just as women can be strong and rugged, men can be soft and gentle. Men and women can be both rugged and soft, strong and gentle. And the church can be so as well – strong and soft, rugged and gentle, and so much more. 

I believe that the church will not only live, but it will thrive. I also believe that it will look very different from what we have been thinking a healthy church is. Big is not necessarily a sign of health. Small is not necessarily a sign of failure. Vitality plays a big role in the strength of a church. Having at least one vibrant, meaningful, and vital role in the life of the members and especially through a connection to the wider community is key. Wondering, “What would people miss if this church ceased to exist?” is a good question to ponder. 

I certainly don’t have the answer to how the church will survive. Ultimately, I believe that God will find people to work through who will revive the church and enable it live. 

Nor do I want to simplify the issue or downplay the concern and fear. However, I do not want to live in fear. Nor do I want to have any of the mission work and ministries I try to have their roots in fear and panic. I am aiming for hope, a rugged yet soft, strong yet gentle hope, a persistent, optimistic hope. An informed and forming hope that explores, experiments, and wonders about possibilities. 

Perhaps I am naive. But wonder with me for just a bit and consider, “What if this is true? What if this is so?” 

Grenfell had a vision for healthy bodies, and his work changed lives. He responded to real needs in the world around him. Likewise, when each church takes a hard look around and seeks to respond to a need in its community, it can find its God-given purpose. Responding might not require money, but it surely will require people to form relationships and perhaps new ways to use church buildings besides worship on Sunday mornings. How many churches are locked and shuttered most of the hours of the day and night, Monday through Friday? How might a church building become a community resource? What other possibilities might arise? 

May we, like Grenfell, look out into the world and imagine what it will take to be healthy in our own time and place. 

 

The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski, is the Rector at Christ Church in Dearborn, MI. The photo was taken by Dan Pilarski of the blessing of a prayer shawl for one of our parishioners.

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