by Derek Olsen
As part of his year-end round-up, our beloved editor Jim Naughton threw down a gauntlet concerning the types of stories and discussions that he’d like to see around the Café in the coming year:
My sense, increasingly, is that these type of stories need to take a backseat to stories that point a way forward. The popularity (#10) of that small item about the decline in membership in our church, and the interest sparked by Bishop Budde’s willingness to look mainline decline in the eye and talk about how the church should respond, give me some hope that the attention of our church is shifting, and that perhaps, however gradually given that we are an all volunteer operation that depends heavily on aggregated items, the attention of the Cafe can shift a bit as well. The greatest danger facing our church has less to do with its stand on LGBT issues than with its quickly diminishing capacity to witness effectively on behalf of the Gospel.
I am hoping we can pay some attention to the simple issue of survival in the year ahead.
In response, then, I’d like to offer my first of probably several reflections by way of picking up that gauntlet. This response is further informed by a later discussion that was entitled “In renewing the Episcopal Church , what exactly is up for grabs?” I’m going to focus on what is not up for grabs, from my perspective, and why it’s not up for grabs.
To begin properly, we must acknowledge the kinds of problems that face us. Our membership is declining. What remains of our membership tends to be aging. Our children leave the church when they head off to college (or before) and, at the traditional time for coming back—when they start a family and have kids—they’re not coming back. (I’ve heard the birth-rate arguments and I don’t buy them; it doesn’t matter how many children we have if they don’t attend our churches…)
Membership issues are exacerbating budget issues. Giving is down. When members of younger generations do join and do give, it’s often substantially less both dollar-wise and percentage-wise from what the previous generations gave. As a result, the parishes that have endowments are drawing from the principal not the interest and the bequeathed funds are being drained dry. In dioceses like mine where we have historic buildings, the buildings require more and more money to repair. If repairs are put off—guess what?—the maintenance problems get worse and more expensive.
Churches aren’t the only ones having budget issues—so are clergy. As church budgets get squeezed, so too do clergy salaries. Most churches have gotten rid of their rectories, and for the ones that have retained clergy housing, the housing itself further complicates the maintenance expenditure picture. This means that housing costs must be paid to the clergy too, further stretching budgets. But most people graduating from seminary are saddled with increasing amounts of debt. They’ve got to be able to eat, feed and clothe their families—and pay back student debt. And, no, expecting the clergy spouse to bear the full burden (or slashing the clergy health benefits because the spouse has some [that they usually have to pay for]) doesn’t cut it either and only fuels the already high rate of clergy divorce. Increasingly, I hear two answers floated to ease the burden: part-time clergy and bi-vocational clergy. Both of these may be options for some congregations. Heck, it works for a lot of Methodist and Baptist parishes I know—but those churches are also used to this kind of arrangement; the parish doesn’t already have a set of expectations geared towards full-time clergy—as most of our parishes do.
So—what do we do? What sort of tentative half-measures do we take, or, alternatively, what sort of wacky out-of-the-box solutions do we throw ourselves towards? What should we do? Or, what shouldn’t we do?
For me, from my perspective, there’s one thing that’s completely off the table. If we want to renew and strengthen the Episcopal Church in light of these very real challenges that are facing us, then the one thing that we dare not mess with is our commitment to the contents and spirit of our 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
I know, I can hear some of you already: just another attempt to put our heads in the sand and “worship the worship.” That would indeed be a worthy charge—if we were a set of local social services agencies, or a set of local political action committees. Those groups have no need of worship; it’s not their key function. But we’re a church. Care and attention to how, when, and why we worship isn’t just “worshiping the worship”, it’s connecting with our primary function from which all of our other functions flow. That having been said, I want to attend to three areas in particular.
First, many of our people know the Book of Common Prayer as the book that our Sunday services come from. I’ll challenge this mindset in a moment, but this much at least ought to be the case. The Sunday services that Episcopalians experience should be common because they should proceed in common from the Book of Common Prayer. Whether it ought to be or not, Sunday morning is our main scheduled moment in the cultural eye. Deciding to monkey with the services in order to appear relevant doesn’t look relevant, it looks desperate. While I realize that the reverend clergyperson might have had a flash of insight on Thursday night that involves changing everything around to make some point about something going on in the news or culture, consider that not everyone else might share or appreciate that insight. Consider that the couple on the brink of divorce or the mother who just heard of the death of a neighbor’s son, might not be feeling your whimsy at the moment. We have enough things in our life and daily surroundings that change on a constant basis. Click over to the CNN website and the stories will be different from what was there just 5 minutes ago.
We need some constants too.
One of the most consistent and enduring images of God in the Psalms is the rock. What if our church could witness to that aspect of who God is by at least providing the stability of common prayer?
I’m not saying the book is perfect. There are certainly some things that I’d change if I had the chance. But recognize this: 1) it is an authentic expression of the historic Western liturgy that has nourished literally millions who have come before us. 2) It is an authentic expression of the English devotional experience. (The importance of this is not that it’s English, of course, but that it is a rooted, embodied, inherited tradition that has been embraced and passed on by a diverse group over a period of centuries—not just dreamed up by a few people last week.) 3) It is an authentic expression of historic Anglican liturgy that balances reform of Western norms with Scripture and the theological and spiritual practices of the Early Church. That’s actually quite a lot of things going for it—and it’s more things than would be going for most services either you or I would dream up.
Most people I know don’t go to church on Sunday morning to experience the rector’s latest exciting innovation; they go to church because they hope to experience God and to get a concrete sense of what it means to live out love of God and love of neighbor. Using the book doesn’t guarantee any of this, but it is a big step in the right direction.
Frankly, I don’t care if you’re “into” Quaker spirituality and so want to cut out some of the prescribed prayers and have us sit in silence then; I’m “into” Anglican spirituality, and I’d appreciate it if you did what the book says to do. Perhaps I’m a little touchy on this topic, but I’ve seen too many places where Sunday morning deviations from the book are about the rector inflicting the twists and turns of their own spiritual journey on the congregation. If we want to get serious about being the Episcopal Church then I suggest we would do well to get serious about our core messages and principles and—by canon as well as plain ol’ good sense—these are in the book. As a layperson, I see the book as a contract. It may not be exactly what I want, but it’s an agreed-upon corpus of embodied theology that we have all given assent to. I promise to use the book, and I expect that the clergy will do the same. This is a benefit that we offer those who come seeking—a place of stability in a culture that desperately needs it.
Second, (this is perhaps my most important point) the Book of Common Prayer isn’t just the book for Sunday services. Instead, the Book of Common Prayer offers a full integrated spiritual system that is intended as much for the laity as the clergy and which is founded in a lay spirituality that arose in the medieval period. If you look at the book as a whole, it offers a program for Christian growth built around liturgical spirituality. The best shorthand I have for this is the liturgical round. It’s made up of three components: the liturgical calendar where we reflect upon our central mysteries through the various lenses of the seasons of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and in his continuing witness in the lives of the saints, the Daily Office where we yearly immerse ourselves in the Scriptures and Psalms, and the Holy Eucharist where we gather on Holy Days to most perfectly embody the Body of Christ and receive the graces that the sacraments afford.
So—here’s why this is important and the meat of how it relates to the issue at hand. The purpose of any spiritual system is to bring the practitioner and their community into a deeper relationship with God—to create a family of mature Christians. Through their increasing awareness of who God is, how much God loves them and all of creation, they translate that love they have been shown into concrete acts of love and mercy in the world around them. There are several different strategies that different spiritual systems use to accomplish this. One of the classic ones—referred to in St Paul’s direction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17)—is the recollection of God. The idea here is that if we can continually keep in mind the goodness of God, the constant presence of God, and an awareness of the mighty works of God on behalf of us and others, that we will more naturally and more completely act in accordance with God’s will and ways. Continual recollection is nearly impossible, but there are methods to help us in this habit.
A primary goal of liturgical spirituality is to create a disciplined recollection of God. Thus, if we specifically pause at central points of time—morning and evening; noon and night; Sundays and other Holy Days—to reorient ourselves towards God and the mighty acts of God, whether recalled to us through the Scriptures or experienced by us through direct encounters with the sacraments, then this discipline will lead us towards a habitual recollection of God.
In the liturgical round, the Book of Common Prayer gives us specific moments to stop and orient our time and ourselves around the recollection of God. As a result, one of the most important parts of the book is the Daily Office section that provides forms for prayer at morning, noon, evening and night. These prayer offices are our fundamental tool for disciplined recollection; they provide the foundation for our spiritual practice. This foundation, then, is punctuated by the Eucharist on Holy Days (at the least). And, conceptually, this is how we should view Sundays—not the day of the week on which we go to church—but as a Holy Day which recurs on a weekly basis.
While this sounds all awfully churchy it’s actually not. Indeed, this liturgical structure was mediated into the prayer-book tradition by a spiritual devotion for the laity. The idea of the Daily Office was originally a regular communal practice. By the end of the 4th century, it was transitioning into a monastic practice and began to be less of a feature in lay life. By the medieval period, it was expected that the laity would be at Matins and Vespers—as well as Mass—on Holy Days. With the rise of lay literacy in the High Medieval period though, came the Books of Hours. These were the central devotional books used by laypeople (men and women alike) and they contained a cycle of offices that followed the basic structure of the monastic and priestly breviaries but with reduced psalmody and no seasonal variations. On the eve of and during the English Reformation, the Latin Books of Hours and the English-language prymers held an important place in the devotional lives of upper- and middle-class lay Christians who prayed these several Offices on a daily basis. The Daily Offices that appeared in the initial 1549 Book of Common Prayer—and in every book subsequent—are equally derived from these lay prymers as well as the Sarum breviaries.
Just as the prymers informed the faith of the laity before the Reformation, so the Offices inform the faith of the laity (and clergy) now. Much of the talk I’ve heard about how effective or energetic a parish is seems oddly institutional. That is, the discussions seem to focus on what sort of programs are run out of the building, what sort of activities the institution supports. But that’s only part of the story. The other part that is harder to quantify yet no less important is how the faith is filtering into the everyday lives of the people in the parish. When the strengthening effects of the sacraments, when daily recollections of God impel a person to stand up against questionable business practices in the office or against a bully in the schoolyard, the Gospel is being lived entirely apart from what programs are housed in the church edifice.
What’s more, recollection is more accessible than just marking whether you showed up to church or not, prayed the Office or not. Our parishes have an important role here. What if someone has a real job and can’t make it to church when a service is being had? The fact that the parish is having a service, that members of the congregation are gathering in prayer or for the sacraments, is itself a recollective witness. If the people prevented—by whatever cause—from coming can but remember that a service is occurring, that prayer and praise are taking part, that they are connected to the act through the spiritual community that binds the parish together, then recollection has occurred; the parish is doing its work. And it doesn’t just serve for congregants either. A church with open doors and posted services serves as a recollective witness to anyone passing by, whether it’s their spiritual home or not. They are reminded—wherever they happen to be on their spiritual journey—that here are people who are remembering God and his redeeming love in the world. Who knows what the impact of that may be? Who knows when they might not walk past and instead walk in.
For me, this is where the church lives or dies. Are we forming communities that embody the love of God and neighbor in concrete actions? Not just in what programs the institution is supporting, but are we feeding regular lives with a spirituality that not only sustains them but leads them into God’s work in a thousand different contexts in no way related to a church structure? Are our parishes witnessing to their members and to the wider community in their acts of corporate prayer for the whole even when the whole cannot be physically there? Therefore this is why, when we worry about the fate of the church, my answer will be a call for more liturgy. Not because I like to worship the worship, but because of the well-worn path to discipleship found in the disciplined recollection of God that the liturgy offers.
My firm belief is that if membership is a problem, our best move is to head for spiritual revitalization. People who are being spiritually fed, challenged, and affirmed by their church will be more likely to show it, to talk about it, and to invite their friends and neighbors to come and see it for themselves. This won’t—it can’t—fix all situations, but even if it doesn’t, spiritual revitalization is what the Church is called to be about.
Third, the Book of Common Prayer sketches the fundamental roles of the four orders of ministry. The laity form the great body of the church, and are called to witness to our faith and practice in the various spaces and places where they find themselves. Bishops are set as overseers to guard the faith of the church and to care for the clergy entrusted to them. The priests are set apart to preach and to administer the sacraments and to give the spiritual and emotional care to communities that are part and parcel of the preaching and sacramental experiences. Deacons are called to serve the bishops and to spearhead the church’s works of mercy.
These roles—identified in Scripture, coded in our tradition, ratified in our prayer book—are not negotiable.
What is negotiable is how we train them and support them.
Will part-time and bi-vocational clergy be the future of our church? I don’t know. But I certainly suspect they will. That means change—and a lot of it. Episcopal congregations have expectations of their clergy; expectations that need to be severely checked if this does turn out to be the new normal. Plenty of churches have gone down this road before. In many of the Methodist and Baptist churches of my acquaintance these realities are the norm, not the exception. But the congregations also have a different expectation of what their clergy will do for them and how they will be present for them.
We don’t need to clergy to lead the Offices for us. We laity can do that ourselves whether corporately or alone. But we do need priests for the Eucharist. We do need bishops for Confirmations and Ordinations. Must these be paid full-time positions? Well—that’s part of the negotiation that needs to happen. The roles themselves, however, are not negotiable.
So, that’s how I see it. As we consider the future of the Episcopal Church, we must do so with a sense of where we’ve come from, where we wish to go and how to keep our experience of and witness to the Triune God at front and center of our efforts. For my part, I find that in the spiritual system of our Book of Common Prayer, in the common prayers agreed upon there, and in the structure of the church that we have received. Let’s think things over, let’s shake things up, but let’s make sure that what’s left at the end of the day never loses sight of the spiritual priorities that drive everything else that we do.
Dr. Derek Olsen has a Ph.D. in New Testament and Homiletics at Emory University. Currently serving as Theologian-in-Residence at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, he leads quiet days and is a speaker to clergy groups. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics. A layman working in the IT field, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede’s Breviary. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.