by Torey Lightcap
Having read what I think is all I could find on the round of conversations from the late spring called “Where have all the rectors gone?” – and finding it both scary and enlivening – I think I’ve spotted something no one has yet said, and I’d like to simply put a finger on it so we can all see it for what it is, or at least for what I think it is.
It’s just this: I believe that in the overall experience of most people bothering to call themselves Episcopalians, a Rector/Vicar represents the idea of stability in a congregation.
Over time, of course, and in actual practice, there are things that can be a lot more stable than a priest. Matriarchs and patriarchs help carry the enterprise of church on their shoulders whole generations at a time. Longstanding groups or ministry programs like shelters, food pantries, or choirs say more about serving Christ over 20 years than any 20-minute sermon. Buildings hold place year after year after year and may even often host a place where (I’m laughing at this) the latest priest’s photo can join in a line of history marching back to the days when a community was settled. (In a sense, as if to threaten or cajole or at least remind, there’s always more room on the wall if things don’t go well or if we somehow can’t stop time.) There are certainly elements of a congregation that say “We are here, and we are here to stay” in a way that’s real.
The Rector or Vicar, though, by his or her very presence, is an an extension and an embodiment of that need we all have for stability. He or she meets the emotional requirement to see the institution locally manifested in a person to which we can publicly point and say, “That cat right there – the one in the collar – that’s the Rector,” or “that’s the Vicar.” Whatever other opinions we may possess about these persons or the quality or content of their work, a fact is indisputable.
Very subtly, then, in the aggregate, and taken apart from any other implications for the moment, the question “Where have all the Rectors gone?” has an implied tone – or at least it does in my ear. Its tone is that of a lamenting, plaintive, and unanswerable urgency. It says, “What’s to become of us?” or at the very least “Look at this leak we’ve sprung.”
I hope you don’t read that as some sort of hyper-clericalism. It isn’t written in that spirit. In fact, if anything, it’s the opposite.
About a year ago I went down to City Hall for the weekly press conference where our church’s community garden was to receive a grant that would pay for a wonderful new sign. I asked one of the chief animators of that ministry to come with me, and I told her in no uncertain terms that I was tired of speaking out in public for all our church’s causes – that when it came time for a representative of St. Thomas Episcopal Church to say something, I wanted it to be her, not me, doing all the talking.
At the appointed time that’s precisely what happened. Our church’s name was called and I stayed where I was, out of camera range, and Becky, the person I’d asked to speak, did so. My clerical shirt and collar were seen briefly on the evening’s news.
It was marvelous! Empowering on all sides! She did an incredible job and I didn’t clutter up the shot. I’d never felt so good. And I began to realize that if I could make myself – well, not disappear so much as fade out a little in this way, it might be that perhaps the representation of stability could be massively diffused from one dude in a collar (who could go back to working a little harder at preaching, teaching, and administering the sacraments) to a whole rank of leaders prepared to step forward and be the public face of our congregation.
This is my strategy now. It’s slowly happening. I couldn’t be happier.
In the end, that’s how it really should be. A priest is always a limited quantity whose tenure is bound by innumerable, complicated factors. Permanence, of course, is an illusion; stability is closer to reality. The vision of stability and of moving forward into the future should be shouldered by the people who will actually do it, and who frankly are probably more relatable. The dynamism and charm of the clergy will always be immaterial as it always has been, perhaps moreso now that we live in the age of the disappearing rector. But who cares. I believe God’s concern is for our adaptability in carrying forth the banner of Jesus far more than our priestcraft, valuable as that has been to our sacramental existence.
We recently had that amazing eucharistic collect cycle through in which we pray that “we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.” That’s an ancient Latin oration found on the lips of many a priest, bishop, and deacon over the centuries. For those praying Morning Prayer, it’s also an appeal on the lips of everyone else. Perhaps we’d benefit from standing back from our current emotional needs long to enough to ask ourselves just how it is we could “lose not the things eternal” in the age of the disappearing Rector.
The Rev. Torey Lightcap is Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, Iowa and on the adjunct staff of Episcopal Café.