A member of the clergy in another diocese has written me about discerning whether to submit an application for bishop – also in another diocese. This priest alleges that “church culture” generally assumes that the bishop’s task is to keep the institution going, and that the vows of clergy are about maintaining the structure. This person is wrestling with the balance between sustainability and structure maintenance, particularly given that “we’ve lost 25% in the last 10 years” and the data say the gig is up.
We should all be squirming by now, either because we, too, own the belief that there is a lot more to the Jesus movement than maintaining the details of this accreted church structure, or because we’re afraid the data really do lead in only one direction, and it ain’t new life.
I firmly believe that death precedes resurrection, that Jesus didn’t die for the current (or any) version of canons and prayer book, and that, in spite of our vows to uphold the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church, it doesn’t mean slavish or addictive attention to rubrics and human forms. As Jesus said, the sabbath is made for humanity, not the other way round.
Bishops are called to be icons of a missionary ministry of good news and the reign of God come on earth as it is in heaven. All baptized people share this ministry of good news about the love of God for all people, and there are multitudes who need to hear the promise of peace where there is justice.
The particular charism of the Anglican-Episcopal tradition is about presenting the gospel in contextually relevant ways. When Gregory the Great sent Augustine to Britain in the sixth century, he encouraged him to use the cultural deposit he found and enculturate the gospel within it: use those pagan temples for Christian worship, and ‘baptize’ their feasts as thanksgiving to the God of all.
The post-Christendom reality of the developed West is territory equally fertile as the tribal Celtic islands, where the witness of early Christians incarnated good news for the people around them. Creative initiatives today are doing the same – in ministry with the least of these, from Laundry Love to shelters for new immigrants and recently detained asylum seekers, as well as in ministry with today’s questioning wanderers – like yoga church, dinner church, U2charist, and Beyoncé Mass. There are remarkable similar examples in our history, like the 19th century worker priests who toiled alongside coal miners and on factory floors, and the tireless ministry of deaconesses and Church Army workers in the rural West and wilds of Alaska.
The question is, what kind of witness is needed in your neighborhood? There is abundant need for faithful response in every context, and the variety will be like the stars in heaven or grains of sand in the sea. Loving neighbors, and loving God in the process, will be as varied as those we meet.
We bring some historical gifts to this work as Episcopalians. We value excellence and beauty, and honoring the full human person in education, worship, the arts, and the care of others. All require careful attention to detail (honoring the diversity of God’s creation), gratitude for the goodness and awareness of the beauty of God’s creation. We have at least theoretically insisted that context should shape the presentation of the gospel. The work of missionary leadership is to see the larger picture (yes, our attendance has declined for a variety of reasons, some of which we can address and some we can’t; and at the same time there is enormous yearning and opportunity in the world around us), and to encourage the ministry of the whole body of Christ. This can be daunting work – courage is required – yet we know where we’re going, even if we can’t see the whole path.
Some begin by walking the neighborhood, looking and listening carefully.
Be not afraid. Where are our neighbors hurting? Where is God already at work in the community?
Our goal as Christians is not maintaining the structures that have made us so comfortable. Church structures are a framework for encouraging love of God and neighbor, and they will likely disappear when we arrive at the fullness of the kingdom of God. Those who know Rite I or the 1928 BCP know that ‘comfortable words’ are about strength in the face of fear and frailty. We need that kind of comfort to go into uncomfortable places and speak uncomfortable truths.
I got an email recently complaining about drug addicts and pushers who allegedly gather outside one of our congregation’s buildings, waiting for a meal. The writer wanted to know what I was going to do about ‘criminal behavior’ outside this church, and the drug dealer who attends that meal every Tuesday night, and charged that the behavior makes residents feel unsafe. The gospel should en-courage us to see that no one can be safe until all are fed, housed, clothed, and every single person knows s/he is loved beyond imagining.
What does that look like in your neighborhood?
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