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PARISH THOUGHTS IN EASTER WEEK

A priest, wise in the ways of reviving parishes recently wrote:

“The attitudes of the people, to God, to their priest, to each other and to the newcomer, are actually much more important than the style of the worship and the state of the finances.”

1. Attitude to God:

One of the practical ways a parish or mission may take to help everyone with their prayers, is a printed weekly prayer cycle for parishioners. In it a group of parishioners are listed for each day, except Sunday. Nothing brings a parish to life more than the prayers of those who regularly “work, pray and give” to and for the Kingdom in a parish. Together in prayer they carry their community, city, and area and everyone and everything therein to God and become channels of God’s grace.

Elderly Christians who may not have the physical strength or energy to do what seems to be “practical” work in a parish may become powerhouses of prayer –the most important form of energy – as they pray daily for the parish and its work and witness.

2. Attitude to our priest:

A priest is no stronger, no holier, and no more special than anyone else. His or her calling is special or set apart (the root of the word “holy”) in that a priest’s life of prayer, study and care sums up and enables the worship, prayers, the study and the cares and caring of us all. Sir John Betjeman wrote:

“When things go wrong
It’s rather tame,
To find you are yourself to blame.
It gets the trouble over quicker,
To go and blame things on the Vicar.”

In a sense the way we treat our priest and family is an indication of the way we
care for our parish and each other. If our friends, neighbors, people at work or at “play” see just how we care for our priest and parish, pray regularly, are kind, generous and enthusiastic to and about our priest and parish, and support both, they will be intrigued, interested and drawn.

3. Our Attitude to each other:

Particularly after we receive holy communion each of us carries within us our Lord’s true Presence. It is for this reason, among others, that we should respect each other, love each other, make allowances for each other and support each other. “They shall know we are Christians by our love.” In short don’t grumble about your parish and each other.

Constructive ideas are always welcome. Grumbles tear down and destroy, divide and weaken. There are people in your area who have left your church because they were grumbled about or grumbled about! They need to know that the past is forgotten and forgiven and that we all, in Jesus’ name and grace, are “seeking to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways.” If you feel a bit responsible in all this, do call that person whom you may have offended “in thought, word or deed” and say sorry.

Do remember that what ever may be going on in the Anglican Communion, the National Church or the blogs may trumpet, because it is God who works in and through Baptism and the Eucharist, through the other sacramental rites and acts of worship, through hearing the Bible and of course reading and studying, through pastoral care and love, “the means of grace and the hope of glory” remain. Never mind what you may think others may or may not be doing. God has called you. Be faithful. Don’t confuse church politics with the work of God in Trinity in the Church, which continues through thick and thin until he comes again. The Church over the centuries has seen times of glory and times of shame, times when it has shown enormous vitality and times when it has seemed faithless and near death. Yet Jesus promised that “the gates of hell will not succeed.” Trust God.

4 Our Attitude to newcomers:

The first off-putting things for searchers or newcomers are dirty outside doors, ratty signs with pealing paint or rusting letters, or a complex way of getting into church or the parish hall for coffee hour. The more doors people must go through; the more daunting the experience.

Ushers should not only give out programs but show new people to a seat or pew and make sure the right books are there for them. Programs, bulletins or service sheets should be crisp and attractive and give notes about ceremonial, kneeling, standing and sitting. The vocabulary and jargon used in church should be defined clearly and simply and explained.

Make sure that the people chosen to greet new comers are friendly and kind. One can always find other jobs for those who find it difficult to show a happy face!

There are different ways of getting information about new comers. Nowadays an email address is probably as vital at first as a telephone number or a street address. Make sure information gets to the parish secretary/administrator promptly and to your outreach or evangelism team. While a note from your priest is good, one from an enthusiastic lay person is even more powerful in its impact.

Without smothering them or immediately unloading the jobs on them we don’t want to do, we should be friendly, kind and encouraging to new people. At coffee hour the great temptation is to “love” each other and in the process, leave new people out because they don’t know the script or what on earth we are talking about. New people don’t even know our geography (where the restrooms or parish hall is) or even those strange things we do as we bow, kneel, stand or make the sign of the cross. Inform but don’t bore!

Don’t be nosy about their homes, families or work. New people will share when they feel comfortable. Do make sure they meet your priest at coffee hour. Remember we don’t own the church. It is God’s house and a house of prayer for ALL people.

Because Anglicans believe in the parish we believe that the gathered people “in church” on Sunday are there for God and for the world outside, and not primarily for themselves and particularly not for themselves as individuals. If others hear us grumbling about the hymns, or the service, or the priest they get the idea that worship is a form of entertainment or group therapy for “me”.

Worship is the act by which we give God the glory and receive the grace to be agents of God’s Kingdom, and the power of the Resurrection in the world around us. It takes enormous communal courage to shout to the world “Jesus is Lord” and to challenge any power which claims that lordship or mistreats human beings or the physical world. Thus, “we do not presume to come to this thy Table, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercy.” In other words we come to admit our failure to live as if Jesus is Lord in our families, work, community life, trusting in the extraordinary mercy and grace of our Lord who has called us to “show forth his death and passion until he comes again, until “the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord Christ.”

Your parish is an outpost of God’s Kingdom. It is our duty to make sure that the world outside sees a community of faith and love, open and compassionate, and not a club for the self-righteous or a society for those interested in the traditions and ceremonial of something called “Episcopalianism.”! Our traditions and ceremonial are meant to be windows into God’s world, windows of the Church and not of a sect. Windows may be lovely, even ornate and treasures of architecture, but when all is said and done, their purpose is to see through and to let in light. Such is the purpose of your parish. Through the parish we see God. Through the parish the Light of Lights shines in our lives and into the surrounding world. Do keep the curtains drawn and the windows clean!

TO ENCOURAGE OTHERS

There has been some controversy lately about the use of Canon Law, or its absence to manage the matter of the schism in the Diocese of San Joachim, the status of the members of its Standing Committee and the appointment of a temporary bishop for the rump TEC diocese. Certainly TEC has never encountered this sort of thing before. When congregations and groups left in the past, as in the Reformed Episcopal Church or the African Orthodox Church secessions, those leaving, aggrieved Evangelicals on the one hand and disenfranchised Black Episcopalians in the second case, departed without diocesan structure.

In perilous times many otherwise sane and liberally minded people are often seduced into surrendering their liberties in the name of corporate peril. Those charged with protecting the endangered body fudge the law, or break it, and get away with it all because the times dictate the measures. Situation ethics triumph.

My older son reminded me that there was a time, as in the English Civil War period when, to destroy an enemy, justice might be side-stepped by getting Parliament to adopt a Bill of Attainder. By so doing a trial was avoided and the wretched business of having to produce evidence or granting the accused their constitutional rights obviated. A majority might vote and then “off with his head”.

May one ever assume that a body empowered to prosecute may be permitted to interpret the law by which an offender or a group of offenders are dealt with? Who interprets the law?

I return again to my theme. Who interprets our ecclesiastical law? It is extraordinary to be told that the Presiding Bishop’s Chancellor assures us that the Canons were observed in the matter of the deposition of two bishops this week. In secular society the equivalent would be for the prosecution to assure the court that all was being done in accordance with the law. I leave aside the undoubtedly canonical business of getting, or not getting, the three longest serving bishops to approve of a bill of attainder or of a committee meeting in private signing off on the alleged guilt of the accused.

That there is an overwhelming desire on the part of our bishops to shoot as many admirals as possible on their quarterdecks “for the encouragement of others” is respectably British but questionably Christian. I am often told nowadays that our doctrine and much of our tradition is the fruit of victory. “Winners write history.” Well it would seem obvious that we are in the hands of “winners” now and the history they are writing -may I become modern and wax anecdotal? – is that we make examples of at least one very old man whose wife is in the grips of a terminal disease, look as if we are after another elderly bishop, all in an attempt to “discipline” a bishop who has attempted to run off with the family silver, and perhaps warn two or more others not to do the same or else?

The “or else” is that without any form of trial or judicial hearing a group of persons will vote to declare that such persons have been deposed from the Sacred Ministry, our canonic version of a Bill of Attainder. The wretched bishops are obviously guilty and so “Off with their heads. ” Ah! we say but that means “our” sacred ministry rather than that of the Church Catholic. Yet we are not prepared to say “from the ministry of
this jurisdiction”. It’s OK to imply it, or merely suggest that we don’t mean that which the language states.

Now all this wouldn’t matter a fig but for two points. The first is that we are doing this in the face of a world and in a nation which prizes due process and a system of justice tilted towards the accused. “But”, I shall hear, “Bishop X did this or that ergo we are justified in doing this or that.” Do two wrongs make a right?

Secondly we are part of a jurisdiction which makes much of justice. What sort of justice may one expect in a body whose laws are solely interpreted by those bringing charges and executing judgment and sentence? What sort of Christian justice may we expect of a jurisdiction for whom turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile,
“seventy times seven”, not going before secular courts are quaint old-fashioned sayings to be ignored when examples must be made or property defended?

No one deplores schism more than I. “I’ve been there, done that” as
the saying goes. Nor do I suggest that there should not be serious consequences if someone, in what ever Order, willfully breaks our discipline. BUT I must say loudly that nothing has offended me more or sickened me -and that includes some actions of GC 2003- more than the activities of our leaders and their use of “law” during the
past few months. There seems to be a ruthlessness, a bloodlessness, and a determination to proceed whatever our Canons may suggest, whether authority is clearly given or not, all because of a present crisis. The nearest parallel I can see is to be found in the post 9/11 activities of the present administration. This will come back to bite us.

REFLECTIONS

I am no longer a “West Virginian Parson”. I suppose I shall have to change my blog address. Last Thursday I left Morgantown at 4:20 AM EST and arrived here in La Porte at 11:30 AM CST. It was a long drive.

On Sunday I was delighted that we had the largest congregation for a normal service in years. It was a wonderful beginning to a new ministry. I slipped back into Rite One, eastward position as if it were an old shoe. I am not at all convinced that old English is any more inaccessible than “modern” English to those who are not “churched.” The concepts expressed are just as unfamiliar, whatever rite used, even odd to people who have not grown up in the Faith or come to know Jesus within the context of a liturgical church. People slip into the bizarre vocabularly of football or computers almost unconsciously. They equally slip into the church’s vocabulary as long as liturgy lives and is done well.

Anglicans believe in a balance of Word and Sacraments and believe that in both and through both grace is received to built up the community, the Body of Christ, as it witnesses to the watching world. The Word is received first corporately (in church) as it is read and heard, and faithfully preached and taught. The priest as preacher has the extraordinary and frightening task of being faithful to the texts provided; interpreting them within the context of the Christian tradition (experience over the ages) and applying these words to the lives of those who hear and through the hearers to those outside. The words “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” should convince the preacher that he or she is on holy ground and about a holy task.

In the sacraments and particularly Baptism and the Eucharist, He who is the Word made flesh draws the people of God into communion with the Trinity and with all the company of heaven. In these sacraments Christians are challenged in their vocation to be the people of God here and now, and members of the Kingdom which is now and which is to come. Every parish church in every community is a microcosm of that Kingdom and a witness to God’s love and purposes. Through these sacraments we are, to use St. Paul’s oft used expression “in Christ”, we “dwell in him and he in us” as the Prayer Book puts it.

This is not primarily a personal experience, or a bargain forged between us and God to get us to Heaven. One day, please God, we will be in the new Heaven and the new earth, returned to Eden. Until then our vocation, until we fall asleep in Jesus, is to care for the world God made, and “Behold it was good”, and to reach out in compassionate love to everyone, for the needy can be rich people and the blessed, poor people. We must help to feed, heal, house and enable those neglected by politicians and political parties and factions. Yet we must do more than that. For when Jesus healed, fed, raised from the dead, he also changed lives through the Good News. Bringing a person to Christ in the fellowship of the Church is the most vital political action any of us may attempt. If this happens, we don’t do the real work. Christ does the real work in and through us.

None of this is possible if we are obsessed with the “politics” of the church and that part of the church in which we live. The Episcopal Church will not return to its first love through strategies, through schism, through process or through systems. It will return to its first love when its people, gorged on “fast food religion” despair, like an alcoholic who has reached the bottom. Then God will revive the church in the midst of the years through the faithful, positive, caring witness of those he has called to be his own.

I write all this to myself, as a reminder, as I begin this new phase of ministry with the people of God here in this parish. God help us and sustain us.