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I GET GRAYHAIRS

My son Mark is a priest in the Diocese of Durham. We talk often on Skype. He is getting his feet wet as a priest in the Church of England. He is doing his doctorate at Durham University, but in exchange for a free vicarage, he helps out in a group of former mining parishes. I was born and baptised in a similar setting, although further “south” -not a word to my relatives -in Yorkshire.

Mark is experiencing to a greater degree than we are here, the church in retreat. Matthew Arnold’s prediction that the tide of faith seems to be going out seems all too true.Arnold forgot that tides come in too.

Mark is experiencing the “distance” there is between clergy and population and incidentally, the  gulf between plans for survival churned out by those in the industry of “church development” and the experiences and desires of ordinary people having a pint in the working mens club. I won’t dwell too much today on the demands that clergy spend their time looking after the gathered few, or programmes designed to entice others to join the ranks of the few. I am reminded of the Beyond the Fringe skit in which an eager RAF pilot asks his superior if he may join “The Few”. The answer comes, “Sorry, there are too many.”

That may be part of the problem. There remain too many of the few left in parishes who may indulge in the public life of the church, to permit us all to come to grips with reality. Conventions and Synods meet and pass resolutions. Committees abound, churning out proposals. Marketing schemes are borrowed from the sort of people who got us into the financial crisis of last year. Liturgy is proposed as evangelism and thus must be tinkered with to make it more accessible and attractive.

No, I am not going to mutter about these things which disturb my gray hairs. The latest assault on the model of parish priest has been clothed in an attack on George Herbert, whose little book, The Country Parson”, it is alleged, created the pattern of priestly life which has now become irrelevant. I challenge that notion.

Herbert didn’t propose and exemplify a model of priestly life in which clergy spent their time looking after those who come to church, running from committee, to meeting, to counselling session, to goodness knows what. Herbert has nothing to say of a “professional” model of priesthood, bound by evaluations, retirement ages, and all the trappings we have imported from the secular world.  Why grumble about clergy taking early retirement and fleeing from vestry meetings to the golf club when we have turned vocation into profession?

If the Ordinal is right in demanding that clergy pattern their lives as an example to the flock of Christ, surely the concept that when we get tired of it, or have thirty years in the pension scheme, or have reached seventy-two, we retire suggests to the laity that the Christian life is also something one may lay down at a convenient moment?  Is vocation for keeps?

I suggest that it is precisely because we have turned vocation into profession, and imprisoned clergy in the church plant, that we have lost our sense of mission and identity. What goes on in the church has become our chief concern. I suggest that the matter of human sexuality is much more an “in house” concern than one which excites and engages the general public. I suggest that arguments about ceremonial or the language of worship is an “in house” obsession and one which would bore an ex miner or a worker at Walmart to death.

Whenever I meet people who suggest that there are people out there, wherever “there” may be, who would enjoy our tradition, or our worship, if only we could get them through the door, I cringe. We are where we are because we have concentrated on recruiting like-minded people, whose causes and desires become a substitute for Christian faith and practice.

George Herbert’s Parson had the liberty to get to know “the village”. There is a paradigm here for “mutual ministry”.  It is time we sent clergy and people back into the community to listen, to learn and to engage. I suggest that it is precisely because our clergy and laity are so interested in “church” that they seem to others to be people who are obsessed with an arcane hobby, like butterfly collecting or the identification of various species of bats. In short it is time we engaged “the village” again, whether it is an urban, suburban or rural “village” or even a cyber “village.”

St. Paul spent over two years in one community, waiting, listening, engaging, before he broke through. He hired a “lecture hall.”  Perhaps we need to hire space in shopping malls, set up our coffee carts, plonk the priest and some lay people down, please dressed as a priest and not in disguise, not to advertise St. Titus the Tasteful’s bill of fare, but to listen, to learn, to embrace and to begin the task of reclaiming the parish.

ENCOMPASSED ABOUT

I am met by the same question at the hairdressers and the bank, in the grocery store and even at Walmart. “What denomination do you belong to?”  The question is loaded with unasked questions. “What does your church believe?” “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”  “Do you believe in the Bible?’ “Do your priests marry?”

Now don’t get me wrong. I rejoice in the heritage and tradition of the Episcopal Church I serve. Yet I also know that such a “tradition” may be a narrow and delighted enjoyment of that which makes being an Episcopalian “other” or unique. I have experienced the arrogance of particularism all my life. If it makes me shudder: how much more must it do to those outside our magic circle.

Unless the tradition which has formed me is dependent on something wider, it may well become a self-justifying idol. At the altar, as I say the Offices, as I teach and preach I must constantly rely on the witness of the Church in time and space, here and eternally. I must constantly submit myself to the “cloud of witnesses” which encompass me. In the process I must “hear” the voices of those who lived before there was an Episcopal Church, before Anglicanism, before the Reformation, the Great Schism as well as to those whose witness has been in other “churches” up to the present time.

I have mentioned before my deep aversion to the use of the word “denomination” to describe our tradition of theology and spirituality. It narrows our vision and creates an unhealthy reliance on what we do as a Christian group. When nationalism and particularism injects itself into “denominationalism” the result is our putting our trust in a tradition reluctant to permit the voice and witness of the Church to act as conscience and guide.

Israel in Old Testament times was chosen and called to be a light to enlighten the world. Over and over again, uncomfortable with the “moral” – no not merely sexual – burden of such a vocation, it went after other gods. At the same time it drew into itself, as particularism and nationalism led it to believe its own press reports.

“A light to lighten” the Gentiles, the light of Christ, initiated a new chosen people again entrusted with calling the world to the worship of the One True God.

Uneasy with that vocation we seek other gods in a sentimental indifference towards other religions. At the same time we revel in our own nationalism and particularism. We worship Episcopalianism, claim Christ as our possession, have become quite ready to believe that other gods share an equally useful avenue to a vague Divinity and blither about “inclusion” as the goal of true religion.

We find ourselves bewildered in a culture which takes us at our word. What is the relevance of this “tradition” of worship and practice to the lives of those who manage their lives without benefit of religion?  I refer not to those who find a comfortable accommodation to our “progressivism” or “conservatism”, a convivial company with whom to spend our Sunday mornings.

How may we recover our calling and vocation to be a light to the gentiles until we expose our nationalism, particularism and sentimentality to the light of Christ and to the voices and witness of that great cloud of witnesses who have been light in their several generations?  It is high time we offered our clutter of tradition, liberal and conservative to the dying Lord on his Cross. It is because we fear to surrender who we are to death/resurrection, because we instead glory in who we are, that we fail to be a microcosm of the Church where we are. As it was with Israel, so it is with us.

EPIPHANY MUSINGS

Those of us who have reached a certain age were brought up to think of the town in which we lived as being largely Christian. The population divided itself up into denominations, largely based on family loyalty.  We were Episcopalians because our parents were. Of course some became Episcopalians through marriage. A few  joined from other denominations for one reason or another.

There were enough Episcopalians around to let us “do church”. By tradition we attracted at least a few wealthy people who gave generously. Our clergy spent most of their time looking after us, as we met for worship, or attended guilds and groups.

The thought of evangelism rarely crossed our consciousness.  Who would we evangelize? Most everyone went to church. There were a few who didn’t, but they seemed hopeless cases. At Epiphanytide, if we thought about evangelism at all it was in terms of foreign missionaries working overseas.  Perhaps we sent some extra money to African missionaries and felt rather good about it.

We could largely live to ourselves as churches, just as our ancestors had. True there were some churches around who seemed to want to convert everyone, but as most people were Christians we presumed they continually reconverted each other.

It is hard for us to adjust to the new reality. Most people in our communities are not practicing Christians. The old loyalty to one’s “denomination” has largely evaporated. People “shop” for church, and make their choice often on the basis on the “program” a church offers, it’s youth activities, singles’ club, or contemporary worship. There are a good number who don’t look for a church. They can’t see how what Christians do has any relevance to the life they live and the problems they face. Many churches in our area are barely surviving, living off endowments, and peopled by aging parishioners who cling to the old way of doing things to please those who attend and particularly those who have attended the longest!

Yet the Feast of the Epiphany reminds us of our calling to be communities with The Message. Jesus didn’t tell us to construct local Upper Rooms, where we could huddle “for fear.”  Instead he told us to “Go Tell” about Him.  If evangelism is about recruitment, it is about recruiting people who will join us in using the local building as base camp from which we reach out into the community. Talking about a church “home” is really rather bad. Homes are comfortable places. They exist for us. The church exists for others.

It is really rather a waste of time concentrating on how we may make the church more efficient at drawing people in, or making the church more “attractive”. Rather we need to concentrate on learning the skills of apostleship. An apostle is a person chosen and given power of attorney to represent Jesus. This is our calling. That is why the Sunday after Epiphany takes us to Jesus’s baptism; His commitment to service.

We can’t take on our real calling as a church until we stop trying to cling onto the old ways, doing what we have always done for us, in smaller and smaller numbers until the light goes out.  No one out there needs our church. They need our Lord.

NEW YEAR

I’ve been thinking how odd it is to be an Anglican in the United States as we enter 2010. I am a Christian by baptism. My non-practicing Roman Catholic father was retreating towards Dunkirk with the British Army when I was born in April 1940. In his absence my Anglican mother took me to St. Thomas’s Church, Worsborough Dale and had me properly baptized. So began my love affair with all things Anglican, an affair undiminished through it all. So I am untempted by the Pope’s invitation for us all to cross the Tiber clutching our Prayer Books.

After spending most of my life in extra-mural Anglicanism I was received into TEC ten years ago. For years I’d been chided for not being a proper Anglican because I was not in communion with Canterbury.  In a typically polite Anglican manner Archbishop Runcie once wrote to me that the relationship between my “continuing” Anglican home and his see was fluid. So finally that relationship was solidified when Bishop Maze of Arkansas received me into his diocese. It is ironic that ten years later the relationship between the church in which I serve and Runcie’s latest successor is less than solid. I suppose I should be used to fluid relationships by now!

Claiming as I do to be an Anglican second – a Christian first – my theology and spirituality, the way I apprehend and practice my faith and ministry is shaped and nurtured by an Anglicanism which seems to many to be antiquarian. When I was thought to be dying a couple of years ago, the words of the old Psalter, the prayers of the old liturgy were there to aid me, although it was a very High Church Lutheran pastor who brought me the sacraments, bless him!

Oddly enough for a person who yearns for the unity of Christendom, I have come to think that our abandonment of the distinctively Anglican “flavor” of worship and devotion, an abandonment variously justified as bringing us closer to other liturgical churches as well as making worship more accessible to moderns, has enormously harmed our witness and compromised our evangelism. A wise Bishop of Michigan, now in glory, once remarked that our contribution to unity had to come from the depth of our own tradition. That tradition was intimately anchored in our liturgical heritage and in its patient pastoral application.

Instead we seem to have morphed into “denominationalism”. By that I mean that the institution itself now claims our allegiance, a form of genealogical affirmation to structure as opposed to content. As I am not a “Receptionist”, one who believes that the faith of individuals or institutions enables God to act through Word and Sacraments, I am loathe to unchurch contemporary Anglicanism, as it is practiced in the US and perhaps even more alarmingly in England. Having said that I am confounded by the sort of lowest common denominator sacramentalism we offer to the communities where we minister. Of course the sacraments “work”. I disagree with the more disagreeable contemporary revolutionaries who justify their leaving TEC by gleefully announcing that God has removed TEC’s candlestick. I can well understand how these people feel and the hurt they experience. To be unfrocked is no easy experience. I remember well when the late Carroll Simcox was received into my former diocese and received a letter from his TEC bishop addressed to “Mr. Simcox”. Carroll was for many years editor of the Living Church, a prolific author of splendidly written books shot through with mere Anglicanism. Fidelity to the institution became the sole yardstick to evaluate his priesthood. Thank God no one yet contemplates removing the baptismal reality of lay people who leave TEC. It is ironic that those who now want to anchor ordained ministry as a “function” of baptism haven’t decided that if the laity are an order of ministry, the laity leaving leaving TEC should likewise be deposed!  As TEC invites all the baptized to its altars, they presumably retain their authenticity!

Indeed those who now advocate communicating the unbaptized seem to suggest that the sacrament is a human right. God made us all.He loves us all. Ergo all may participate in the sacrament which gives life and “communion”  to those called to serve Him. In one stroke the whole human race becomes the priestly people of God. Who do they represent? To whom to they minister? The Kingdom has come. The worshipping community becomes merely a group who like that sort of things and organize themselves to do what?

So I live in a community which has nothing much to do but “affirm” people and offer them shares in real estate and a part in what goes on in those buildings, organized into an expensive structure which busies itself in good works.

Yet as I am not a Receptionist, I know that in His good time, God will use the Means of Grace, the Bible, the Sacraments, to do that which He purposes to do. Of course when the Son of Man returns He will find faith on earth.

Whether we are called to work within historic institutions or apart from them, we shall find His grace sufficient.  I have hope that the Covenant will be an offering of commitment to the Faith in the Anglican Way.  How it will all look is beyond me. In the mean time I refuse to unfrock or unchurch those who have left or to unchurch those who remain. I expect to see God at work among us all in 2010. I expect to be amazed at His grace and goodness.

I remain encouraged by young Christians, ordained and lay, who stumble across our rich tradition and meet for the first time the men and women of faith who have been lights in their “several generations”.  Eccentrically perhaps, but after all I am English and old, each night in my devotions I invoke my heroes whose lives inspire me and words and deeds inform my walk with Jesus. I remember Ninian and both Augustines, Aiden and Oswald, Cuthbert and Bede, Chad and Wilfred, Dunstan and Becket, Richard of Chichester, Hugh of Lincoln, Hooker, Andrewes, Donne, Herbert and Taylor, Law and Simeon, Newman and Pusey, Maurice and Gore, and Blessed Michael Ramsey. They are good company as I pray the words of the old Liturgy.

So as I leave 2009 I shall pray in trust and expectation, “Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord.”

Happy New Year!