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MISSION and VISION

I would highly commend Bishop Daniel Martin’s new blog (http://cariocaconfessions.blogspot.com/) in which he sets forth for his diocese a vision for the future. What he proposes involves a fundamental reassessment of how we “do church” in the twenty-first century. Like all sound reassessments it involves us all in the uncomfortable process of leaving our safety zones, no easy task for gray-heads, those of us who have become the major group of survivors in the contemporary Episcopal Church.

 

As I have remarked before we have reached the end of a long period in the Western Church in which we have been secure in offering our brand or flavor of the Faith over the substance of the faith itself. American Christianity developed a free market system in which each faith group might offer its assets over against those of others, and managed to sustain “brand-loyalty” while recruiting floating Christians in search of something different. Brand loyalty was perhaps the first to go, and in the US, Episcopalians faired rather badly as they competed with groups which offered livelier youth groups or eligible partners for dating and marriage!  More and more our young people have married out, rather than marrying in.

 

Social mobility, the drift of young people to new places for work, or older people for work and retirement has left behind rump groups with dwindling resources. Faced with this we have continued to hope that our liturgy and good taste would continue to attract new people who would fit in. We’ve placed our hopes in programs based on business methods, which promise to train us to market what we have, where we are, to an unidentified market share. Certainly in fairly affluent communities, social causes or old-time religion have been attractive products particularly where a parish has the numerical strength and financial resources to effectively create or sustain programs and initiatives which draw like-minded people. Yet such systems are consumerist and play into the deadly danger of consumerism.

 

One of the side-effects of such initiatives has been the creation of parishes – well not really parishes but gathered groups – which have flavors heavily laced with “political” stances: conservative churches for conservatives, liberal churches for progressives. This espousal of contemporary cultural opinion has driven us into division and schism and weakened both groups. Countless people caught in the middle of idealogical warfare have left the church, wearied of idealogical struggles which neither speak to nor nourish their faith. A church which adopts an uncritical approach to political theories loses the capacity to stand apart from worldly “kingdoms” as it proclaims God’s rule and purpose in Jesus the Messiah through whom all is made new.

 

Thus a reassessment of mission and vision requires learning anew the purpose of the Church, why it exists, and the faith which it is called to proclaim. Renewal has to begin there and renewal requires us all to discover what it means to be “strangers and pilgrims” rather than comfortable embracers of such things as nationalism, a nationalism which threatens daily to submit to ideals and beliefs which may overcome the “otherness” of Christian discipleship and thus mission. I think this is particularly but not uniquely a problem for Americans brought up from childhood with the “myths’ of the national story and vocation. “Exceptionalism” colors our religious beliefs and compromises our understanding of the universality of the Church’s mission and purpose. No, I am not advocating disloyalty to hearth and home. Christians are called to good and active citizenship, but such a citizenship is temporary and always shared with our basic citizenship in God’s kingdom.

 

Leaving that factor aside, our major task is to grasp once again the purpose of our eucharistic communities, planted where they are in real communities, places where in worship and study, we are prepared and enabled to be witnesses to that which God has done and is doing in Jesus through the Spirit. We learn painfully that the church where we are isn’t primarily a staging point from and by which we grasp life after death. Rather the church, our church is the place, the visible place from which we engage the world in the wholeness of its need, spiritual and social. In short our local church isn’t a place to escape, a venue for self-preservation, in which our needs are addressed. Such a view is inherently selfish and it breeds the view that if we don’t get cared for we can always find some other place or no place except home where we can be the central factor. Consumerism is consumerism even of it is cloaked in piety. Clergy particularly have become the victims of people who think that a priest exists to make them content. Parishes are riven when those who want one thing, collide with those who want another. It’s all selfish and destructive.

 

In Baptism God has adopted us. Eternal life is God’s free gift. As long as we remain true to that “salvation” and live in God’s will, that’s a given. But, and it is a big “But”, that’s the start of discipleship and not its content. All of us, even the gray-heads, are able to work, give and pray for the Kingdom, as the old Prayer Book put it. And the Kingdom isn’t our local church, or our usual pew. Rather our church home is the Kingdom’s local franchise, the place from which mission begins and continues. While we remain content to receive without giving, maintaining and surviving without engaging the communities in which we are in contact with the world God loves and the people God yearns to bring to himself, we will be merely denominanationalists, and our love -self-love- will center on everything other than being the church.

 

Clergy and laity have to learn anew. Ordinands will have to be formed and shaped in radically new but thoroughly very old ways of leadership. Laity will have to be disturbed, challenged and trained. And perhaps we all need to become aware of Evil, of the presence of that which opposes God’s rule “on earth as it is in heaven”, an evil which clothes itself in our culture in the idea that faith is personal and private, something which has no place in the market place. We have all tried so hard to fit in, to accept, to collaborate, to be nicely Anglican that we no longer see evil around us, or if we do, we judge those caught upon in its seduction while being equally seduced ourselves. The Faith is a matter of life and death. Redemption is a rescue mission, not merely to pluck souls for heaven, but to redeem the whole creation. True God is the author of that purpose. We are God’s messengers, God’s lovers, God’s voice of justice and mercy. Jesus told his followers that they would receive power – we get the word dynamite from that Greek word – to be his witnesses -life-givers – to the ends of the world. For most of us that world and its “ends” are discovered in the communities our parishes embrace.

 

A simple way to begin is to make sure that the people and needs of the community in which we are placed, its families and lonely people are intentionally remembered in the Prayers of the People at the Eucharist. That’s a very small and simple start, but our intentional prayers are powerful and they nudge us to witness and service. Instead of simply praying for “our church” and ourselves, perhaps we should leave that to others and pray instead for all who live and work and play around our churches and homes?  Such a good habit will enable us to hear the Gospel as it is read and preached and spur us to renewed mission and vision.

THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER AND CHRISTMAS

I was particularly struck by this part of Archbishop Rowan’s sermon in Canterbury Cathedral at the Christmas Eucharist today:

“This coming year we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer.  It has shaped the minds and hearts of millions; and it has done so partly because it has never been a book for individuals alone.  It is common prayer, prayer that is shared.  In its origins, it was meant to be – and we may well be startled by the ambition of this – a book that defined what a whole society said to God together.  If the question ‘where are you?’ or ‘who are you?’ were being asked, not only individual citizens of Britain but the whole social order could have replied, ‘Here we are, speaking together – to recognize our failures and our ideals, to recognize that the story of the Bible is our story, to ask together for strength to live and act together in faithfulness, fairness, pity and generosity.’  If you thumb through the Prayer Book, you may be surprised at how much there is that takes for granted a very clear picture of how we behave with each other.  Yes, of course, much of this language feels dated – we don’t live in the unselfconscious world of social hierarchy that we meet here.  But before we draw the easy and cynical conclusion that the Prayer Book is about social control by the ruling classes, we need to ponder the uncompromising way in which those same ruling classes are reminded of what their power is for, from the monarch downwards.  And the almost forgotten words of the Long Exhortation in the Communion Service, telling people what questions they should ask themselves before coming to the Sacrament, show a keen critical awareness of the new economic order that, in the mid sixteenth century, was piling up assets of land and property in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite.

 

The Prayer Book is a treasury of words and phrases that are still for countless English-speaking people the nearest you can come to an adequate language for the mysteries of faith.  It gives us words that say where and who we are before God: ‘we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep’, ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table’, but also, ‘we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of the everlasting kingdom’. It gives us words for God that hold on to the paradoxes we can’t avoid: ‘God… who art always more ready to hear than we to pray,’ ‘who declarest thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity, ‘whose property is always to have mercy.’  A treasury of words for God – but also a source of vision for an entire society: ‘Give us grace seriously to lay heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions’; ‘If ye shall perceive your offences to be such as are not only against God but also against your neighbours; then ye shall reconcile yourselves unto them; being ready to make restitution’

 

The world has changed, the very rhythms of our speech have changed, our society is irreversibly more plural, and we have – with varying degrees of reluctance – found other and usually less resonant ways of talking to God and identifying who we are in his presence.  If we used only the Prayer Book these days we’d risk confusing the strangeness of the mysteries of faith with the strangeness of antique and lovely language.  But we’re much the poorer for forgetting it and pushing it to the margins as much as we often do in the Church.  And it is crucial to remember the point about the Prayer Book as something for a whole society, binding together our obligations to God and to one another, in a dense interweaving of love and duty joyfully performed.

 

The Prayer Book was once the way our society found words to respond to the Word, to say who and where they were in answer to God’s question.  Those who prayed the Prayer Book, remember, included those who abolished the slave trade and put an end to child labour, because of what they had learned in this book and in their Bibles about the honour of God and of God’s children.  They knew their story; they knew how to give an answer for themselves, how to join up the muddle of their experience in a coherent pattern by relating it to the unchanging truth and grace of God.  That’s why the coming year’s celebration is not about a museum piece.”

 

Now those of you who know me will just say “It figures”. Now I’m not one of those who mutter that the “new” American Prayer Book, or Common Worship are heretical. I’ve used the new rites in parishes I have served and there’s much I think good. But I do think that they are in some ways inadequate.  Certainly, as +Rowan remarks the Prayer Book reflects a world and a society which is dead and gone, although not as throughly dead and gone than has been assumed. The rich and poor are with us still, and in the 16th Century a new class was already emerging, a class whose wealth was self-created, and whose power was emerging. There are powerful voices in our own society who champion wealth as a virtue and who look upon the poor as inadequate, people who should do better if only they had moral fibre. They don’t deserve our “charity”, let alone health care. Latimer’s sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, written as a class was dispossessing people from land and livelihood, speaks to us today. The poor man prays, “Give us this day our daily bread” and the rich benefit from the poor person’s prayer, and so we are to share that daily bread with him. His sermon caused fury. He went to the Tower of London as a prisoner because of his “class warfare”. Those who champion the poor and demand that the rich share their wealth were and still are derided for their “social engineering”.

 

Sin IS real. Yes the poor sin as well as the rich sin, yet their sin is not accompanied by power. The old familiar words of the Prayer Book, taken as serious prose and not merely old fashioned poetry, have the ability to bring us up short, to make us examine our lives, those of us who have been declared to be the children of God, heralds of that which God is about as he prepares for his coming again to renew heaven and earth, a new world in which wealth and poverty alike will be leveled and abolished, in which there will be but one “power”, the loving power of God, and God alone. Christmas in the old Prayer Book bids us let go of our idolatry of nation, political opinions or race, economic theory or class. Christmas tells us that in Jesus a new world is emerging and we who have been set apart in Baptism are its witnesses. We can’t create a new world, a just society, by our own deeds or philosophies, true. But God is about that new world, is doing his purpose to reverse Eden. That doesn’t mean that we are just called to a selfish grasping of eternal life above the bright blue sky. We are called not only to tell what God is about, but to show what God is about, “not only with our lips, but in our lives.”  We are to walk in God’s presence in God’s service, “in holiness and righteousness of life”, not so God will think us good, but by showing to our families, or work mates, our communities the very love and compassion which we see and experience in the life of Jesus, as he moves among us. God give us the grace to be reflections of “The Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us” as we “behold his glory, “full of grace and truth.”