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.

2 Responses

  1. After reading that, and Bishop Daniel’s piece that you cited, I began to feel rather depressed. I’ve read quite a few pieces like this in the last few years, and I find people, including young people, saying the same things we were saying 40-50 years ago, and wondering where it went wrong. Are we compelled, like Sisyphus, to go on rocking and rolling to the end of our days? Are we compelled to push the car all the way to the destination, because, no matter how many hills we push it up, it never starts on the downhill run?

    But just occasionally we see something encouraging, a vision that was fulfilled, sometimes in surprising ways. I’ve written about one of those here, and would be interested in your comments: Some dreams come true | Khanya

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