Catholicity and Culture

When they say they’re too tired, believe them.

I was one of the last generations of Southern children for whom “Where do y’all go to Church?” will be a ubiquitous question. It was one of those questions that led to a quick size-up. Denomination and place-of-worship could tell volumes in Southern towns where Parishes, much like people, had reputations.

I imagine that the question “What do you do?” will have a bit more staying power. Where we work, and what we do has come to define (for better or worse) a number of our social interactions. Being clergy, I can tell you first hand that a different tack is almost always taken when I let it slip that I’m a priest. (The double takes are something to behold when folks ask me while I’m in street clothes. Young, tattooed man that I am.)

The Church can fight, and I think it should, the common assumption that what we do is the defining characteristic of our social interactions, but what we can’t yet seem to grasp is just how deeply the current culture of American labor is seeping into our congregations. We treat work, we treat labor as a neutral medium, as a simple fact of life, and we do so at our peril.

More and more I’m convinced that the single greatest variable in the seemingly inevitable march toward church decline is the way in which labor has changed radically in the last 50 years. I’m aware that this is just one hypothesis among many, probably too many. But the way in which we keep relegating what we’re experiencing to the realm of personal opinion, that its simply a matter of public distaste with the content of the 21st century church, continues to ignore the fact that it is quantifiably more difficult to attend church now than it has been since the end of WWI.

The data around individual hours worked isn’t that telling, but it isn’t that well studied either. As best as we can tell a working individual is now working about 5 hours more a week than they were in 1950, but that says almost nothing about Household hours spent working. Given that we have double the number of women in the workforce now than in 1950 it is safe to say that household work hours, while likely not double what they were 50 years ago, are significantly higher.

We’ve seen the previously sacrosanct status of the weekend erode, in legislation, yes, but more pervasively in practice. The workweek is the week you get on the schedule that is posted sometimes only hours before the next week starts. When I was in the Service Industry scheduling anything more than a week or two out was iffy. Making expensive, involved plans was pretty well unheard of, as any money you put down or plans you made could be forfeited by a manager’s refusal to sign off on your time off. Which you might not receive until days before the fact.

We are bombarded with messaging about how the American worker is faced with a drastically shifting workplace, and, at the same time, that the Church is in decline.

Yet we refuse to connect the two.

It’s easier, in many ways, to think that falling church attendance is a symptom of a cultural malaise, or a failure of messaging. That it is young people reacting against the capriciousness of Culture-War Christianity. That’s easy. We can try to change our theology, or the style and content of our worship. We can re-brand and rethink, re-imagine and revive, but if folks are too pressed by the demands of their work life to give up valuable time on Sunday morning then we’re not going to get anywhere. (Its also easier to collect poll data on opinion, rather than how time is actually spent.)

It is hard to care about the state of the American worker. It is hard to say that the Church is falling victim to the same pressures that workers everywhere are facing. We want so desperately to be above the fray, even as our forebears in the Oxford movement are calling to us and saying that we can’t be. If we want to be a priority, then we need to prioritize our people. Our working, struggling people who are constantly having to revisit their calendars and make the decision about whether or not they can afford to give a few invaluable hours to an organization that is asking them to give even more of the little time they have.

Its time to get serious about labor. The Culture Wars are winding down. We won. What we’re seeing in places like Alabama and Kentucky are its death throes. What if we took on a fight that would actually give life to people? A fight that would reach out across boundaries and say that the real war on families, and on Christian values comes from the unbridled greed that treats humans as resources to be exploited and discarded. That has no concern for developing whole, healthy families and community-driven people.

It seems to be working for the Pope. It worked for his namesake. It worked for the Tractarians. I see no reason it wouldn’t work for us.

Perhaps the biggest change that will need to take place is that when our people tell us they’re too tired, or too busy to attend regularly we need to believe them. We need to stop acting like we have a free pass from the “cares of the world,” and drop the chip on our shoulder that tells us that we should be a priority when other priorities like home and car ownership are being displaced because of an economy that no longer makes them sensible. We need to stop clinging to Sunday morning as our locus of our outreach and the measure of our success. Because as long as our people are given the choice between coming to church on Sunday morning and making money on a Saturday night we’ll always lose out on that choice.

The basic tenet of Liberation Theology is that we can’t separate a person’s material conditions from their spiritual well-being. St. James’ epistle seems to tell us the same thing. The Epistle that troubled so many of the protestant reformers may be the key to our next reformation. One that is necessary when a corruption of the famed Protestant Work-Ethic is undoing Protestantism as we know it. Care for the working person has been one of the finer parts of the Catholic Anglican tradition, and it may be the part that saves us.

Photo: The Christian Workers’ League took part in the May Day Parade, Edinburgh, c.1947 (George Wilkie archive) Accessed at:http://www.ionabooks.com/content/an-oral-history-of-the-iona-community/the-community-and-young-people/1-cwl-members-may-day-parade-c-1947-by-george-wilkie/

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Mission

For us, there is only the trying.

I spent this Summer shadowing a Latino priest, doing my best to pick up what it means to operate in a Latino congregation. It meant a lot of stumbling with my Spanish. A lot of looking like an idiot. Of not knowing the words in a space where most of my job consists of being the guy who has the words. Of feeling mostly out of place and slightly useless.

It gave me so much life.

Admittedly, I’m weird for that.  It’s been a bit of a pattern in my life. When I was 11 I started learning to play guitar. I took lessons from the music minister at the Methodist parish i grew up in. After I learned all four of the chords necessary for praise music she told me that I would be playing 2 Sundays a month from there on out.

It was a freaky kind of genius. The only thing that was sure to get an 11 year old to practice was the fear of sucking in front of my friends. I practiced. I still sucked. I kept practicing until I sucked less. I learned to love to play. I even reached a point where it was generally acknowledged that I was good.

I would like to proffer that this is the process by which we all learn anything. It’s not pleasant. It involves screwing up a lot, but its the only way we get better.

To expect to get better at anything without practicing, making a fool of yourself, and then practicing again is ludicrous, yet it is precisely what we’re doing in the Episcopal Church. General Convention set an unprecedented tone (and budget) for evangelism and new ministry. But when we look at the number of actual practitioners out cutting new paths and planting new communities there are, in the words of Tobias Bluth, “Literally dozens of us.”

In my experience that’s not entirely for lack of will. Its a calling that’s not for everyone. And the Church doesn’t quite know what to do with people who feel so called. In my own discernment process I was questioned intensely about whether or not I was really called to the priesthood because of my energy for incorporating justice and mission work into my ministry in the church.

We don’t know how to listen to people who feel these calls. We don’t know how to train the people who want to do this work. At this moment in our institutional life anyone who steps out to take up the mantle of revival is in some form or fashion an outlier. The work gets tokened. The temptation is to let the professionals, the folks who are “good at it” do the work. We can’t let that happen. We can’t let +Curry be out in front while we sit hesitatingly in our institutions waiting to see whether or not this revival thing is for us.

We don’t have the time to feel good about piloting a few new things while the rest of our structures crumble. We can’t get complacent. We have to be courageous.

This is where our tradition as the “establishment Church” rears its ugly head. To be Episcopalian is to expect a certain degree of decorum in what we do. To do something new, genuinely new, is almost always messy. Decorum is hard to maintain when you’re shooting from the hip every time a new challenge pops up if only because the lode star of “this is the way we’ve always done it” doesn’t exist.

To be in mission means that sometimes you fail. Hard. Publicly. Painfully.

Our forebearers in the faith failed. Hard. Pubically. Painfully. The fact that we venerate people that died before their work was done is testament enough to the fact that we’re a resurrection people. Even when Jesus was sending out the seventy he prescribed a response to failure and rejection. “Wipe the dust from your feet.” Get it off. Keep moving.

Not being received is an inevitability, but it isn’t the end of the work. And it certainly isn’t excuse enough to not start the work in the first place.

We’ve reached a point where trying, where practicing, is all we can do. Our models are so scant that our only option is to make more models. The revival of the Episcopal Church will come from small networks of practitioners who are open about where they’ve fallen down. We need to be honest about the fact that we, as a Church are just starting to figure this out, and we’re an even longer way away from this being a major component of our ecclesial life together.

It is the time to try. To be unashamed of the fact that we as a Church aren’t good at this kind of thing, and unashamed of the fact that we have a God whose grace working in us is able to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine. Its the only faithful response to the moment in which we have been called by God to be church together. T.S. Eliot says it better than I ever could:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

-T.S. Eliot. East Coker.

(So try, Friends.)

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General Convention, Parish Life

GC78, and things I wish we’d stop saying.

Since GC78 has ended I’ve been trying to piece together exactly what we have done and what we have left undone. I’m more and more convinced that it’s the second part of that line from the confession that’s going to be the burden we carry going into the 21st Century. But before I hop on that soapbox It’s important to celebrate what we accomplished.

  • We elected Michael Curry as the next Presiding Bishop.
  • We opened up the sacrament of Marriage to all people, regardless of orientation.
  • We trimmed down committee bloat at the national level.
  • We approved funding for digital evangelism.
  • We (finally) approved money for church planting and innovative ministries.

We did more, but that’s the stuff that really encourages me. This General Convention did worlds for our efforts to reach out to those who we are not currently. I may just be saying that because I relegated to the House of Twitter, and in comparing the Twitter feed with the livestream was an exercise in how social media can throw shade over the facts on the floor. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but It did leave me with a very clear sense that those of us on #GC78 were just as hungry for cultural change as we were for institutional change.

While some folks were ready to call out our snark, the snark is case in point. We’re snarky about processes. About cultural assumptions. About parliamentary process impeding real work getting done. Ad hominem attacks were few and far between and were usually wrought by trolls. (The fact that #GC78 got big enough to troll is Twitter’s way of saying we were kind of a big deal.)

The things that make us cynical about GC are the same things that make newcomers cynical about our parishes. Committee bloat. Process over product. Covering our institutional asses at the risk of losing out on real relationship. I see it all the time. Folks come into our churches looking for real encounter. Looking for something that is increasingly hard to find in an increasingly fragmented culture, and we give them institutional process. I really do get why they’re important to have, especially when you’re dealing with an international denominational body, but they have no place in our parishes. Even in the big ones.

The distinction between process and program is important to make here. Programming is good. Programming as a hoop to jump through for inclusion into the full life of the institution is bad.

We’re here to baptize people into the body of Christ, not inculcate them into our institutional norms. 

Now, a good many goodly Episcopalians are probably saying: “But we welcome everybody!”

Friends, that’s bullshit. And we need to stop saying it. Let’s check this right now. We are good at welcoming people who want to be more like us. And very few people want to be like us anymore.

Our bastion of White middle-class enlightened liberal reserve is not the cultural commodity that it once was, and yet t is still so ingrained in our institutional memory that we don’t realize the pressure we apply when we tell people about ourselves. We can go down the list:

  • We’re Inclusive! (If you fit a mold of what we think it means to be LGBT. Notice the lack of Q, and we’re iffy about B and T too…)
  • We welcome everyone! (But if you’re going to stay here are a list of cultural norms that you have to abide by, otherwise you can get right the hell out. We won’t tell you that, but we’ll sure as hell make you feel it.)
  • We’re progressive! (Except for when you challenge our notions about what it means to actually be progressive. This is especially true if you aren’t white.)
  • We elected a Black Bishop! (Who has told me that he spent the first few years of his Episcopacy in North Carolina having to prove over and over again that he was indeed “Episcopalian enough.”)

This is in our bones. We put it on t-shirts. On Mugs. It’s our flagship meme. The fact that we’re inclusive is good, but we’re increasingly living in a world where inclusivity is assumed. We are no longer weird for welcoming LGBT people. There are other denominations who are, in fact, ahead of us on this one.

In a lot of ways we have to become the anti-institution. Institutions crashed the economy and put me and my peers in boatloads of debt that we can never hope to discharge. Institutions sent my friends to the middle east to die, and didn’t take care of them when they came back. Institutions are keeping people away from receiving vital care because the price of entry is too high. There was a time where we wanted to emulate these institutions, but they’ve spent the last 30 years proving that they can’t be trusted and the whole time we’ve been trying to play nice with them.

We have the unique opportunity to not be that. But it means we’re going to have to give up a lot of what we think makes us who we are. If the millennials like me are going to have keep proving our value to the institutional life of the church then we’re going to keep staying out.

It’s been a fight for me and a lot of folks like me. Some of us have the patience, and we’re here because we love worshiping God in the Anglican way. But it ain’t been easy. The floor debates didn’t lead me to believe that its going to get easier anytime soon. Twitter did though. And for that I give thanks.

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General Convention

Talking Body: Tove Lo, Corpus Christi, and the Task Force on Marriage.

I listen to a lot of top 40 radio, and you should too. There’s a lot of really well-sponsored discourse playing in a 12 song rotation every day, nationwide. While we tend to write it off as thoughtless lyrics with a beat you can dance to, I want to take the time to be clear that no media is neutral media. It takes a particular kind of discourse to filter through the culture industry to the point that the decision is made to reproduce it on a scale that the internet still can’t match.

I won’t say its new. I’m not really convinced that anything is. But my sense is that we’ve seen a shift in content of top 40 pop since the YOLO blitzkrieg of 2011. (That The Lonely Island revived via parody in 2013.) Hedonistic electronic dance music broke through to become the vanguard of the Clear Channel set, to the point that it’s become ubiquitous.

Its only been in the last few weeks that Tove Lo’s single Talking Body broke into regular rotation. It’s already peaked out at number 13 on the Hot 100. It didn’t even crack the top ten, so why the spilled ink? Because I sincerely believe that Talking Body is the perfect expression of the contemporary sexual ethic to which the Church must respond.

(See for yourself, but know it’s all kinds of explicit.)

Tove Lo is the real deal. This song is layered. Its nuanced. Its smart. You can’t just chalk it up to “kids these days” and dismiss it. The whole song is worth contending with, but for the sake of brevity I want to focus on the chorus.

If you’re talking body, you have a perfect one, so put it on me. Swear it won’t take you long.

If you love me right, we fuck for life. On and on and on. 

The Chorus is espousing monogamy. If we’re physically compatible, we’ll be sexually intimate for life. It’s a pretty clear line of reasoning. If you’re interested, I’m attracted. If the sex is good, there’s no reason why we can’t do this forever. It shatters the notion that Millennial sexuality is about diversity of experience over depth of relationship. It’s anything but. Millennials (arguably more than their parents) value monogamy, but the way in which the worth of that monogamy is judged is obvious. This is about physical and emotional (but certainly not spiritual) compatibility. Full Stop.

A good friend of mine wrote strongly against clergy moonlighting as cultural critics. I agree with him. But I was ordained to take my part in the Councils of the Church, and with the Task Force on Marriage’s report weighing heavy over GC78, bringing up the way that we look at bodies as a culture is worth looking at. So I’d like to take a detour, on this feast of Corpus Christi, through some Eucharistic theology.

When we shifted to a baptismal ecclesiology in the BCP79 we did so at the expense of our sense of the Eucharist. Yes, the BCP79 elevating the position of the Holy Eucharist to the principal celebration on Sundays was a victory, but the way in which we began talking about the Eucharist negated the net benefit. By making Baptism cornerstone of our ecclesiology we stopped emphasizing the fact that the Eucharist is the full expression of our continual participation in the life of the body of Christ. (I’m treading Wesleyan waters here, but stay with me…)

For us to grow in Christ, Christ must continually pour himself into us. This is the work of the Spirit, but that work is expressed in the kenosis that takes place Sunday in and Sunday out on the Altar. At the heart of the real presence is the fact that, whether we want him to or not, Christ continues to take on flesh and blood. The Romish doctrine of transubstantiation reduces this to an Aristotelian slight of hand, but I think that we (like the Orthodox) get this one right in saying that the mystery is enough. The heart of the Eucharist is the fact that Christ becomes present in the matter of bread and wine. This is the outward and visible sign of the inward grace of a Baptised life. We become members of the Body of Christ so that we can continually partake in the Body of Christ. We become what we receive, but only if we receive it.

Every Sacrament involves a similar kind of outpouring, a similar kind of kenosis. The Spirit pours out on us in Baptism, and seals us as Christ’s own. In Confirmation and Ordination we pour out parts of ourselves, that the spirit may move in us to make us more effective servants of Christ’s kingdom. Confession and Extreme Unction are perhaps the most obvious examples of kenosis in the list of the 7, but marriage continues to confound us.

I’m equally unhappy with the notions that marriage is intended for blessing monogamous unions, and that marriage is intended for the procreation of children. The preface in the BCP seems to tell us that it’s both, at least sometimes. If it’s just about monogamy, then Tove Lo is espousing a perfectly acceptable theology of marriage. You want to fuck for life? Then the blessing of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be with you…

…but none of us would say that, because there’s something more to this. There’s some kenotic aspect of the sacramental union of marriage that we’re completely leaving out of our discourse, and it has a lot to do with the fact that we, as a Church, have no idea what to make of the Blessed Sacrament. We don’t know how to get on the same page and say that the heart of what we are comes from Christ being poured out in front of us so that we can pour ourselves out to each other.

The days of the binary of procreative/non-procreative unions are gone. It is very likely that many of us will see services where two people who express the same gender will come to be married, and yet still have the ability to procreate. We’re already more than okay with marrying heteronormative couples who are unable, or unwilling, to have children. The ambiguity is there, and it isn’t going away. That’s the world we live in, and it’s a world that has never existed before, despite how ambiguous the Task Force’s report seems to think that the history of gender expression, and same-gender attraction is. (Taking disparate historic and cultural norms as reason enough to drop theological claims is weak criticism, and it needs to stop.)

Talking Body makes it clear that we have something to respond to, and we don’t need to be ambiguous about it. The world is good with monogamy being the benchmark. For folks in the procreative camp, I’m sorry y’all, but the BCP makes it clear that procreation is a conditional requirement, at best. If you’re going to make a utilitarian argument about making more Christians, then don’t waste my time.

None of these arguments is saying anything that the Church is uniquely called to say. We need to come back with kenotic love. Love that pours out of itself and makes a new creation. We need to come back with Sacrament. Sacrament that is open to all, but Sacrament none the less.

That means working, listening, and loving harder than we currently are.

The culture industry is throwing their best at us. I linked to it above. What are we going to give back to them? If it’s going to be compelling, then it’s got to be a damn sight better than what we’re doing now.

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General Convention

Fistfights and Church Governance.

Part of my Clinical Pastoral Education experience involved me diving headlong into a fist fight. It wasn’t one that I started. Two young men decided to swing on each other in the lobby of the outreach center I was serving. I heard the scuffle, and without thinking bolted around the corner and put myself in the middle of it. I caught a hook across my side, and got some nails dragged down my arm before I could wrestle one man off the other and out into the street. I waited with him for the cops to show up, gave them my statement and then walked him back to the shelter he was staying at.

He wasn’t allowed back in the outreach center, but every time I saw him I felt closer to him than I did before he unknowingly caught me across the side with his right hand. We had bonded in the fray. He trusted me more, approached me more readily, opened up easier after I had thrown him to the ground and pushed him out of the building.

The lists of the people that I’m closest with and the people that I’ve gotten into a physical fight with have a remarkable amount of overlap. I’ve heard the same thing from a number of other people, and I think that’s by and large because (for most non-pugilists) we only get really pissed about the things we really care about. There’s something in the fray that’s cathartic. There’s something that gets accomplished in being raw enough to resort to non-verbal expressions of the ways in which we feel. It isn’t nice, but sometimes it’s necessary. If apathy is the enemy of love, then sticking it out long enough to come to blows involves some level of caring.

With less than a month left before GC2015 I’m starting to wonder if we actually care enough to have a meaningful synod. Don’t get me wrong, I know that we believe strongly, but it isn’t about belief. I wonder if we care. 

Culture war politics don’t require us to have the slightest bit of concern for our fellow Christian so long as they’re on the opposite side of our issue. They actually tend to work better if we don’t have any concern. If we become so intensely convinced of the lunacy of the other position, then we’re more inclined to dismiss it as opposed to actually listen. If the only level of debate that TEC can muster is the level of debate currently present in our civil society then the world is right to ignore is. If all we’re going to do is be cultural partisans, then don’t even bother electing a new PB because we’re done.

If we can’t be a countercultural witness in something so central as how we govern ourselves then our structures are bankrupt, and neoliberal notions of inclusivity aren’t going to be enough to carry us out of it.

I learned the most about myself and my theology from the moments where I vehemently disagreed with someone, and stuck it out long enough for the both of us to figure out why we disagreed. I became an Episcopalian largely because of my friendships with people in the Continuing Anglican movement. They challenged me in love. They were interested in my growth in Christian maturity and wanted to see me come to a fuller understanding of the Gospel of Christ. While I fully believe that they’re wrong about polity, and ecclesiology, and sometimes I question whether or not they’re actually Anglican, they helped me know why it is I believe what I do. Much to their chagrin I’d like to think that my priesthood (and by extension, TEC) is the better for it.

We’re going to handle important issues this year. GC is going to get hot. We should hope that it gets hot the right way. Conflict avoidance will kill a Parish just as much as conflict itself. It’ll do the same for a Denomination. If the floor of both houses doesn’t get heated, then it means we’re not doing our job. The litmus test for whether we’re doing meaningful work is whether we can still come to the Blessed Sacrament together after having gotten heated, not whether or not we get heated in the first place.

I couldn’t care less about whether the delegates are “nice.” I want my delegates to be Christians of goodwill who are intensely and passionately devoted to the good of the Church, and I want them to listen. Don’t grandstand. Don’t posture. Listen. Debate. Learn from one another and grow in love.

Let’s be honest. The world already doesn’t care at all about our governance… but if we can make some real, meaningful, theologically sound decisions moved together in fierce love by a Holy Spirit that comes to us looking like tongues of fire… that would be enough to notice.

It worked for the Church before. I’m inclined to believe it will again.

(Note: Just incase it has to be said outloud… don’t actually start fistfights on the floor at GC, y’all.)

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Church, Parish Life

The Long Ascensiontide.

In the first Chapter of Acts Christ ascends to Heaven, and then the Apostles do some institutional maintenance. It’s built into us. Something happens that we don’t expect, so we turn in on ourselves. Christ ascends, so we get together and pray because we don’t know what else to do. Judas is gone, so we have to replace him. (Take note Vestries, you don’t actually have to have 12 people…) We will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain equilibrium, even when the world around us is changing faster than we can account for.

The Pew Survey on American Religion came out this week and it told us a lot of things we already knew, it just put some clearer numbers to how fast the American religious landscape is changing. The Alarmists sounded the alarm. The Episcopal blogosphere once again went nuts. Some said its good. Some not. Everyone noticed. Either way, its not entirely helpful.

I don’t really know a nice way to say this, so I may as well not try to be nice. We’ve got to stop collectively losing our minds whenever a new number comes out, and we actually have to start being about the work where we are. Nationwide statistics are nice, but the demographics we really need to be concerned with are the demographics immediately surrounding our parishes.

The lead up to this General Convention has thoroughly convinced me of one thing; We don’t think subsidiarity is an applicable ecclesiological concept anymore. I can’t think of a nice way to say this either, but the unaffiliated, the folks that we should be reaching out to and inviting into our life together give precisely zero shits about the next Presiding Bishop, or the next Social Justice resolution, or about restructuring our governance.

What they care about is whether or not the Gospel is being communicated in a compelling way. What they care about is Pentecost. If the Apostles stayed indoors after ascension, then Christianity as a historical phenomenon stops in that room in Jerusalem. It may have been a really nice room, but the room isn’t where the life is.  We invite people into parishes, not the institutions. If later on down the line they decide that they want to take their place in institutional decision making, that is well and good, but less that describes less than 5% of our membership. If that.

We have willingly stuck ourselves in the long ascensiontide, where we huddle together wondering where exactly it is that Jesus went, and what exactly he wants us to do. We have done a great job of re-imagining the institution, without getting specific about re-imaging our lives. The Spirit is with us, calling us to step outside our doors and to give a compelling witness to what it is that gives us life, and gives the world life. That starts at the parish. That starts with us. If the institution is dying, then let the dead bury their own.

Christianity was built by tongues of fire. If that offends our middle-class WASP sensibilities, then our sensibilities need to go. Like the good Saint said, “Give me a man in love; he understands what I mean. Give me a man who yearns: give me a man who is hungry: give me a man travelling in the desert, who is thirsty and sighing for the spring of the eternal country. Give me that sort of man; he knows what I mean.” -St. Augustine (On John’s Gospel 26.4)

I know a lot of folks who fit that description. I know a lot of parishes that fit that description. The Spirit is not leaving us, it is with us, guiding us into all Truth. Pentecost happened, and we are it’s legacy. So, for the love of God, (and I still don’t know a nice way to say this) let’s fucking act like it.

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Anglo-Catholicism, Priestcraft

Forever Front of House: Why I Wear a Maniple.

When I was a transitional Deacon I worked in a restaurant. The significance wasn’t lost on me. The commissioning of the seven was read at my ordination, complete with that lovely line “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables.” (Acts 6:2)

I’m not much for literalism, but it was fitting to say the least.

Service industry work is hard. Its taxing physically and emotionally, and so, almost by necessity, Industry workers form this weird kind of closeness. You’re getting into work when the rest of the world is getting ready to go out for the evening. You’re getting off when the rest of the world is asleep. The people you get to know and get to love are the people who share your hours, and who share your stories. It’s weird and lovely and transitional and heartbreaking. Some people thrive on it. Some people just pass through. Some do it because they have to.

In a lot of ways its what the Church should be. Diverse people, all of whom are a little fucked up, uniting around a shared life, shared food, shared drink.

When I transferred to full time parish ministry it was a bit of a shock. I missed the sense of shared purpose. I missed the late night beer and bitching. There was a lot of temerity about sharing too much. About being too loud. About being too open. Eventually that wore off. Things started to open up. Folks started asking me to be a priest, but it still wasn’t quite the same.

One day I started looking through the Sacristy, just to take stock of what we had and what we needed to order. Hanging on a plastic hangar, buried behind unused acolyte albs was a set of maniples. It was pretty obvious that they had been hand sewn (the stitching was a bit rough) and there was one for every liturgical color.

I’ve made it a practice to pray while I’m vesting. I use the old Tridentine formulas that I taped to the door of the wardrobe in the sacristy. I always just skipped the prayer for the maniple, but now that I had some I figured I’d try them on for a few Sundays and see how they felt. I’d just run a small, mostly harmless experiment.

Putting on the maniple felt remarkably familiar, and remarkably right. It felt diaconal. It felt like I was getting ready to serve. Of all the vestments reserved for ordination, that’s the one that grounded me. It told me what I was there to do. I had a towel back on my arm. The rest of the vestments felt new and weird, but I could make sense of a towel on my arm.

When I started praying the vesting prayer for the maniple it added another dimension.

“Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris.

May I deserve, Lord, to bear the maniple of tears and sorrow; that I may receive the reward for my labors with rejoicing.”

That towel was there for wiping tears. My tears? The congregations tears? It doesn’t say. We can be overly pious and say that the maniple originated in a handkerchief used to dry the tears of priests who burst out crying at the sight of the Blessed Sacrament. Maybe. I’ve said Mass with tears in my eyes once or twice. I think there’s more to it than that, though. For better or worse we wear the sorrow of our people on our sleeve. We wear our sorrow on our sleeve.

Or at least we used to.

What I loved about the Industry is what I want people to love about the Church. I want us to work hard, and then come to a place where we get to be ourselves. Where we get to come together for something that’s bigger than us. For somethings that’s meaningful and gives us life. No pretense. Just community.

This isn’t some Church-as-the-bar-from-Cheers metaphor. Its not about “everyone knowing your name.” Its about a group of people with a common life, coming together day after day and bringing all of themselves to the table.

Someone has to set the table. Someone has to serve.

If not using a vestment means forgetting that this is the exact reason why we ordain clergy, then lets wear the vestment.

(Or not. Because Adiaphora.)

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