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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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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Parish Life

The Church is Dying. Long Live the Church.

I’ve had it about up to here with the endless articles and forums talking about why the Church in the West is in decline. And its not because they’re wrong. We’re losing numbers. We’re losing money. We’re losing parishes. The outlook isn’t great for our denominational structures right now. And nothing that we’re doing in response to this makes any sense.

We’ve got Joseph over our shoulder telling us about lean years ahead, and we’re calling committees about whether or not we should maybe build some silos.

This way of being isn’t just the Church’s problem. I’m really concerned that we in the West are losing the capacity for making strategic sacrifices in the short term for the sake of our collective long term health. Our inaction around Climate Change is case in point, but its not the only example. The Great Recession, infrastructure backlogs, even Congressional deadlock are all symptoms of the same underlying issue.

We’re hamstrung by self-interest. And why wouldn’t we be? A good number of people are making a good bit of money off of the way things are. Even in the Church. We are more willing than ever to fork over big numbers for Church growth gurus, “dynamic” clergy, and pre-packaged programming. Whether they know it or not, and I’m sure most of them don’t, a good number of the leaders in our Church are profiting from our collective fear of decline. And we’re more than happy to let them.

Lessons from the Middle of a Hurricane.

I used to spend a lot of time in Southern California. When folks out there heard I was from Florida they would always ask about how scary the weather was. Didn’t Hurricanes make me nervous? All those high winds and storm surges… I never really understood the question. These people who are more than happy to tell me that earthquakes are “no big deal” are worried about Hurricanes?

Earthquakes can happen anytime, and without warning. You get to see a hurricane coming for weeks. You even get to know about how strong that hurricane is going to be, and have more than enough time to respond appropriately. If you didn’t board your windows when a cat 4 was coming through, that was your fault. (There are exceptions, like Katrina and Andrew. Although most of the damage from Katrina can be blamed on poor preparation and differed maintenance on the part of the Army Corp of Engineers and the City of New Orleans.)

Hell, once we got the windows boarded and the lawn furniture inside we threw parties. We rested well knowing that we were prepared. So we poured a few drinks, and waited for the storm to blow in.

Eventually you get so good at the process that it only takes a few hours. The boards are pre-cut. The generator’s oil is fresh and the fuel is treated. The hurricane kit is stocked and ready to go. It becomes a way of being. Just a fact of living in a sub-tropical climate.

A New Way of Being Means a New Way of Doing. 

So the storm is coming. We can all see it coming. We can see it’s going to be pretty bad… We can either make preparing for the storm a way of being now, or we can open up the windows and leave the lawn darts out.

Here are a few places where I think we can start preparing in earnest: (And I’m going to be painfully practical about it.)

1.) Stop spending down the principal on our endowments. 

If we don’t touch that money it will last forever. Take the earnings and spend it with impunity, but every time that principal takes a hit, that money is really difficult to get back. Our endowments are the hold over of giving habits that just don’t exist anymore. I sincerely doubt they will exist again. My generation is making less money than our parents did. We have more debt. We give substantially less. That money may be the only reason the doors stay open a few decades from now.

2.) Build for ease of maintenance and longevity.

Buildings are money-pits par excellence. (I know, I’ve got one.) Time and time again I’ve seen people make decisions about building and maintaining churches that they would not make for their own homes. There are a number of exciting new materials on the shelves at home depot that are a lot easier to care for, and that last a lot longer than their predecessors. Yes, they come at a premium, and they tend to not be as pretty as the alternatives. But when your parish has a steel roof that’s held strong for 30 years, they will be praising your prowess and forward-thinking, instead of cursing their need to re-shingle yet again.

3.) Clergy, we’ve got to get serious about restructuring our compensation.

This is a post unto itself… All I can say now is this; We can either get proactive and work to restructure our compensation on our terms, or we can hold on tighter and tighter to what we have until it gets restructured for us. We can’t sit up and say that we’re willing to lead the Church into a new way of being when we’re insistent on getting paid the same way we have since the 1940’s.

All Growth is Local.

You’ll notice that none of these suggestions are addressed at General Convention, or even at Diocesan bodies, and that’s for a reason. Whatever we do to restructure the Church for the future is going to have to happen at the Parish level. This one is on us. Its on Parish clergy. Its on Vestries. Its on Lay leaders. We’ve got to become counter-cultural pockets of active hope that are sure in the Truth we live on, and are willing to make the hard calls to preserve our mission into the years to come. This isn’t just about maintaining an institution. It’s about making sure that the people who come after us have a better set of tools to serve the world than our predecessors gave us.

There’s a lot to all of this. And its worth spilling the ink. But for the love of God, please stop telling me that the Church is dying, and let’s start talking about how we should live.

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