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, Catholicity and Culture, Priestcraft

Catholicty and Culture: We Never Say Mass in a Vacuum.

I am the Rector of a black parish that self-identifies as Anglo-Catholic.They greatly prefer music out of Lift Every Voice and Sing. They are vocal in response to my sermons. They play Gospel pandora stations when they’re hanging out in the Sunday School rooms. It confused me.

I really struggled with the question “Is this an Anglo-Catholic Parish?” or is this just one of those “That word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” moments? But the more I talked with my parishioners, the more I got to know exactly what they believed and held dear about the Church and the Sacraments, the more I became convinced that they had their identity right. They knew what meant, and they meant what they said.

The identity issue was my issue. Before I got here the Catholic revival and Euro-centrism were inexplicably tied in my mind. A high expression of Anglicanism meant a high expression of Anglophilia. Instead of hinging my hope on Catholic truth, I had hung my identity on an aesthetic, and a remarkably culturally-specific aesthetic at that.  I had fallen squarely into the trap that I worry many of my young Anglo-Catholic colleagues have fallen into as well.

So for the sake of charity, and for the sake of the expression of the Catholic faith that we know and love so well, let me be clear; We are in danger of making the Anglo-Catholic revival a white man’s movement.

It’s going to take some real introspection, prayer, and effort to keep that from being the case. Anglicanism in general is no longer a white movement. Even if we limit ourselves to the Episcopal Church a recent report shows that black and multi-cultural congregations are growing at a rate that substantially outpaces their white counterparts. (Check the report here.)

I’m not saying that growth is unequivocally good. What I am saying is that our Church is changing in its cultural composition at what is arguably the fastest pace since Reconstruction, and if we’re going to be a viable, meaningful witness to a Catholic vision of the Church then we have to do some work in ourselves and check when our aesthetic is getting in the way of that witness.

Let Adiaphora be Adiaphora.

I will be the first to say that part of taking Church seriously is taking worship seriously. A liturgy that doesn’t act like the Blessed Sacrament is the center of our life and work is not worth anyone’s time, and it doesn’t serve any purpose other than to prop up a lifeless Christianity that is well on its way to irrelevancy. Worship that centers on Christ’s presence with us, that draws us into the mystery of the Altar and the holiness of God is worship that is worthy of our apostolic heritage.

There are things that are essential to that worship, and I’m inclined to believe that the list of essentials is longer than most folks in the broad church movement think it is, but that list is not all-encompassing.

I love a good Candlemas service as much as the next guy. It’s a beautiful, meaningful service that celebrates Christ’s light continuing to break into the world and into our lives. It is Anglican tradition at its finest. But if you’re serving in a predominately Hispanic context, then maybe you should throw that energy into and enthusiasm into a Mass around La Dia de Los Muertos or La Fiesta De Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. (The Story of Our Lady and St. Juan Diego is one of the best stories of grassroots Catholic revival I’ve ever heard.)

I know that vestments are near and dear to every Anglo-Catholic heart, but I grew up in Florida, and I serve in Georgia. Lightweight vestments are my friend. They aren’t nearly as pretty as anything heavier, silk-lined, or brocaded, but they keep me from being a sweaty mess in front of the people of God, and allow me to still wear what priests in the apostolic tradition have seen fit to wear for centuries.When the temperature outside is hovering near a hundred, and the HVAC unit is screaming to keep the nave at eighty degrees.

We are Only Ever Priests in Context.

It hurts a bit, to give up the things that we hold dearly. The feasts, the hymnody, even the language. But we have to do a better job of knowing what is essential to forming the people of God that we are called to serve and what are just our liturgical peculiarities and preferences. I’m not saying the two don’t ever fall in line, and we should always strive for excellence in worship, but we need to strive for excellence in worship that is speaking to people where they are.

In the Episcopal Church we have a very bad habit of saying “Wherever you are, you’re welcome here. But if you’re going to stay, then get on our level.” In High Church parishes that pressure can be amplified exponentially, and that is doing damage to our witness. We’re only priests because the people we serve make us priests, and unless we recognize that those people come with cultures and contexts that we can speak to, and live in, then we’re just a bunch of people in weird clothes speaking what may as well be the Latin Rite. (Except that there are some contexts where the Latin Rite is completely appropriate.)

We have to get out of our own way. That means recognizing the heart of Catholic truth, leaving what’s dead to bury their own, and taking that truth to the world.

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