vendredi, juin 30, 2006
Opinion piece in today's Inquirer by EEE
Posted on Fri, Jun. 30, 2006
In summer, taking time away - from church
Almost always late for church, my family usually has to park in the overflow lot, situated somewhere between Minnesota and Siberia. But when we pulled in one Sunday just after school had let out, it was easy to nab a choice spot, one usually owned by the virtuous and the early.
On this unseasonably hot June day, the sun beat at the sanctuary windows at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Chester Springs, prompting thoughts of cool ocean breezes, icy mountain lakes, and chilled spirituous concoctions best not mentioned by a member of the clergy. With barely acknowledged envy, I wondered if fellow congregants had the means and the motives to yield to similar fantasies, for many of them were nowhere in sight.
Our pastor, Chad Brekke, chose that day to give a cogent and well-reasoned sermon on the top 10 reasons to worship year round. It was an act of brave, one might even say quixotic, defiance.
In case you are curious, Brekke made an excellent case. But he wasn't even preaching to the choir: They, too, had disbanded for the summer.
Brekke diagnosed "low-grade spiritual apathy" and suburban affluenza as part of the reason why church attendance drops so precipitously during the summer.
As a former parish minister, I've worked in churches that spanned the economic spectrum from working-class urban to affluent suburban. One thing they share: Once Sunday school is over for the year, many congregants apparently decide that summer worship can be consigned to the realm of a leisure-time option. There, it occupies a priority somewhere between weeding the vegetable garden and checking out the novels on the remainder table at Barnes & Noble.
Asked about this curious phenomenon, the Rev. Michael Pearson, rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Wayne, mentioned a theory promulgated by his colleague, the Rev. Jane Cornman. She contends that because our culture has lost the sense of Sabbath rest, Sunday worship has become another obligation to be crammed into an already overcrowded schedule. Cornman urged that parishioners instead consider worship as an opportunity for restoration, an opportunity to rest from obligations and worship God.
On this subject, Pearson seemed a little ambivalent, to say the least. "If I had a house at the beach," he confessed, "I'd go away for the summer, too."
Truth be told, some clergy, particularly those in large, wealthy parishes, are thrilled to join the well-heeled swells in Kennebunkport or Provence for the summer break. Developing a network of old-boy contacts not only nets them a month in a chapel of ease but allows them to leave it to their assistants to cope with the prospect of preaching to half-empty churches.
My daughter's Catholic fifth-grade teacher, Margaret Brady, said that even if she was not the church organist, she would still attend church each Sunday. Friends and parishioners have told her, however, that they don't need to attend church when on vacation because when they are in the Grand Canyon or snorkeling near a barrier reef, God is present with them.
Try this common excuse - excuse me, rationale - out on a member of the clergy, and you are almost guaranteed a roll of the eyes and a skeptical grin.
"I don't see many people out there worshiping; I see them relaxing," Pearson said, asking mischievously why people get so upset about certain commandments' being broken and find it so easy to break the one about keeping the Sabbath day holy.
A chaplain from Oregon who contributes to a blog I write told me that in the summer the ranks of congregants in her local parish swell rather than drop. Many of the tourists lured to Oregon by skiing (apparently even during the summer), fishing, hiking, rock climbing, the annual Tour de Oregon, kayaking, and rafting still seem to find time to worship.
Could it be that they are so exhausted by their exertions that they are desperate to sit down for an hour?
Meanwhile, in this less spectacularly scenic area, clergy are still scratching their heads over how to bring the prodigals home for the summer. "A few weeks ago at our Fun Fair, I noticed the long lines of kids with their parents waiting for a pony ride out on the church lawn," Brekke said ruefully. "I wonder if you can rent a pony for the whole summer."
But even faithful clergy aren't immune to the urge to roam. You won't find Brekke at St. Matthew's for the next couple of weeks. He and a team of parishioners are on an annual mission trip in which they will both help out at an AIDS orphanage/school in Tanzania and experience the beauty of an African safari, wherein lies the seeds of a possible solution. Perhaps the summer pew drought would not be seen as a problem if all of the clergy simply got out of town, too.