lundi, septembre 15, 2014

The fractured soul of the Episcopal Church

To catch my train back to the exurbs, I had to leave the  rollicking service early.

Candidly, I didn't mind. 

 I hadn't had such a large dose of Wisdom (a female figure that sometimes seems to stand beside, sometimes compete with the Trinity in alternative liturgies) in a long time - and she didn't seem to be working her magic on me.  

The music was lovely. The choir was exuberant. The preacher was novel. The congregation was enthusiastic. 

I just wasn't sure what, or who, it was meant to celebrate.

Leaving, I couldn't help feeling that those who had crafted the service wanted a liturgy that echoed their own vision of a different sort of church - but were stuck with the skeleton of the church they were forced to inhabit. 

As are we, torn in the 21st-century between doubt and faith, cynicism and belief, the imagined security of the past and the scary questions of the future.

As I slipped out of the front doors of the large 19th-century Gothic structure, I stopped and muttered, in a most curmudgeonly fashion to a friend: "What is going on with the Episcopal Church? Is this what we have become"?

My friend, a long-time diocesan priest, didn't seem to be rattled at all. "We'll find our way back" he assured me.  He's a lot more seasoned than I am. And he doesn't freak out easily.

I'm not optimistic.  And it's not because I want a church that puts the chants and penitential prayers of the 1920's, or even the 1970's on speed dial until they become rote and empty. As someone who attends a contemporary service, I am aware that these songs, once so fresh, can also become rote and empty unless touched by the Holy Spirit. Anything once new can become trite if we don't commit ourselves.

But this wasn't the only recent service I have attended in which the Episcopal liturgy was altered to suit the predilections of the people who designed it.

It made me wonder how many clergy we have left in the Episcopal Church who can say the Nicene Creed with an open heart to much, if not most. of the statement of faith for which so much blood was shed (most of it probably quite wastefully - killing someone with a sword or a few arrows is not the way to convince them they are wrong). 

Perhaps I too can be accused of treating the creed a bit arbitrarily. It doesn't matter to me personally whether Jesus was born of a virgin or not. In other words, it's not essential to my faith that I believe that particular assertion or don't. And I don't really care whether you believe it or not.

 I'll happily share in a Rite I service now and then. The language is gorgeous, and the faith of the parishioners who attend inspiring. But I confess that a steady dose of 1928, with its heavy penitence and 'mankinds' would chafe. Using "mankind" all the time, as some Christians do represents a very particular kind of cultural perspective.  In our denomination, it would be like calling a black person a Negro after they had asked you for decades not to do so. 

Yet it troubles me considerably to think that priests and laypeople frustrated (to some extent, justifiably) at a certain lingering reluctance to find ways to be open to a God beyond gender strive to remedy this by creating a fourth member of the Trinity, reducing the unique nature of Christ's incarnation, or turning the Resurrection into a lovely bedtime story for frightened children.

Clergy, in particular, have a lot of room in which to wander.  

Like faculty in a university, they are often way out ahead, or perhaps to the side, of the men, women and children they are serving. And if they doubt, they have more freedom to let these questions play out in their professional lives, using the authority of their office to bring laypeople along with them. 

"So many clergy are remaking the church in their own image - and I have to confess, that scares me. It's one thing to help laypeople think (feel, pray) through their own beliefs, and quite another to make it an environment in which pastors/shepherds can stand at the altar, mutter the words, and fake it until they make it. I worry that our church is becoming an empty temple to whatever conventional wisdom espouses" I wrote an acquaintance recently.

I am not at all sure that we know who we are. Which is not to say that I think any denomination has a hammerlock on righteousness. Au contraire --there are none so smug as those who are sure they have a direct line to the Almighty. 

But before we try to remake the church in our own image, we might want to ask ourselves whether what we will end up with when we are done is what would have drawn us in, all those years ago, when our faith was young and fresh - and the world full of wonder.

Somehow, I doubt it.  

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