10 November 2007

Being Church

I have to agree with First Apostle's post, which links to the first news I've been able to find online out of this weekend's Chicago diocesan convention. There's a classic false dichotomy out there that constantly asks us, "How can you focus on worship and spirituality when there's war and poverty out there?" And indeed, most episcopal sermons during visitations to our known-for-its-high-liturgy parish challenge us not to focus on "liturgy for its own sake," as though that's what we were doing, and to make liturgy a starting-point for mission.

Now, I don't disagree with those challenges, but some assumptions behind them are faulty, in my opinion. I'm not completely settled on a point of view on all this, but in these challenges I often hear an undertone of "stop being so churchy and get out and fix problems in the world." If anything, a parish church is intensely local, and I do think parishioners need to focus on meeting people's (and therefore God's) needs in the local community, alongside others engaged in the same work. Our parish, like most, could do more in local mission, and like most, is doing something. Some parishioners run a monthly program to meet, partially, a direct need: food.

But the other assumption I detect is that liturgy, Christian education, spirituality, and pastoral care are safe, inward-looking things that parishes do to busy themselves so they can avoid the harder work of mission in the world. If that's what's being said, we've got very divergent views on what it is to be Church. First of all, liturgy is to God, for God's glory, and secondarily for the edification and inspiration of its participants to go into the world and work alongside God in creating and loving. What the Church is best at is this worship, and the support services of education and pastoral care. I cannot fault a parish for focusing on these things, because that's what it's there for! The parish itself as an institution is not the best agency to go and do all that needs doing in the world: it's meant to equip its members to do that. If parishioners set up an effective referral service to help homeless people know and receive help that is available to them from government and charitable agencies, fantastic. But the parish isn't always the best agency to run such a service: perhaps a better work would be to join with other community agencies to press the city council for a permanent citywide agency to do this, if that's the most effective solution.

False dichotomies and "thinking in halves," as Frederick Schmidt puts it (What God Wants for Your Life: Finding Answers to the Deepest Questions), often make us lose sight of important parts of our mission as Church. It's not either-or, but it's not everything either. What Church needs to do better is not drop all the churchy stuff but help us see better where we need to go into the world, and where mission needs to be done, in very specific terms (indeed, I often cringe at speeches and sermons in which "mission" as a term is thrown around but never defined: the speaker assumes we know what is meant). One thing Church can help us do is realize that we do God's will by meeting others' needs: that realization ought to clarify instantly what we need to do locally. If we can't see any needs out there, we've got bigger problems to solve. But just pointing to "mission" doesn't create any compelling images in our minds about what our next steps need to be. A secondary effect of the churchy business is to show us where God is working in the world, waiting for us to show up and pitch in, with the assurance that what we do in the world is also holy business.

1 comment:

Rob Keller,man said...

Absolutely. Dead on. What Scott said. (Er, wrote.)

The purpose of liturgy is to gather Christians together to support each other in representing Christ to the world. As we say at the end of service at St. Matthew's, Hallowell, Maine, "The service is ended, and now ours begins." I couldn't do it if I didn't have the discipline of a Sunday morning Eucharist to feed me so that I can feed others.

Excellent post, Scott. Just excellent. Rob