The opening hymn at the seminary commencement yesterday was "The Church's One Foundation." I remember as a child singing this hymn beside my staunchly Presbyterian dad, and marveling at how he also sang along with gusto the opening verse "From heaven He came and sought her, to be His holy bride. With his own blood He bought her, and for her life He died." I was already a bit of a closet mystic even then, and I loved that intimate image for Christ's love for the Church - and the awareness that "The Church" included all of us, all denominations, all the people of God. It may have been a first glimmer of what I now deeply believe: that life in the Church, the Body of Christ, the people of God, is not an individualistic thing, but a mystery that connects the human and the divine and teaches us to be the presence of Christ in the world. The verse of that hymn that I most love, and pray as I sing, is particularly appropriate these days:
Though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed
By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping. Their cry goes up, "How long."
And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
So much publicity about the church is about us fighting among ourselves over matters of doctrine -- the Episcopal Church possibly breaking up, the Anglican Communion unhappy with the American church and likely to dissociate from us. Scuffles between denominations about this and that. But the commencement gave me hope for the future of the institutional church we know , as it always does.This year especially I know a lot of the graduates and they are good, dedicated people with fresh energy and real, practical prayerfulness. They will be facing changes in the next generation, but they have the gifts and energy to lead us to something new, if we can keep track of what's really most important. And the seminary commencement always does celebrate, for me, the church gathered, doing the best we can for the gospel, as well as my own ministry of teaching and spiritual companionship, so woven into the life of that institution. But the awareness of schism and distress on the horizon in the church was also hanging in the air, and I was glad this hymn-prayer was chosen, to ground us.
Meanwhile, I was just back from a conference at the Washington National Cathedral this past weekend weekend about Church for the 21st century. It featured many excellent speakers,, including Diana Butler Bass, Michael Battle, Tony Jones of the Emergent Church movement, Marcus Borg, Barbara Brown Taylor, Phyllis Tickle. Quite a feast -- and a wonderful Eucharistic feast liturgy, too, one of our nights together. I've been teaching for years what was at the center of the conference: that the Church is about the people of God, living into their call to be disciples of Jesus -- especially in practices of faith such as discernment, hospitality, social justice -- the church is not about institutional survival but about forming people to become a presence that serves our call to be a community of reconciliation. Especially in the broken world in which we live. We talked a lot about the survival of the mainline denominations and the new vitality which comes from (!) actually practicing our faith. That commitment to faithful practice, together with the focus on forming disciples, was the most exciting part of the conference, for me.
I particularly appreciated the way Michael Battle held up the work of reconciliation and the African concept of "ubuntu" -- "I am because we are, we depend on one another" -- as reflecting the heart of the gospel call as early Christians understood it, an understanding that Western individualism has distorted. I was intrigued by the way he uses a relational theology of the Trinity, a relationship between persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to reflect on the identity of the Church as a reflection of the image of God as community - always one, always in relationship, a mystery of unity-in-diversity that is at the heart of our faith. And he also argued that the Church is the way that the world sees the activity of God, the Holy Spirit, in human life and history. His presentation particularly spoke to me, the last day of the conference, pulling together a lot of what we'd heard about spiritual practice and giving it theological grounding.
I hope that in the midst of the fights over property, polity, doctrine and "who's in, who's out," we can keep track of that call to be a community of reconciliation, and remember that the Church, the people of God called by grace, extends throughout time and history and has hit major times of conflict before. Let's hope it's true, what the hymn says, that there is a whole network of prayer that will carry us through these troubled times, and keep us faithful to what is really essential, whatever changes may be coming in the institutions we have come to know.
. . . saints their watch are keeping. Their cry goes up, "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song.
- Kathleen Henderson Staudt
- I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.