About Me

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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.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"Household" and "Mystery": The Words we Use about "being a church"

(A version of this was published this morning on episcopal cafe. And it does reflect my sense of "Episcopal/Anglican" identity, which has grown over the years, though I hope some of this will resonate for people in other Christian denominations and traditions).

“Good Morning, Church!” This greeting has become familiar in my congregation. Members who originally come from West Africa are accustomed to beginning announcements that way. And it’s catching on. “Good morning Church!” the lay leader says.

“Church.” That would be us. And we respond heartily “Good morning!”

I’ve been musing about my own sense of what it means to “be a Church,”and where it comes from. And I find that a lot of it comes from the words that we say at worship.

I came into the Episcopal Church in 1975, as the “new prayer book” (published officially in 1979) was just coming into use. Coming from a Reformed and Confessional (Presbyterian) tradition, I was drawn by the beauty of liturgy and what I understood us to be saying at worship about what it meant to “be Church.” What holds Anglicans together, I learned in confirmation class, is not set doctrine but common worship, though of course we are always in conversation about doctrine and tradition. That has been what I’ve understood about being Anglican, and that’s been my experience at worship. Some of the discussions at the recent Lambeth conference of Bishops, and the comments of the Archbishop of Canterbury, have confused me because it seems there are now voices in the Anglican Communion that want a more centralized understanding of church doctrine, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has even suggested that such a Covenant might make us "more like a church." This seems befuddling to me. I had thought there was consensus that as church we are not unified by doctrine or discipline sent from on high, but by our practice and worship. That’s what I take people to mean, discussing Lambeth, when they say we are “a communion, not a church.” But of course we are a church (as in “the Church, the people of God” to use Verna Dozier’s language). We’re not “not a church.” Clearly much remains to be discerned. And the Anglican Communion will continue exploring these matters, I hope in a spirit of mutual respect, across differences of culture and belief.

As is my habit, I go to back to the liturgy for help, to see what poetic images of "church" have rooted themselves into my imagination and memory. And here I find some metaphors that seem worth pondering in these times. They are from important prayers that I think are not always as familiar as they might be to people in congregations – and now might be a good time to revisit them in our corporate life in congregations.

The first comes from the baptism service, a passage that sometimes gets lost in actual practice, when the priest says “Let us welcome the newly baptized” and the congregation responds with applause. (I’ve seen this happen at a number of baptism services, in a number of congregations). But the words of welcome are Biblical, and important:

We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” (BCP 308)

The “household” of God. Yes. A good image of the Anglican Communion right now, as well as of many a congregation. We live together, we share the same food, and we have conflicts and celebrations, upheavals and challenges. But we belong to the same household. The rest of the welcome prayer is a catechism in itself – worth spending years unpacking: Confess, proclaim, share. We live out a “priesthood” as Christians, a life that involves bearing the Holy into the world, and sharing it with others, as Bill Countryman has described so well in Living on the Borders of the Holy. We are carrying out into the world the transforming love that is expressed in the faith of Christ crucified and the good news of his Resurrection. Being church means being the presence of Christ in the world, or in another metaphor I like, from Robert Capon, to be the Church is to be “the hat on the Invisible Man” for the world.

The fullness of that calling is expressed in my favorite prayer in the book, which I often use when I teach workshops on discernment and discipleship:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual ordering of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. (BCP 280, 291, 515, 528, 540)

This prayer is appointed for Good Friday, just after the solemn collects, and Holy Saturday, just before the baptism service. We also say it at ordinations. (Marshall Scott has a good discussion of this in an earlier post on the Daily Episcopalian). It’s worth pointing out and holding up this prayer in a time when we’re reflecting on “being Church” because people who don’t attend a lot of ordinations may not be aware of having heard it or offered it.

I love the poetry of this prayer: the suggestion that radical transformation – things cast down, raised up, grown old, made new—can be carried out “in tranquility.” That in itself is a prayer for a miracle! This prayer acknowledges that our life as Church is held in the Divine life. To acknowledge this requires humility, as we craft ways to be together as the “household of God.” That’s why I also love the prayer’s description of the Church as “that wonderful and sacred mystery.”

The scrappiness and challenge of a “household”, held in “that wonderful and sacred mystery.” Holding these two metaphors together may help keep us open and humble, in the lives of our churches generally. as we continue to discern together what it means to “be a Church.”

3 comments:

  1. The other part, I think, in offering the prayer for the whole Church, is recognizing that we, Episcopal/Anglican in name, are not the whole Church, but a piece of the larger body of Christ.

    Often I think we forget that Jesus was not, and the body of Christ is not, many, but is one. As we have broken up into denominations we have remade Christ in our own image such that we are the Anglican body of Christ and "they" are the Presbyterian body of Christ or the Baptist body or the non-denom body or whatever.

    For me, that is the wonderful and sacred mystery. That even in our own fractured mess, Christ's body, the Church, is still one.

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  2. A most thoughtful, beautiful post. Thank you for reminding us of the delightful phrase "the household of God". I love it everytime I read or say it. I am comforted.
    amyj

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