Friday, July 30, 2010

Anglican Communion Serves Irony-Rich Dessert

Some of my blogging friends and colleagues have done a fine job in commenting on the recently adjourned meeting of the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. I'm grateful for their commentary, for ... frankly ... I have grown weary of the whole Anglican Communion sturm und drang.

And Matthew Davies -- God's gift to Episcopal News Service! -- has provided fine journalistic posts about the meeting.

Tonight, when I read Matthew's final report on the the Standing Committee, I just had to howl with laughter.

Matthew begins his story: "The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion adjourned its July 23-27 meeting here with its members celebrating a renewed focus on mission and greater commitment to transparency."

In the third paragraph, he quotes Bishop Ian Douglas:
Douglas said the committee, through the support of the Anglican Communion Office, "has pursued a course of transparency and open communication. . . ."
In paragraph 5:
"I actually believe that our functioning continues to improve," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told ENS. "The new commitment to transparency is already making a significant difference. Members are generally willing to speak clearly about their positions and beliefs."
Paragraph 6 immediately follows in the journalist's words: "Throughout the five days of closed sessions . . . ."

[LF: Emphasis added]

Can you restrain a guffaw? I could not.

Bishop Douglas applauds the committee's "transparency and open communication." Bishop Jefferts Schori hails "the new commitment to transparency." And all of it was done in "closed session."

1984, much?

Which will it be? Transparency? or closed meetings?

I understand the need for confidential discussions sometimes, and I recognize this may be one of those times in the life of the Anglican Communion. I do hope the members of the committee had productive discussions. I hope deeper understanding emerged.

But I think it is a rich irony when members emerge from a closed meeting, bragging about the group's transparency and openness.

Do you see something richly ironic in this? Or is it just me?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

In Celebration of the Philadelphia Eleven

I have this date on my calendar every year: the day on which eleven women were made priests in the Episcopal Church. Had that event not happened, I'm not sure I'd be an Episcopalian ... or even a Christian.

Each year, I contribute to the altar flowers on the Sunday nearest that date, in thanks for the courage of those women and the bishops who ordained them … and in thanks for the ministry of all women who are priests in our church and all who worked toward the ordination of women.

Early today, Elizabeth Kaeton asked the HoBD list, “Where were you on July 29, 1974?” For that’s the date on which those eleven brave women were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church and four brave bishops had the courage to ordain them. There have been some marvelous responses to her question.

The ordination was held at the hauntingly beautiful Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia – the church in which Barbara Harris was once a waif and in which she eventually became an acolyte … and from which she eventually became a bishop in our church. I've worshipped in that church, and it is hauntingly holy.

Where was I on that July day? I was attending a Roman Catholic college and contemplating conversion to Roman Catholicism. I didn’t even hear the news from the Episcopal Church. I knew nothing of the Episcopal Church – much less the news that some women had been ordained there. I was in full flight from the Southern Baptist Church of my childhood and inclining toward the Roman Catholic Church. The Episcopalians weren’t even on my radar.

It was nearly 20 years later when that event came to matter to me. I had fled organized religion. I was in that group that we now call “spiritual but not religious.” I had Quit The Church of My Upbringing. I had no interest in going to church on Sundays.

Then … through a professional colleague and friend … I met the Rev. Nancy Wittig – one of the “Philadelphia Eleven” – who was then a parish priest in suburban Philadelphia. I didn’t know what a ground-breaking role she had played. I just felt something of Spirit when we talked. Our paths crossed regularly over the course of a few years – I living in Atlanta, and she in Philadelphia. I barked regularly: “How the hell can a smart woman like you believe in the Hoary Old Guy in the White Beard?!?” She and my other Episcopalian friend responded calmly, pastorally. Ever so slowly, I came to see that Episcopalians were different. I came to see that the Episcopal Church had something to say to me.

In 1996, my path took me to move to Philadelphia, and I began attending Nancy Wittig’s parish. Not long thereafter, I moved into the confirmation process, under Nancy’s direction. I’ll never forget the marvelous conversations we had as I moved toward confirmation. I challenged her and God … and she challenged me right back. After months of conversation, in April, 1997, I was confirmed an Episcopalian by then-new Bishop Charles Bennison. [I think his confirmations in that parish that day were his first episcopal acts. Go figure!] My confirmation “took,” despite what happened to Bishop Bennison since then.

I have always been grateful to Nancy Wittig and my friend for reaching out to me … helping me find a God whom I could love and who could love me … helping me find a church in which I could find spiritual growth. God bless Nancy … and God bless the bishops who had the courage to ordain these women to the priesthood. I give thanks for Nancy and for Bishops Daniel Corrigan, Robert L. DeWitt, Edward R Welles, and Antonio Ramos.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Prayer for Prayer

With our rector on vacation and 12,000 miles away, our former rector [Harv Sanders] returned to the parish last Sunday to preach and celebrate the Eucharist for the first time in more than four years. He delivered a marvelous sermon; if you are on Facebook, you can read it here.

In his sermon, Harv mentioned those times when we feel like “prayer is like talking to the wall; it's as though there is nobody there to listen.” God knows, I have had those times -- times when I want and need to connect deeply to God, but just can’t feel God's presence.

Harv’s sermon reminded me of a prayer that I have printed and tucked into the back of my prayer book. I have it, thanks to Jane. It’s a prayer I treasure, when I can’t seem to find words or cannot seem to make That Connection.

I share it here, with all those others who sometimes may find it difficult to find a true place of prayer.

[I am also using the beautiful graphic that Jane used. She credited it as: Modeh Ani, prayer of thanksgiving upon waking up. Dvora Black, art for children.]

"A Prayer for Prayer"
by Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman

O My God
My soul's companion
My heart's precious friend
I turn to You.

I need to close out the noise
To rise above the noise
The noise that interrupts--
The noise that separates--
The noise that isolates.
I need to hear You again.

In the silence of my innermost being,
In the fragments of my yearned-for wholeness,
I hear whispers of Your presence--
Echoses of the past when You were with me
When I felt Your nearness
When together we walked--
When You held me close, embraced me in Your love,
laughed with me in my joy.
I yearn to hear You again.

In Your oneness, I find healing.In the promise of Your love, I am soothed.
In Your wholeness, I too can become whole again.

Please listen to my call--
help me find the words
help me find the strength within
help me shape my mouth, my voice, my heart
so that I can direct my spirit and find You in prayer
In words only my heart can speak
In songs only my soul can sing
Lifting my eyes and heart to You.

Adonai S'fatai Tiftach--open my lips, precious God,
so that I can speak with You again.

From Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, C.S.W., ed. Healing of Soul, Healing of Body: Spiritual Leaders unfold the Strength and Solace of Psalms. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

From Zimbabwe: Polygamy is In … Homosexuality is Out

With a hat-tip to Louie Crew for finding this incredibly hypocritical story from Zimbabwe.

Ecumenical News International (26 July 2010)
Daily News Service

Mugabe condemns churches that allow gay marriages

Harare, 26 July (ENI)--Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has lashed out at churches that allow same-sex marriages, and said gay rights would not be included in a new constitution being written for the southern African country.

"Some of the churches have very beautiful buildings but go against the Bible," Mugabe told tens of thousands attending the annual pilgrimage of the Johane Masowe religious group on 17 July. The pilgrimage is one of the largest annual religious gatherings in Zimbabwe.

"Is it still the church of God?" asked Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980. He described same-sex marriages as being, "similar to dog behaviour".

The Zimbabwean president once said homosexuals are, "worse than pigs and dogs".

Mugabe told Johane Masowe members, whose organization allows polygamy and resists western medicine, that they had a right to practise polygamous marriage.

"Our constitution allows polygamy," he told the gathering. "We will not force people into monogamous marriages. Even in the Bible, polygamy is allowed. King Solomon was not only blessed with a lot of wealth but he also had many wives."

In recent years, divisions over homosexuality have torn apart the worldwide Anglican Communion, and created discord in many other Christian denominations.

While some Christians in the northern hemisphere have been more accepting of homosexuals in partnerships, much of the opposition comes from the global South, including from African churches.

Nolbert Kunonga, the deposed former Anglican bishop of Harare and an avid supporter of Mugabe, has formed his own self-styled Church of the Province of Zimbabwe, ostensibly in protest over what he termed the pro-gay stance of the Anglican church in Central Africa.

Homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe, although there is an association that promotes gay rights.

Mugabe told the Johane Masowe pilgrims that he would ignore calls to have gay rights in Zimbabwe's new constitution. "We say no to gays. We will not listen to those advocating for their rights in the constitution," the president said.

Zimbabwe is set to craft a new constitution in 2011 as part of an agreement that led to the formation of a power-sharing government in 2010.

Teams of lawmakers and representatives of rights groups are holding meetings across the country to collect people's recommendations for the new constitution.

LF: Emphases added.


Oh, my! Where to begin?

Let me acknowledge that Mugabe is not an Anglican leader. He is a nut-case demagogue with political power. Similarly, the deposed lunatic “Anglican” Archbishop Kunonga supports Mugabe’s view. There's a long history there between them.

Sadly, it seems to me that their views are consistent with the prevailing views of many vocal African Anglican leaders. I have seen and heard voices like his – voices that think polygamy is healthy and natural, whereas same-sex relationships are “worse than pigs and dogs.”

For the life of me, I cannot understand their reading of Scripture … except that they never moved beyond a dim and literal reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Of course, those two “will not listen to those advocating for their rights” – i.e., the rights of gay men and lesbians – “in the constitution.” No surprise there. But much grief for the Zimbabweans who live in that horrible society.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the Archbishop of Central Africa (which encompasses Zimbabwe) has to say about this.

Fortunately, I have very low expectations. I expect to hear nothing more than the chirping of crickets from the archbishop of Central Africa or the tongue-tied archbishop residing in Canterbury.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Weeping for Daniel Schorr

Daniel Schorr is dead. It feels like the end of an era. I sat in the car and wept last evening as I heard the news from NPR.

I’ll confess it: I am a total NPR junkie. I wake to it in the morning. When I get to my car after work, it’s already on. On weekends, I plan my activities around it. On Saturday mornings, I especially waited for the segment in which Scott Simon would talk with Daniel Schorr about his thoughts and perspective on the political news of the week.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking, “What in the world will I do when Daniel Schorr is gone?” I knew he was beyond 90 years old. I knew he would have to die some day. I just couldn’t imagine what NPR or the world of journalism or I would be without his wise voice, his perspective, his wisdom.

When I got into the car last evening, I heard the sad news from NPR that he died yesterday. I was shocked by the sobs that came. And I was moved by the 15-minute tribute they offered to him.

What a hero he was. What a courageous mountain of a man. What a saint of journalism. The world of journalism is impoverished by his death. And we – we who seek to be informed citizens – are impoverished.

I don’t keep up with popular culture. Standing in line at the grocery store, I am ignorant about the names that blaze from the magazine covers. Lindsay Lohan? Perez Hilton? Some Mel Gibson blow-up? Lady Gaga? Ignorant. I’m totally ignorant about all that stuff.

But in my little world, yesterday’s death of Daniel Schorr was like a major earthquake. I felt like I knew him. I trusted him. I am strangely grieved by the death of this man whom I never met. It still brings tears to my eyes.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mike Luckovich on the Vatican

One of the sad things about living in this small town is its small-minded, right-wing newspaper. I subscribe so that I can keep up with the local news (relying on NPR and PBS for the national news). But the "opinion" page sickens me. I miss the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where I used to live.

I recently discovered that Atlanta's award-winning editorial cartoonist has his work online. Go here to find them.

I haven't been bloging about the craziness of the Vatican, which has equated the sin of pedophilia with the "sin" of "trying" to ordain a woman as a priest in the Roman Catholic church. When I consider the slobbers coming out of Pope Benedict XVI, it makes me think Rowan Williams has met his natural peer.

Mike Luckovich is a genius:

Source: 7/20 cartoon: Mike Luckovich on the Vatican

I'm not trying to keep up with the craziness coming out of the Vatican. Grandmere Mimi is doing a better job from an Anglican perspective ... as is Fran from a Roman perspective.

A Church Marquee Leaves Me Breathless

Y’all know me by now, so you know my southern genes lead me to tell long tales in order to get to my point. So settle back and listen to my too-long story. Or don't, if you lack the patience.

When I came to Missouri in 1998, I had spent my life in the South. And most of my adult life had been spent in dyed-in-the-wool liberal Atlanta. The sainted John Lewis was my Congressman. Then there was a two-year sojourn in Philadelphia – another liberal bastion and, more importantly, the place where God used the Episcopal Church to get hold o’ me.

In Philadelphia, home of the “Philadelphia Eleven,” and under a priest who was one of those Eleven, I came to expect fiery preaching that was relevant to the Gospel and to the issues of the day. My highest compliment to the priest on a typical Sunday was: {queue heavy Southern accent} “You done went from preachin’ into meddlin’.” I like it when a preacher meddles. I want to be challenged to live out the Gospel! I want to be challenged to examine how well I am living my faith and my baptismal vows in my daily life.

When I arrived in Missouri, I found things were quite different in the local parish. I loved the priest and found him a marvelous pastor. But I missed that firebrand style of preaching – the “in your face” call to Gospel living.

After a while, I went hunting for another congregation that would suit me better. Mind you, there aren’t many Episcopal parishes in this part of the world. I checked out the one about 20 miles away. Then I checked out the one about 30 miles away. The next closest would have been 60 miles, and I wasn’t going to venture that far. I visited those parishes, but none of them “did it” for me.

By that time, the Episcopal Church had reached a concordat with the ELCA, under which we were in full communion. So I checked the local phone directory, and discovered that there was one ELCA church here in town. I went there one Sunday, attending their “traditional” service at 10:00. I arrived in plenty of time to park, find my way into the sanctuary, pick up a service leaflet, and find a seat.

As the service began, it was a bit “low church” for my tastes … even though my Episcopal parish is fairly “low church” on the range of Anglican liturgy. I made it through the hymn and some opening prayers. Then they brought out some sort of cardboard cut-out stage thing, and began a puppet show. I remember looking at my watch. It was only 10:20. I thought, “If I make a fast break, I can be at Grace before the sermon!” And so I did. I raced out of there lickety-split, drove quickly across town, and ducked into a seat back at my Episcopal parish during the reading of the Gospel.

And that was the end of my roaming. I had made a decision to be part of this parish. I came to appreciate the subtle preaching. The priest was gifted in preaching the Gospel, but leaving a very diverse congregation free to interpret and apply it in their own situations. And I came to love this parish and its people – to love them deeply.

Occasionally, I think about applying for jobs that would require me to move to another town, another parish. Strangely, the thing that often holds me back is the fear that I would not find such a strong, supportive community of faith as I find in this parish.

After church just this Sunday, I had to run a couple of errands. One led me past that ELCA parish I had fled so many years ago. When I saw the sign on their streetside marquis, I nearly drove off the road! Here’s what it said. And I am quoting. I could not make this up:


Honest to God! That’s their message to the world!!

Yes, I have read the studies and stories that talk about “muscular Christianity” and those congregations that feel a need to attract more men. I suppose that’s what they are trying to do.

My parish doesn’t have a marquee. We just have an understated bronze sign that provides the name of the parish and the service times. You can just make it out under the bell tower at the base of the red maple tree.

I have no wish to replace it with a zippy marquee. But I found myself wondering: What would we say if we did have a snappy marquee? I think it might be:


or maybe


or perhaps


In my fantasy, there would be no need for a frequently changing marquee, for our words of invitation and welcome wouldn’t need to change often, if at all.

Reflecting on that ELCA church’s invitation to “guys who spit, cuss, belch & scratch,” I found myself thinking: "And The Episcopal Church is in full communion with those yahoos?!?!?!?? WHY??" Frankly, I can’t imagine a church … an ethos … with which I could possibly have less in common.

Yes, we welcome sinners. Our parishes are filled with them! Yes, we welcome people where they are … trusting that the sacraments and the grace of God will help all of us become more than we are.

But that Lutheran marquee disgusted me.

I know that the Episcopal/ELCA concordat allows for mutual, reciprocal ministry. But never in a million years can I imagine my Episcopal parish having anything in common with a church that would post such a message on its marquee.

Over to you, now.

Do you think I overreacted?

If your Episcopal parish had (or has) a marquee out front, what would (or does) it say?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Do We Need Priests?

My blog-friend Elizabeth Kaeton asks a series of trouble-stirring questions over at her blog. Or at least they are trouble-stirring for me.

She observes the shortage of seminary-trained clergy in the Episcopal Church. She acknowledges that many Episcopal parishes are hard-pressed to afford the salary, housing, auto allowance, pension contribution, and health insurance of seminary trained priests. I agree. She is right to raise those questions.

We all know it is true that more and more Episcopal parishes cannot afford to hire a full-time, seminary-trained, experienced priest.

We are aware that many parishes are raising up bi-vocational, part-time priests from within their own midst … and not only in those dioceses and parishes that are formally embracing “Mutual Ministry.” I have two friends who are serving in such roles here in Missouri.

But Elizabeth goes further. She wonders:
Is ministry being redefined in our midst and the church is just catching up with it? Should we allow our present cultural financial crisis be the basis of the change for ecclesiology?
She wonders whether priests or trained laypeople should be allowed to administer all the sacraments – Eucharist included – and if not, why not? She wonders:
Is ministry being redefined in our midst and the church is just catching up with it? Should we allow our present cultural financial crisis be the basis of the change for ecclesiology?
She asks important questions, and she asks us to engage in dialogue.

I will confess that my reaction to her blogpost was part thoughtful and part visceral/reactionary. “Of course we need I priest,” I found myself screaming. But the reasonable tenor of Elizabeth’s post forced me to answer the question “Why?”

For some background on my thinking about my parish, I invite you to revisit this post from July 6. After the rector of this parish retired after 30+ years, our parish had to think deeply about the ministry of all the baptized, the ministry of the laity, and what we wanted in a priest. I would say that we had a “come to Jesus” period of confronting our roles as laypersons and trying to define what we needed in a priest that we could not do as laypersons. [Mind you, I intentionally say “needed” rather than “wanted” there.] Thanks be to God, we defined the role of priest in liturgical terms. We did not want a priest to be an overpaid sexton who would be sure the church was well heated or well-air-conditioned each Sunday. We did not need a priest to organize our ministry to the community. After an intentionally long and fruitful “interim priest” ministry, we knew what we wanted. We wanted a priest who would motivate us, empower us, and keep us rooted as we exercised our primary ministry, individually and as a community. And we knew that ministry to be primarily a ministry of the laity.

Here’s how I recall the vestry discussions as we framed our rector search and (eventually) decided whom to call to be our rector: We wanted a priest who was deeply, deeply formed in the Episcopal church … who was deeply rooted … and whose spirituality might be an inspiration and teaching model to the laity.

I believe that is what we received in the priest who accepted the call of our parish.

Since her arrival, lay ministry has increased. We have more outreach than we had before … and it is not dependent on her to organize or participate; lay people discover the needs and frame ministries. We have more lay preachers than we had before. [Actually, that’s an easy one. For we had no lay preachers before, and now we have at least four.] Lay pastoral ministry has exploded in very good ways, as we have come to learn that we are the church and it is primarily our responsibility to care for one another … with help and counsel (when needed) and support from our rector. But it’s not her job to organize it. It’s her job to inspire and inform it.

Perhaps it was Elizabeth’s intent to get us all to thinking – to stir things up – when she raised the question of whether deacons or laypeople could administer the Eucharist.

Here are my responses.

First, I go to the catechism and I ponder the four orders of ministry: laypeople, deacons, priests, and bishops.

It seems abundantly clear to me that laypeople are the core of Christ’s mission on earth. We are the most fundamental hands and feet of Christ in the world. We are the ones who are out there every day, in our diverse roles, speaking peace to a broken world, working to reconcile all persons to Christ. Best of all, we have total freedom in how we accomplish this. We are only under vows to Christ. We don’t have to get permission from our priest or bishop to exercise that ministry. We laypeople have the most marvelous freedom and latitude in our ministry.

Deacons exercise a wonderful ministry, but they are subject to their bishops. I know – and surely you do, too – deacons who have been constrained and limited by “admonitions” from their bishops.

Nonetheless, I look to the deacons of our church for models of servant ministry. The good ones inspire me to the free exercise of my lay ministry – a ministry much more free than our deacons can exercise.

To Elizabeth, I would say: Deacons were never intended to serve as ministers of the sacraments. It’s there in the Bible. Deacons were to minister to the poor, the widows, the orphans, the outcast. That is the ministry to which they have been called since the time of Jesus.

And what of priests? …. I tread lightly here, for tomes have been written on that topic. God knows, I’m not going to try to define their role in a measly blogpost. But this much I will say.

A while back, I had the honor of chairing the discernment committee of a man who felt called to the priesthood. Our committee, then our vestry and parish, then our diocesan bodies agreed. In the course of our discussions, he made an observation that has stuck with me: Priesthood is not about what one does; it is about who one is. A priest who gets caught up in doing rather than being is a priest who has gone off-track, I believe.

In my mere 14 years as an Episcopalian … blessed by the ministry of some marvelous priests, here are some things I observe.

§ Healthy and well-grounded priests are not defined by what they do, but by who and what they are. They are free to serve Christ wholly … and thus they inspire me to aspire to the same. … Of course, this means that we parishioners must set them free to do the work of a priest and not burden them with the roles of social director or sexton or parish life coordinator. We must give our priests leisure [in the classical sense] to be priests.
§ Good priests are transparent. It is not “all about them.” The good priests point us beyond ourselves and themselves. They serve as role models who point beyond themselves to Christ. Always toward Christ.
§ Healthy priests have the leisure to spend much time in prayer and reflection … and they yearn for that time. They yearn to be in the presence of God … rather than in a committee meeting.
§ Healthy priests – like Christ – want to make disciples. They yearn to equip the saints for ministry – for ministry to God and community, not to a cult of personality.

So I return to Elizabeth’s questions. Do I believe deacons or laypeople could or should celebrate the Eucharist? No, I most certainly do not! I believe deacons and laypeople are primarily called to minister in the world, to be the Body of Christ in the world. Mind you, like KirkE, I am attracted to the shiny, holy things. But I do not believe we are called or empowered to celebrate the Eucharist.

I believe priests are uniquely called into a transparent ministry that points beyond themselves, which makes them uniquely called to celebrate the Eucharist – that service in which the veil between heaven and earth is most thin.

I believe the orders of ministry are precisely that: ordered -- set apart for different ministries. To me, it seems that laypeople and deacons are ordained to minister to the world. And that priests are set apart to minister to and empower the church … and occasionally to speak prophetically to the world.

I think TEC is thinking/speaking in the wrong voice when our parishes speak about whether they can “afford” to hire a priest. If they are simply looking for someone who can speak “magic words” at the Eucharist, then perhaps they need to examine more closely the four orders of ministry.

I am reminded of the phrase I learned long ago from Mike Kinman, about a “theology of scarcity” versus a “theology of abundance.” Our parish of 140 ASA could have argued convincingly that we could not afford a full-time priest and all the financial obligations that came along with her. But we had moved to a place where we saw the difference between the priestly role and all the other roles, and we concluded that we valued that priestly role enough to support it financially. And so we hired a priest. And so we support her financially.

God willing, we are also supporting that priest -- and, more importantly, serving Christ and the Kingdom of God – by exercising all the other roles of ministry – especially the ministry of the laity – so that our parish can be the Body of Christ in this community.

Addendum: I’m not trained in seminary, nor even in EFM. I probably got the theology and terminology wrong here. This is just my lay-personly, too-verbose response to the thoughtful reflections Elizabeth offered.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My Own Feast of St. Helen ... 33 Years Gone

Yet again, I have endured another July 14th. Each year, it slams into my gut like a sledgehammer.

Since it’s been 33 years, I generally don’t remember July 14 is coming.

But there comes a moment where I have to sign a note “July 14,” and then it slams into me.

It happened again today. While I was at church today, mourning and celebrating the life of a member of our parish … I realized it was also the miserable “anniversary” of that day in 1977 when my dear friend Helen was slashed to death. The day on which she was grabbed on a country road and murdered, while she prayed for the murderers who were killing her, one hideous, bloody slash at a time.

It’s rather amazing to realize how long ago it was. She was hacked to death in 1977. In some ways, time has stood still for me ever since.

She was hacked to death when I was only 22 years old. Now I am 55 years old, and – each July 14 – I am still stuck there. I still cannot come to terms with it.

In my own calendar, July 14 is the Feast of St. Helen Finley.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Parish Calls

We've had a fairly intense few days in my wee parish, as one of our own has died too young ... too sadly .. after too much suffering. I haven't had time to write here, as local concerns are foremost. Of your mercy, say a prayer for Janice, who has now joined the saints in glory, and for her teenage son John who has lost his only parent.

While the Church of England sings the most recent verse in the Anglican Communion drama, I have been -- thank God! -- drawn back into my own parish life ... in which we live and move and have our being.

Sometimes, this is what we need ... to remember who we are and whose we are and to whom we belong. Right now, I belong to my parish.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Measuring Congregational Vitality

Elizabeth Kaeton has written a most thought-provoking essay at her blog. It’s an over-simplification to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: She asks why all our metrics of parish growth and health are based on the number of people who plop their butts in the pew on any given Sunday and how much they drop into the offering plate. That is to say, we worship at the Golden Calf known as ASA [average Sunday attendance] and finance.

Sometimes I get really ticked by those self-styled "congregational development experts," whose only focus seems to be on some sort of business-model "bottom line." We have one of them in my diocese. Many of us refer to him as “The Rev. Used Car Salesman.” He just wants to "make a sale," with little apparent regard for the baptismal covenant, the theology that is supposed to go along with that "sale," or the service that may be required after the "sale." From my perspective, all that seems to matter to him is some magic spreadsheet on which he totals up the “sales.”

But Elizabeth said it much better than I can. Go read her post. She quotes several folks who are wrestling with this issue. Go read her essay. I’ll wait.

OK. Back now? Here are my thoughts.

Here at Grace, our ASA has remained steady around 140 ever since I moved here in 1998.

You need some background.

When I moved here, Harv+ had been a marvelous priest, pastor, and rector for more than 30 years. When he retired in July 2005. we hired Joan+ to serve as interim rector. We knew we would need a long “interim,” after Harv’s long tenure, so we contracted with Joan+ to serve for two years … while we adjusted to our new reality and looked toward hiring a new rector. I served on vestry from the end of Harv’s tenure … through calling Joan … and then through the calling of our current rector [Shariya+], who has been here a little more than two years.

When I came here in 1998, the parish centered on Harv, our rector. I quickly came to love him as priest and friend and spiritual guide. He did it all! Sunday services, of course. Visiting all the sick and old, of course! Once he left, I (and all the vestry) learned there was more that he did: opening the church on Sunday, making coffee, fixing our old furnace with duct tape and bailing wire, cleaning up after/before social events, putting buckets under the roof leaks, and on and on. In short, we discovered that we had paid a priest to be priest and sexton and janitor and social committee chairman and jack-of-all-trades and on and on.

When Harv announced his retirement, the vestry recognized that we should have a very long interim period of discernment … a very long time to determine what we wanted to be, who we wanted to be, and what kind of rector we wanted/needed. We decided to hire an interim rector for two years to allow that to happen.

Joan+ guided us through that period. She was a wonderful interim rector. She helped us discern who we were and who we aspired to be.

When we called Joan, we said we wanted her to be our priest – not our sexton or parish life coordinator, and certainly not our jack-of-all-trades. We had begun to learn how many duties our rector had undertaken, which we laypeople should have assumed. We began to take seriously the “ministry of all the baptized,” and to distinguish our role as lay ministers from the role of the ordained ministry. We stepped up to it, so that we could free our priest for the distinctly priestly work. And Joan mid-wived us through that process of discovery and growth.

I believe we made good use of that “interim” period. I believe that interim period "unloosed" something in our parish. During Joan’s time with us, lay people began to take on more ministry. We began to understand the “ministry of all the baptized.” During that interim, we expanded our ministries within and beyond the church walls. More laypeople accepted leadership. We took responsibility for the life of the parish. We took on more outreach.

Consequently, when we began our search for a rector, we stated that we wanted two things.
We wanted a priest who could help us “grow” our parish. We believe that we have something unique to offer as Episcopalians in this part of the world. And, of course, we wanted more “butts in the pews” and more money in the offering plate.
We also wanted someone who would be a priest and spiritual guide for us ... not a rector-of-all-trades who would also run the stewardship campaign, be responsible for all ministry, and maintain our physical plant. We wanted a priest! – not a sexton and parish coordinator with an M.Div.! We made clear in our profile that we wanted someone who would help us deepen our spiritual lives.

At the end of the search, we came down to two finalists. One was clearly gifted in outreach and "growing" congregations. The other was ... how shall I put this? ... quiet, centered, spiritually deep. In the meeting when the vestry voted on the candidates that the search committee brought to us, we looked longingly at the "congregational development" person, but someone said, "Y'know ... maybe we're not yet ready to grow the congregation [i.e., in ASA & other numbers]. Maybe we need to grow/deepen our own spiritual lives before we’re ready to expand the congregation." I believed then, and I still believe she was correct.

We called Shariya, and she came.

And I believe that’s just what she is doing – “equipping the saints for ministry.” Yes, she is a marvelous priest. Yes, she provides marvelous pastoral care. But, above all, I believe she is “equipping the saints for ministry,” working – sometimes through her sermons, and often one person at a time – to help us discern how we can and should be the Body of Christ in this place.

Every now and then, I offer a priest/preacher the highest compliment I can offer after the service: “You done went from preachin’ into meddling,” I’ll say. Frankly, I want to be meddled with. I want to be challenged. I want my priest to challenge my comfort zone from the pulpit and in our one-on-one conversations. I want the preacher to preach the Gospel and challenge me to see where it may be calling me as an individual and as a member of the Body of Christ.

I sense some great changes in this parish over the past few years.

I sense a tremendous growth in "vitality." Lots more outreach. Lots more lay ministry, including lay "pastoral" care for our members. In addition, I'm hearing more people talk about their prayer life. More people seem to be praying the daily office. A new theological discussion group has formed, in which people are discovering the riches of our liturgy and our Book of Common Prayer.

And I wonder whether this is some indicator: In the first 7 years I was here, we formed one discernment committee, for a man who has since been ordained to the priesthood. In just these last two years, three people have moved into discernment. One's now a candidate for the priesthood. One's a postulant to the vocational diaconate. The third (just last month) got permission to form a discernment committee toward the vocational diaconate. Make of that what you will. I believe it comes from people hearing more clearly the call to ministry. Every one of them was exercising lay ministry, and they’re now hearing a call to ordained ministry. I think that’s a good thing.

Meanwhile, many of our parish members continue to exercise lay ministry. We are doing so in more ways and more varied ways than we ever did before. And I believe that’s because we’re being called to ministry … though not in any way that the parochial reports to TEC will ever capture. It’s not reflected in ASA. But I believe it is a revival. It is vitality. It’s a “renewal” of our vision of what we are called to do as the Body of Christ within our parish and beyond our brick walls.

Of course, none of this will be captured in the statistics that The Episcopal Church will collect and share. None of it will be discussed by the self-proclaimed “congregational growth” experts in our church. Because all those “experts” know is a business model with its measures of success. The Church needs other measures of its vitality. Or so it seems to me.

Monday, July 05, 2010

For KirkEpiscatoid

OK, KirkE, challenge accepted. What do you make of this?

Thanks for discovering (and sharing with us) this marvelous time-suck. It's a procrastinator's dream.

Posting in haste, I'm not about to comment on the insightful parts of your blogpost, except to say a quiet and sincere "Amen."

Thursday, July 01, 2010

International “Blame Lauren” Day

If you’ve been reading here, you know that The Episcopal Church has chosen to make Lauren Stanley some sort of sacrificial lamb. For whatever trumped-up reasons, they and/or the Bishop of Haiti have recalled her from Haiti. Their press release raised more questions than it answered.

I have learned from a friend of hers that Lauren’s VTS doctoral classmates have designated today as “Blame Lauren” Day. I want to contribute to the effort, in good-hearted silliness.

So … join with The Episcopal Church "leadership." If you have any complaint whatsoever, ascribe all the blame to Lauren. My friend promises that her shoulders are broad enough to take whatever silliness we may heap upon them.

Here’s the list that comes to mind immediately for me.

The Gulf oil disaster. Blame Lauren.
Global warming. Blame Lauren.
Afghanistan. Blame Lauren.
Rowan Williams becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. Blame Lauren.
My neighbor is too noisy. Blame Lauren.
I haven't received a pay raise in three years. Blame Lauren.
Ordination of gay/lesbian bishops. Blame Lauren.
My trash removal is overdue. Blame Lauren.
My cat threw up on my bed. Blame Lauren.
My bathroom lightbulb blew. Blame Lauren.
The Anglican Covenant. Blame Lauren.
My basement is leaking. Blame Lauren.
The cyan ink is running low on my printer. Blame Lauren.
My cat peed outside the litterbox. Blame Lauren.
Kirstin is sick. Blame Lauren.
My savings account balance is low. Blame Lauren.
Missouri is too humid. Blame Lauren

Please add all your other complaints, and attribute them to Lauren. After all, the Episcopal Church has already started it. Nothing is too great or too small. For her shoulders are broad, and her sense of humor is endless.

Add your complaints in the comments.