What the Church Needs: Letter to My Episcopal Church
The following is my attempt to give constructive feedback to my local Episcopal Church as it undergoes what they call a “Missional Assessment” process. I served on the committee that went through the process, and as a relative new comer it was a fascinating process to witness. The Missional Assessment process is designed to tease out the sense of vocation in a particular congregation and to give some framework for helping that worshiping community further realize that sense of call. I served on the team that focused on “teaching.” Since I’ll be out of town for the last meeting, I submitted a few thoughts in writing. Here they are:
Our cultural moment is one largely characterized by opposing sides, both of which are quite clear on what they are affirming and denying. Those who are not given to residing on the polar ends of life are therefore left with few options, and not many of them possessing much by way of passion.
The Episcopal church has the resources to be a haven for these people, if we can learn to recognize it and articulate it. I think much of what has been said in the summary thus far is good [They’d sent me a document summarizing our progress so far], but there are two things I’d like to highlight, one is a caution, the other is a challenge.
In the first place, my past experience makes me wary of initiatives to help train congregants in how to conduct “one on one conversations.” [one of the recommendations] Invariably, what I’ve seen from efforts of this nature amounts to little beyond the impartation of a few sociological tricks and some rather superficial theology. Training, such as it is, ought to be training to be the kinds of people from whom the “mission of God” flows freely as a result of a genuine inner awakening. Such awakening can result only from our own “inner-crucifixion.” What is encouraging to me is the way that St. John’s possesses the theological and traditional resources to stimulate this very act. The contemplative tradition is nothing if not “training” in the self-death necessary for the flourishing of authentic relationships. This resource ought to be tapped into and expanded upon. There is a hunger for it since it opens up the depth of life without the superficiality and fanaticism that many fear about religion.
Now for the challenge. What the church needs (I am so bold to suggest), on the level of teaching, is the ability to articulate a vision of passionate faith that preserves the divine mystery. The culture currently deals in alternatives. Either one is passionate, or one is reasonable; either one is certain, or one is sure of nothing; either we each make our own autonomous decisions, or we submit unthinkingly to some arbitrary tradition. Etc…
The Episcopal Church, to my mind, is uniquely situated to speak a new word into these alternatives. Rather than being the merely “rational, relative, autonomous” liberals who hide behind a mask of traditional forms (as the caricature goes), the Episcopal Church has the potential to be grasped by the heart of the Christian tradition that cuts past each of the alternatives I’ve put forth. The Episcopal Church, can, in a way that most others cannot, live passionately into a tradition whose one certainty is the mystery that is revealed in releasing our quest for certainty, thus opening a rationality predicated upon a mystery that precedes both the autonomous self as well as the very structure of the historical world.
This is not easy to get across, because “teaching” resides on the superficial level of life. It resides in human language, concepts, and relationships. What I’m suggesting, however, is not on that level. It is wisdom: the dynamic understanding of that level’s relationship to the divine mystery, which precedes and transcends it. Contemplative spirituality is a practice in that dynamic relationship. The next step—so as to avoid the charge of acquiescing to “mere practice” with no concern for truth—is getting in view a theoretic framework that gives a home to the practice. In other words: Theology.
And so ends yet another attempt by the theologian at brevity and clarity. My apologies!