living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

What the Church Needs: Letter to My Episcopal Church

with 2 comments

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!


Written by Alex

October 8, 2013 at 11:46 am

2 Responses

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  1. I hadn’t realized that you ended up in the episcopal church, but so many of us do, I should have figured. Although I’m not currently practicing any religion or faith, I found the Episcopal tradition’s emphasis on liturgy to be the very thing that allowed me, as an intellectual, to shelter there for as long as I did. It’s what keeps me tethered fondly (however distantly) to the Christian tradition now.

    The evangelical communities I grew up in and spent my early adulthood in seemed always to beg my active engagement. It was like I had to have a spiritual bowel movement every Sunday in service to prove my faith was active. Not only is this highly individuating and isolating in a venue that is supposed to be communal (my experience, my relationship, my walk), but it ignores the realities of a healthy, human life. Some days you just don’t feel it. And in that context, on those days, I had no way to participate.

    Liturgy, however, doesn’t care how I feel. It proceeds like a great clock, ticking off the hours, calling the names of the days. It keeps time whether or not I care what time it is. It’s like a sphere with an infinite number of touch points. I can come at it angry, sad, elated, doubtful, indifferent, any way I am at any given time and it is always the same. My experience of it changes, but it never gives up on me.

    I don’t think I agree with you in that self-death is possible. However, I think self subversion and self conversion is. But I think our capacity for it is limited to crisis points. We are constantly in flux. I think the religion brings this crisis closer to us, potentially invites us to frequent crisis. In fact, I think liturgical practice is a really good tool in provoking that crisis.

    Bryne Helen Lewis

    October 8, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    • Hey Bryne,
      Sorry I never got around to this. I really resonate with a lot of what you’ve said. For me the liturgy was a sort of homecoming (as one who was raised Catholic). But having also gone through an extended stint among the evangelicals, it was more than just coming home, it was a huge sigh of relief for exactly the reasons you mention.

      Good pushback re: “self-death.” It’s not a precise term, and you point out some ways of getting at it that I think are still tracking with the same basic thrust. Your words on self-subversion being limited to crisis points are interesting. I think there’s something to that. On the other hand, my daily prayer time is not obviously crisis-laden (at least not consciously!) but still tends to provoke the self (or ego, or however we want to cash that out)-subversion that I’m trying to get at.


      October 28, 2013 at 4:48 pm

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