At the Very Least, We Can Say...

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I try my best to stay out of politics. Given our polarization it is hard enough in present circumstances for us to hear. There is a legitimate debate to be had about social policy in America. And of course a minister of the Gospel needs to serve rich and poor, red and blue. But, at the same time, we need to take our calling seriously. And we Episcopalians have inherited a tradition that sees the parish as including not just the Episcopalians but everyone in its bounds. My calling means I spend time riding around rural and, in many places, impoverished, east Texas. In places you may find there the ravages of opioid addiction, unemployment, and despair, which helped to propel Mr. Trump to the presidency. Meanwhile, you do not need to be a Church progressive to care about the distress of the widow and the orphan - it’s in the Bible, and the record of Churches in addressing these issues, whatever the denomination or politics, is something we can be ecumenically proud of.

With all this as context, I have been doing a little amateur online research about some of the things I have read in explanation of the federal budget recently proposed. Whatever your or my political affiliation, truth-telling is a virtue, all the more so in the present climate.

  • There is in fact evidence of the correlation between feeding hungry and impoverished children and better academic performance.
  • There is in fact evidence of the positive results of feeding the elderly poor through Meals on Wheels to achieve better health outcomes, and I might add reduce the bill for health care!
  • We can, based on past data, project what the effects would be on the elderly poor by the halving of the federal budget for Medicaid.

I read recently about how vagrancy, that is urban poverty, was criminalized in the early 17th century in England. One penalty for chronic poverty was indentured servitude, another, boring a hole in the earlobe of the offender. One remedy was sending the riff-raff to…Virginia and Massachusetts! The great John Donne once said that sending our forebears to the New World cleansed England’s spleen. (I am borrowing from the book “White Trash”)   I wonder at times how far we’ve really come - at least the boring of ear-lobes is gone…



Everything Is What It Is

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     Thinking involves connecting one thing with another, like striking flint for a spark. It works in large measure by analogy. But it only works if you realize that A is different from B, so that comparing the two opens your eyes. Things get confused if we blur the lines, and suppose that they actually are the same thing. Things in the world are indeed related, and yet everything is what it is. In this spirit, I want to offer a few examples from Church life of confusion that results when we lose track of this.

     I recently read an article about some of the ideas for revision of the Prayer Book. It is an impressive piece in that it manages to include so many questionable ideas in so compact a space. Trinitarian language too non-inclusive, ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ too old-fashioned, communion only after baptism too restrictive- lots critical to say there, but for another day.   What I want to point-out at present, is the way each proposal supposes that liturgy is a kind of social therapy. It supposedly exists to make us more inclusive, au courant, open minded. But liturgy is actually a structured way for the assembled people of God to hear His Word, offer their prayers, and approach Him sacramentally by virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection. It does so in conscious continuity with our ancestors in the faith and in conscious anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. So let people fight on theologically - we suffer from too-little real theology, not too much. But let liturgy be liturgy, since things are what they are.

     For my second example, I want to offer a gnomic utterance by the late Anglican missionary and scholar Stephen Neill: “where everything is mission, nothing is mission.” The tendency to recast all parts of Christian life in terms of mission had an admirable side. Likewise the popularity of the idea of the “mission of God” (the Church doesn’t have a mission, God has a mission, for which there is a church) was trying rightly to put God back at the center of things. But it also pumped so much air into the language of mission that no room remained for actual people being sent in actual mission. But the Church needs mission to be mission so that in its particularity and reality it can serve to remind the Church of something important about itself. If the Church is missional, it may forget the lessons of the time when the Church with energy actually had missionaries who launched missions.

     My third example is another example of a good idea, which has been over-inflated like the Michelin man. Practices and institutions exist in relation to others, in a matrix, each with an ecological niche. So a thriving parish has evangelistic efforts, small groups and opportunities to catechize new Christians, adult Christian education. In our tradition these are housed within a parish. In recent decades some of these activities have in many places atrophied, so that many of these activities have only survived during Sunday morning and in the service itself.   As a result some who admirably want to renew the Church have reimagined the parish in terms of more informal, mobile small groups. These might be called “missional communities” or be found in a movement like “Fresh Expressions.” These can be signs of life and creative evangelistic efforts. But they aren’t in lieu of parishes - they are akin to the kind of thing that should take place in parishes! Bible studies are bible studies. Small groups meeting in pubs are small groups meeting in pubs. Confusion on this point may distract us from the fact that the Church in the next generation will rise or fall on the recovery of vitality in parishes. And to accomplish this they will need lots of missional groups and fresh expressions of Church within them, not instead of them. Here too things thrive best where we recognize that things can be compared and reimagined, but this takes place best where we understand them to be what they are.



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