Asked to think what church renewal might look like in a few years, I tried to visualize a healthy parish, which might well not be a growing parish. Here are some concrete thoughts (with the usual reminder that if you take them and add three dollars you might be able to buy a cup of coffee).
The groundwork: it seems most important for a church to have clarity that it is, in significant ways, counter-cultural. That is, the culture around us is rapidly taking on views that run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is particularly true in what is called “theological anthropology,” the effort to understand human beings in light of Christian revelation.
It seems to me that there are two areas in which we Christians are going to be, more and more, at odds with our emerging North American or Western European culture. The first is the practice of euthanasia, already legal in various parts of the U.S. and a recently and rapidly expanding practice in Canada, where it is called MAiD (for Medical Assistance in Dying). It is a long-standing biblical view that human beings should not kill themselves or one another (with exceptions for people acting as agents of the state, e.g. soldiers in justified war). A renewed or healthy congregation will be able to explain why doctors should heal, not kill—why providing lethal drugs is not a healing practice. Such a congregation would also be alert to the subtle ways that when asking for death becomes a legal option, it is particularly the poor and those with limited social connections who will suffer.
Second, churches will need to be able to say why it is a good thing that there are men and there are women. What, positively, is the point of having male and female? Why is it good that human beings don’t appear generically unsexed, but rather have this difference built into our race? I believe we need to foster marvel and wonder at our bodily difference and affirm with great saints (e.g. Augustine) that our resurrection bodies will still be male or female. This is a piece of our tradition that helps us transcend a mere utilitarian view, that the sexual difference exists solely for the sake of conceiving new human beings. No, the male-female difference is part of our eternal glory. But this is hardly the only thing to be said. There is also the practical argument that to affirm the goodness of sexual difference is also to protect the female from being denigrated or erased as a defective male.
My point here is not to spell out the needed Christian teaching; in a few hundred words one can only gesture towards what is needed. But however we address this emerging situation, our teaching needs to be manifest in how our congregations live. Christians should be known to be people who do not kill one another. They should be recognized as people who stay with those who are seriously ill or depressed or feel lost. Renewal will be seen in a community of care for outcasts and vulnerable and wounded people, a community which is able, when needed, to give an account for why it is good not to turn to suicide or euthanasia—and why it is good that we have both men and women.
May God strengthen all of us for the work that is ahead!
Out & About. The weekend of Oct. 28/29 I will be preaching at All Souls’ in Oklahoma City: 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and 8 and 10 a.m. on Sunday. I will also be teaching, from Mon., Oct. 30, through Wed., Nov. 1. There will be a class at noon on each of those weekdays on “Three Big Stories in Saint John's Gospel” (the woman at the well, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus). Also, at 6 p.m. each of those weekdays there will be another class series on “Assisted Suicide and Living Forever.” Visitors are welcome to drop in on any or all of these. All Souls’ Episcopal Church is at the intersection of N.W. 63rd St. and Penn. Ave.
The next Good Books & Good Talk seminar will be on Shakespeare's King Lear on Sunday, November 26, at 5 p.m. at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas.