Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Epiphany in Summer

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I stepped into the Cathedral before Evening Prayer in the chapel.  It was the time of quiet afternoon shadows, with the western sun streaming through the stained glass windows.  Flickering votive candles and the scent of incense remained from the morning celebration of the Eucharist.  All converged to focus and open the sacred.  (Choir member Dave Baxter took this photo of one of the west windows (a Tiffany) at a similar moment a few weeks ago):

Our buildings and even much of our liturgy are, to a great extent, ruins of Christendom, fragments of an earlier era that have survived to this one.  Not unlike the candlelight and incense left from a Sunday Mass.  And yet these things still have the capacity to be signs of the Resurrection.  Thank God for those who work, pray,and give to keep them going in our midst.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

So what is it about Call the Midwife and Rev?

I am one of those Anglophile types who enjoys many of the programs that come to us from the BBC or ITV.  Most Sunday evenings eventually come to Sharon and me sitting down to watch one or two of them.   I have come to expect that the Church of England in general, and the clergy in particular, will not be presented in these programs in a very flattering light.  In fact the clergy are frequently portrayed as strange and ineffective, as lazy, or alcoholics, or hiding some dark secret, usually of a sexual nature.  Those of us who live closely to this world know that sometimes such things are true, but we also know that these dramatized stories are way out of proportion to the real world of ecclesiastical and clerical life.

What a relief and happy surprise it is, then, to see positive, healthy, and realistic depictions of church people and ministry in two current and popular British programs, Call the Midwife and Rev.  Midwife is about the work of Anglican Sisters and Nurse Midwives in the East End of London in the 1950's.  Rev. portrays the life and struggles of an Anglican Vicar in the inner city today.  Of course both are made for television, but they are recognizable to me as the Anglican/Episcopal way of being Christian that I know, live in, and love.

It is a happy surprise as well to read that the gritty and unglamorous ministry of the inner city church world is actually appealing, an appeal that reaches to younger folks preparing for ordination to the priesthood.  Count it another sign of resurrection in the ruins of Christendom.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Restore the Ruins? Why the Question Mark?

I am just finishing up a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching through the A.C.T.S. program in Chicago and Bexley Seabury (which is why this blog has been so quiet for a while).  It has been a great experience for me, including the Oral Review last Thursday with my adviser Ted Curtis and Seabury faculty member John Dally.  As we came toward the end of the review, John asked me about the title of my thesis, "Restore the Ruins: Cathedral Preaching on the Other Side of Christendom."  Did the title reflect the tone of irony in the text?  The title came from signs I had seen around the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in England while I was there last summer.  A capital campaign was underway to "restore the ruins" and the Coventry web site page about this concludes with the wonderfully evocative phrase, "Without your help these ruins may not be around for future generations to enjoy."  Well, I decided to add a question mark in my thesis title to make it "Restore the Ruins?"

This is not a satirical or cynical question, but an ironic one.  I believe that cathedrals are indeed ruins of Christendom, in metaphorical sense.  They are remnants of a culture which saw itself as Christian through and through, a culture now gone, though pieces of it remain.  And remain in many cases, with continuing or renewed vitality.  Our post-everything time includes, for many, a longing to learn from the past (which is not the same as longing to go back there).  Cathedrals, as ruins, draw a wide range of people for a wide range of reasons.  There remains a public perception, hopefully somewhat accurate, that cathedrals (like ruins) have porous boundaries which enable access for both coming and going.  What does it mean, not just physically in Coventry, but generally to "restore the ruins?"  It is a provocative question, and not only for cathedrals.

The Church is dead; long live the Church.  Or, better, "Much of the Church as we knew it is dead or dying; long live the Church as it will be."  Cathedrals and other "ruins" will not lead us back to Christendom, but, for the time being, it looks like they will be part of carrying us forward to what God is stirring up.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Keep the Incense

At our recent Diocesan Convention, we were taking our part in discussions related to the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church.  TREC is working on adapting the structures, governance, and administration of the Episcopal Church to better reflect the mission challenges of today and the future.  The question before us was something to the effect of what we should keep and what we should let go of.  We were doing our best and saying the usual about Scripture, Tradition, Reason and being inclusive.  All right as far as it goes, but somehow, fairly predictable.

Then someone at the table said, "Keep the incense."  We all laughed from the heart and it felt like we had struck something deeper than the earnest things we had been offering.

My impression of the use of incense in worship in the Episcopal Church is that it has moved from being used all the time in a few places, to being used a few times in (not quite) all places, and the frequency of use is growing.  At the Cathedral of Saint Paul, we are now using it (in a non fussy way, of course) on most Sundays.  There are all kinds of reasons and all kinds of witness around that incense and other traditional forms of ritual are being welcomed, especially by younger people.  "Keep the incense."  We wrote the comment down. Wonder if it will make it into the report and proposals?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Church Buildings: Ruins or Resurrection?

This week I attended a presentation by Bob Jaeger from Partners for Sacred Places.  He was in Erie for the Non Profit Day sponsored by the outstanding local organization, the Nonprofit Partnership.  I had heard of and read about Partners for Sacred Places before, but it all becomes more real in person.

To me, many of our church buildings are ruins of Christendom (maybe most of them in these parts).  Some are fine examples of architecture and art which are drenched in the histories of their communities.  Others may not be so artistic or historic, but they have been centers of worship, faith, and mission for years.  And yet community and economic changes have often resulted in deferred maintenance.  Sometimes the cost of upkeep and updating is beyond the resources and capacities of the congregation.  And often, even if the buildings could be properly repaired and brought up to code, they would still be ineffective for the life and mission of their congregations today -- too many stairs, too much space, old, inefficient, unwelcoming.

Many congregations lost the resources to support paid clergy during the last few decades.  Often this was met by new forms of partnership and/or the use of ecumenical, retired, or locally trained and ordained clergy who serve with little or no pay.  It worked for a while.  But now, or looming soon, comes the lack of resources to pay for the building.  The serious consequences cannot be avoided -- there is no cheaper way and deferred maintenance, even if possible, only pushes more difficult decisions on to someone else.  It is another form of "kicking the can down the road."

Partners for Sacred Places brings a determined and hopeful perspective to this.  First of all, they believe in the importance of our historic church buildings and what they mean to a community.  And they are working on ways to maintain and sustain them that values the congregation but opens up to the wider community in new ways.  I commend their work wholeheartedly.  I especially commend their growing work on the economic impact of churches, even small ones, on their communities. Here is a link from their web site if you wish to learn more about the Halo Effect.  I will be writing more about this and the implications for our understanding of mission.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Life After Life After

With the advent of a new web site for The Cathedral of St. Paul, it seems a good time to resurrect this blog. Poking around the ruins took me a few weeks ago to Coventry Cathedral.  I was there as a part of my Doctor of Ministry in Preaching project, which has to do with preaching in cathedrals. After all, what could be more a ruin of Christendom than a cathedral?  And yet, cathedrals in the Church of England are experiencing an unanticipated vitality (see the report Spiritual Capital).  Does this have any significance for our cathedrals in North America?  What about our relatively small cathedrals around the Great Lakes?  And what, if anything, does this have to do with preaching in cathedrals these days?

I went to Coventry because of its unique setting with the bombed ruins of the former cathedral incorporated into the complex of the "new" cathedral built in 1962.  What an image of resurrection on the other side of Christendom!  And yet I found it was more complex than that.

N.T. Wright has been challenging the common understanding of life after death in recent years.  He contends that the biblical view is not so much about "life after death," as in going to heaven when you die, but rather, "life after life after death," or, as the Nicene Creed puts it, the resurrection of the dead.  What does this have to do with Coventry, or with us?

The "new" Coventry Cathedral is, in many ways, still a Christendom cathedral.  Large crowds of tourists and pilgrims came after it opened, out of curiosity for sure, but more significantly, because the ruins and the bold new building drew deeply on the older spiritual capital as well as the profound experiences and emotions of the WW II generation.  Now that all seems to have run its course.  Pilgrims (like me) still arrive, but not nearly as many, and resources are not available to support the scope and number of  local and international reconciliation initiatives undertaken in previous years.  Leaders there know this is a time to go deep and seek what the Spirit is stirring up now for Coventry's unique witness and mission.  Poking around these ruins, I wonder if many of us are at or approaching some kind of  "life after life after," signalling a time to go even deeper than we thought we would into what arises from the Cross and the Tomb.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Reenactment or Resurrection?

I have been haunted for a good while by the comment of a friend and colleague.  He said that sometimes we in the Church are like Civil War Reenacters, dressing up and acting like we are in a Church that no longer exists.  No congregation, large or small, urban, suburban, or rural is immune from this possibility.

At the same time, I am convinced that there is something good (bene esse), even essential (esse) about the fact that the Church, while appropriately expressed in many cultural forms, nonetheless has a culture of its own, which transcends time and place.  One example of this would be clergy vestments.  It is historically interesting that the priestly chasuble derives from an outer garment during the Roman Empire.

But it is more important that it has come to represent the priestly ministry, even to those who have no clue where it comes from.  Liturgical form and ritual actions rise above locality alone.  And so I knew what was going on at Mass in India, even though I didn't understand a word of the language.  This is part of being baptized into the dying and rising of Jesus.

All of this is good, and we need not be ashamed of it, or of expecting people to learn it as they take up and grow in Christian faith.  But it is good as well to be haunted by the prospect that we can get it quite wrong and indulge ourselves in a fantasy world.  The ruins of Christendom are challenging us to sort this out.