Monday, October 1, 2012

"The Church is only the Church insofar as it offers the Sacraments with meek heart and due reverence"

In the midst of church decline, we continue to hear discussion about moving from maintenance to mission and, in the wake of the recent General Convention, "restructuring" the Episcopal Church.  Those are important things to tackle.  But I often have the sense that basic questions are not raised and answered in these discussions.  For instance, what exactly is the Church's mission and how does she go about fulfilling it? Why does the Church exist?  What is the Church?  Perhaps answers to these questions are often assumed.  But it sometimes appears that, in practice, these questions get answered in terms dictated by administrative and maintenance needs (we want a bureaucrat called a "rector" or a "canon," a good manager and problem solver, more than we want a priest), or by ideologically-driven social justice advocacy and ecclesial culture war politics.

In a posting at The Curate's Desk entitled "The Church which is His Body: On Restructuring, the Episcopate, and the Sacraments," Fr. Robert Hendrickson offers a perspective that goes beyond Church bureaucracy and politics to the heart of what the Church is and why the Church exists. Concerning who to ordain to the priesthood, for instance, he doesn't focus on social justice activism or administrative skills as the most important matters:

In a meeting some time ago, I was asked what traits I thought would behoove the Church to look for in potential new ordinands. Rather than entrepreneurial, forward-thinking, flexible, or the many other qualities that are desirable in any new employee, I think the Church is best served by finding men and women of the Altar – men and women who see the whole of their ministry offered in the life-giving exchange of the Eucharist. 
I pointed out that there are many ways one can serve. There are many ways one can care for people. There are many ways to do social work, therapy, social service, and the many other good and caring ways in which we minister to the hurting and the lost. A priest though has one role, one function, to offer the Sacraments. All of our other roles – teaching, healing, preaching, and more flow from the Altar. More broadly this is the whole ministry of the Church, which is His Body – we offer the means for men and women to find themselves in the Presence of the Holy One

Here's how Fr. Hendrickson lays out what makes the Church truly the Church, differentiating her from all other institutions and groupings in society:
 
The Church is only the Church insofar as it offers the Sacraments with meek heart and due reverence. It seems to me that in the conversations about restructuring the Church, or a missional Church, or the many other ways we can imagine the Church changing that we are losing the simple fact that we first and foremost offer the Sacraments. If one visits the Episcopal Church’s website and clicks on “What We Do” you will not find the Sacraments. They are certainly listed under “What we Believe” but they are not just what we believe – they are what we do, who we are, how we are meant to be, and what we are called to be more of. 
We are initiated in baptism, fed in the Eucharist, express our devotion in confirmation, find forgiveness in confession, seek healing in anointing, embrace love in marriage, and some seek new forms of service in ordination. The sacraments walk us through the life cycle, drawing us to God and back to God and home to God. They are the foundation of ministry and unify the faithful in grace. The administration of the Sacraments cannot be unwoven from our pastoral function, nor from our teaching function, nor from social justice for it is through them that we are healed, united, and learn of God’s mercies.

Fr. Robert continues by calling for a move away from viewing the role of bishops in the Church through "a power-politics informed adversarial lens" or through the reductive lens of "managerial acumen" to "the traditional lens of Sacramental leadership":

In our conversations about the life of the Church, I think we would do well to think of the bishops’ office not as an administrative or managerial one but again as a Sacramental one. We would be well served by ordering our life along the lines of Eucharistic Servanthood.

And in his concluding comments, he draws the ministries of all the baptized together at the altar rail:

At the altar rail, we are transformed in joy and judgment into the Church.  Our joy is unity and we are judged as we are called to ever more loving service.  We share with all believers in a line of priests, prophets, martyrs, and saints.  We share in the councils and witness of the church and take up the call of Christ to share in living Sacramental witness to God's redeeming love.

Read it all.

Offering the sacraments "with meek heart and due reverence" for the life of the world lies at the core of what it means to be the Church.  Clarity on that identity and how it translates into Eucharistic servanthood can go a long way towards helping us stay focused on what's really important in an age of church decline and accommodation to the world's agenda-driven, divisive, will-to-power politics. And while it won't cure all of our ills, I believe that returning again and again to the basics that constitute the heart of our identity as "that wonderful and sacred mystery" - "the mystical body of [God's] Son, the blessed company of all faithful people" -  is an essential means for maintaining a clear sense of purpose (BCP, pp. 515, 339).  Those basics are laid out for us in Holy Scripture, the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer, the Sacraments, and the Catholic Creeds.  May we embrace and ever hold fast to these basics of Christian faith and practice.  For they are the means by which we make it possible for all persons to find themselves in the presence of the Holy One.

1 comment:

George Dunning said...

It is not a case of build it and they will come it is a case of live it and they will come. We are one with the One, it is He who calls each and every man woman and child to His Son, it is the Spirit who mystically tugs at the inner place of all and the all can respond or not.

Let the Church live the life of the body, let it worship, let it come to the alter and partake of the Sacraments, that mystical union with the One beyond our knowing beyond our knowledge. Let the Church set aside its debate and arguments over things that add nothing but divide and destroy the soul and despair the Spirit.

Forget the marketing, forget the mail drops, forget the 'relevancy' and instead of going out and contending with the Spirit for souls become a place where people can come in and know they have found home. Find rest. Find Love manifest by the love of others.

A Sunday morning (if it is a Sunday morning that is prescribed) should be a place of soaking of refueling of being reborn time and time again, of union not division, of embracing those who attend not counting those who are not, of trusting in God to bring about his will not wondering what must be done to fill the pews or the coffers because God has failed to do so (in our eyes).

The Church is called to live love, not sell it.