I have always believed in Christian Education as being the center of what I do. I have always seen the job of a rector is to help people come to know their faith. But the world has changed since I started out. It isn’t a matter that it is changing; it has already changed. And I have been slow to realize it. Part of that comes from working in small towns. Small communities tend to be slower to pick up the most recent trends. Congregations tend to be small and more intimate. But at the same time, small towns tend to preserve the simplicity of practice and faith when the city experience has migrated to more complex ways of being followers of Jesus. I am not condemning or lauding either location. I am just recognizing that there is a difference—and it is still a matter of ‘different strokes for different folks.’
In each parish I served I always instituted a class called: “What you always wanted to know about the Episcopal Church but have been coming too long to ask.” It was a good way to get to know what the parish knew and bring some new ideas into the community. But this is not the kind of adult education that needs to go on in the city parishes here along the Trinity River. The primary thing that suburban folk want of their church is a sense of belonging. This belonging is not like having a membership in a club or an organization that does things. It is a matter of belonging to a body that holds a reverence for the Holy, the Ineffable, the Source of all things.
Reading Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity After Religion, I am beginning to understand just how much the world has tipped to this new way of understanding faith. In our book study, I asked why we were all here. There were many different ways of expressing it, but all of the class members understood that they participated in Church because they knew that they were a part of something beyond themselves. Yet not one of them spoke of God or Christ or the Spirit. It wasn’t because they didn’t claim faith in God. It was merely that the way that they knew of the Holy was through the community of faith.
Some talked about having grown up in church; some spoke of finding a home there. Some spoke of the parish; some spoke of the denomination and some spoke of faith in something greater. But everyone’s faith was marked by the community in which they lived out their faith.
I came to know Christ through the influence of a community of nuns. It was through their witness to and within a faith-based form of living that I began to understand God’s love for me. They held all things in common; they prayed together several times a day. They even meditated in the same chapel in silence and the bonds grew without word in that silent intimacy that none of us would have acknowledged then. We were afraid of ‘intimacy’ because that could undermine the commonness of the whole. However, the intimacy that developed was never physical or social; it was spiritual.
As Bass opens her book, she finds the “spiritual but not religious’ mantra that is being bantered about is one that we cannot ignore. While more and more are leaving our parishes, we are finding through polls that 92% of Americans are admitting to some kind of experience of the Holy/God/Spirit/Higher Power. As a retired pastor/rector/priest, I could toss up my hands and say, “How did I fail to teach the love for Christ Jesus to those who came to my church?” I could take the blame for dips in attendance like many naysayers both in and out of the church would like me to. But I would be missing the point.
In the 1950’s a new breeze began to be blown in the Christian communities in the world. For me it was symbolized with Vatican II in the early 1960’s which opened the world of faith to a relationship not just to the Church, but to Christ, to God, to All that is beyond us. The world sat up and took notice to the bringing of scientific research to faith. Biblical study had already begun in the mid-19th century. But now archeology, philology, linguistics, higher criticism were all brought to bear on all things religious. It was a heady half-century for academia. But Christian Adult Education didn’t keep up. People began to read more about faith in the likes of Time and Newsweek than Christian Century or The Episcopalian or Episcopal Life.
We had the Church Teaching series, but for some reason it was perceived as all head work rather than teaching folk how to encounter the Holy within them. Episcopalians could often quote the catechism on the definitions of the signs of faith, the Sacraments, but were often unaware of what was happening to them as they participated in the liturgical symbols of the faith. With the ’79 prayer book’s attention to Baptism and Eucharist as the vortex of their encounter with God with less and less participation in the daily order of prayer in Morning and Evening Prayer, faith became a matter of participation in the Sacraments rather than a lived-out relationship with the Divine or a conversation with the Holy.
Like Christians all over we invited newcomers to come and KNOW what we knew. We passed on to them the how to’s and the what for’s of faith but seldom talked of the relationship with the One who was the Source of our lives. In the 70’s too, a wave of spirit-filled worship caught us Episcopalians off guard and people began to ‘feel’ what it meant to love and beloved by God. Staid and polished, we found that lifting our hands to praise God was remarkably satisfying. And there was music that moved us out of the 18th century and allowed us to embrace God deeply within our souls where song moves the heart more powerfully than even actions. Americans have wakened to a Divinity that touches them more profoundly than our ‘religious services’.
As a purveyor of those ‘religious services’ part of me wants to hang on for those who “know” their meaning, who have been nurtured in their signs and symbols. But I do believe that this is a kind of esoteric Gnosticism. The mysteries of the Church have become arcane rituals which take so much energy to explain that those who come to Faith without a history of them are wondering ‘what’s the fuss?’ Much like the post-Vatican II Catholic, I too would like to see a way to know holiness without having to have a degree in Church History to enjoy them.
So I am going to offer not a Confirmation Class this year. I am going to offer a class in Community: How do we come to share this experience of the wholly Other/wholly Within? How can we trust in that Deity that takes our breath away and share that with one another? I hope to pair the new to faith with someone who has been coming for some time and perhaps their enthusiasms will rub off on one another. This does not mean that we will change the name of the parish. We will still be unashamedly Episcopalians, but hopefully we will be able to hear what those who come to us are saying. And perhaps they will find among us a way to practice that relationship with Christ that we walk in. We won’t be changing the prayer book services or ignore what is going on in TEC or the Anglican Communion. But hopefully we will be able to rejoice in a faith that is broader than we once thought and more open to the joy of living in relationship with all that is Holy.