Friday, October 25, 2013

Immediate Belonging


Immediate Belonging

Juan Oliver


“…though arguments aren’t always better for being ended, they are always better for being addressed.  …what arguments do show …[is] that behind nearly all taste squabbles are value disputes.”[1]


Allow me to suggest that behind our current arguments about our crisis in numbers lays a dispute about values.

Imagine Phillip saying to the Ethiopian eunuch, either, “Sure, why not, let me sprinkle you right now. Don’t even get off your horse!” or,  “Sorry, you are an Ethiopian eunuch,  --it’s out of the question!"  Instead they traveled together and talked, back and forth, about Scripture. I do not know of a better image of the process by which people come to belong to a group. Yet it is truly ironic that the story Phillip and the Ethiope is often trotted out to protest against precisely that process. Then we complain about decreasing pledges.


As Celeste Gardner recently pointed out in APLM´s listserv, one should not approach a person (or parents of one) with a ready made answer to a request for, say, baptism.  Did Phillip and the eunuch talk about what it means to be part of the Body of Christ, the Church Catholic? Probably, though I think, not in those terms.  Did they talk only about the eunuch’s feelings?  Or did they talk also what Jesus and his community meant to Phillip and his people, and what that community was all about?  Were there objections, back and forth as the two tried to frame individual meanings and meanings-shared-in-community in a new Ethiopian eunuch’s synthesis?  For unless the Ethiope at least began the process of constructing meaning for himself out of the conversation, the process failed, remaining only indoctrination.  So, bless Phillip for providing, as Celeste called for, “…the framework in which the community engages each other in conversation and discernment.” 


Such a framework –a structure for coming to belong—is totally absent in most Episcopal churches today.  Never mind that congregational development expert Arlin Rothauge found that congregations with no intentional path to belonging do not grow in numbers.  Never mind that people struggling with Christianity (if not a vaguer itch for spirituality) absolutely need and want the attention offered in this process.
Today it is more common to find just the opposite of the Ethiopian’s journey. A vignette:

Sally and John just had Thomas, their first born.  They have not been to church in almost twenty years, but feel a vague interest in getting Thomas baptized. They call Mother Trish, who, just out of seminary, is of the opinion that since we are all God’s children, there must be no obstacles to baptism. “Oh how wonderful, congratulations on your new baby!  --When would you like to hold the service?” she says to them.  They set a date convenient to the parents, family, and friends.  They say goodbye and hang up. Trish feels good about herself for “including them.”  Sally and John are pleasantly surprised that this was as easy as ordering from Amazon, but a little bewildered at how little attention they received.

Unlike Phillip and the eunuch, Sally and John have no journey with the community into which they are grafting their child. They do not get to meet other congregants. They do not have the slightest chance of making meaning-in-community out of Thomas´ baptism. Beliefs and patterns of understanding are not mutually explored.  The art of conversation is left unexercised and, as a result, Sally and John have no idea of what of who we are as the church, or what this means to them in their lives. They are not given even a chance to grapple with core questions that are foundational to us as a community.  At best, they might, years later, say something like “What? I never heard such a thing! Jesus is GOD?”  At worse they will leave after the baptism and never be seen again, like a bridegroom leaving the bride after the wedding reception.

Why is this so prevalent in our church today? The ´79 BCP (and the ’85 BAS) stress the church as the community of the baptized. So it is a bit bewildering to find ourselves, 34 years on, falling again and again into Trishism.  Would you adopt a child into your family or marry into your spouse’s family without a long process of conversation?  What is making us assume that such a process of conversation is unnecessary, unwanted, even threatening?

It strikes me that it often stems from our particular cultural context.

The Religion of Consumerism.   The rites and rituals of consumerism shape the world in which we find ourselves. From the mass media creation of artificial desires, through the conferring of identities based on what purchases, to the treatment of everything as a commodity to be sold and bought, our world is one in which individuals are formed expecting to get what they want when they want it.  If they can’t, they are, by definition, losers at the game, for the moral of the story is, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” 


Perhaps we tend to assume that belonging, too, should be immediate, depending only on the individual’s decision and similar to the decision to, say, become a Costco member.  It is not.  Costco calls you “member,” but in fact, you are just another client.  Anthropologists never cease to point out that there’s a whole lot more to the process of belonging to a group than individual initiative: things like community conversations, marking ritually the stages of belonging, and transformation of both the individual and the community and much more.

How is it then, that we are so easily tempted to ignore the process of belonging?  I believe, with Shawn Strout, that we have fallen into the wrong ecclesiology: our theological understanding of what the church is, and what it is for, is seriously flawed.

The church is not a self-service store.  In this world of immediate availability and the immediate satisfaction of desire, the church community naturally feels that it must provide whatever is wanted, by whomever, at all times.  Pastoral care is reduced to the caricature of pleasing people.  Church leadership comes down to corporate management techniques.  Church structures are expected to include employers, employees, and purchasers of services. That, however, is not a theologically accurate description of the church. In fact, it is an Anti-church, for it is a community serving a consumerist culture – the culture of Mammon, and you cannot serve him and God at the same time.

Nowhere in our theology does it say that we are a store, or even a service- for-payment. The church of Jesus Christ is not a club into which a person decides to enter, paying dues (pledges) to pay a staff (mostly clergy) to receive a service (liturgy, visitations, etc). It is not even, primarily, an institution. Yet in the consumerist anti-church, it is not rare for people to see the local congregation as the local franchise of an international corporate chain. 

According to our Prayer Book, we do not welcome people into our store, but into the “Family of God.”  “Newcomers” are not customers. They are our relatives. From another theological angle, we are adding limbs to our Body.  Since when is your leg the purchaser of your brain’s services?  Wrong image!  From yet another angle, we are a New Jerusalem – a city, a community of people in relationship to each other.

Therefore, even before developing its institution to organize ourselves, the Church of Christ is a Family, a Body, a City. People are brought into familial relationships with other Christians through a rite that mimics birth. We should take responsibility, like Phillip, for accompanying the person (or her parents) through a process of gestation, dying to the old self and emerging with a new self, born again through interaction with our family. Sadly, the “included” fall for “immediate belonging” only too often, not realizing that, like Sally and John, they are being disempowered with a big smile and a welcome hug.  

“But Juan, I do not have time to do all that with each newcomer!” I already hear the cardinal Rector say.  The good news, dear cardinal Rector, is that this is best done by your staying out of it.  Even if “newcomers” instinctively make a beeline for the priest, the fact is that the kind of conversation I am calling for is best led by trained lay members of the parish. There, in a group setting characterized by confidentiality and growing trust, people can explore together what it means to belong to Christ in community.   Such a process is a gift rather than a barrier.

Salvation in a Body.  Shawn Strout reminded us in our listserv discussion that, “Baptism does not save us individually.”  I would add that it saves corporately.  It is tempting to hope that God will heal us only individually, one-one-one, leaving our relationships unaffected. But it´s not reality!  It is an illusion to think that our relationship to God can improve regardless of our relationships to others. For being is relational.  Ayn Rand aside, we cannot be individuals without being in relationships.  In the consumerist anti-church the relationships among members are expendable. What matters is the number of (interchangeable?) pledging units.


If the Church is the New Jerusalem, where God dwells with people, the very fabric of relationships that constitutes the church is called to be the green shoots of the Kingdom that we expect every time we say the Our Father.  If the local church cannot be seen (yes, like a city on a hill) as hope-inducing evidence that a better world is possible, it is not the true church, no matter how many crosses we slap on it.  Who knew?  Perhaps our crisis in numbers is a crisis in the way we treat each other.  I suspect that if we worked on our intra-ecclesial relationships more people might be curious enough to see what makes us tick.

Core questions
Still, within this Family/Body/City there are some shared understandings (not without disagreements – we are a rambunctious family) about serious questions like,    
·      Who do we say Jesus is in relation to us and to the Godhead?
·      What, exactly, was his good news, for which he was arrested, tortured, executed?  
·      How does he live on, and what is his relationship to us the rest of his Body, the Christian community?
·      Flowing from that, What do we think the church of Jesus Christ is or is supposed to be?  
·      What does God gather us for, and what does he send us to do?  
·      Then, flowing from that, How are we to organize ourselves for this?  and from that,  How shall we incorporate new members into our community?

The sequence of steps is important! If we start with the latter questions, we end up misunderstanding the former, or worse, betraying them and our family. Look:

·      We have to grow in numbers so we can meet our budget.
·      Therefore, we should make belonging immediate and simple, upon demand.
·      To do this, we should organize ourselves to welcome people who want to join us, without obstacles.
·      God gathers us so people who want to join us can have a group to join.  God sends us out to find more people to join us.
·      The church is therefore a member-making business, with a central administration and local branches – a spiritual Costco.
·      Jesus lives on in our central administration, i.e. in the clergy, through ordination. We can only access Jesus through clergy.
·      Jesus´ Good News was his own life. He talked a lot about himself and his message: The Kingdom – God is going to be Lord of your individual heart. 
·      The death of Jesus had nothing to do with his message. It was a huge mistake, Judas´ fault.
·      Jesus is important because he was very close to God. God is very far away.

Beyond here, folks, there be dragons.

In sum, there is a serious weakness in contemporary American Anglican reflection on sacraments and ecclesiology:  the tendency to boil everything down to individual initiative. Married to a commercial model of the Church and its mission, this consumerist ecclesiology undermines any attempts to build community, and to reflect and act like one, while ignoring our relationships with each other.   This is the genesis of the anti-church, which cannot die soon enough.



Juan Oliver is a member of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Societas Liturgica, and The Council of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, as whose president he served from 1997 to 2001.  

This post is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of OPEN, the online journal of APLM.



[1] Adam Gopnik. The Table Comes First. (New York: Knopf, 2011).  pp. 107-108.

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