I've just returned from the annual clergy retreat in the Poconos in Pennsylvania which was led by "Jesus Freak" Sara Miles, who is also Director of the St. Gregory of Nissa Food Pantry in San Francisco.
The focus of our time with her, however, was her latest book, Take This Bread.
Just so you'll know what we were dealing with, here's a brief except from Chapter Four:
One evening in St. Gregory's kitchen, after everyone else had left, I heard a confession from a pantry volunteer, who'd brought me what she said was a 'secret' in a shopping bag. She had a cast on her leg, and kept looking over her shoulder anxiously, and she made me close the kitchen door. Her boyfriend, who beat her up regularly, had been threatening to kill her, she said, swallowing hard.Alrighty, then. Don't say I didn't warn you.
"I thought, this is a church, it'll be safe here," she said, unwrapping a dirty dishtowel from around a huge .357 Magnum revolver. "I took out the firing pin."
That's what church was for, I realized: a place to bring the ugly, frightening secret you couldn't tell anyone else about. I checked that the gun was disarmed, and stuck it in a cookie tin in a locked closet beneath the pantry shelves. I didn't mention it to anyone from the Sunday congregation. The woman moved away, to stay with a sister in Sacramento. A month later I did tell Steve.
"You must be kidding," he said.
"Isn't this what church is for?" I said.
"Uh, yeah," said Steve. He looked scared, and like he wanted to laugh at the same time. "Whoa, that's a really big gun." We drove down to the local police station, and I walked up to the officer on duty. I was wearing a crucifix and a fairly respectable sweater. "Excuse me, I found this in our churchyard," I lied. "Can you please take it?"
"You just made the high point of my career as a parish administrator," said Steve. "I never imagined I'd show a cop something that could make him say 'holy shit.' "
"Yeah, well," I said. "I guess this is what you call the Christian life.
And, you need to know that I absolutely agree with her. About "the Christian life."
Which is not to say that she didn't make me squirm from time to time.
Like her unabashed commitment to "Open Communion" - the idea that communion should be open to everyone - baptized and unbaptized. Christian and Jew and Buddhist and Muslim or Atheist - as well as those who are rich and poor, old and young, clean and unclean, literate and illiterate.
She ties this thought with the impeccable theological position that the passion of Jesus was - is - about loving God and ourselves and our neighbor so much that our passion becomes welcoming the stranger (who is our neighbor in Christ) and feeding the people of God.
You know - doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.
Not that I don't agree about Open Communion. I do. With my whole heart and mind and soul and body. It's what I believe.
It's just that there's this little matter of the Canon Law of The Episcopal Church.
We don't allow it.
According to the laws that have governed the church catholic church for centuries, we're only supposed to give communion to those "baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
Presumably, this means that those who were baptized in the name of the "Creator, Redeemer and Spirit" would also be excluded. I know, right?
Oh, but wait! There's more.
We celebrated Eucharist together in an absolutely glorious chanted version in which everyone participated. The words of the Eucharistic prayer were based solidly on scripture and the harmony was profoundly mysterious and positively delicious.
I felt fed on so many levels, I got dizzy. Oh, maybe that's because we also danced and sang our way to the altar and away from the altar.
The Eucharistic experience was simultaneously ancient and modern. Indeed, it moved me to a place beyond the constraints of time and place and person - which, as I understand the Eucharist, is precisely what it is meant to do.
However, you should know that they use this prayer often at St. Gregory's church. With clergy and laity fully participating in the words and music while the priest(s) preside.
Which is also against the canons of the church.
Oops! Yet another aspect of "Open Communion" with profound implications.
One of the things our experience in this retreat led us as clergy to discuss with our bishop is the fact that while we may, as individual clergy, support "Open Communion" in both aspects of participation, and our bishop may fully support us as individual clergy and congregations, we need to be very clear that we are not in compliance with the canons of the church.
What's the big deal? Well, for one, the revisions to Title IV (Ecclesiastical Discipline) of The Episcopal Church make it clear that clergy are subject to Ecclesiastical Court Trial for such infractions, which may well lead to being disciplined. It could also lead to suspension of license to function as a clergy person and/or being "defrocked".
Which someone may want to push to court trial action - and not necessarily for pernicious purposes.
This is precisely what happened when eleven women and three bishops pushed for a change in our canon law by participating in an "irregular" ordination at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia on July 29, 1974.
If we're going to be practicing Open Communion "locally" and we consider ourselves part of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church" well, perhaps we need to change our canons. An act of "canonical disobedience" resulting in an Ecclesiastical Court trial might be one way to accomplish that canonical change.
Indeed, it might be the most efficient way, rather than waiting around for years and years before the church finally comes to an understanding. And then, a few centuries for the "church catholic" to come to an agreement - which, oh, by the way, it still hasn't in terms of the ordination of women.
Meanwhile, some people will disobey the canons while bishops look the other way. Others will change the canons. And others will continue to go hungry.
We've got a great deal of theological water to cross before we get to the point of a 'catholic' Open Communion. Meanwhile, it's happening any way. Meanwhile, clergy and bishops are not doing anyone any favors by practicing an ecclesiastical version of "Don't ask, don't tell."
That's as dishonest in the sanctuary as it is in the military.
It's an inconvenient dilemma, isn't it, this business of truth telling and honesty and integrity? It would be so easy to dismiss it as not important - especially right now, during Stewardship Season.
I was astounded by some of my clergy colleagues who felt "judged" by Sara's presentation. Some felt that she was offering her thoughts on the theology of liturgy and mission at St. Gregory's as "the way". She did not. She repeatedly pushed us to think through why we do what we do and what we may need to change to have integrity with the Gospel.
The resistance to that was palpable, unintentionally supported by the fact that, when we gathered for communal prayer we used straight-up liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, we were even asked to bring our own BCPs.
Some said they were "greatly relieved" by this, relishing in the comfort of the familiar and the illusion of the perfected, seemingly unconcerned about the fact that some of us feel excluded by the language and inhibited by the structure.
I could only shake my head, as I imagined Jesus must have done when the rich man came to him, asking what he else he might do, besides following the law to the letter, in order to gain eternal life. "Take everything you have and give it to the poor," he said. And, the man walked away.
Which had me thinking a great deal about this idea of "raising the dead". I haven't been blogging much because I've been doing a great deal of "walking meditation" on this very notion - in myself and what I see happening in the church and in the world.
At first I thought Sara Miles was making the connection about feeding people who are being starved to death by poverty - financial and spiritual - and the deep mystery of the Holy Communion we know in the Eucharistic moment where we join our voices with "angels and archangels and all the company of heaven" to praise God and serve the people of God.
And, she does mean just that. I recognize and understand that very point. Indeed, when I was a seminarian at St. John's, Bowdoin Street, Boston, my senior project was a slide show which made that very connection.
I used Neil Diamond's "Holly, Holy" as the soundtrack and interspersed pictures I took of the Thursday Night Supper and the Doorbell Ministry with pictures of our Sunday Eucharist. I must say, it was very powerful. Alas, the slides are long gone along with the ancient slide show/sound projector I used to display it, but the memory of those images is still very much present in my heart and in my mind.
But her larger point is that when we do that - when we make the connection between what one of our Eucharistic prayers asks to "deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal" and actively engage in the Mission of Jesus - we awaken that which has died in our selves - our souls and bodies and our whole lives - to become more alive in Christ Jesus.
I'm coming to see that Open Communion is precisely what Jesus intended - indeed, what the ancient church practiced in the first few centuries of its life, before those who followed Jesus were not called Christians but "People of The Way."
And, I'm coming to understand what our Presiding Bishop provocatively challenged the Episcopal Church's Executive Council, meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Oct. 24, to avoid "committing suicide by governance."
Jefferts Schori said that the council and the church face a "life-or-death decision," describing life as "a renewed and continually renewing focus on mission" and death as "an appeal to old ways and to internal focus" which devotes ever-greater resources to the institution and its internal conflicts."Suicide by governance" is an unfortunate term in the aftermath of the spotlight being on LGBT suicide. Our Presiding Bishop has a way of being quite provocative in her imagery. "Conjoined twins" and "standing in a crucified place" come immediately to mind.
"We need some structural change across the Episcopal Church," she said. "Almost everywhere I go I hear dioceses wrestling with this; dioceses addressing what they often think of as their own governance handcuffs, the structures that are preventing them from moving more flexibly into a more open future."
Later in her remarks, Jefferts Schori said "we need a system that is more nimble, that is more able to respond to change," calling for "a more responsive and adaptable and less rigid set of systems."
Nevertheless, I think she's absolutely right. We've become so institutionally top heavy that we can scarcely get out of our own way to do the work of the Gospel. She's right: as a church and a denomination and as a people, we will die if we don't become "more nimble".
It's not "teh gays". It's not "women." It's not "the liberal left" or the "right wingnuts." It's not "the leadership". It's not "sheep who attack" in dysfunctional congregations, resistant to change.
We're killing ourselves.
The ENS article also reported that
House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson, council vice chair, said during her opening remarks that Executive Council has the responsibility to address important big-picture issues.I've been thinking and praying and meditating about all of this for the past few days and, here's my take about all of this: we are in the midst of a Great Reformation which God is bringing about in our very midst.
"Fortunately God has called us to this ministry and has given us the gifts to do what needs to be done," she said. "It is all of us, together -- bishops, laity, clergy -- who govern the Episcopal Church. Make no mistake about it: our form of governance enables our mission."
Anderson suggested that "a choice between governance and mission is a false choice," adding that the choice is a both-and, not either-or.
It's been hard to find the words to express what's in my heart and in my mind. I've been writing furiously in my journal and having long, late-night conversations with my Spiritual Director. I regret this piece doesn't quite do it - and indeed may make me sound like I've gone right 'round the bend - but it's the best I can do to express what's in my heart at this moment:
I think the heart of the church, the Body of Christ, is longing - desiring, pleading - to return to a radical (meaning "at the root"), and less orthodox (meaning, "customary or conventional, as a means or method; established") church.
As an Anglican, committed to the "via media" or middle way, I'm wondering how we can avoid a "false choice" of choosing between "government and mission" and do both: reform the structures we have in place which invite the full participation of all four orders of the baptized to better enable us to do the mission of the church.
I'm convinced of it: Reformation is here. It's in process. I don't think there's any doubt about it. We need a Martin Luther to rise among us to name it and claim it and lead us past our ideas of "post modern relevance" resulting in a "consumer religion" and into a more "radical" faith.
The dead are being raised to new life.
Like the trees on the hills of the Poconos that surrounded me for three days, the church is looking rather like it has past its Golden Age and we are in the Autumn of our Ecclesiastical Life.
Some of us are holding on for dear life to each dry, brittle branch and fighting against letting go of every dry leaf that is blown off by the chill of the wind that blows from the Northeast or ravaged by the cold, sobering rain.
All many of us can think about is the difficult Winter ahead and how the lands will soon be barren when not covered by a thick blanket of snow.
We forget that Spring will follow, with the promise of new life. New hope.New meaning. Changing the landscape in an Annual Divine House Cleaning Event.
The Resurrection of the Earth.
It is God's way as revealed in Christ Jesus and magnified in God's Creation and Creatures.
At a moment in our lives when Right-wing American Christianity is on the rise, when all of the major world religions seem to be following an arc bent on fundamentalism and exclusionary - even violent - practices, I believe we are in the midst of an unexpected and terribly inconvenient Christian conversion to be even more radically inclusive. More radically loving. More radically giving.
Yes, more "nimble" in our hearts and souls and in our structures of governance - in the church as well as the state.
Embracing the stranger - feeding him - loving her enough to partake freely in the banquet and participate fully in the sacramental life that is ours in the world and in the church.
To be as lovingly wasteful. As God is with us in Creation. As Jesus was for us. As the Holy Spirit is in our lives.
Letting the leaves fall where they may, knowing that even they have a divine purpose: they will be used to nourish and feed the earth to bring forth new life.
Like the mist of an Autumn morning on the hills of the Poconos, it hovers and dances over the baptismal waters of my faith.
From the smoke and mist and ashes, God is raising the dead to new life. Do you not see it?
In the midst of it all - the dying and resurrection, the reformation and renewal - we are being asked to sing the ancient, radical mystery of our faith which is at the very center of the cosmos:
"All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave our song is "Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!"
I only know this much to be true: Raising the dead is a radical, mysterious, joyful part of a Sacramental Life in Jesus.
Me? I'm planing to sing along. Full-throat. Dancing the whole way.