Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Coming down where you're meant to be....

Tonight, I went to the third and final forum, hosted by the Cluster I serve and led by Ian, our bishop, about the work and missionary concepts of Roland Allen (a late 19th Century and 20th Century Anglican Missionary. Allen developed a way of 'being church' called Total Common Ministry or Mutual Ministry, depending who you're talking to.

The Middlesex Area Cluster Ministry--three churches located in Northford, Higganum and Killingworth CT--seeks to practice (and you're always 'practicing', you never get it right) Total Common Ministry. My contract requires I spend 13 hours a week in my ministry as Interim Missioner. Sometimes, I do more. Sometimes, I do less. So it goes. It mostly averages out.

There are two 'Sunday only' priests--Brian teaches liturgy at Yale Divinity School and Molly teaches at Hartford Seminary and is the Secretary of our diocese. They both have Ph.D's. I have a humble D.Min. But we're all "The Rev. Dr...." These three small congregations have an uber-educated group of clergy. Brian and Molly are remarkable and wonderful, each in their own ways. Brian is British and has one of those British senses of humor that dry and droll and self-deprecating all at once. Molly is young and full of energy and passion. I love them both and am honored to work side-by-side with them in the Cluster.

The meeting tonight made me realize that I have, in some blessed way, come down just where I''m meant to be.

In my years of priesthood, I've served three remarkable congregations. St. James in Charleston, West Virginia--an African-American parish full of people with Masters and Doctoral degrees since St. James was near a historic Black College. St. Paul's in New Haven, CT--a richly diverse parish with both town and gown and black and white and well to do and poor. Finally, I served St. John's, Waterbury, CT for 21 years and retired from there. St. John's was also wonderfully diverse--including a large Hispanic congregation. What all my places of service shared was rich diversity, an urban setting and a profound commitment to outreach and service in God's mission in the community around them.

MACM (pronounced "Mac-Um") and it's congregations also have a deep commitment to outreach and service in God's mission around them. But they are rural, not urban, and not at all diverse in the ways I'm used to . (Someone asked me what was different about MACM and the churches I've served. I told them "I'm not used to being around so many white people!" Which is true but not a problem.)

Here is the astonishing difference between MACM and my service to my three dear and wondrous parishes: MACM seeks to practice Total Common Ministry.

Wherever I've served--and I hope you notice I always say "the churches I've served" rather than "My parishes, reveals that I've always had the intuitive notion that I serve rather than possess. I have always had a role in the communities I've served AND I've had the "authority" in those communities. I've done all I could to give that authority away to lay folks and staff members, but it has always been true that the authority was mine and mine alone. Div-vie it up and pass it around as I could, it always came back to me. In those three astonishing churches, I--an outsider--HAD the AUTHORITY.

Total Common Ministry is another creature altogether. In TCM, the 'authority' does not lie with the priest but within the community. The priest serves as a sacramental minister, but the model is not 'a congregation gathered around a priest. In Mutual Ministry, the community has the 'authority' and the priest 'serves' within that authority.

It is a remarkably different way of  'being church' and one I have come down within and realized it is where I was always meant to be.

I do other things now, out in the world, instead of having my world be the parish I served. I teach at a UConn branch and lead workshops for the Mastery Foundation and live and move and have my being--part of which includes participating in the three congregations and in the Cluster as a whole as a sacramentalist. I tell the story and tend the fire and pass the wine. But the day-to-day life and being of the three churches and the Cluster is under the 'authority' of the people who ARE the three congregations. I get to hang out with them but I'm not "in charge" in any way that matters.

I love this way of 'doing church' and 'being priest'. It is just the best.

I'm not sure most seminary trained priests could lean into it the way I do. There is a distinct 'privledge' and 'entitlement' most priests expect to receive. And that simply doesn't exist in Roland Allen's paradigm. The priest is simply a member of the community with certain obligations to fulfill in the sacramental life of the community. The priest is 'part of the whole', not the straw that stirs the drink. It is a radical shift from the normal model and paradigm--but one I find to be liberating, empowering and transforming.

What a joy to find that you've come down where you were meant to be at last....Joy and Wonder, no less than that.....

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.