The Joy of Irrelevancy
So, in the midst of the sermon for his ordination I said, “Michael, never forget, you are being ordained into an almost irrelevant office in an irrelevant institution.”
I said that for two reasons: first, I believe it, and, secondly, it seemed to me it was important for him to hear. He is an astonishing priest and man whose true gifts will shine through most clearly if he can ‘hang loose’ about his role and his relative importance in the scheme of things.
I learned after the service that the bishop didn’t appreciate my insight into what Michael needed to hear and didn’t agree with my analysis of the church. He didn’t appreciate my ‘diminishing’ the church in a sermon to 400 people—most of whom have a vested interest in the relevancy of the church.
I must agree that it was perhaps not the most appropriate setting for pointing out the church’s irrelevancy, but it does need pointed out. The American Heritage Dictionary (2006) defines ‘relevant’ as “pertinent to the matter at hand.” The Merriam Webster Dictionary of Law (1996) clears up for all us Law and Order junkies what is meant when one of the attorneys objects by saying “relevancy, your Honor.” Something is ‘relevant’, according to that dictionary by “having significant and demonstrable bearing on facts or issues.”
I would content, by either of those definitions of ‘relevant’ that the Main Line Churches are woefully irrelevant these days. Not much about the church is ‘pertinent’ to any of the matters at hand in our lives and culture and doesn’t have any ‘significant and demonstrable bearing’ on the issues that consume us. Almost no one I know pauses when considering the matters at hand each day and asks, “wonder what the Episcopal Church has to say that would be pertinent here?” It has not always been so. For 17 centuries or so—from the Council of Nicea until relatively recently—the church was so enmeshed with Western culture that you couldn’t turn around without bumping into both its pertinence and relevancy. I’m not scholarly enough to pinpoint when that began to unravel. Certainly the Renaissance got the ball rolling, but the church wasn’t dislodged from her role all at once. The horrors of two World Wars and the world-wide depression in between them certainly greased the skids. But, if you ask me, the true death knell of Christendom in the US came with the construction of the Interstate Highway System and the explosion of the mass media.
Before you think I’m crazy, let me point out that no less a figure than Stanley Howerwas traces the “end of Christendom” to a particular Sunday evening in his home town of Greenville, South Carolina, when the movie theatre was open for the first time during the hours of evening church services. (Resident Aliens, p.---) The explosion of mass media—movies, TV and now the Internet, for God’s sake—replaced most of the entertainment value of Main Line Churches. As late as the early 20th Century, churches were still the center of social life and leisure time (what little of that there was) activities as well as being the formative influence on morals and ideas. The rise of mass media gave the lie to that relevancy. And the Interstates freed people to travel much longer distances to do things than ever before. There are plenty of people still living who remember the time when only a few people on the block…or in the whole town!...had automobiles. (When those people talk about that simpler place and time, they tend to say ‘automobiles’ rather than ‘cars’.) President Eisenhower’s vision of a nation connected together by four lane highways created a booming construction-driven economy, transformed Detroit into the shining city on a hill, put engineers into a whole new class of workers and made possible “the Sunday drive” right past the church and out to the lake.
There were, it seems to me, two models for the church in the height of her relevancy—the village church and the cathedral. Like Orthodox Jews to this day, most everyone used to walk to church…which insured the church they attended was in walking distance. And in a village before radio and, more malignantly, TV, the church was the center of civic, social and political life. And since the village church was so central to life, generation upon generation of heterosexual couples met and married in ‘their’ church. It was a very different world than the one that came to be after WW II.
The cathedral model was the village church writ large. Commerce tended to flourish on the cathedral grounds. All those European cathedrals aren’t in the center of cities because they bought the land—the cities grew up around them. There are two equivalents to the cathedral model today—shopping malls and Mega-churches. You can spend a day in a shopping mall—do your banking in the branch there, have meals in the many eating establishments, do some shopping, find interactive experiences for your children, get your hair cut and styled as well as a pedicure and manicure, visit the day spa, see the cars that are always on display in the walk areas, get your exercise, see displays by civic groups, get a drink, go to a movie, visit the health care satellite hospitals have established, get a tattoo, buy insurance—there is actually no reason to leave a shopping mall for most any needs. I keep waiting for some evangelical group to put in chapels.
The other cathedral clone is the Mega-churches that have sprung up in the suburbs of most all medium sized and large cities. One way Interstates made most Main Line Churches irrelevant is if the church was built before the Interstates were, there is insufficient parking. Mega-churches work “because” of the highways and are islands of holiness in a sea of asphalt. One of the things the folks at places like Willow Creek have done is perfected the art of parking. Sports arenas could learn a lot about how to get cars in and out of a venue efficiently from the Mega-church people. Mega churches also mimic shopping malls by having food courts, gyms, child-care, ‘Christian’ schools, video game rooms and worship that is more like Broadway or Los Vegas than like Canterbury. Mega-churches and sect-like fundamentalist churches are the only ‘churches’ that have figured out how to remain relevant. Mega-churches do it by making themselves indispensable and competing successfully with the larger culture. The Fundamentalists do it by mind control. If I were a betting man I would wager the latter will collapse into irrelevancy before the former.
Mind control—control of any kind—is something that is becoming harder and harder in our culture. Jimmie Carter once said on the PBS show Speaking of Faith that fundamentalism was the creation of what he called ‘dominant males’. My wife would call them ‘male mutants”—a term, not of endearment, which includes all the men (and some women) on the planet. Those dominant males, according to Jimmie Carter, believe that what they think is what God thinks. “That’s a difficult position to argue with,” he said, in his soft, sweet accent.
It seems to me that the church, for most of history—at least from the 4th century until the Interstates—had that opinion of itself: what they believed is what God believed. Interestingly enough, the Protestant Reformation took that little caveat with them when they left the Whore of Babylon behind. Church has been based on ‘absolute Truth’—something I’ve admitted I don’t believe in—and used that cudgel to batter people into line for century after century.
There are people my age, for example, who were told by their Roman Catholic priests that simply entering a non-Roman church was a mortal sin. I ponder what the percentage of people born since 1977 who believe that there is a whit of difference between different denominations would be. One of the costs of irrelevancy is that the denominations have, for the most part, lost their ‘bite’, their ‘scent’, their particular ‘flavor’. Like politicians and Episcopal bishops, denominations, scrambling to stay ‘relevant’ gave up what made them distinct and real. I went to a Methodist wedding some years ago and watched an altar boy with gloves on, along with a red cassock and snow white surplice, come out to light the candles on the altar. When he finished, he did what we Episcopalians call a ‘profound bow’—from the waist, all the way down until he looked like the number 7. Holy moley! The Methodist Church I knew as an adolescent would have fallen to the ground if 1. there had been an altar boy; 2. he had been wearing gloves; 3. there had been candles on the altar; or 4, anyone had reverenced the ‘table’ in front of the pulpit. What has happened to Methodists? They probably drink now too.
Shortly after I came to St. John’s, I was in the church on a Saturday morning by myself. I was fussing and obsessing about something or other for the Sunday services. Today, I could never find myself alone at St. John’s on a Saturday morning. The ‘Saturday School’ for the Hispanic congregation would be there, the MEEP group (an unfortunate acronym for an adult training program the diocese runs) would be there, Knit One/Purl Two (the Prayer Shawl group) would be there, and any of a dozen or so periodic Saturday meetings and events would be going on. But back then, I could have the whole building to myself.
I had the doors locked but heard the doorbell from the parking lot. When I opened the door I was confronted with twenty or so Hispanic folks, all dressed up, with a baby in an ornate gown. Many of them were weeping, but one young man, who spoke idiomatic English, told me what their story was. They had scheduled the baby’s baptism at the huge Roman Catholic basilica on the other side of the Green and shown up on schedule. The parents had been through six weeks of baptismal training prior to the private baptism. But when the priest arrived, he asked who the god-parents were. Two women and a man raised their hands.
“Are you Roman Catholics?” he asked.
Two were, but one of the god-mothers was a member of an Evangelical Spanish-speaking church. The priest announced he would not do the baptism and turned on his heel and disappeared in the direction of the Rectory.
“We just want somewhere to pray for a while,” the young man told me. “Our hearts are broken.”
I ushered them into the sanctuary, turned on some lights and told them to take as long as they wanted. Then I went back to my fussing and obsessing for a while. Suddenly, something else occurred to me. I went back and found the young man who had been the family’s spokesperson. I asked him if they’d like for me to baptize the baby.
“When?” he asked.
“Right now,” I said.
After a short burst of Spanish among the group, he turned to me and have me the thumbs up sign. I gathered water and oil, wine and bread, lit the Pascal Candle, baptized little Maria and shared the Body and Blood with her family.
I haven’t seen them since, but, to me, that doesn’t matter. That sacrament mattered and made a difference, just don’t ask me what….
A decade or so ago, I was sitting in the nave of St. John’s being interviewed by a local reporter about some issue or another. Her skin was copy paper white, she had red hair and a smattering of freckles across her nose below her blue eyes (I have a real weakness for freckles). She was 20 something and when the interview was over she looked around the church and said to me, “This is different from Jewish, right?”
So, two generations ago—maybe even one—Colleen would have been worrying about the plight of her immortal soul, having spent an hour in a non-Roman church talking to an Episcopal ‘priest’. But all she wanted to know was whether Episcopalians were different from Jews.
I asked her about her family. Her oh-so-Irish father had married at 16 and divorced at 19. When he married Colleen’s mother it had to be by a justice of the peace. His family disowned him and his church excommunicated him (part of the death throes of the church’s relevancy). So, understandably, he was a tad pissed off about things. So Colleen and her brother, Sean (for goodness sake!) had never darkened the door of a church—except when she came to interview me.
Obviously, she’d never been baptized. I asked her if she’d like to be.
“What would it matter?” she asked. “What would it mean?”
I told her I truly believed it would both matter and mean something, I just wasn’t sure what.
After I showed her the astonishing baptismal font with some terribly interesting iconography carved into it’s marble (a pelican piercing her breast to feed her young on her blood and a stag and evergreen tree along with an Agnus Dei and a descending dove) she was interested in the symbol and myth of it all.
“When would we do it?” she asked.
“I’d prefer a Sunday morning,” I told her, “but most any time would work for me—but we need witnesses….”
She left really considering the possibility, but when I didn’t hear from her for a while I called the newspaper and discovered she had taken and job in Arizona and moved there. Oh those Interstate highways….
Which brings us, inexorably, to marriages. This subject has gotten horribly complicated by the longing and demand of gay and lesbian couples to be ‘married’ in the church, just like real people. (That’s the point, isn’t it, that the church doesn’t take GLBT folks seriously, like they’re ‘real’? The church tends to extend, for the most part, a modicum of hospitality to the GLBT community—oh, let’s be honest here, to the GL community—the church no more knows what to extend to bi-sexual and transgendered folks than the church would know what to do with a woodchuck who got elected bishop. Though the wood chuck could chuck wood, what on earth would the BT folks of the GLBT community do? Horrors!) But I’ll save that conversation for later. What I want to write about now is heterosexual marriage and how the church has made itself irrelevant to that particular institution…which isn’t doing so well on the relevancy scale itself!
When I was a young priest and feeling relevant, I had a multitude of thoughts about “Christian marriage”. I felt that “Christian marriage” was reserved for people who had proved both their “Christian” commitment and their heart-felt desire to wrap their marriage in Christianity in a way that would guard and protect them until death did them part. Or something like that was what I thought. Since then, since admitting that Christianity is irrelevant, at least so far as the church of Christ is concerned, I’ve moved to a different place about “marrying people”.
That’s what they usually say—mostly the bride though the groom seems to make first contact more often than in the past—they say: “will you ‘marry us’.” And the first time I meet with a couple I assure them that I will NOT be ‘marrying them’. So far as I can see, the church doesn’t ‘marry’ people. If the church did, indeed, ‘marry people’ they wouldn’t need a marriage license from the courthouse. Additionally, so far as I can see, the state doesn’t ‘marry’ people either—the state provides a license for marriage that, once signed by a functionary and processed in the courthouse, provides them with certain specific legal rights. What actually happens, it seems to me, in a marriage is that two people ‘marry’ each other. And by the time they’re sitting in the library of St. John’s talking to me, they’re already, in my mind, ‘married’.
“Nobody,” I tell those, usually nervous couples—nervous because they think the church is going to try to batter them in some way—“wakes up one morning and decides to go see an Episcopal priest about ‘getting’ married.” Long before that happens, I tell them, they have made some decisions and some promises to each other—hopefully not right after especially good sex or a round of bar hopping—that have bonded them together in a way that indicates they fully intend to spend the rest of their natural lives together. What they come to me about is exactly what the good old Book of Common Prayer says it is—‘the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage’. That implies—and I’m an old English major and understand the language’s nuances quite well—is that the “Marriage” has already occurred and what we’re going to gather to do is celebrate that reality and have me, as the representative of an irrelevant institution, “bless” it.
Then I go on to explain what I think a ‘blessing’ is. I tell them that where I come from, when the family is gathered around the dinner table full of entirely too much food to possibly be consumed at one sitting, someone will say, “Who’d like to say the blessing?” And whatever whoever steps into that breach says is something like this: “Thank you, God, for this food and for those who prepared it and for those we share it with.” And everyone says “Amen” and digs in.
That truly is what I think I do in a marriage ceremony: I say a heart-felt “thank you” to God for the two people, their love, their commitment, their longing, their promises and vows, their dewy-eyed optimism, their ‘good intentions’, their hopes and fears and wonderings. And I ask God to guard them like the apple of his/her eye and hide them under the shadow of her/his wing. Lord knows, given the way things are these days, they need that protection. And since that’s what I do, I assume that is what the sacrament of marriage (excuse me, Episcopal Purists, “sacramental rite”!) is about. That and that only and that—thanksgiving and blessing and prayers for protection—is sacrament enough…more than enough. That’s the outward and visible act—the inward and spiritual grace part is up to God. I’m delighted to divide up the responsibility in that way.
I’m also delighted when people come to ‘get married’ at St. John’s. Again, there are two reasons. I truly believe in the objective reality of sacraments and I think anyone who wants such a reality from an otherwise irrelevant institution deserves to receive it. Inclusion is not a ‘privilege’, it’s a birthright as a child of God. And the folks who come for the sacrament are delighted that it is freely given and not tied up in a Byzantine complexity of rules and canon law and inhospitality. Many of the folks whose marriages I bless are Roman Catholics with a divorce or two in their history. Some of them have gone the long, lonely road of annulment to no fulfillment. Most of them have been insulted in one way or another by the priest who may have baptized them and told they are ‘unworthy’ in some profound way. Then they come to me and I’m delighted to see them and will bend over backwards to provide sacramental support to their relationship. It’s one of the things I do to make an irrelevant institution matter and make a difference in people’s lives.
That’s the thing that I want to leave you with at this point: being ‘irrelevant’ isn’t so bad a thing. It doesn’t mean we can’t ‘matter’ profoundly and make miraculous differences in people’s lives. In fact, being irrelevant might just make it possible for the church to play those roles. What we don’t get to do is control and manipulate people in every part of their lives. What we don’t get to do is to use the Sacraments—which belong, by the way, in my way of thinking, to God and the People of God—as forms of reward and punishment, keeping everyone in their place. The church has a remarkable and wondrous opportunity to ‘get out of the way’ between God and God’s children and contribute to both by bringing instruments of Grace into the lives of those who God loves.
I always ask people who come to St. John’s thinking I’ll “marry” them and then learn what I will truly do—I ask them why they chose to call me. I tell them there is no wrong answer because I know they expect the church to ask trick questions and then assault them when they answer incorrectly. A perfectly good answer is this: “it’s a pretty place”. That answer works for me because St. John’s is a remarkably pretty place and a place such a holy moment should happen in. But the answer I like most is that they attended a wedding at St. John’s in the past and their friends who got married told them that St. John’s was a place of Grace and Hospitality. That’s the answer this old irrelevancy likes to hear.
(A closing shot: one of those crippled couples—beaten up by the Roman Catholic church and denied the sacrament of marriage—had their celebration and blessing at St. John’s about 12 years ago. I expect about 1/3 of that kind of couple to hang around in some way and about 1/3 to come back for the sacrament of baptism and about 1/3 never to be heard from again. I’ll take those odds. The wife lost her job at a RC school for being married in an Episcopal Church after a divorce. God help us! This couple disappeared for several years and then—true to my accounting—came back to have Wyatt baptized. Then they disappeared again. But the husband came back—God know why (well, of course, God knows why…)—and started playing guitar for the 8 a.m. service. He’s served on the vestry and his wife and son came more and more.
Evangelism is a long-range enterprise for an irrelevant institution. We must be this: Inclusive, Open, Hospitable and Patient.