Saturday, April 21, 2012

"Christianity is not an institution . . ."

One of the study groups in the parish meets at a local restaurant for breakfast every Saturday morning to discuss another chapter of the book Glorious Companions - Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality by the Revd Richard H. Schmidt.  Each chapter consists of a brief biography of a significant figure from the Anglican tradition, followed by a few pages of excerpts from some of their writings.  The book begins with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, ends with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and covers a wide range of Anglican thinkers and writers in between.

Today, we were discussing Roland Allen, an English priest and missionary whose writings mostly date from the first half of the 20th century.  Allen's provocative claim to fame was to challenge the missionary methods of his time, comparing them to the methods of St. Paul and finding them wanting.  Where St. Paul had quickly raised up local leadership and handed the missionary enterprise over, the missionaries of Allen's time were more inclined to encourage a culture of dependence on the missionary, the mission society and the sending church.  Allen advocated a return to the apostolic model, with leadership quickly handed over to locally ordained clergy and lay people.

Now, it is not at all uncommon that our breakfast discussion may take us far away from the initial subject - although we always seem to find a means to make the connection back.  Today was no different.  While we kept coming back to discuss the Church much closer to home, we kept referring back to Allen, and in particular to his observation:
Christianity is not an institution, but a principle of life.  By imposing an institution we tend to obscure the truly spiritual character of our work.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who has ever seen the Church get caught up in details about institutional survival while seeming to forget about the imperative of the Gospel.  And not only seen it, but gotten caught up in it. 

Church buildings can be a very useful resource for a thriving congregation.  They are a place to gather, for worship, for educational programs, for fellowship.  They can be a means of proclaiming the presence and existence of a Christian community.  They can even be a revenue stream.  But when a congregation isn't thriving, the building can become a burden - especially as it ages.  The congregational leadership start talking more and more and more about the physical plant, about the need for repair, about the possibility of further erosion of the fabric, and less and less and less about the mission which the building had orginially been intended to support.  Likewise parochial or decanal or diocesan structures can support the work of the Church, but can equally become a drain on the spiritual vitality of the Church. 

Creeping institutionalization has all sorts of unanticipated effects.  The appointment of stipendiary clergy tends to mean that, as the "full-time staff," they start picking up little jobs that aren't strictly part of their vocation.  Whether against their will or at their behest, the laity end up surrendering some significant part of their ministries - often ministries that they could do far more effectively and efficiently.

Most stipendiary clergy I know aren't terribly gifted in administration, yet much of the record keeping and (non-financial) reporting is done by the clergy.  Since it isn't our gift, we often procrastinate about it.  When we finally rouse ourselves, we take longer to do it than a more gifted person would have taken.  And to top it off, we don't do it particularly well.  The whole dynamic is problematical for the parish and the diocese and possibly soul damaging for the priest.

The end of Christendom over the past generation or so has added to the strain of existing institutions.  Demographic trends seem to offer little hope.  The shoots of vitality we sometimes call the Emerging Church seem to eschew the self-absorbed demands of institutional busywork.
Perhaps God is trying to remind us that:
Christianity is not an institution, but a principle of life.

All this led me to think a little more about the Anglican Covenant.  Badly wounded by its defeat in the diocesan synods of the Church of England, it is far from a dead letter.  Yet it represents, I think, precisely the kind of institutional and Christendom thinking the Church needs to shed if it is to survive, let alone thrive.

There is a Saturday Night Live sketch with Christopher Walken and Will Farrell which purports to be about the recording of the song Don't Fear the Reaper by Blue Öyster Cult.  Throughout the sketch, Walken (as the producer) keeps asking for "more cowbell," which Will Farrell enthusiastically provides.  The sketch ranks as the number five Most Memorable Moment in SNL history, and the phrase "more cowbell" has entered common parlance to describe something generally useless that is being advocated for some incomprehensible reason.

The Anglican Covenant is all about more institutionalization.  Anglicanism needs more institutionalization about as much as Don't Fear the Reaper needs more cowbell.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Long overdue

After the NDP leadership convention, I took a couple of days to recover - or at least that was the plan.  As it worked out, I dodn't really feel much more recovered than I had the morning after.

The leadership convention results, while not entirely surprising, were slightly disappointing to me.  Niki Ashton ended up in last place on the first ballot by an 84 vote margin.  As the campaign was winding down, our expectations were realistic, however we had hoped for Niki to avoid the basement.

The good news came a few days later when the breakdown of advance voting and live voting came out.  Among those who voted live (either at the convention or from home), Niki actually finished two spots higher, coming ahead of both Martin Singh and Ottawa MP Paul Dewar (by a margin of 86 votes).

Part of the difference can be attributed to a strong convention performance.  My major role in the campaign was as the producer of Niki's 20 minute showcase, so I do take no small solace from the live voting results.  But a producer can only do so much once the show is underway, so the credit for nailing it goes to the candidate.  Over the next several hours I spoke to several people who had decided to switch their first ballot vote to Niki, and to dozens more who identified her as a future leader of the party.

I can't embed video of her convention showcase, but here is the link to the CBC footage.

And here is Niki's speech to supporters after the first ballot results.

At the end of a four ballot marathon (with repeated delays due to hostile denial of service attacks), the party elected Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair as our new leader.  The positive impression Niki made at the convention will stand her in good stead for a future leadership bid, but for now, we're all on Team Mulcair.

On the Anglican Covenant, things turned out a little better.  If two more dioceses voted "no," the Covenant would be dead in the water in the Church of England.  Defeat in the Church of England would make the pro-Covenant case even more difficult in the rest of the Communion.

The No Anglican Covenant Coalition issued our news release after Oxford and Lincoln voted down the Covenant.  As a bonus, Guilford ran up the score that same day, with Manchester and London piling on over the next week.  The tally now stands at 15 yes and 25 no, with four dioceses left to vote.

When the No Anglican Covenant Coalition first came together, the possibility of actually stopping the Covenant in the Church of England seemed like a quixotic quest.  The struggle is not yet over, but my colleagues and I can take some satisfaction in having achieved what seemed unachievable.

On this Maundy Thursday, I close by recommending anyone concerned with matters of faith or matters of economic inclusion to read Bishop Frank Weston's famous concluding address to the Anglo-Catholic Congress in 1923.  Entitled Our Present Duty, the whole thing is worth a read (and not that long either.  But I offer you the final two paragraphs.
Now mark that—this is the Gospel truth. If you are prepared to say that the Anglo-Catholic is at perfect liberty to rake in all the money he can get no matter what the wages are that are paid, no matter what the conditions are under which people work; if you say that the Anglo-Catholic has a right to hold his peace while his fellow citizens are living in hovels below the levels of the streets, this I say to you, that you do not yet know the Lord Jesus in his Sacrament. You have begun with the Christ of Bethlehem, you have gone on to know something of the Christ of Calvary—but the Christ of the Sacrament, not yet. Oh brethren! if only you listen to-night your movement is going to sweep England. If you listen. I am not talking economics, I do not understand them. I am not talking politics, I do not understand them. I am talking the Gospel, and I say to you this: If you are Christians then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly—it is madness—to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.
There then, as I conceive it, is your present duty; and I beg you, brethren, as you love the Lord Jesus, consider that it is at least possible that this is the new light that the Congress was to bring to us. You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.