Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why the Church is Dying I

[A report requested by a diocese at the end of a Theologian in Residence programme]

Perhaps it would be helpful to cast some of my reflections and impressions of my five weeks among you in the good news/bad news format.

When I first heard about the Theologian in Residence program several years ago, I was told that the person occupying this position was given a quiet place to pursue their work and occasionally was asked to go out to speak in the diocese. Obviously this has not been my experience! I am told that I have been the busiest Theologian in Residence except for X........., and of course, he is hardly a solitary who has perhaps one extended conversation with another person every two weeks or so.

All the same, it has been fascinating; to share the experience of the laity in search of God has been deeply humbling. At the end of every day it felt as though the appropriate thing to do would have been to go to confession. No one can be empty enough for an experience such as this.

The good news is that the hospitality has been incredible. Most people have been warm and helpful and sensitive to my needs, and some people in particular have knocked themselves out to make sure not only that everything has gone smoothly with a minimum of effort on my part, but with an eye to my material and spiritual needs.

It is, I suppose, ambivalent news, that there are so many spiritually hungry people out there who are looking for something more than form without content, and thought they might perhaps find some new direction by inviting the Theologian in Residence to speak.

The major flaw in this scheduling was that in spite of instructions the Bishop gave me in the beginning not to allow myself to be co-opted into too much, the schedule was presented as a fait accompli; it appeared that I had no right of refusal, that I was locked in to the horrendous itinerary of 41 presentations in 5 weeks without recourse.

While I tried to cope as best I could, in the end, in two obvious instances, where for various reasons it would have been inappropriate or counter-productive or self-refuting for me to appear, I took matters into my own hands to effect cancellations. The theologian in residence’s performance is not improved if the theologian in residence feels trapped and subject to the last drop of blood being extracted before she or he collapses. If you ever hire a reflective person again, have a little mercy: the number of appearances should be cut in half. Otherwise the programme simply becomes theologian on the run, or, worse, theologian run into the ground. It is not a matter of enough days off for recovery by the usual 9-5 standard; it is rather the cumulative effect of exposure.

In addition, some of the time-slots allowed were much too short to really be worthwhile the travel and the effort, e.g., some Sunday Adult Education sessions were as short as forty minutes, and that is not enough time to do much more than say ‘hello’. There was never enough time to do real theology, to do more than present a language, but perhaps this outcome in the end is better because the people are now doing their own theology with this language.

After specifically saying ‘no photographs’ it was disturbing to find my photograph plastered all over the diocese, and the offensiveness of this, not to mention the self-refutation, was exceeded only by the verbal hype (e.g., use of the word ‘mystic’), and the utterly inappropriate commercial, ‘Maggie Ross is brought to you by...’ which was embarrassing to everyone, and so indicative of the cultural accomodation and cynical depths to which the institution perhaps unconsciously has sunk, that after a few unbearable instances I introduced myself whenever the clergy could be persuaded not to intrude themselves.

Instead of an introduction, a much deeper, voluntary silence was established simply by being quiet until everyone else was quiet. This was far more effective than one imposed by words of introduction, wordy prayers, etc. On one or two occasions, such as at the school for Y......., I had already begun to establish this quiet when I was intruded on by clergy using self-refuting words to say ‘be silent’, a silence of about two seconds, followed by words words words that were supposed to be ‘centering’ and ‘prayer’ but which in fact served to de-center the group and focus it on the clergy-person intruding these self-refuting words. As one more perceptive clergyperson noted after a presentation, the presentation was itself prayer and itself induced a profound silence. Thus ‘prayers’ before and/or after were entirely irrelevant.

Mistakes such as these are such elementary failures of sensitivity and common-sense appropriateness that it is an embarrassment to mention them, but mistakes will go on being repeated unless they are brought to consciousness.

Another cleric at the school for Y......... was so full of words and his image of himself as an Oxbridge sporting cleric (even if he had a Kentucky accent) that after a profound interaction with the group on the kenosis of divine exchange and its inarticulateness, which fit none of his wordy abstract models, he actually asked, ‘What does this have to do with the doctrine of the Incarnation? It doesn’t seem to have much connection with the schoolmen.’

There were looks of disbelief and embarrassment around the circle, but it was a good example of precisely why theology is dead. And of course the answer is that it is too simple a lived experience for the schoolmen, who were playing mindgames and power politics with the slipperiness of language, and it is precisely their synthesis that is collapsing, for it is linear and an artificial construct of self-consciousness that has presumed to try to grasp equality with God rather than the lived experience of divine exchange.


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