Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why the Church is Dying II

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

The good news is that there is a tremendous desire in the church for a deepening spiritual life; lay people know what they seek and recognize that depth when they see it, the way to deepen their lives in God, and this intuition comes to the surface when they do not feel threatened by the clergy or members of some other self-certifying para-clerical in-group (so-called spiritual directors, for example).

The bad news is that people are starving and the clergy not only do not know how to help the people open themselves to be fed by the Holy Spirit or to allow their innate spiritual and liturgical sense to emerge and grow, but the clergy also do not seem to have either the desire or the personal commitment, the psychological permission or disposition to do so. What is needed to help the people cannot be taught in any course; it can only be lived.

The clergy are more often than not the problem, and it is perhaps symptomatic that there is a profound sense of futility that underlies the writing of these words. It seems that many clergy not only have had their innate liturgical and religious sense trained out of them, they also have had their innate sense of appropriateness trained out of them. To give just one example, I walked into one parish hall to find thirty-five copies of my resume sitting next to a coffee urn. It would also be helpful to know why it is so difficult for clergy to follow simple instructions, the simpler the instruction, the more difficult it seems for them to be able to follow without intruding themselves and their own little self-expressive, show-off twists which disrupt the liturgical flow and the silence, even when they have absolutely no knowledge or experience of what is being planned and do not bother to ask. In one or two instances, this nearly ruined very sensitive contemplative Eucharists.

In what I will remember as the most tragic instance, a congregation connected with what was being presented immediately and deeply. However, it was also immediately evident that the clergy involved could not be trusted and were on heavy ego trips—the announcements at the Eucharist were so full of the word ‘I’ that one would have thought the church had no other agenda than supporting this cleric's fragile ego. There was to have been a quiet day a few weeks later, but after arriving at the church and sizing up the situation, I cast doubt on that probability, as soon as it was mentioned. My instinct was correct.

After the principle cleric involved listened to my short presentation to an adult Sunday forum, and to several people who came up afterwards and said ‘this is the depth we’ve been looking for’, this cleric confirmed my doubts about the projected quiet day by saying, ‘I’ve seen enough; we’re cancelling.’ He saw that he could not use me to decorate his ego and he saw that his congregation was discovering something that was beyond him even though he had sold himself to them as a so-called spiritual guide. Of course the fact that he felt in his patronising way that he had something to sell to the exclusion of what the people sought—the depth of silent prayer—was self-refuting of the possibility that he might in fact in any way be a so-called spiritual guide.

The clergy of this parish also demonstrated one aspect of the perennial problem of a diocese where there is as much money and program as there is in this one, and that is the tendency to engage in triumphalism and grandiosity at every level, from liturgy to personal attitudes. Perhaps much of the diocese’s program is an act of self-justification over guilt at having so much? Perhaps some of this money would be better spent and more beneficial to the whole diocese by being given away to the poor or to worthy causes? If the contemplative orientation were paramount, there would be less activity but this activity would be more effective and done with less sound and fury than what is done for self-justification and self-display.

Many clergy seem to be displaying their egos around their necks. Perhaps it would be helpful to outline a few rules of thumb:

— The more money and power there is, the more important and the more impressive it is when the holders of money and power are genuinely simple, unassuming, generous, sensitive to need and self-effacing in supplying it. This does not eliminate either the possibility or the need for the occasional splendid liturgy, for example, but such occasions should always contain an invitation to silence and point beyond themselves, and in this way should be vehicles to create a context for transcendence and transfiguration, not merely an entertainment opportunity for the clergy and their adjuncts/minons to show off. The church indeed serves a social function but this function must be an overflow of, and subordinate to its primary task of creating a community in which its members are encouraged to lead lives of deep union with God from which all else is an overflow. Such a community will by its nature be comfortable with silence and non-intrusive.

— There is a direct proportional relationship between the degree to which the clergy are stuck on themselves as clergy and the degree to which congregations are stunted or inhibited spiritually. To mention just one parish: the people were spiritually starving and hungry for what was being offered, but because the clergy in their collars sat around like guardian gargoyles presuming to know the ‘right’ way to do everything, because they were heavily patronizing and hierarchical, insisting on ruling instead of serving their people unobtrusively, the people in consequence felt embarrassed and awkward. Their body language was that of eight-year-olds. This parish was embarking on an ambitious and probably expensive program of so-called spiritual education, but it seemed that the subtext of this program was more geared to the ego-decoration of the clergy who could then claim how much they had done for their parish, rather than for the effective growth of the people, which self-evidently cannot occur under such psychologically and spiritually oppressive conditions.


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