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.

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.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Holy Trinity Fire—First Anniversary

[With thanks to KTOO's Rosemary Alexander]

Today, March 12, 2007, marks the anniversary of the burning of Holy Trinity Church, McPhetres Hall, and all their contents, including virtually the entire inventory of sets, costumes and props for one of Juneau's local repertory companies.

The arson was committed by a man who had been ejected from a party. In a drunken rage he set fire to a can of gas in a boat between the church and the house next door. The ensuing conflagration could easily have spread to the entire historic downtown area if there had been any wind, and in fact many people living nearby were evacuated and given shelter in Centennial Hall, the local convention center. The man has now been convicted and sentenced to fifteen years, seven suspended, a thousand hours of community service, and costs. The congregation is in touch with the man's family and visits him in prison.

The good news is that the church is well into the design process to rebuild; in addition, it has been able to purchase the small lot next door, which will provide badly needed parking.

The bad news is that the church insurance company is balking at paying the costs for which the church was insured. The church building that burned was worth about 1 million dollars; however, it was in insured for replacement, which will cost approximately 3 million dollars due to high costs in a town where every piece of lumber, every nail and every light bulb have to be hauled in by barge. A one-month delay will mean that the very short summer building season will have to be aborted, and that costs incurred in the following season will rise by approximately 20%.

Recovering from a tragedy such as this one is costly in ways that cannot be calculated. While there has been the blessing of amazing generosity, there have also been the inevitable internal conflicts that follow on such a traumatic event.

To have these problems exacerbated by a merciless insurance company that threatens to break a contract made in good faith is all too typical of our times. Ours is not a wealthy community; it seems always to be the poor who have to pay.

Tonight the community will have a potluck at St Anne's parish hall at the Roman Catholic cathedral up the hill. There will be a service of remembrance and hope.... hope tempered by the spectre of a project that may have to be put on hold, and the possibility of a fundraising campaign whose goals may be impossible to meet.