Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Green Faith Day IV

4. In the areas in which you specialise, what are the key decisions that need to be made now?

a) We must return to a sense of the sacredness of ordinary life, which has been lost due to urbanization, industrialization and clericalism. The institution must authorize lay presidency of the Eucharist, especially in the villages, if these churches are not completely to disappear. This means teaching everyone who is confirmed how to do celebrate and when it might be appropriate; it means licensing, not ordination. Ordination needs to be completely re-thought; we do not need yet another para-clerical layer. Lay people are fed up with being infantilized and, what is more, the laity often have a far better liturgical sense than the clergy. The laity will not put up with magic cookies sent by courier from the cathedral.

As Cranmer tried to express in his liturgy, the Eucharist is our lives offered on the altar to be transfigured with Christ's, and if we could restore this eucharistic sense to the everyday round, we might live with greater reverence for our selves and for the earth. The loss of this eucharistic sense, which helps us realise our shared nature with the divine, combined with the negative anthropology and dualism that is an inheritance of both the Catholic and Puritan traditions, spirals our culture ever deeper into negative aspiration. The current economic and environmental crises are directly related to this negativity, and to our confusion of self-esteem for self-respect. Our low view of our selves and one another drive us to the former in the short term, often at the expense of the latter in the long term. We seem to have lost any sense of consequence.

b) It is far past time for the institution to return to the vision of God as its primary goal, for it to teach the way to that vision as the source of everything it does. "Where vision fails, the people perish," as the proverb says (29:18) To accomplish this, it needs to revamp its goals, training and selection process according to the criteria provided by the work of silence, of which the most important is: every true sacred sign effaces itself; that is, points beyond itself towards the face of God from which all true relationship and ethics flow.

At the moment we have exactly the opposite: a situation where people come to religion to try to have their pain transfigured, while the institution, deaf to need, is only interested in imposing what it thinks the laity, which it regards as ciphers and idiots, ought to know—and that confined to a merely intellectual level. The institution responds to the cry of pain with a session on the procrustean bed of programme.

Religion that has lost its proper balance with silence has lost the ability to help us realize our shared nature with the divine, and by extension, with the creation of which we are a part. Religion that has lost the practice of silence, the goal of silence, silence as an interpretive tool, is subject to all the distortions with which we are far too familiar today: hierarchy, bureaucracy, legalism, money, preferment, power, infantilization, empty and/or banal ritual, and division. Rules have no meaning if they do not issue from a vision of God, and behaviours will not change unless there is insight and trans-figuration (change of perception, the way we 'figure things out') at the deepest level of our being.

Religion has become the kingdom of noise. Its main goal appears to be the self-preservation of the hierarchy. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that much of Christianity today is in the same condition as Judaism at the time of Jesus.

c) The tragedy of contemporary institutional religion, preoccupied as it is with the power struggles of the clergy, is that it seems to have forgotten its task of bringing the transfiguring silence of the heart into the static world of noise. Clergy are no longer trained for lives of holiness but for career trajectories. It is holiness of life, not de haut en bas 'ministry' that changes and heals the world. One shattered deacon said to me, “The only thing I learned in seminary was how to lie.” If the institutional church has become part of the kingdom of noise, then it should not be surprised when those who come to worship in spirit and in truth, who seek support for living transfiguration in the world, turn away.

Of course, such radical change is far too much to expect from an institution. I can't tell you how many clergy have said, "I know this is right but I could never do this in my parish." Instead, it seems that without listening to anything but its own internal fantasies about itself, the institution will continue to tell people what it thinks they ought to know, about which the people could care less. It will continue to be deaf to the fact that the people who come to religion for help are looking for a way of transfiguration for their pain, and a vision to pursue. The institution will continue to inflict appallingly banal liturgies, theologically incorrect and poorly written translations of the bible, and general trendiness on people who seek something better than this sort of cartoon noise which merely traps them more deeply into the tediousness of everyday existence.

c) Why do clergy continue to think they have something to tell us? Many of the traditional claims of the institution will not stand up to modern scholarship, which is now widely available to everyone through books such as Saving Paradise [see previous post]. People who are educating themselves and learning the work of silence will no longer support the system's present processes and practices, which are antithetical to the gospel and destructive to the life of prayer.

d) Beyond its ignorance of the work of silence as essential to its nature and work, the basic problem of the institution is its contempt for the laity. If ministry—which is a word that should be eliminated from the ecclesial vocabulary—does not arise from contemplation then it is patronizing and exploitive.

e) Given the situation in the institution, we the laity, who are the church in fact, must go on alone. We cannot wait for the noisy institution. We need to support one another to find our way back to the core silence that reawakens our environmental and religious sensibility and brings us to spiritual maturity. Without this silence, we will be unable to change our destructive habits or realize our shared nature with God. Without silence we lose our humanity, and all that is most precious, including life itself.


Blogger Andrucilla said...

While I agree with your basic premises regarding the current state of the institutional church, I do not completely agree with your assessment of the people in the pews. I have been an ordained United Methodist pastor for more than twenty years now. Throughout this time I have had to hide my intellect and tread very carefully when challenging traditional theology. The majority of people in my parishes want simplistic right/wrong theology and demand a literal view of The Bible. In one of my parishes, I lost the entire Sunday School and staff because I insisted that there were two separate gospel accounts of Jesus' birth which could not be homogenized. It is exceedingly frustrating to be a pastor who wants to get back to the basics of spirituality, to reclaim true spiritual discipline and wrestle with the meaning of scripture.
Instead I face congregants who are in the pew on Sunday morning out of habit not a spiritual transformation, who want worship to last no longer than one hour, and who will be glad to enlighten me on the exact meaning of any passage - especially those which condemn homosexuals. I do my best to take advantage of teachable moments, to offer study groups and challenge people to new understandings, but when push comes to shove, I do not share your faith in the overall spiritual enlightenment of the people. There are always a handful of enlightened ones in any given congregation but paying the bills and keeping the doors of the church open are of paramount importance. Spirit-led liturgy and spirit-filled worship often fail to be demanded and/or appreciated. On the other hand, I do agree that ordination itself must be rethought - and that lay leadership will be the saving grace for our small churches.

My heart and soul have been given to ministry in the small church. I serve on a Rural Ministry Task Force. Thank you for sharing your insights. I just stumbled onto your blog since you appear to have read mine. LOL Is this part of a series that is being published? I have read at least one book which you have written though the title escapes me at the moment. Senior moment.... Thanks for the food for thought. Andrucilla

8:51 pm, March 11, 2009  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Andrucilla,

Thank you for your comment.

I'm not sure I've read your blog--where did you get the information that we have read each others???!!! But I think you must be in the USA, a situation very different from that in the UK.

Your comments are very apropos to the USA situation, but not entirely to the UK, where there seems to be much greater diversity and a real and growing hunger for silence. My remarks were written for a UK audience.

Now that you have piqued my curiosity, I'll look for your blog. Thanks for writing


9:42 pm, March 11, 2009  
Blogger Andrucilla said...

You appear as a follower on my blog. LOL Are you as inexperienced online as I am.
I learn as I go. You may have stumbled onto my blog by accident. This week's posting is far from profound. I write a weekly column for a couple of local papers. Are you the Maggie Ross who has published books on spirituality? Good to meet you!

Here in the US we are also declining in membership - at least the mainline denominations. Here in NYS we are in the process of merging four conferences into one.
The entire state will now be overseen by one Bishop instead of four. I am glad to be on the brink of retirement. I'm afraid it will be quite an unspiritual experience. I'd be interested in hearing more about the state of the institutional church in the UK. Are you experiencing the same decline in membership? We are already relying on local pastors (no seminary education) and our reliance grows with each passing year. There are fewer and fewer parishes for ordained elders such as myself. I can count on one hand the number of assignments with only a single church. I have served multiple churches for all but three years. I used to think I had vision and insight - and hope. The inefficiency of the hierarchy amazes me. It is a miracle that there is still a viable spiritual dimension to our denomination at all. Ah, but God is good! And full of surprises. I'll hold onto hope and keep preaching the gospel! FWIW

5:50 pm, March 13, 2009  

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