I grew up in a church that prized its ability to change. We regularly tried new music styles. We tried new fellowship formats and formation methods. We tried new service formats. Change was good. And as I saw other congregations of our denomination shrinking and dying in the 90s while clinging to the same songs and styles and services they had in the 70s, I took solace in the fact that our ever-growing church was willing to change. That is, I took solace until I saw that our church was changing not just its style but its doctrine too and that even very important questions about whatever changes were occurring would not be countenanced. By the time I left, the church was unrecognizable as the church that had raised me. I went to another church of the same denomination, this one a state away from where I was raised. That church changed so quickly and dramatically in the five years I was there that the very vision and purpose of the church had been altered beyond recognition. In both congregations, so far as I could tell, everyone was thrilled that everything was always changing. Change will keep us fresh. Change will bring in young people. Change will allow the Spirit to move. Change will keep us growing and relevant. Change is non-negotiable.
I have for twelve years now served a tiny mission parish in a small Anglican jurisdiction. We use a traditional-language prayer book. We wear vestments. We chant the Psalms. And while we draw our music from a wide variety of sources, even writing much of it ourselves, the goal of singing is always the prayerful response to Scripture. No trendiness to be found here. Most of what we do each week we do each week, each and every week. I have often had the specter of my former Pentecostalism rise within my mind suggesting that the reason we are so small is because we are too stagnant, too stable, too predictable. “Change is good, change is good,” in the tone of Marley crying “Ebenezer Scrooge!” But I try not to listen. Our relatively few changes over twelve years have been careful, methodical, and rooted in a theology much older than we are. The question is never what we might like better or what might draw visitors but how we can more faithfully, biblically, heart-fully worship the Lord. The prayer book keeps us grounded. The problem of the 90s churches dying with their 70s worship intact, I now believe, was not that they did old things for too long but that the old things they clung to were not old enough, did not have deep enough roots to be sustainable for the long haul. The old things that truly still work are biblical, apostolic, patristic. More importantly, the old things that work are chosen and practiced for the Lord’s sake rather than for the sake of our quick church growth.
Very early this fateful year of our Lord 2020, my songwriting partner and I each wrote songs that we felt had been birthed in prayer. One was from Psalm 91 about protection from “plague” and the other from Psalm 27 about trusting in the Lord though the war cry be raised in the streets and the society fall. Soon we saw unfolding the worst pandemic fright and the worst civil unrest of our lifetimes. We felt we had been warned of what was coming and felt assured that the Lord was with us, that we were not to be afraid. Over the next months our little parish would face, with all American parishes and most around the world, serious new tests. How would we respond? What would we do? All around us we saw churches scrambling to do what they were trained to do: to innovate, to create, to respond cleverly and quickly to what was happening around us. But I am an Anglican, one fired with the zeal of a convert. I told my congregation early and often, “We’re going to do what we’ve always done.” In situation after situation I found myself saying, “We already have an answer for that; we don’t need a new one.” And most thankfully, the “we” I had in mind was never our own parish. The “we” was the Church.
What I lay out here is not what I think should have been or should become everyone’s responses to the tragedies and challenges of 2020. We all faced individual challenges in our parishes and had to respond pastorally and quickly, somewhat blind to what would hit us next or for how long. What I offer here are some ways that many of us have found peace and solace and a way forward through trial by holding fast to what we have always done and believed rather than seeking to overcome through change. Certain beliefs and their attendant practices have held firm for us in ways that cause us to give thanks to God.
Thank God for an ancient method for public worship. Anglicans gather to pray together, hear Scripture together, and to commune together with the Lord at Table. Worship is not primarily about receiving information or watching and listening to something happening up front. Our worship is to be engaged in rather than observed. And so there is no adequate way to replicate our worship online. Even when our services are filmed and viewed, we recognize that the viewing of worship is different than worship itself. We long to pray and hear and eat together. The Word gathers us. The Eucharist by its nature gathers the wheat of the saints together into one loaf, the body of Christ. The idea of closing our parish was unthinkable to us. The weekly sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is, as we pray every Sunday, “our bounden duty.” All times and in all places. We do not change that. I was bound as a father to continue to feed my children.
But what about the risks of continuing with public services in the midst of a pandemic? We already had answers for that. Every flu season folks know to stay home if they are symptomatic or have been exposed in such a way that they are a danger to the vulnerable in the parish. Part of a priest’s job at all times is to find ways to minister to people who cannot attend so that they receive the means of grace. We increased services to accommodate smaller numbers in each. We kept some reasonable distance from one another. It was not always easy for us to know what to do, especially when my eldest child and I both came down with the virus and my family could go to church for two weeks. But our ancient faith puts such a priority on our gathering together and sees so little virtual equivalent, we were driven to gather as much as possible and to make it as safe as we could and not forsake our assembly for any other creative option.
Thank God for an ancient method for family prayer. Gathering for prayer and worship is normative for us, and we can install no normative replacement for it. What do we do for folks who have to stay home and miss our services? We decided not to stream our services for them online. It is not that we thought it would be wrong to do so. I saw some of my brother priests stream some excellent prayer services and teachings for their people and thus draw new viewers as the crisis continued. I encouraged our congregation to take advantage of some of that. But when away from the parish, our ancient model is for families to pray together with the father leading. Our parishes did not need digital devices to help them keep going spiritually because they have been taught to pray together from the prayer book. The reasonable replacement for my leadership in prayer is not my image on a screen and my voice through the speakers but rather the leadership in prayer of the head of each household until each family can join again with the larger parish family. Families should return to public worship from any health-caused absence with a greater sense of their own family’s walk with God together and a greater sense of their covenant head’s (or mother’s or grandparent’s or someone’s) love and care for them. It is the nature of the Church to gather rather than to observe. Church members should gather as much as they can, even when they cannot gather in the public assembly. Our tradition has taught them how to do so and eases their dependence upon their priests to provide them a more passive option. In crisis we had opportunity to equip the saints for the work of ministry rather than equip the saints for the passive use of technology.
Thank God for an ancient method for Holy Communion. Sharing together in the Body and Blood of Jesus is the center of our lives of prayer and worship, so it is not an option we can drop. And we do not have endless license to innovate at the altar. Though we have at Communion a symbolic approximation rather than a historical reenactment of the elements and table setting of the Lord’s Supper, we still have Christ’s elements and example as requirements. Our parish’s communion bread is not Mary’s matzah recipe, and we are not reclining on couches around the table, but we have always broken real bread and shared the common cup of wine as our Lord taught us. The priest has always been required to take the bread into his hands as Jesus did and to bless it and break it. These elements of our meal are not open to be negotiated.
But what about germs and viruses? What about virtual communion? What about individual cups? Once again, we already had answers for that. First, virtual communion is for us a contradiction in terms. The body has to gather in order to discern the Lord’s Body. We must gather in some way under whatever precautions can be taken without altering the integrity of the meal. As for the method by which we share communion, I am thankful that we needed no innovation here either. Our Reformed Catholic heritage has already dealt with questions of cups and reception and needs no new answers.
I am theologically bound to offer both bread and wine at Holy Communion. I cannot withhold an element of the supper. But no one is required to receive both bread and wine. Have we not always taught that both elements should be offered but that one receives the full benefit of the sacrament when receiving either bread or wine? We have always allowed recovering alcoholics to abstain from the wine and receive only the bread. Celiacs in our parish already receive the wine from a non-gluten-besmirched cup and abstain from receiving bread. We do not need to wrestle over whether grape juice counts as wine or whether gluten-free wafers count as bread in order to make everyone welcome at the Table. We can keep the integrity of the meal and refuse to change the matter of the sacrament and still make the full means of grace available to all the baptized without harm to them. And so I can offer the chalice even as the service book insert and my announcements during the service reassure folks that they need feel no pressure to receive from the chalice during the pandemic. We have already demonstrated how to handle the elements biblically and reverently as we have resisted innovation in practice we see in other traditions, and did not need to invent new ways to receive or to approximate Holy Communion in new modes. We already had answers to guide us.
Thank God for an ancient method for facing injustice. Folks in the parish were asked by people in the community what they thought about George Floyd’s death. We were asked if we would engage in protest. The sense was often that the answer would “prove” to people where we stood. We all grieved the death of George Floyd even as we did not all believe that police brutality weighed as a heavier factor in his death than fentanyl addiction. We all want racism to end even as many of us are leery of Marxist organizations and the use of their slogans and the use of tragedy to fuel political violence. What should our parish’s response be? What should we say? We already had an answer for that. Every week after the sermon I stand in front of the altar and say the words of St. Paul, “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself an offering and sacrifice to God.” When our weekly Monday Litany at the courthouse put us in the potential path of a march, I carried a crucifix with me and practiced my “lines.” My only sign was to be the sign of the cross, my only message to be that of the Scripture try at all times to live by.
We stand before God alone for our actions toward others. Our greatest work in bringing love and justice to bear in our world, our greatest work to end racism, is to walk in love as Christ loved us. If all individuals would love and serve God and their neighbor, there would be no one in the institutions and within the systems to act unjustly. If we do justice and love mercy and walk humbly before God, the world will know our message is love before a new injustice hits the headlines. Always love. If my community could not see our love for all people before the death of George Floyd, they won’t now either. Holding a placard in protest might be more of a temporary virtue signal than a true and lasting sign of love. We love the folks we know. We love our neighbors. We love our enemies. We act in love within the situations of injustice that touch us and our families and our neighborhoods and our cities.
I warned my parish that to chant the slogans of an organization that hates the nuclear family, hates “heteronormativity,” hates patriarchy (our God is a Father), and seeks the murder of the unborn might just place one under the spirit of that organization. It was so clear that the spirit behind many protests was an evil one. We knew not to fight with the world’s weapons. Our warfare is spiritual, and our weapons are not carnal. How do we best show the world where we stand and to whom we look for the redemption of our land? We already have an answer for that. Walk in sacrificial love like Jesus did. Love people. Refuse to answer hate with hate. I told our parish that we were not allowed in this season to be afraid or even angry. We trust in God and we love people. That’s it. That’s enough.
The call of the Lord to us was not to join the world in its methods, whether in our worship or in our witness, but to be faithful to what we know and who we are in him within every fresh circumstance we face. Doing the old things in a new world is fresh and new enough. The old things are the Lord’s proven means of redeeming a fallen world. Thank God we have grace to walk with him in the old paths.
This has been a tough year. The challenges have been intense. I write none of this to downplay the real difficulties of living in real compassion and real courage throughout the trials our land has faced. I am not a super pastor. I am a just a bi-vocational vicar of a tiny parish. I know that I did not have some of the hard choices to make that large parishes did. And I am certainly not sure I handled everything rightly or responded to every need as well as could have been done. What I know I am for sure is grateful. I am grateful to God that my Anglican heritage has given me a wealth of resources and good examples to follow. I am grateful that answers were long ago provided for whatever questions will arise today and tomorrow. I am grateful that the pressure on me was lifted by the power of an ancient “we.” And I face the looming challenges of this year and of this age knowing that I will just keep doing, by God’s grace and in God’s power, what we have always done.
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