Thursday, January 29, 2015

¿Que es común?

Episcopalians like to say that what unites us is our worship. That is, while other Protestant and Reformation era groups were drawing up Confessions and Creeds, we were drawing up a prayer book.

And while some of this is probably better rhetoric than history (we did, after all create the 39 Articles, even if they never had the same pride of place as other confessions), it is pretty good rhetoric. It certainly describes a significant part of the heart of Anglican Christianity.

But rather than saying we are united by worship instead of confession, I think it is perhaps a bit more accurate to say we are united by agreeing to disagree about worship—and still worship together. This is why the Book of Common Prayer and the rubrics are so essential to the Anglican tradition, they articulate the boundaries that we, as a community, have agreed upon when it comes to our corporate worship. They do this so that our worship, no matter the style or flavor, can always be common, can always be shared. They do this so our worship can be común.

And yet, one of the tricky things about multicultural ministry—particularly multicultural worship—is that you realize other cultures see lines in different places than you do.

Tonight, I joined the seminarians for Evening Prayer, as I have most nights I've been here. We gathered in their small chapel (capilla), which is really a converted classroom. Someone lit the lights on the altar and the officiating seminarian handed out a trip-fold with the words to some Spanish-language psalms on it.

So far, this is pretty common. We actually have an official hymnal for Spanish-language worship. Trouble is, it's rather difficult to buy (see Amazon). If you try to search for it at Church Publishing or Cokesbury, it doesn't even list as existing. Instead, both direct you to a "words only" edition, without music.

This is not helpful.

At Nuevo Amanecer last year, we used an overhead projector. Most Spanish-language Episcopal services I've attended either simply list the words in the bulletin (no music) or they use one of the older (also words only) collections of Spanish-language praise and worship songs.

So, like I said, being handed a sheet of paper with Spanish words on it to sing is not new to me, even if it is frustrating as a musician. But, I'm used to it. It didn't phase me. I was still ready to say Evening Prayer with my new friends.

However, what we proceeded to do was then sing several songs, do a small portion of Evening Prayer (phos hilaron, psalm, Scripture readings, and canticles), sing several more songs, and then have an extended time—about 15 minutes—of extemporaneous prayer. We closed with the grace.

The singing was without instruments (because there were none there to be played). It was profound and heartfelt, a few hands up in the air, some swaying to the singing. The prayers were clearly from the heart. They were more like the evangelical prayers of my youth (full of reputation and short phrases, which actually made them easier to translate in my mind).

It just didn't feel... Episcopal. It felt like someone took Evening Prayer, chopped off a few pieces, and then put it in a blender with an entirely different praise & worship service, one that has a totally different aim and purpose than Evening Prayer.

In short, it didn't feel like we really did either Evening Prayer or an evangelical/pentecostal praise & worship service with ample time for free intercessions.

This raises, I think, one of the great questions every Episcopal church will have to face as we approach an increasing tide of Latino people in our communities and a worship that is very... English. It is one of the great questions we will have to wrestle with as heirs to a tradition that has rather strenuously insisted upon a certain form an structure to worship.

How do we worship as Episcopal Christians in a way that is authentic to the culture from which the worship comes?

This raises important questions. Is my desire that Evening Prayer follow the rubrics, that it contain an opening versicle and response, the Phos Hilaron, a psalm and canticles, followed by the creed and then the prayers, only then with an open time for "an office hymn" and other prayers... is that fussy English-ness? Or, is the structure of Evening Prayer inherent to Episcopal worship, no matter the culture in which it is practiced?

When I was at Nueveo Amanecer, I often felt like the services of Holy Eucharist paid little attention to the rubrics for how Eucharist is intended to be celebrated. Praise songs were thrown in liberally without attention to the fact that our BCP is actually very clear about when hymns may and may not be inserted. Is that because the rubrics are untranslatable to another culture?

Are more low-church, evangelical, and almost pentecostal approaches to worship inherent in Latino culture, are they the only way in which Episcopal liturgy can be celebrated and be authentic to the Latino community? Or, do these approaches instead reflect the great success that Pentecostalism has had in sinking into Latin American culture—including Roman Catholics?

¿Que es común?

What is common?

I suppose I couldn't expect every day here to be filled with deeply moving experiences of grace. I suppose there had to be days of wrestling as well, days of hard questions, days when I, as a priest, look myself hard in the mirror and ask what it truly means to be an Episcopal priest—who is also Anglo, who specifically and intentionally left evangelicalism—what it will mean for me to lead a community in Latino worship.

Not will I do this—I am firmly convicted that God has called me and my community to give this a shot. We can't just ignore the over $10,000 that UTO invested in this. We must try.

But what will that try look like?

What does it mean to be Episcopal AND Latino AND to be authentic to both, ser auténtico para ambos?

I don't know the answer. No sé la respuesta.

But at least now I think I know the question.

Pero al menos ahora sé la pregunta.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Es lo mismo y es diferente.

One of the great sadnesses, I think, of modern Christianity is the way in which the sacrament of Holy Communion has become a signal of dividing lines rather than the sacrament which unites the Body of Christ.

In the tradition in which I was raised, Holy Communion was very important. The leaders of that tradition, at the beginning, were the very first protestant leaders to successfully institute weekly communion. Luther, Cranmer, Calvin... all of them tried with little success. But the Stone-Campbell movement, they pulled it off.

However, by the time I was growing up, it had become more of a dividing marker. First off, since only adults were allowed to be baptized (and be members of the church), only adults could take communion. Thus, my first memories of communion were that it was not for me. I wanted it... but I was not a part of the group, yet. Not fully. And, our insistence upon it was specifically in distinction to other protestant groups that did follow the pattern of the early church in celebrating communion weekly.

And though I exist now in a more open tradition, one in which all the baptized are welcome at the table, the language in the church still becomes a hurdle for some.

Roman Catholics call it Mass.

Low church protestants call it Holy Communion or just "The Lord's Supper."

The orthodox call it the Divine Liturgy (probably my favorite name for it).

We call it "Holy Eucharist"—probably not the most welcoming name for those who don't know what in the world that is.

[Full disclosure, when we redid the service times on the church sign at my parish, I changed the previous sign from "Worship" to "Holy Eucharist." I believed then—and still do, to some extent—that strange language is an important part of church life. If you disagree, I encourage you to go read Willimon's book Peculiar Speech and then come talk to me.]

And though the Episcopal Church's BCP is very clear that all these names are appropriate (see page 859), most Episcopalians prefer "Holy Eucharist." Some low-church Episcopalians prefer "Holy Communion." And high-church Episcopalians prefer "The Mass." Which you use becomes an indicator of your churchmanship, of how you are different than those around you.

Why is this on my mind in the Dominican Republic?

Porque aquí, en este país, es lo mismo y es diferente.

Because here, in this country, it is the same and it is different.

At 7:00am Morning Prayer, I discovered that not all Dominican liturgies start a little late. I got there at 7:03am and the seminarians were already gathered, all in their white cassocks (probably actually cassock-alb, but close enough) and their black band cinctures. They were in the midst of the Confession. ("Dios de misericordia, confesamos que hemos pecado contra ti...") I slid into a pew, feeling awkward in my shorts and t-shirt, and joined in with them. ("No te hemos amado con todo el corazón...")

They said the psalm in the traditional manner—with a pause at the asterisk. I almost fell out of this pew as this small direction in the third paragraph of page 583 is unknown to most Episcopalians.

At Holy Eucharist, the movements were clean but not fussy. There were clear genuflections at appropriate points. They sang hymns in the normal places—but with no musicians, they simply sang them a cappella.

As I went forward to receive, I noticed that the custom was for the minister to intinct the wafer and place it in the mouth. I have always found this method of receiving profoundly humbling, a physical representation of the truth that when I approach God's grace, the best I can offer is an open mouth—like a child—to receive what God has for me.

Es lo mismo y es diferente.

At Nuevo Amanecer last fall, I kind of got the idea that the only way Spanish language services were celebrated were rather low-church. Make no mistake, I don't think that's bad at all, I just kind of gathered that this was more the Latino culture.

But this morning, I saw something different. The language, the music, was definitely Latino... but the reverence... the style... the approach... was profound.

During the reception, I noticed none of the seminarians got up. I wondered at first if perhaps they didn't receive (maybe they are REALLY traditional?). But then I noticed, it was those who came for the breakfast, the poor and hungry, they went first. Each one, in the line, walked forward and opened his or her mouth to receive the sacrament. And while some probably did this because it is expected at the cathedral that those who come to breakfast first come to mass... it was clear that for others this was a profoundly important moment.

Only after all the poor, todos los pobres, had received did the seminarians get up and get into line to receive the sacrament.

The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Los que ahora son los últimos, serán los primeros; y los que ahora son los primeros, serán los últimos.

It's likely that many of those who came to the service this morning were Roman Catholics who truly believed this was the Mass (la Misa). After the words of institution ("This is my body... this is my blood...") a handful cried out, "Señor mío, y Dios mío." This is what Thomas said when he encountered the risen Lord, "My Lord and my God." It is actually what I say when I bow after the words of institution and then again at the Great Amen.

Es lo mismo.

It was equally clear that some had a more Pentecostal background. I could see them raising their hands during the hymns. I could hear them, praying audibly during the prayers of the people.

Es lo mismo.

This morning, I saw how when a culture cares more about God than it does about the name on the door, all the wonderful variety of God's children can worship together. This was, after all, the true genius of Anglicanism, right? Let's come up with a book of prayers that all Christians can use, regardless of the "flavor" of their individual belief.

Es lo mismo y es diferente.

And when, at the peace, the nearly blind old man with dirty torn clothes (who also knew all the words of the liturgy by heart) reached out in the aisle to hug me ("¡La paz!"), it was as though Christ himself reached out.

Y yo abrazé le.

And I hugged him.

And was grateful that it is the same, even if it is different.

Y yo estaba agradecido de que es el lo mismo, aunque sea diferente.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Esta es comunidad.

The people who do the work of the church are often rather unseen.

One of the great things about working in a church is that you see these people. You know the people who will always show up when a need arises, the people who have the time and the energy to make ministry happen day in and day out.

Today, I met two of those people at the cathedral. The first, Ana, was already at work when I came down to the storage room to help. We were making bags of groceries (rice, beans, oil, and either canned sausages or canned sardines) to distribute to the fifty some people who come to the cathedral's weekly Tuesday morning breakfast.

Ana is "un abogada," a lawyer. But this morning, she was scooping rice into bags faster than I could tie them. Working with Karen, the three of us got all fifty bags done in no time flat.

Around the time we ended, Soila showed up. She had thought we were starting at 9:30am instead of 8:30am.  After apologies for the confusion, she helped us reorganize, straighten, and clean the room out. During the conversation, she gently corrected my grammar here and there—una profesora muy buena. When we finished, we sat and talked about learning languages (she understands English but doesn't feel like she speaks it very well) and the best way to eat avocados (mix them with milk and a little sugar in a smoothie).

The sexton, Victor, then showed up to cut some avocados off the tree. He caught some right after he cut them, others fell and bounced, a few came rather close to the heads of those of watching. He gave me two of them. "Necesitan cinco días. Es mejor si se les cubre con un periódico. Entonces estarán listos para comer." "They need five days. It is best if you cover them with a newspaper. Then they will be ready to eat."

This evening, I saw another side of the cathedral. Since I had an opportunity to go to the grocery store to pick up a few things for my apartment, I mentioned to Karen how much I would like to cook for the seminarians (since they will be cooking many of the meals I will eat). We discussed some options and I decided to go with one of my wife's favorites: baked ziti.

Making it in the small kitchen in a seminary apartment reminded me of cooking in the even smaller kitchen in Bethany and my first house in Alexandria, VA. The food she could make come out of that kitchen, that she could get off of that stove with burners that could barely even boil water... it was always amazing.

I remembered how we leaved next to a family of undocumented Hondurans. I remembered how much we loved the smell of their carne asada. I remembered standing near the fence in the backyard, sharing a bit of my scotch with the father in the family as he shared some of his favorite tequila.

I remembered the pain I felt when they all left unexpectedly. The awkwardness of when the new young white couple bought the building and talked with us about how they basically felt the need to gut it because of the condition it had gotten in when twelve people lived there.

I miss my Honduran friend. Even today.

The meal itself was a delight. I've spent more than a few hours with the seminarians now and I've truly enjoyed getting to know them. It's fascinating how every seminary community has the same people.

Marcos is middle-aged, I think, and is funny but also listened to. Esteban is from Ecuador and can make me laugh harder than anyone else. Lourdes is a deacon with a family, but she has come back to seminary to study to be a priest. She carries a quiet experience and is very gentle with the other seminarians. Esteban and John, the deacons from Colombia, fit right in as John demonstrated the bit of English he has learned—much to the delight of all.

It is remarkable how quickly we can love people, isn't it?

Esta es comunidad.

This is community.

There is this idea floating around that one can be spiritual but not religious, that you can be saved on your own without engagement with the church.

Sure, I think God can save whomever God wants. In fact, I'm pretty sure that in the end God's mercy will turn even the hardest of hearts...

But I think it is a great error to think salvation happens outside of community. It doesn't have to be traditional Christian community—God's grace is, like I said, pretty powerful stuff no matter where it is discovered—but there is indeed something about Christian community that is salvific.

There is something powerful about a lawyer filling bags with beans and rice so people will have at least one meal less to worry about.

There is something powerful about a fiery old woman gently helping a young anglo priest speak better Spanish.

There is something immensely powerful about the laughter and stories and smiles around a meal of shared food. Even if we don't all share the same language, we always understand more than we thought we would.

Esta es comunidad.

This is community.

Y me alegro de que esta es la forma en que Dios me salve.

And I'm glad that this is the way God saves me.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

No es perfecto, pero es fiel.

Why can't I sleep in on Sunday mornings?

After massive amounts of time working through Rosetta Stone for Spanish on breaks, time speaking Spanish with employees and parishioners at the Cathedral, and walks in the city, I'm pretty worn out at the end of the day. Though it's definitely hot and muggy, the fan is nice and I've been sleeping fairly well.

But still, today was Sunday morning and so I was wide awake at 7am. I didn't even have to be in the church (which is literally a walk across the parking log) until 8:30am. But, my body knew it was Sunday and so woke me up.

Dean Brooks had offered to let me celebrate the Spanish language Eucharist at 10:45am today. I declined, insisting that learning a new liturgical space in a language I'm still not fluent in would probably not, in the words of #MarionofBlessedMemory, be "edifying to the people." Instead, I said I would prefer to celebrate the 8:45am Eucharist so I could get a little used to the space. Then, next Sunday (when I'd had a week to practice with my tutor), maybe I could take my first shot at celebrating the liturgy.

But still, 7am seemed a little early to wake up. Nonetheless, I made coffee, spent some more time working through Rosetta Stone lessons, and then made my way to the cathedral.

When I was at Nuevo Amanecer in August, one of the things I learned in a presentation about cultural difference between Anglos and Latinos is that Anglos value time and Latinos value relationships. That is, whereas it is kind of a thing for Anglo Episcopal Churches to start on the nose at the appointed time (I may have put atomic clocks in my own parish...), Latinos would rather spend five more minutes talking to someone than start anything on time.

So, though I was vested and ready to go ten minutes early (my vergers would be so proud), around five minutes AFTER the liturgy SHOULD have started, I was still in the chancel listening to the organist tell me about the difficulties of maintaining the only tracker organ on the entire island in this heat, without even proper electrical grounding. Finally, though, the liturgy got underway about fifteen minutes late (seriously).

I think that is why they announce an 8:45am start time, so everything can actually get underway at 9:00am.

Celebrating for the first time in a space you don't know, with a customary you don't know, is difficult. Thankfully, Dean Brooks is a class act and has that gift some clergy develop for subtly directing the celebrant what to do when and where. (He left a spot in the middle for me in front of the altar, then when I got there, waited for me to reverence for us all to go together and then softly gestured to the side and chair I was supposed to go to).

My celebration was not flawless (the bulletin didn't list a hymn number for the Gloria and so I began it spoken before Deacon Alejandra touched my shoulder, causing me to stop and allowing the organ to begin), but it was... earnest.

Someone told me once that I am a very earnest priest. I hope that's a good thing.

The rest of the liturgy was like that, a flub here or there, trying to be in the right place in the right time knowing every church does things a little differently. Dean Brooks wanted us to sing a different hymn for the sequence than the one that was printed, and so just went ahead and went to the back, got a different hymnal for the twenty or so worshippers, and told us all we were going to sing this one instead.

It's fine. No es perfecto, pero es fiel. It is not perfect, but it is faithful.

Given the Gospel reading for today, his substitution was natural. It was actually the first Latino worship song I ever learned: Pescador de Hombres.


A group sang it at the institution of Bishop Katharine as Presiding Bishop. I remember liking the sound of it and looking up the lyrics... I couldn't even get through the first verse and chorus before the tears started flowing:
Lord, you have come to the seashore,neither searching for the rich nor the wise,desiring only that I should follow. 
O, Lord, with your eyes set upon me,gently smiling, you have spoken my name;all I longed for I have found by the water,at your side, I will seek other shores.
One of the dangers—the great dangers—of liturgical worship is that we become so focused upon doing it properly that we lose sight of what we are attempting to do: to create space to be present with God. Hence, one of my favorite liturgical dictums, "The greatest mistake to make in liturgy is worrying too much about making a mistake."

There were indeed mistakes and flubs today. I generally prefer liturgy I organize to run a little more smoothly. I could not imagine our organist, John, calling out to me before the Sequence Hymn, "Was that the tune you wanted, or did you want the setting next to it?" I shudder to consider what would happen if I handed out an entirely different hymnal in the midst of the liturgy because I wanted us to sing a different hymn or because I had made a mistake in the bulletin.

I have learned that Latino worship is not quite as... up tight... as Anglo worship can be. And I say that as a confessed (and avowed) rubrical enforcer—they give us special pins. The goal of carefully prepared and orchestrated worship is that all of the worshippers can blend into the liturgical action, no one wondering what is happening next and no one person ever standing out.

And true, the celebration of Holy Eucharist today was not perfect at either service, but it was faithful.

No es perfecto, pero es fiel. It is not perfect, but it is faithful.

Because our desire for perfection can be a distancing move. Our practice of liturgy can be a distancing move, one that keeps us from truly seeing Christ in the sacrament, sonriendo, gently smiling. It can keep us from seeing that all Christ wants is for us to follow. Tan solo quieres, que yo te siga.

Oh Señor, yo quiero aprender a seguir.

Oh Lord, I want to learn to follow.

Porque a veces ser fiel es mejor que sea perfecto.

Because sometimes to be faithful is better than to be perfect.

No. Siempre es mejor ser fiel es mejor que sea perfecto.

It is always better to be faithful than to be perfect.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Algo Hermoso

This morning, I pulled myself out of bed at 7:25am (6:25am my time, to be fair), to go buy flowers.

Yesterday, Karen told me she was going flower shopping early in the morning. She does this each week on Saturday morning, heads downtown to the market where all the trucks filled with flowers have come off the mountain to wholesale to the rest of the city. She tries to spend no more than RD$500 Dominican (around US$11), and that buys enough flowers for two arrangements of altar flowers.

Apparently, when she arrived here as a missionary with the Episcopal Church, they were just buying a simple bouquet of flowers and sticking it in the vases. She started buying more varieties of flowers and arranging them. Eventually, the cathedral housekeeper tentatively expressed interest and Karen readily agreed to teach her. For the first several arrangements, Karen would do one and the housekeeper would copy her. But she eventually got the hang of it and now has done it on her own several times.

Whenever she does the arrangement for Sunday, people tell her how beautiful they are and, apparently, she glows with pride.

Algo hermoso. Something beautiful.

My own parish back home gets our flowers from a local florist who delivers completed bouquets and puts them in vases on the reredos. You can pay the cost of the flowers for a week (about $50 for the two arrangements) as a memorial gift and very rarely—if ever—is there a week that someone has not already marked down.

And though we've talked, from time to time, about starting a flower guild and creating our own arrangements. But everyone is very busy and we've never had enough of a critical mass to head in that direction. I do still like the idea, though, of a flower guild.

Even if, like at Catedral Epifania, it is a guild of two.

When I met the housekeeper, I told her how I heard she made beautiful flowers. ("Karen diga me que cuando estas haciendo las flores, tu flores son la mas bonitas.") Sure enough, she beamed as she said, "Gracias."

Later in the day (after a nap), I went with the cathedral dean and two clergy from Colombia to visit San Marcos in Haina. This is a relatively poor city, about 12 miles from Santo Domingo. It is best known to Americans as one of the the ten most polluted cities in the world, sometimes called "Dominican Chernobyl" because of the lead contamination caused by a battery smelting company that used to operate in the area.

Make no mistake, the Cathedral I am staying at here in Santo Domingo is not in the wealthy modern part of the city. But compared with Haina... it is in a very different place. As the dean said to me when were were driving between the two, "La República Dominicana es un país de contrastes." It is a country of contrasts.

And yet, in the midst of it sits San Marcos, served by one of the very first women ordained to the priesthood in the Dominican. There is a pre-school with Dora painted on the wall. There is a basketball court filled with Pepsi logos. The church itself is lovely and above it is the "salon" (what we would call parish hall), clearly a place of joy and gathering—the presence of some empty wine bottles near the door indicate that it is clearly an Episcopal parish hall, I suppose.

I wonder somedays about the mission of the church. There are so many good things the church does, wonderful things that all seem to compete with one another for attention.

And there are some things we have done—or have failed to do—that make me avert my eyes when I think of them.

But there, in the middle of Haina, is algo hermoso—something beautiful. There is a vicar who works hard to bring algo hermoso into the lives of people who are otherwise surrounded by pollution and poverty. She is able to see algo hermoso in the lives of the people she tends, in her parroquia, her parish.

Es una profunda gracia de encontrar algo hermoso.

It is a profound grace to find something beautiful.

Es más profunda para crear algo hermoso.

It is more profound to create something beautiful.

I wonder what would happen if we saw that as central to our mission as the church?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Estoy Aquí

I don't know why, but one of the most ridiculous things I constantly have to think about when speaking in Spanish is whether to use the verb "soy" or "estoy."

If you don't know, these are the two "to be" verbs in Spanish. "Soy" implies a more permanent state of being. "Soy un hombre," "I am a man,' for example. Estoy, however, implies a transitive state, something that will not last. "Estoy cansado," "I am tired," for example.

And when I sit down, I can remember that... but in the regular flow of conversation, I have a bad habit of getting it all jumbled.

This afternoon I arrived in the Dominican Republic for three weeks of Spanish language immersion work along with spending time working in and among local parishes in the area. I took two years of Spanish in High School, but I tried hard to keep it up over a decade in the restaurant industry. My Spanish is passable, but certainly not fluent. The goal of this time is to help me get over the hump to fluency.

Catedral de la Epifania • Epiphany Cathedral
After I dropped my bag off at my room here at the Epiphany Cathedral, my host, Karen, offered to take me to exchange some cash and get a few staples for my stay. We stopped off at the diocesan offices, however, and ran into one of the seminarians, Marcus. He explained that there was actually a seminary class on Scripture going on upstairs that would be followed by the seminarians dinner. Karen asked if I wanted to jump in and I said, "Absolutely, that's what I'm here for."

We went upstairs and entered the room in which the class was being held. Marcus pulled me up a seat (near the back, kindly enough) and I sat down to take in what I could. I was able to catch bits and pieces of the Spanish and to follow along with the English Bible on my iPhone whenever they went to specific texts.

I sat in on the class for probably an hour and a half and they did not even take one single break. They just keep plowing through the New Testament, exploring the concept of virtues in Scripture and how they are a part of the Christian life. It was glorious.

But then my phone died.

And I started getting tired (I was up at 5am today, after all).

I kept an eye on the clock and realized the class was going to be continuing for a while yet. I decided that since I had just arrived, a bit of a break would be OK. I let myself out the door, made my way outside, and somehow was able to walk back to the Cathedral on my own. After plugging my phone in a charger, I went to a nearby restaurant to eat a quick bite.

As I sat at the table, with no phone or reading material to keep my from human interaction, I watched the people walk by. I watched a family a few tables over enjoying each other. When the food arrived, the father raised an eyebrow and one of the children hesitantly handed over the smartphone so they could focus on dinner. A younger couple a few tables to my right were enjoying drinks and the pleasure of sitting close to each other.

I breathed in the night air and wondered.... are we really that different? If I can get past the language barriers, so much seems to be the same. And for those pieces that are different, those ways of being that vary according to culture... what richness lies for those who will journey in.

Estoy aqui. I am here. I am here for three weeks, far from my wife who has amazingly enough agreed to let me spend all this time on this project. I am far from my parish, leaving it in the able hands of my priest associate and our parish administrator and trying very hard to resist the urge to get into work e-mails.

Necesito estar aquí. I need to be here.

But I cannot help but wonder, is it possible to be here, to be among the people in the Latino culture in a less transitive way? That is the goal, upon my return, after all. To find ways to practice Christian ministry in Northwest Ottawa county that might invite our small Latino population in, that I might be among them, be with them. No other church in our area offers any Spanish services near round—even though one community not more than ten minutes away is nearly one-tenth Latino.

And so I am hoping. I am hoping that over these next weeks I can learn enough—I can be brave enough—to be here in such a way that it enables me to be here in a less transitive way.

Quiero estar con ustedes. I want to be with you all.

Quiero aprender como estar con ustedes. I want to learn to be with you all.

Espero que tengo la fuerza. I hope that I have the strength.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Scrap TREC's A001 — Or, on Having My Mind on TREC Changed (just a bit)

So, though others have been much more critical/cynical when it comes to the report of the Task Force for Reimagining the Church than I was in my last post, for the most part I stand my much of my analysis... with one small exception.

My significant disagreement with the report was its support for bi-vocational clergy as a part of the wave of the future—this despite the fact that we've been doing it for forty years, albeit begrudgingly. I argued that this model should not simply be held up, but that it is time for a critical analysis of whether or not it actually works. Does it have a positive effect upon congregations? Does it wind up burning out clergy who are expected to work more than they are compensated?

I concluded, "To wit, this is not bold thinking, it is the same tired thinking that has led to continued decline in the Episcopal Church over the past several decades. We don't need more support for this model. We need for the model to be evaluated, perhaps by a task force appointed by Executive Council (EC), and then determined if it can be saved or if it needs to be thrown out."

The Rev. Susan Snook — Priest,
Church Planter, and author of
first essay that changed my
thinking on TREC. Two points.
Well, Susan Snook has taken the thread I left dangling in that post and pulled the whole thing apart. As she says, "What worries me is TREC’s apparent prognosis. They don’t name it specifically in the report, but many of their recommendations seem to be aimed at providing palliative care for a patient that has entered a long, slow, inevitable decline."

Yes. This.

Seeing this suspected prognosis does indeed bring light to why several of their recommendations are being made. It entirely deconstructs their very first resolution (A001: Restructure for Spiritual Encounter) and reveals that it should probably be renamed to "Restructure for a Shrinking Church." As Snook notes, much of this resolution fits with what you do with a dying church, "You make arrangements for clergy to find other ways to make a living, you think of non-church ways to use the buildings to keep them open a bit longer, you try to find ways to provide pensions for people who can’t actually make a living in the church, you try to get seminaries to educate people for less money with more practical skills they can use elsewhere..."

In a recent conversation with my deanery chapter about bivocational ministry and ministry in small churches, I suggested a different model.

Part of the problem is that our canons allow a way for a "mission" congregation to become a full "parish" of a diocese, but they don't have a mechanism for the reverse. That is, when a congregation has slowly declined and lost all the markers that enabled them to receive parish status... what can you do? In most cases, the small struggling congregation does its best to act as though it is still a parish. Thus, if it cannot afford its own priest, it will maybe share a priest with another church. Or, maybe it will hire someone who only needs half-time work.

But I suspect that in most cases—not all, but most—this approach merely enables a congregation to continue as though little has changed, to pretend as though they are still a parish.

What if, instead, we created a mechanism whereby a parish could apply to return to mission status? It would have to be attractive—financial assistance in the budget, the specific attention, perhaps, of a diocesan missioner who is highly skilled and has a demonstrable track record for helping declining parishes reverse the trend as they return to a mission mindset. But for it to work there would also have to be a willingness to let go—the autonomy of the parish would need to let go so that hard changes could be made to reverse a decline, changes that very few small congregations are willing to make on their own.

If this mechanism existed, then the diocesan missioner, working with the mission church's council, could indeed appoint a priest in charge of that mission who was not simply someone who would take a less than full-time job at a small church, if need be. Perhaps a limited availability of mission funds would enable that church to hire someone full-time—and not just someone out of seminary, but a well-trained and experienced priest. Or, perhaps a more strategic (and explicitly time limited) use of a yoke with another smaller church in the area would enable them together to hire someone who does not merely take the diocesan minimum, but to create a salary that makes the position attractive for someone who might otherwise take more comfortable job at a larger church.

I don't know the specifics of how all this should work, but I do think that one essential part of "reimagining" that needs to take place—perhaps the most important reimagining we can do—is how exactly we do ministry in small member churches.

Thus, I'd say, let's scrap the entirety of Resolution A001, acknowledging that, in the end, it had less to do with spiritual encounter and more to do with how do we get people to hold the hands of churches as they die. Instead, let's come up with a substitute resolution called something like, "Restructuring for Local Mission." It could read something like this...
Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That the 78th General Convention urge Episcopal seminaries to work collectively by the appointing a Task Force on Clergy Formation comprised of members from each Episcopal seminary and tasked with two goals: (1) an exploration of the current structure the MDiv degree in our seminaries and whether they are indeed the competencies needed for Episcopal clergy to lead thriving congregations and (2) the creation of post-MDiv and Mdiv concentrations that focus on mission, evangelism, creating healthy congregations in areas of decline, and cultivating ethnic diversity in monocultural locales, with such task force  and Episcopal seminaries’ reportage of their progress to Executive Council and to each succeeding General Convention; and be it further 
Resolved, That every diocese—or geographic grouping of dioceses—appoint a Diocesan Missioner who has experience and a track record with effective ministry in small member churches and that Diocesan Councils and Commissions on Ministry, in collaboration with their Bishop and Diocesan Missioner, develop specific model for ministry in small member churches, such models to encourage growth and change, creating situations where highly trained and capable clergy can enter into these churches and begin to reverse decline, including a mechanism whereby a parish can return to mission status, exchanging autonomy in the status quo for time-limited expanded funding and the leadership of Diocesan Missioner; and be it further 
Resolved, That the Executive Council study what portion of our Churchwide budget supports evangelism and mission, both in small member churches and through church plants, and create a report for the 79th General Convention which provides specific suggestions for what percentage of our budget should be focused on this need and how such funds might enable the work of parishes and dioceses to reverse decline; and be it further 
Resolved, That the Trustees of the Church Pension Fund study the following and report
to the 79th General Convention: how a portion of the resources of that fund might be put to work in providing funding for clergy who seek to enter into training as missioners across our church; compensation models and pension benefits that may not be adequate or may be just in certain areas of the Church, particularly in dioceses outside the U.S.; and be it further 
Resolved, That the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society develop a Churchwide Missioner, who will facilitate connections and lead our church in this movement towards reversing decline, revitalizing that which has become stagnate, and provide resources, conferences, and other opportunities for training leaders, lay and ordained, throughout the Episcopal Church, who desire to turn their local parishes into more effective staging points for Christian mission and evangelism.  
Now, I'm clearly not a resolution wordsmith. I'm a young, thirty-three, year old priest who has only been at this for six years. I'm an Alternate to General Convention—not a Deputy—and so have no standing to propose anything. Indeed, the actual mechanisms for all these pieces likely need to be rewritten by people with much more experience than I.

But I do think it is clear that Resolution A001 needs to be fundamentally rewritten to go from an offering of, in Snook's words, "palliative care" for a dying church. It is the first resolution coming from TREC and it needs to be bold. It needs to create an effect specific change in a way that connects the various parts of our church in a movement towards mission. It needs to... reimagine who we are.

To be clear, Resolution A002 still makes me very giddy because it seems very good and very needed. Resolution A003 probably needs to be tweaked to make it clear that it is not about keeping the dying alive a little longer (this is actually the real reason we need stricter rules about endowment spending, particularly when that spending is simply supporting the status quo and not enabling mission and change). The changes to Constitution and Canons, to CCABS, all of that that I said I liked so much in my last post... I still think all that needs to be there.

But this Resolution A001, this one needs to change. The question is, who will be the ones to change it?