The real reason we burn incense: It isn’t merely symbolic.

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Why do we sing when we worship God?

 

Surely it is easier to just say the words rather than trying to move our voices to some melody, and yet singing has almost always been an important way in which God’s people have demonstrated their love for him. In scripture we find the “Song of Moses,” the “Song of Miriam,” the “Song of Hannah,” the “Song of Solomon,” and of course the Psalms themselves, all poetry that we believe was originally sung to God, just like our hymns or praise songs are sung today. Why do we sing? We sing because we believe that it gives glory and honor and praise to God in ways that surpass the spoken word. One could probably make the argument that music was invented for worship, and there aren’t many religious traditions that don’t include it in some form. But of course, music and song are not the only ancient ways in which we worship God; there is another way that is equally, if not more, ancient: incense.

 

Whenever I hear a priest explain the use of incense in Catholic worship I invariably hear one of the following arguments or statements:

 

Incense symbolizes our prayers rising to heaven

Incense is fragrant and engages our sense of smell in worship

Incense was used in the ancient times to mask bad odors

 

While all of these arguments have some truth to them (and I must admit I have used them myself at times), they all fall short of identifying the primary, and most important, reason that incense is used in worship: We offer incense to glorify God.

 

Incense is quite simply burned as an offering to God. The rising smoke of the incense fills the air with something beautiful in the same way that our voices fill the air when we sing. They are both ways in which God’s faithful people have sought to honor and worship their creator from the earliest biblical times. We don’t talk about singing as if it were symbolic of worship; it is worship. Music in church is not there to entertain the congregation; it is there to glorify God. We need to start thinking of incense in the same way.

 

From the Book of Exodus, wherein Aaron is instructed to build an altar of incense in front of the ark of the covenant (Exodus 30: 1-9), to the Book of Revelation, where an angel stands before the throne of God, offering God “a great quantity of incense” along with the prayers of all the saints (Revelation 8:3), incense is routinely offered in the worship of God. In Psalm 141, the psalmist writes:

 

I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;

Give ear to my voice when I call to you.

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,

and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.

 

The psalmist is assuming that the burning incense and the evening sacrifice are acceptable to God, and he is praying that his prayers, however feeble our faulty they may be, may be as acceptable. Nowhere does the psalmist imply that the incense is merely symbolic of true worship; he actually implores God that his prayers may be as truly worshipful as offering incense.

 

In fact, the one time in which scripture comes down very hard on the burning of incense is when it is treated as just a symbol. The prophet Isaiah famously describes offerings as “futile” and incense as an “abomination” when he is excoriating Israel for divorcing the external forms of worship from true conversion of the heart (Isaiah 1:13). Worship is not meant to be an empty symbol or ritual, but an outpouring of the internal love we have for God, an outpouring which should also manifest itself in a desire to do good and resist evil. The problem here is not the incense or the offerings; the problem is when our rituals become disconnected from our devotion.

 

I know plenty of churches that value music in worship, but not incense. I cannot think of any churches that value incense, but not music. I do not think it is any accident that the churches that use incense most liberally are also the churches most inclined to sing large portions of the service. Perhaps we appreciate (even if only subconsciously) that both the smoke and the song are solemn offerings to God. They are lifted into the air, not primarily for our entertainment, but as an offering for the worship and glorification of the Almighty.

 

Sure, all sorts of symbols abound in our worship, and music and incense can (hopefully) be pleasing to the ear or the nose, but please, let’s stop telling people that that is why we are using them. Our primary purpose should always be the praise and adoration of God. Everything else is just gravy.

In defense of lace albs: 5 things about traditional vestments and the priests who wear them

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If you were to enter almost any Catholic Church (either Roman Catholic of Anglo-Catholic) before the 1960s you would almost certainly have seen the clergy vested in a white linen garment known as an alb. Very often these albs were decorated with an extensive amount of lace. The lace in an alb served two important functions: first on a very practical level, the lace makes the garment lighter and more breathable (and saying mass in several layers of robes in churches before the invention of air-conditioning this was a welcome introduction indeed); second, and far more importantly, lace was symbolic of the amount of effort and care being put into the worship of God.

 

Before machines could make lace quickly and cheaply, it represented something of a luxury. Lace was expensive and very hard to make. Its intricate patterns were woven by hand and represented countless hours of toil and care. When lace first became available and fashionable, its use was not considered a sign of femininity, but of nobility, so it was quite natural that in seeking to worship the King of Kings, the church would very often employ lace in its linens and vestments to symbolize the supreme transcendence of God.

 

Of course, lace was not the only sign of nobility used in the worship of God. Chalices were to be ornate and made of the finest metal. Vestments and robes needed to be beautiful and splendid. Churches had altars that were intricately carved and windows that colorfully illustrated the stories of our faith. The worship of God was not something incidental: time, effort and treasure were devoted to make going to church the most awe-inspiring experience that most people ever had.

 

How far we have come. This past week I have twice encountered prejudice within the church against priests who still find great value in maintaining and wearing traditional vestments. It has happened plenty of times before, but enough is enough. So here are a few things I want everyone to know about traditional vestments and the priests who wear them:

 

  1. Femininity has nothing to do with it. Wearing traditional vestments has nothing to do with having a lace fetish and wanting to wear frilly things (not that there is anything wrong with that). Indeed, I sometimes wonder about the implied misogyny that seems to exist in so many put-downs about traditional vestments looking feminine. So what if they do? We need to recognize that our ideas about what is masculine and/or feminine have changed over time (just look at portraits of kings and queens through the ages if you don’t believe me). The church’s vestments evolved long before trousers became a thing, so maybe we should stop trying to assign them a gender. And while we are on this subject, it is worthwhile to state: not every priest that wears and values traditional vestments is opposed to the ordination of women! I, for one, love a good lace alb, and fully support women wearing them too.
  2. The vestments are not there to make me look special. The robes are not worn to glorify the priest, they are worn to glorify Christ. As a priest, I am a sinner in need of redemption just like everyone else. During the mass, I act in the person of Christ, to say his words of institution over the bread and wine and distribute his body and blood to his faithful people. It is a moment that is supremely not about me at all, but about Christ and what he has done. The time, effort and expense put into beautiful vestments is not done to make me look special, but rather to remind all of us how special Christ is and how glorious this meal is that he has invited us to.
  3. We are not trying to turn back time. I love patristic theology, early mass settings, medieval architecture, baroque vestments and altar furnishings, and even the occasional modern praise song (gasp!). My standard when evaluating church things is not “is it new?” or “is it old?” but “is it good?” What I have found, time and time again, is that things that have managed to stand the test of time have usually done so because they have lasting value from one generation to the next. I have no desire to go back to the days before civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights or air-conditioning, but I do believe that the people that lived before and through those times still probably have a lot to teach me. Just because we find timeless wisdom and value in things that are traditional does not mean that we fail to see the importance of the progress that has been made along the way as well. For the record, most priests that I know that have strong preferences for traditional worship are actually quite young, and much of the laity that are attracted to this type of worship are fairly young as well. This isn’t about catering to the blue-haired ladies in our congregations as much as it is looking to what is resonating with children and youth.
  4. This is not about some secret desire to be Roman Catholic. On many occasions people have visited my church and commented “This is just like Roman Catholic” to which I would like to reply “When is the last time you visited a Roman Catholic Church?” Traditional vestments were a hallmark of both Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches up until the 1960s, when after the reforms of Vatican II, the Roman church began moving toward more modern vestments (and by modern I mean reflecting style, material and color trends of the 1960s and 70s). Today very few Roman Catholic parishes worship in traditional vestments or follow the older Tridentine form of the mass. The fact is that Episcopal priests that wear cassock-albs, modern-styled vestments and worship at West-facing altars have far more in common with their Roman Catholic colleagues than those of us that have a preference for fiddle-back chasubles, and that is fine, it really is. I have no problem with priests and churches that can feel connected to Christ through newer rites and modern aesthetics. As long as it is faithful to the gospel and works for the community, great. Go with it. What I do have a problem with is the notion that those of us who connect with traditional worship in all its forms and finery on some level do not belong in the mainstream church and are just waiting for an excuse to leave. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a mainstream Anglican in the Episcopal Church and that is right where I intend to stay, but if we say that our church has room for a variety of styles in worship, then we should live that out by not trying to force traditional worshipers off to the margins, or even worse, out of the picture altogether.
  5. Ultimately the lace may not matter, but style does. Style and substance go hand in hand. We need to get that. People pay more attention to what we do than what we say. If we put more effort into setting a nice table for a dinner party than we do preparing ourselves for worshiping at Christ’s altar, what does that say about our priorities? Say what you will about traditional worship, it is seldom sloppy or irreverent. It takes Christ seriously.This is not some show that we are putting on week after week, it is the worship of God, and it is that very same worship that has led many a faithful Anglo-Catholic to serve Christ in the streets and in the hearts and bodies of those in need, as well as at his high altar. Maybe a Solemn High Mass isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I get that, but please stop suggesting that we are going through all of this effort for any other reason than to glorify God.

 

 

The next time you see a priest wearing a lace alb consider this: he or she has probably done so as a conscious choice, but it may not be for the reason you think. He might not be trying to make a statement about his stance on some political issue in the church. He might not be trying to dress like a historical figure from ages past. He might not be trying to draw attention to himself by wearing something grand our outlandish. He might, just might, have seen something very beautiful and thought “surely this is worthy of God.”

Here is Water: A Call for Open Baptism

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In one of my favorite scenes from the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” three escaped convicts: Ulysses, Pete and Delmar, encounter a church congregation gathering at a river to perform baptisms. Delmar becomes so excited he jumps to the front of the line to have the preacher baptize him too. After Delmar comes up from the water he yells back to his friends on the shore:

Delmar:          Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The     preacher’s done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward.

Ulysses:          Delmar, what are you talking about? We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Delmar:          The preacher says all my sins been warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.

Ulysses:          I thought you said you was innocent of those charges!

Delmar:          Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that that sin’s been warshed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.

Pete enthusiastically takes Delmar up on the offer and is baptized too. Ulysses remains skeptical and dry. Later after the trio pick up a hitchhiker named Tommy, who tells them that he sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play guitar, Ulysses states: “Well, ain’t it a small world, spiritually speaking. Pete and Delmar just been baptized and saved. I guess I’m the only one that remains unaffiliated.”

Ulysses could be anybody. In many ways his character gives voice to the “nones” of our world: the people who are unaffiliated with any religion and who are often content to remain so. Ulysses represents all those that avoid issues like sin and repentance and even God, because they are convinced that they have “bigger fish to fry.” You expect to find such attitudes in a secular society, but finding indifference to baptism in the church is another matter entirely.

When the Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1979 much effort was expended by the scholars and liturgists involved to place a renewed emphasis on baptism and its importance in the life of the worshipping community. Baptism was no longer envisioned as a private service for the Christening of newborns, but instead was seen as a public proclamation of faith, made by adults as well as children. Rubrics were written suggesting (although not, as some think, requiring) that baptism be performed at the chief service on Sunday morning, and then only on four occasions a year (more about this hated rubric later). Now, after 36 years of public baptisms and renewing of Baptismal Covenants, we have a vocal minority in the Episcopal Church that insist that baptism is not essential to participating in the life of the church, particularly in partaking of the Holy Eucharist. Somewhere the message about the importance of baptism did not get through.

Now we are told that withholding communion is unwelcoming and inhospitable, and every three years at General Convention someone proposes a change to canon law to allow the unbaptized to receive communion (communion without baptism or CWOB for short). The primary problem with CWOB, as I see it, is not that it desecrates the Holy Eucharist; the real problem is that it desecrates Baptism. CWOB trivializes baptism; it turns our primary act of union with Christ into an optional rite of initiation. If we are eager to give the stranger in our midst communion, but somehow less eager to invite them to be baptized, what does that say about our belief in baptism?

I don’t know any priest who has ever asked about someone’s baptism at the altar rail. I certainly have never withheld communion from those who have come forward wishing to receive it, but to actively teach people that it doesn’t matter is another thing entirely. That, in essence, would be allowing them access to one sacrament, but withholding from them another: encouraging them to take Christ’s body, but without encouraging them to become a part of it.

How have we gotten to this point where CWOB can even be seriously discussed? It seems that despite the changes made in the 1979 Prayer Book, we actually value baptism less now than we did then. I know of one church in particular that prides itself on offering communion to anyone, regardless of baptism, yet turns away individuals wishing to be baptized, unless they are available on one of the four times a year that the prayer book recommends doing it. Just exactly how is this radically welcoming? What does it say if we will offer anyone communion but put strict limits on when and where we will actually offer people union with Christ through baptism?

For too long we have talked about baptism as if it were a community event. We have treated baptism like it is an initiation into a club, and not a sacred moment in the life of an individual. I cringe when I hear people say: “I was baptized an Episcopalian,” or “I was baptized Roman Catholic.” People now think that baptism is about joining a church, when in reality baptism is about joining the Church, not a group of Christians worshiping on this corner in this town, but the mystical body of Christ which is made up of all believers from all time. To be baptized is to be forever affiliated with Jesus Christ. It shouldn’t matter if the individuals we baptize never darken the door of our church again. Baptism is not about making new church members; it is about making new Christians. I understand the reasons why the liturgists of the 1979 Prayer Book wanted to make baptism a Sunday event, but I am not convinced that putting limits on baptism has been an effective means of calling people outside of our churches into a life in Christ.

We need to get serious about baptism. If we want to be radically welcoming of the strangers in our midst, then let’s start by welcoming them at the font; better yet, let’s take baptism outside the church: let’s wade into the water with God’s people in rivers and lakes and streams. Whenever we find someone that wishes to follow Jesus, let us show them just how welcoming our church can be by baptizing them then and there. We don’t need to turn every sacred moment into a bureaucratic process. When our Lord gave his disciples the great commission in Matthew 28:19 he told them to: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” When one of those disciples, Phillip, met an Ethiopian Eunuch that wanted to follow Jesus in Acts 8, he didn’t wait until Sunday or a special feast day to unite him with the Lord; he did it as soon as they found water. If we are serious about following this Jesus, obeying his commands, and getting people to affiliate with God, then we need to get serious about his command to baptize.

We have no bigger fish to fry.

There’s a reason for the things that I have on…

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A friend of mine once said: “we are really good in the church at creating professional clergy, but we aren’t very good at creating ministers of the gospel.” Hearing her words made me think of my own time in seminary and the different ways in which I was and was not prepared to be spreading the gospel. During my last year in seminary, the then dean, Joseph Britten, sat the senor class down one day and passed out a piece of paper. One of the topics for discussion that day was clerical dress. The dean began by saying that we could talk about the historical and cultural reasons for clergy to wear black, but that we would never have a better excuse than the words on this piece of paper. Printed on the paper were the lyrics to the Johnny Cash song “Man in Black”:

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,

Why you never see bright colors on my back,

And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.

Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,

Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,

I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,

But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,

Or listened to the words that Jesus said,

About the road to happiness through love and charity,

Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,

In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,

But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,

Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,

For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,

I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,

Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,

Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,

I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,

Believen’ that we all were on their side.

Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,

And things need changin’ everywhere you go,

But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,

You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,

And tell the world that everything’s OK,

But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,

‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.

If I learned nothing else in seminary, that day I began to grasp what it means to be a minister of the gospel and not just another specialized professional in a suit.

Those years in seminary were the days when I longed for the day when I could officially wear a clerical collar. It was a symbol of what I was working towards; it was a symbol of my burgeoning identity; and, yes, it was also a symbol of authority. I can remember the excitement of actually getting to wear a collar for the first time as an ordained person and the amount of pride that I took in dressing for the role of deacon and priest, but that was a long time ago.

In the eleven years since I was ordained, the clerical collar has lost the mystique that it once had. As a good Anglo-Catholic I still wear it the majority of the time when doing anything official (and yes, I only wear black), but I must admit feeling a great sense of relief at the end of the day when I take it off. I even find myself looking for reasons or excuses NOT to wear the collar sometimes. Quite a change from when I first put it on.

What many people do not understand is that wearing a clerical collar and dressing as a priest, very often changes the way people look at you and the way they treat you. Introverts (like me) can find all that extra attention exhausting, but even some of the most outgoing people I know can get tired of being seen as Father of Mother so and so ALL the time. I have found myself in recent years to be reluctant at times to wear my collar when going in to Manhattan (I live on Long Island). I find myself wanting to take it off or change my shirt, so that I can travel around like everyone else without the extra baggage that the clerical collar brings with it. Recently I was heading into Manhattan from my office and I paused for a moment thinking that I might take off my collar before I left, but for some reason (a still, small voice) I decided to leave it on.

When I walked up to the train platform I was stopped by a man who looked like he was waiting for a train in the opposite direction. Now my gut reaction whenever anyone stops me on the street or in public is to expect one of two things: 1) to be asked for money, or 2) to be asked a theological question that deserves a complex answer by someone that expects a simple answer usually agreeing with their own viewpoint (seriously, this happens). Call me cynical.

The man started by apologizing for taking up my time. He said that he was Jewish and not from my faith but respected what I did and recognized me as a person of prayer. He told me a story of how he had just been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer, was afraid of losing his vision and dying, and really wanted someone to stop and pray for him. That was it. He didn’t want money. He didn’t want to monopolize my time. He just wanted reassurance of God’s love from someone he recognized as a minister.

It took less than a minute of my time to give this gentleman everything that he wanted. After we said a brief prayer together there on the train platform he walked on. It was just a brief moment of grace punctuating a rather ordinary day, but I walked away from the encounter feeling quite different than I had just a few minutes before. He may have been the one who asked for prayer, but I may have been the one who was healed.

This whole encounter which changed my day, and undoubtedly changed his too would not have happened if I had taken that collar off as I had originally intended. I was wearing a symbol of my office and it was that symbol that helped to create the space where that encounter could happen. I realized that I had begun looking at the collar as a professional clergyperson; as a symbol of work that can at times be exhausting. What the collar became for me in that moment was a tool to be used in the ministry of the gospel, and that made all the difference in the world.

The signs and symbols we use in the church have great power, even to people who are completely outside our faith. Even people who never cross the threshold of the church can recognize a priest on the street. They may not understand me as an individual, but they know what I represent and that still means something.

We do damage to the ministry of the gospel by dismissing the tools that God has given us to spread it. By saying that “style doesn’t matter” or that something is “merely symbolic” we casually dismiss the powerful tools that we have to tell the world about Jesus Christ and the love he has for it. When we are more focused on the tools than we are on the mission, then we revert back to being professional clergypersons, but when we are using the tools to further our mission, then we become effective ministers of the gospel.

As an Anglo-Catholic I love the symbols of my faith. I love the bells and smells. I love the gothic architecture and the beauty of the language used in the King James Bible. I love all of those things and I use them, not because I am clinging to something I grew up with (I didn’t). I use them because I am convinced that they are still effective tools for taking the gospel into a world that still needs to hear it.

Hanging on the wall in the rectory bathroom are the framed lyrics to Johnny Cash’s song. I reread it often, because I find that I need to be reminded of the just how important the symbol I am wearing on my back or around my neck might be. It isn’t a fashion choice to be worn by a professional priest; it is a tool to be used by a minister of the gospel. I thank God for reminding me from time to time that there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

What we have; What we lost; What we need

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If the church were more like Oxford University:

Subfusc is a Latin term used to refer to a specific type of academic dress worn by students at Oxford University. It is a black gown of varying lengths and shapes worn over formal attire by students during examinations, some lectures, dinners and numerous other occasions. If Oxford were like many other universities, subfusc, would be a period costume and nothing more: something one might expect to see depicted in movies like Brideshead Revisited or the Shadowlands, but not an item of contemporary apparel. Thankfully, Oxford is not like any other university.

Last week as I was having breakfast in a hotel in Oxford’s city centre, I could see outside the window phalanx of students, impeccably dressed and donning their subfusc, heading into an austere stone building to take their examinations. This was not some historical reenactment of life at Oxford in the 1920s; this is life at Oxford now and if the students have anything to say about it, it will still be life in Oxford for many years to come.

Last week the Oxford Student Union held a referendum. The question it posed: Should students still be required to wear subfusc on the usual occasions? One of the university’s vice presidents proposed that this was an archaic tradition that the students would be glad to get rid of. The result: more than 75% of the student body voted in favor of keeping the unusually shaped black gowns as required apparel for Oxford students. The students who actually live their lives in and out of these garments expressed a strong desire to maintain this centuries old tradition. This does not mean, however, that Oxford students are simply intransigent and unwilling to adapt to the modern world. In 2012 rules regarding the type of subfusc that each gender was permitted to wear were lifted, but the general rule that students must be dressed in some type of the uniform were maintained, proving that it is possible to adapt a tradition to modern needs without throwing it off entirely.

Oxford University takes modern youth, from a variety of backgrounds and races, and invites them into a different life. It is a life steeped in centuries of tradition, where students know that they are a part of something much larger and more significant than just the concerns of the present age. But because its life is comprised primarily of the young, Oxford is always confronted with new ideas and new thoughts. So what you end up with is a city and a University that is at once extremely old, while at the same time being eternally young. It has both the reverence of ancient tradition and the vitality of new life, and that is, in my opinion, exactly what the church should look like.

The ability to adapt tradition without dispensing with it, has proven to be Oxford’s strength and the Church’s weakness, and this is crucial because it is that very ability that will lie at the heart of any successful prayer book revision.

The next prayer book revision needs to take a close look at three critical questions regarding the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: What we have; what we lost; and what we need.

What we have

While I admit that I am not the biggest fan of the 1979 prayer book, there is much there that works and works well. Some of the prayers are clumsy and dated, but some work very well. Overall, the 1979 prayer book, when it is actually followed, can produce beautiful and wonderful liturgies in worship styles that range from high Anglo-Catholic to low protestant and everything in between. It is imperfect, but for many of us in the church now it is the tradition that has formed us, and that is not to be taken lightly or easily dispensed with.

What we lost

All revisions and reformations have a tendency to go too far. Things get pushed aside or left behind in one generation that the next generation finds itself in need of. Any revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer needs to look backwards as well as forwards. We need to look back at previous revisions and identify places where something of value was lost. How can a new prayer book connect modern Christians to ancient rituals and beliefs? How can we help today’s worshiper feel that oneness of spirit with Christians in every other generation? If we can accept that merely casting off old traditions is not an acceptable solution to moving forward, can we look back and identify some traditions that previous revisions dispensed with in too much haste?

What we need

Much has changed in the last 30+ years. Technology is vastly different. The battlegrounds within the church and within the world have all changed. A new prayer book must take into account the world it is being sent into. It must be able to invite individuals from every background, race, gender and sexuality into the life of the church. This will mean adding and altering some services and it is here principally that the ability to alter traditions without dispensing with them altogether will become key.

There are many reasons why I would propose that now is not the time to be contemplating prayer book revision in the Episcopal Church, but my primary reason that I pray we hold off, is that we simply have not done the work of finding out from our youth and young clergy what the answers are to those three questions: what we have; what we lost; and what we need. Like the students at Oxford wearing subfusc, it is the young in the church that are going to have to actually live with and in any new revised prayer book, so any discussion of revision must begin with them.

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Institutions do not exist…Relationships do

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Institutions do not exist.

 

At least, not in the way that they often think that they do. Despite the Supreme Court’s concept of Corporate Personhood that allows corporations to be treated, at times, as if they were individuals, the truth is that institutions and corporations do not exist apart from the individuals that make them up. They can’t make decisions on their own; they can’t eat and breathe on their own; they can’t accomplish anything on their own apart from the individuals that work on their behalf. It is the living and breathing individuals working in relationship with each other that make corporations possible and apart from that, an institution’s existence is tantamount to an idea on paper, nothing more.

 

My reflections on the non-existence of institutions began swirling around in my head a couple weeks ago as the crisis at the General Theological Seminary in New York began to spill into the news. I should be completely clear here that I don’t have the same personal stake in GTS that many of my friends and colleagues do. I attended a different seminary and I don’t have any close affiliation with any of its board or faculty members, so my observation of the current fight between the Board, Dean and Faculty is really as someone who is an outsider to the community. Nonetheless, the tragic war currently going on at this school, seems to be to be emblematic of a larger problem that exists within the church as a whole: its all about trying to save the institution.

 

I have no doubt that both sides in the current conflict at General are primarily concerned with the best interests of the institution, but I would argue that having the interests of the institution at heart might be precisely the problem that has led to this impasse. When we start to love an institution for itself, we are liable to overlook and undervalue the real relationships that make those institutions possible in the first place. We must not see this as just a problem for one seminary in New York City though, but as a problem that the entire Catholic Church of Christ grapples with from time to time and that the Episcopal Church, among others, is struggling with in very specific ways right now.

 

Whenever I hear someone say that they love an institution I often wonder precisely what they mean: Do they love the building? Do they love the people that work there? Is it the tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation that they love? When people say that they love the Episcopal Church, to what specifically are they referring? To the national church headquarters at 815 2nd Ave in New York City? (I doubt it) For me at least, to say that I love the Episcopal Church is a short-hand way of saying that I love the people within the Episcopal Church. It is a way of saying that I love what we as individuals are trying to do when we come together with the common mission of worshipping God and proclaiming the gospel. The church is made up of individuals who come together with a common purpose and a common mission; without individuals coming together and working and living in relationship with each other, the church as an institution or a corporation would simply cease to exist. The institution of the church and its corporate structure exist to support and facilitate those meaningful, purposeful relationships between individuals, but all too often we think of our relationships with our fellow christians as something that is necessary to support the church, and not something that it is necessary for the church to support.

 

When our Lord gave his summary of the law he instructed us to love God and to love our neighbor. Conspicuously absent from that list are any of the human institutions, corporations and associations which we routinely organize ourselves into. And yet, somehow we frequently manage to misdirect our affections away from the people that make up an institution, or the mission it serves, and we start loving the institution as a thing in itself, as if it were a person. Naturally, when something happens that threatens that institution, our first instinct is to try to protect and save it. And we will do anything to save the corporation…even if it means doing something harmful to those that make it up; even if it means sacrificing the original mission for which it was founded, even if it means breaking the relationships that made it possible in the first place.

 

The problem of putting an institution before human relationships begins when we convince ourselves that the institution, itself, matters.

 

Not the people that form the institution. Not the people it serves. Not its mission. The institution itself matters. We must do whatever we can to save the institution. Perhaps it is part of the self-perpetuating tendency of all groups, but spend any time in corporate America and you are bound to hear the argument that the institution must take (fill in the blank) action in order for its existence to continue. Our focus naturally moves away from the mission of the organization and it moves away from the people who collectively form it and run it, and we establish the institution itself as an idol to be worshipped. Although the CEO of General Motors never actually said “What is good for General Motors, is good for America,” still the mentality that what is good for the institution MUST be good for the people has a very firm grip on American corporate culture.

 

This may seem like a mere philosophical argument, but it has some painful real world consequences. In 2002, when the sexual abuse scandal involving the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston erupted in the media, the most damning information, and that for which most people were rightfully outraged, was not the simple fact that a few priests had committed horrible crimes, it was the manner in which the crimes had been perpetuated by the institution’s desire to protect itself from scandal. In short, the institutional church perpetuated a system which harmed its most vulnerable members, purely out of a desire to protect itself from negative publicity. This is, of course, an extreme example of how worshipping the corporation or the institution itself can be devastating and harmful to the relationships of the people within the institution.

 

There are plenty of examples within our own denomination as well. The Episcopal Church always seems to be looking for the newest way to save itself. Whether it is the “Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church” or with the latest legal battle being fought on whatever front, the concern always seems to drift more toward the preservation of the institution than the preservation of the relationships involved. Any institution is only as strong as the relationships between the individuals who make it up. The institution itself is not a real thing, but the relationships are. When the relationships are broken, regardless of who is right or wrong, the institution is going to falter, and perhaps even fail. If we think that we can save an institution without saving the relationships that make it possible, we make a fatal error.

 

Whether it is the Universal Catholic Church, our denomination, our parish or our seminary, any time we make a decision to put the interests of the institution itself ahead of the interests of the people (and real relationships, and mission) that make that institution possible, we take a turn down a dead-end street. Saying that “what is good for the institution is good for the people,” is very tempting, but time and time again this has proven in practice to be just not true. Like any idol, once we have set an institution up as an object to be worshipped and adored, we lay the groundwork for the inevitable fight over who is going to have control over that object. Perhaps this is why our Lord’s instructions in the summary of the law are limited to loving God and loving our neighbors: they are two things that we cannot control. It is much harder to love something that you don’t have control over; you are forced to live in relationship with it.

 

Institutions, themselves, do not exist.

 

What does exist are the relationships we have with each other. Institutions are just fancy logos and ink on paper. The real corporations are all the collected individuals who work side by side, day in and day out in offices and factories, at desks and in laundry rooms with a common mission and purpose of working together to make something happen. The church doesn’t really exist either, not by itself. The institution of the church exists to support our relationship with Christ and our relationships with each other. Having apostolic succession, having ancient rituals, having scriptures and having venerable buildings are ways in which the church helps build those relationships, across time and across place, but lest we make an idol out of the church itself, we must remember that it is those relationships that are of the utmost importance, not the institution. The real church, the Catholic Church of Christ, is each and every believer worshipping side by side, across continents and across generations, loving God, loving each other and sharing the common mission of trying to tell the story of that love to the world. It is the relationships that we form “whenever two or three are gathered” that really matter. It is in those relationships where Christ is alive, and not in any ink on paper.

 

As I stated in the beginning, I did not attend General Seminary. A few weeks ago, one of my classmates from my own seminary sent out a facebook post recalling how we all supported each other on September 11th, 2001, our first week of classes. What a harrowing and awful time that was, and yet I look back now and think what a gift it was to be able to form relationships with so many talented and caring people at such a difficult time. Through all of the turmoil it was the relationships that we had with each other that made our class strong, and not the institution. I chose my seminary because I thought it was the institution that was important; what I learned was that it’s not really the institution, it’s the relationships that you make there.

 

While I am disheartened to see another institution in the church fighting in the tired-old style of corporate America, there is something I have seen these past weeks which has given me great hope. Regardless of what actions the Board and Faculty of General Seminary take or have taken, I have witnessed the students and alumni coming together across the continent and across social media to support and pray for and encourage one another. Yes, there has been griping and anger and raw emotion, but there has also been much love, support and companionship. Current and former students have joined together in a common cause and concern, and isn’t that what our institutions are supposed to be about in the first place: people working in relationship with each other with a common mission in mind? The true life of the institution is in those relationships and they seem to be stronger than ever right now.

 

 

There is an old saying: “Mind your pennies, and your dollars will take care of themselves.” Maybe it is the little acts of kindness, generosity and respect that ultimately make the larger corporate life that we share possible. Maybe we should spend more time trying to save individual souls, and less time trying to save the institutional church. Maybe if we start paying more attention to the real person to person relationships that make our institutions possible, and that ultimately give them meaning, we wouldn’t have to be worried about trying to rescue the institutions themselves all the time.

 

Institutions do not exist. Only the relationships are real.

The Church: What It Is and What It Isn’t. A Lesson Learned from the Flying Nun.

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In an episode of “The Flying Nun” Sally Field’s character, Sister Bertrille, is put in charge of babysitting a young girl of a different faith. After spending the day helping Sister Bertrille read to the blind, help needy families and generally be a friend to everyone in the community, the young girl decided that she too wanted to become a nun. Sister Bertrille (and the Mother Superior as well) spend the rest of the episode trying to convince the young girl that she doesn’t need to become a nun in order to spend her life serving others.

 

The little girl is determined. She is prepared to give up comic books, bubble gum, even fun vacations and fancy clothes, just so that she can be like Sister Bertrille and be loved like her. Eventually Sister Bertrille manages to show the young girl that entering the convent involves a deeper sense of calling than just a desire to help people and be liked by them. Sister Bertrille didn’t give up her identity when she became a nun, she just laid claim to her truest self, and that was what drew people to her and made them admire her. It wasn’t what she did that made people love her, it was her ability to be truly who she was, and to allow others to do the same.

 

In our present day, when the church seems desperate to attract new members AND to appear relevant to modern culture, Sister Bertrille’s actions could seem a bit counter-intuitive. We so desperately want to “fit in” and to get the world to like us, that we are willing to sacrifice almost anything to make that happen…even our own identity. We as the church really want people to like us and too often we have come to the conclusion that popular approval must be linked to what we do in the world. In other words, if we just focus on social works of mercy and on peace and justice issues, then naturally the outside world is bound to realize the intrinsic value of the church and they will join us and support us. In other words: if people see us doing good things they will like us. That is, after all, what we really, really want isn’t it?

 

Well it hasn’t worked. Once upon a time there was the popular assumption that “good people go to church.” No longer. Now people are well aware that you don’t have to go to church to be a good person. You also don’t have to enter a convent or go into the ministry to serve others. Sister Bertrille clearly pointed out that there are many other professions that do that. No matter how many times we use the word “mission” and all of the (ever increasing) number of words derived from it; no matter how much we use phrases like “radical welcome” or “thinking faith”; and no matter how many times we try to appear like the church that is “hip and cool” (two words that are as dated as the concept they are often used to describe), the fact is that nothing we DO in the world is necessarily going to make people like us. Can we stop this already?

 

We need to do a better job of talking to people about what the church is, not what it does. We need to become comfortable with people not liking us and thinking that we are irrelevant, because no amount of posturing is going to change that. We need to learn that when people come to the church looking for it to DO something for them (e.g., marry them, confirm them, ordain them) that sometimes the appropriate answer is: NO. Finally, we need to become comfortable enough with our own identity that we aren’t willing to sacrifice who we are to be liked by others. As individual Christians, and as the church as a whole, our desire to be liked should never triumph over our core identity.

 

Sister Bertrille understood that being a part of the church, and having a vocation within it, involves a deeper level of belief and calling than just wanting to help others and be liked by them. I pray that we may have that same understanding too.