14 April 2010

What Goes Around Comes Around (Maybe)

Off and on, for a number of years, I have uttered the word "huzzah!" as an expression of excitement or approbation. I never really gave it much thought, because my Dad had used the word on occasion in my youth. In the meantime, there were words like, "yeeha!" or "Yeeess!" or (in the Navy), "Hooyah!" Yesterday, I was caught up short in a Facebook conversation with a parishioner, when I used the word in one of my posts.

The parishioner expressed surprise saying, "It's funny to see you say that, because it's a word that 20s age folks use....not someone in their 50s.." "Not so!" I responded. Then I began to think about language. Later language led to thinking about the Church. Theology, as a discipline, tends to do that sort of thing.

The word "huzzah" actually has its origins in Shakespeare's era. It ducks in and out of English speaking culture and makes a big appearance in America during the Revolution. The word stays present and gets really popular again in the Civil War and western expansion era of the middle late 19th century. It then disappears, except in various regions and among individuals (or in period movies). Now, it seems, it is gaining new popularity among young adults.

In 1988, I read a book that provoked thinking in this area of cyclical popularity. John Snow, the retired Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, published a study in vocation entitled, The Impossible Vocation: Ministry in the Mean Time. It is a study of the nature of modern pastoral theology and how the church has adapted to cultural trends.

In one of Dr. Snow's pivotal conclusions he states, "The central social function of all religions is to build a culture which mitigates the fear of death, freeing its members from suspicion and fear of one another so that compromise, cooperation and consensus can result in a moral and peaceful world." (Snow, pg 145). How the Church goes about this task has taken many identities. The book rehearses these and concludes that the clinical counseling methodology that began to be used in the late 1950s and through the early 1980s simply did not work as a comprehensive modality for pastoral care. Being trained largely in that model (and owning an undergraduate degree in psychology myself), I wondered immediately where that conclusion might leave me in the professional work of a parish priest.

Reading on, I learned that the ultimate goal would be a return to the parish priest as spiritual director and "shaman" (holy person) in community. This reflects another pivotal book of a few years earlier by the late Urban Holmes (Dean of St. Luke's School of Theology, University of the South, TN) entitled, The Priest in Community: Exploring the Roots of Ministry (1979). Fr. Holmes takes the entire scope of human disciplines to reflect on the role of priest in community. Like John Snow later, Holmes shows that holding a particular discipline as definitive for priestly ministry limits the reality of the sacramental character of priesthood.

Even though these two books functioned to shape a large measure of my 3+ decades of parish ministry, I nearly forgot all about that in the more recent struggles of understanding the contemporary function of priest in community. For the past decade or so, the Church has been sliding into a role of "religious business enterprise." That is not a personal assessment but one noted by several theologians in the larger Church. The successful business model of the "roaring 90s and early 2000s" has become the measure by which many local parochial agencies judge success. A colleague told me several years ago that, "all we need is to turn our graduate degrees in theology in and pick up an MBA...that would qualify us to be parish leaders." Reluctantly, I must agree.

Back to the "shaman." This is a scary term for most folks. It raises images of witchdoctor types dancing around with rattles and incantations...or using strange potions and powders to work some kind of weird magic. That's a pretty limiting view. It's a product of too much of the wrong kind of television. Of course, most modern education is at the level of what one sees or hears in the mass media...but I digress.

The shaman in history is one who creates vision; is steeped in the prayer of his/her tradition; is a steward of the mysteries that shape the inner life; and has been gifted with the power to affect change...as a channel or vessel...never as the source. But, in the Episcopal Church, does that define a priest?

There could be no better authority for answering this question than Archbishop Arthur Michael Ramsey -- the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury (retired 1975, deceased 1984). In his powerful little book, The Christian Priest Today, Archbishop Ramsey sums up priesthood: "Man of theology, man of reconciliation, man of prayer, man of the Eucharist -- displaying, enabling and involving the life of the Church -- such is the ordained priest." Look familiar? It almost mirrors the textbook definition of the shaman.

If one wants to wax skeptical regarding the Anglican theological perspective, one just needs to open The Priesthood by Fr. Karl Rahner. Rahner is considered one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century...and a Roman Catholic Priest. In this short but dense book, Rahner creates a litany of the character of priesthood. At once the guardian of mystery; the journeyer into the life of the Spirit; the vessel of Grace in community; the shape changer of culture. Again, this is looking very familiar. Rahner published this work under the title Einubung Priesterlicher Existenz in 1970.

What has happened to us? Largely, I conjecture, we have become fearful of falling into the hands of the Living God and, thereby, have created a more convenient means by which we can measure the Church's relative worth and success. A person recently told me, "Today’s businessperson / vestryperson believes that if they can measure it, they can influence it. And they are willing to measure the success of your parish. So what is today’s rector to do? Fight? Fold? Follow? Fret? "

This is an important statement and series of questions. Given the definitions I have shared above, I want to suggest some things: 1) Today's Rector remains a priest, regardless of the intentions of non-ordained leaders. 2) If regression analysis is necessary, consider that the reasons for the Church's being may have been compromised by a kind of rationalism that works to avoid mystery. 3) The future of the Church depends on the ontological transformation of its people. That means plunging deeply into the mystery of human nature as it is defined in the image of God. 4) We need to pray like crazy that the current pre-occupations with secular models gives way to the definitions that visionaries like Ramsey, Holmes, Rahner and Snow placed before us decades ago. These were men of prayer....shape changers in the relationship between Christ and culture.

Finally, Katherine Tyler Scott, noted business consultant and deeply rooted Episcopalian published an article in the 9 April edition of The Washington Post. It can best be summarized in her own words: "Sheer intellectual ability and objectivity are insufficient to determine the moral good and responsible action. They must be accompanied by the adaptive capacity to hold the tension of the opposites together long enough to understand the problems and the appropriate response....At its core, the Episcopal Church believes in the compatibility of tradition and reform, the partnership of faith and reason. If the church can remember and reclaim this charism, it will help those who follow to navigate the present currents of complexity, chaos and change with reasoned and mature judgment and action. It will enable the church, and all of us, to exhibit the courage to move from the margin, to stand in the gap, to hold the tension of the opposites together, and to take the risk to tell our truths in the world--a world that desperately needs to shed itself of the tendency to demonize differences....Leaders cannot sequester congregants in beautiful spaces of worship with glorious music and liturgy without also engaging them in deeper reflection about what it means to live one's faith responsibly in the world."

Huzzah! Perhaps Katherine Tyler Scott is a prophet of our times. If so, maybe what has gone around will once again come around....just maybe.


Fr. Fred+

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