This past spring The Contemplative Society website (http://www.contemplative.org/) posted 12 summary statements about the future of church I gleaned from a Lenten Series I attended, accompanied by a response from Cynthia Bourgeault. With Cynthia’s encouragement, I am reposting the original paragraph, followed by her response, and my response to Cynthia. We hope this may generate some conversation. Cynthia will check in and respond to comments if she feels inspired.
9. Letting go means being willing to accept that certain things may need to die. There are some institutional expressions of faith that are simply no longer sustainable. Certain things must be left undone in order to create space for new things to arise. For a time this may look messy. It may seem like failure. But the only failure is demanding that what has been in the past must continue to be in the future. Such a demand makes us unable to respond to the call of God’s Spirit blowing through the church today.
Cynthia: I’ve often remarked that as I work in the church in this extraordinary era, I never know whether I’m a hospice worker or a midwife. It’s important to keep in mind that these are both sacramental roles having to do with liminal space, and allowing things to die with dignity is as holy and faithful as receiving them into new life. I’m curious, Christopher, from your long experience as a parish priest, what you would see as some of those “institutional expressions of faith that are no longer sustainable”?
It’s been my experience that midwifing of the new often works better, initially, in smaller, contemplative groups—again, because the capacity for deep listening and collected attention is built right into the fabric of a contemplative gathering. I have seen great energy and new life in centering prayer groups, contemplative eucharist and Taize services, which seem to speak to people’s deep hunger for embodied, less wordy forms of corporate prayer. Once a critical mass of this new sort of collected energy has gathered at the edges of the church’s traditional expressions of theological and devotional piety, it can move into the center as a reconciling force, allowing old forms to die with less of the sort of contentious heartbreak that often ensues when old and cherished patterns are threatened.
Christopher: The question of what institutional expressions of faith are no longer sustainable is complex. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription.
In one context an institutional expression of faith may need to be let go. While in a different setting the same embodiment of faith may be a dynamic expression of vibrant ministry. It depends upon the nature of the community, the individuals involved, and the context in which they are ministering. Something that in my life or ministry has become an obstacle to the work of the Spirit, may remain for another person, a life-giving tool.
The important thing is to be willing to ask the question, to look seriously at our life together and examine how we are doing church and whether our patterns are bringing death or giving life. The challenge is for each of us in our specific situation to listen deeply to the Spirit to discover those aspects of our life together that, while once being a life-giving expression of the Spirit, have now become an obstacle to God’s work.
It is not a matter of either hospice worker or midwife. Every community must be able to perform both functions at the same time. We must be willing to look at things we have always done, or ways we have always done them, and say, “This is no longer working here.” We must then be willing to let go, trusting that in the space created by death, new life will emerge. There cannot be any areas that we are not open to having questioned.
Asking questions is not an abandonment of faith. Asking questions is a way of opening doors and windows to see where the Spirit is blowing. The larger the organizational structures with which we are dealing, the more difficult this process will be. The hinges on the windows and doors seem to become more encrusted with the rust of resistance, the bigger the building they guard.
The idea of developing smaller embodiments of the life of the Spirit on the edges of the monolith that is the institutional church is appealing. I believe that, as a few people faithfully practice the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life, their influence will slowly, almost imperceptibly begin to infiltrate the rest of the church. Deep change will begin to take place.
This is a model for change that has the potential to create meaningful shifts in the community without needing to include some of the “contentious heartbreak that often ensues when old and cherished patterns are threatened.”
The problem, from my perspective, deeply enmeshed as I am in “the church’s traditional expressions of theological and devotional piety,” is that too often these little adjunct groups, instead of maintaining any kind of living connection with the established church, move further and further out to the edges and lose the ability to impact in a positive way the larger body of faith.
There seems to be a danger that the life-giving energy of smaller alternative groups of spiritual practice takes on a more adversarial role in relationship to the mainstream church. It is easy to sit on the outside with one’s small spiritually elite practice group and criticize the majority who continue to labour away in the apparently barren wasteland of the church. It is tempting to view those who remain within the established structures of the church as having sold-out for the sake of material security, or institutional respectability. I think such an analysis frequently does a disservice to the many faithful individuals who continue to struggle to bring life and hope within the parameters of recognized institutional Christianity.
But, I must confess, there are days when I find myself overwhelmed by the minutiae of dogmatic quarreling in church circles, and crushed by the structures of institutional churchland. There are times when the political machinations seem to paralyze the life of the Spirit in the church. On these occasions I do find myself wondering if I have sacrificed real ministry for the sake of a position in an organization that should long ago have been allowed to collapse in upon itself from the sheer force of its own inertia.
But then, I hear about a person whose heart has been broken open by the welcome they have experienced in a church. I watch as a child walks away from the altar and stops to touch a person in a wheel chair sitting at the front of the church. I listen to a conversation in which a person recounts the life-changing wisdom they have received from a sermon, or the deep way the music on some Sunday has touched their hearts. I watch as people are motivated in church to reach out to others, to join in helping at a soup kitchen, to sponsor a refugee family, or to travel to distant lands bringing hope and blessing to people who are in desperate need.
These are the times when my heart is warmed. I see evidence that God’s Spirit has not been entirely shut out of the church. I sense that there is life in the tired old vessels. My heart is renewed with the hope that the church might grow in its ability to bear witness to the Light. My confidence in God’s work through traditional structures is refreshed and I feel able to carry on with integrity and faith in the ministry to which I feel called.