The Curmudgeon Addresses Evangelism

I just finished reading David Gortner’s book Evangelism and was delighted to at long last discover something written with an understanding of the life-long aversion that most Episcopalians have against the word. Everything he recommended was eminently doable by the ordinary pew sitting church goer, but for one thing. It all required the discipline and commitment to actually do something, and that cannot happen without decisive, competent and willing leadership. Sadly, his current research suggests that most clergy are ill equipped by training or nature or both to provide that leadership. Nor are they very good at creating the conditions under which alternative lay leadership can be discerned, raised up, equipped and empowered. It appears that we have become quite adept at using the language without actually doing the work. So where do we go from here? This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, and for most of us that means a recitation of The Great Commission. What does that mean for Episcopalians? And, if you are going to offer some answers, please don’t ramble on with the same old platitudes of excuse that have been lolling around for years sipping tea (or gin) and harrumphing. We’ve developed that to a fine art of evasion.

The Question of Holy Orders

Of late the church has been doing what it can to bring the ministry of all baptized to the forefront. We are, after all, members of a priesthood of all believers, something we reaffirm in each recitation of the baptismal covenant. It is important and nothing good can come of evangelism or discipleship without it. But in so doing the term Holy Orders seems to have been discarded with a goodbye note of disregard and near disrespect. I want to take issue with that. There is something extraordinary about being called by God out of the community and into a particular role received through a life profession, the laying on of hands and Spiritual anointing, which, by our tradition, places us into a line of direct physical contact with all the generations that preceded us and all the generations that will follow.

None of that means a retreat to the so-called Father Knows Best practices of former decades. What it means is that there is something of the holy that marks the ordained priesthood in a way that is not present in other offices of ministry, and that it is to be respected and honored as one sign of God’s presence among us. It also means that, whether you like it or not, ordained priests are called to be leaders in the church, and are accountable for successes and failures. Within the institution of the church, as is the case with all true leadership, it requires an ability to create conditions in which others have the greatest possible opportunity for success in their own ministries. It’s not a top-down sort of thing. It’s all about providing the knowledge, skills training, information, resources and support that others need to do well in whatever they are doing.

Suppose, for instance, that Joseph’s carpentry business grew large enough to employ a handful of others but there were no gifted craftsmen available. Could he, as leader, get quality production out of new employees who were given no training, not provided with quality tools, told to go out and get their own wood, given no information about what was happening, nor told much about whether their work was any good but always told about how bad it was? Could he make things better by “motivating” his people with slogans and nifty videos? How about some punishment? Would his situation improve if he announced that leadership obviously did not work so from now on everyone would be a leader and he would just be another carpenter, albeit one who specialized in altars, cups and plates?

Think about it.

Lambeth Dead Ahead

Note:  some significant portion of what follows was first written as a part of “Reflections from the Floor” at the 2006 General Convention.

The continuing arguments leading up to Lambeth seem to me to be all wrong headed as first one side and then another bash away about which branch of the Anglican Communion is the largest, fastest growing, most orthodox, most strict about damning homosexuality and which is most inclusive.  It’s all wrong headed.  We are to be centered on Jesus Christ and led by the Holy Spirit in companionship with our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion.  At the same time we must recognize that what is and what is not understood to be authentic and orthodox Christianity is always determined in part by cultural definitions and expectations.  We cannot avoid that, and to do so is to be blind to the most common weakness and sin of the church, which is to consider our own culturally influenced understanding of the true Christian faith to be true understanding for all people at all times and in all places.

There was a time when Europe and North America were perceived to be the largest, most important, strongest, and most influential powers on earth, and no less so than in religion.  It was expected that the rest of the world, especially the colonized lands of the so-called Third World, would simply follow where we led because it was obvious that God had called us to be the leaders.  When European missionaries took the Anglican tradition of Christianity throughout the world, they did their best to make those “native” churches mirror images of the true faith, which looked a lot like England or America, with all the cultural baggage of the 19th century firmly attached.   Through them the Christian faith did take root and thrived.  But the foundation was also set for those new churches to come into their own, and with the end of formal colonization they did just that, and not as Europeans or North Americans.  The African church, for instance, has grown and prospered as an African church, and in like manner so have the churches of other nations throughout the world.  They have become strong advocates of the Christian faith in a way that is responsive to the cultural needs and norms of their respective countries.  They have firmly rejected any suggestion that they are, or should be, imitations of Europe or North America in their politics, economics, cultural norms or religion. 

Indeed, in our day there are some who believe that the natural leadership of the church has passed to Africa and that God has called Africans to be the leaders that North Americans and Europeans once thought was their natural and God given right.  They strongly desire that the North American and European churches become imitators of the Africans, which would mean to become Christians in the African tradition following the cultural norms of what Africans believe represents a true expression of the faith.  That can no more work for Europe and North America than it did when we tried to force the Africans to become ersatz Europeans.  Our understanding of the Christian faith is formed in a cultural milieu to be sure, but if we make cultural norms the primary measurement of orthodoxy we end up displacing Christ and Christ’s gospel as the center of our faith.  We must get to the place where we can admit that we can be authentic and orthodox in our faith in the reality of a very wide variety of cultural contexts and norms.  It is incumbent on us to permit the authentic and orthodox expression of the Christian faith in the Anglican tradition to develop and prosper as appropriate to each particular cultural ethos. 

This is not a new idea.  Fully authentic and true expressions of the Christian faith grew up in the earliest years of the church in significantly different ways in significantly different cultural milieus including Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome, among others.  Honesty compels us to admit that those early centers of Christian learning often accused each other of heresy and claimed for themselves an orthodoxy that they would deny to others.  And yet, because at its heart the church is the Body of Christ, it persevered and prospered by the more powerful guidance of the Holy Spirit so that today we often talk fondly of the imaginary days in which the church was unified in every way.  What about our own day?  Let us learn from our ancestors and cease these accusations altogether in order to get on with the business of proclaiming the gospel as appropriate to each place of proclamation.