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My response to a friend’s post on changes in Church

May 14, 2010

Fran-ela, the beloved, is always pointing out some good stuff to read, and today, she pointed out a post by a blogger named Kelly who is on my blog roll as well at Not a Virgin, But Occasionally a Martyr. Her post is entitled, This Day Will Not Come Again, and in it, she speaks of a floating, disconnected feeling from her church. Services have been missed, holy day services held at inconvenient times, off-putting Latin has been inserted into the service, and other impending liturgical prayer changes are anticipated in trepidation.

Last night, I was at a friends’ house for a mile-stone celebration. Over coffee and cake we talked about a host of secular and religious issues all of which seem to stem from facing change. I work at a public college – she works for a church, and we discussed how resistant people are in general, and congregations are in particular, to change. They don’t want to “do” anything – they don’t want to minister actively, they don’t want to grow, they don’t want congregational makeup to change, they don’t want the prayers to change, the candles to move, the hymns to deviate. They just want the church of their childhood to remain as a fixed mausoleum that provides them continuity, and stability and comfort – a place that is as you always expect it to be.

I’ve been in a prolonged emotional and spiritual dark night of the soul. I don’t know how to communicate what I am experiencing properly, and so I often begin posts and discard them in frustration or apathy or sadness. I haven’t written much on where I am spiritually in a while – because at the moment, I don’t know where that is. The church is a very human enterprise, from start to finish, and it’s often very frustrating to me. Dealing with what often feel like petty and narrow-minded concerns, expressed by people who proclaim to be “Christian” eats at you slowly. At one time, I imagined I might be called to be a priest – that perhaps in that capacity I could do something that would make a difference – but I see the collar now as something that constrains. Parish priests are in the worst form of middle-management known to man. Caught between the will of their parishoners and their bishops, they are often damned if they do and damned it they don’t – unable to respond authentically to God’s call in their lives, because they are too damn busy “administrating” this unwieldy and often un-Godly edifice known as the church.

It’s enough to make me despair, for the church, specifically, and humanity more broadly – myself at the head of that list.

With those thoughts in mind, below is my response to Kelly’s post:

My dad stopped attending mass when they stopped saying it in Latin, because to him, it wasn’t really church anymore.

I grew up in a Vatican II church, and so, have NO experience with the mass in Latin. Folk masses were the substance of my childhood church experience.

Of course, the last supper was not said in Latin, or for that matter English, but in Aramaic – the vernacular of Christ and his disciples. I suppose, in the sense of tradition and authenticity of experience, that makes a rather pointed argument for mass in the vernacular.

There is a very fine line between preserving things for the sake of preserving them – because they give us comfort in their predictability, cocooning us in their familiarity, and making changes to make things more theologically or historically authentic. In my mind, the Roman Catholic church has always been a rather poor custodian of authenticity, particularly after it became a state religion. I mean, Jesus and his friends had dinner together as a group of friends – no one wore vestments or said canned prayers. They were just together, gathered in love for one another, and listening to their beloved teacher. No incense – no hymns – no procession. Don’t get me wrong – I experience all of those aforementioned practices as actions that elevate the common to the holy – that create a separate, sacred space – but that’s not what Christ did at the last supper, for which Eurcharist is to be an anamnesis.

All that being said, I totally understand what you mean about the cadence and rhythm of a completely familiar liturgy, with prayers and responses ingrained into your being, like breath. I’ve been an Episcopalian now for almost four years, and the cadence isn’t there in their services. Sometimes, I really miss it.

I am always torn between wanting the church as comfort and wanting it to be a living thing, which is active and relevant and growing – all of which necessitates change. It’s one of my personal conundrums.

Anyway…that’s sort of where I am spiritually – torn between remaining a part of something, which is difficult and my desire to fade away, and give it up to people who are more worthy of the challenge than I. More and more I have doubt as to what it all means, and whether or not this enterprise called church holds meaningful value, if the cost is so high for some and if all the current members really want is for it to remain a memorial to the church as it was back in Mayberry – a land so beloved and also non-existent – because my Mayberry is far away from my mother’s or my grandmother’s or her grandmother’s. It’s a fairytale – an elusive place like Atlantis – where everything is fine and figured out and marvelous – but there is utterly no proof it ever existed anywhere but in our own minds.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2010 10:32 am

    So much here, Eileen….

    Parish priests are in the worst form of middle-management known to man. Caught between the will of their parishoners and their bishops, they are often damned if they do and damned it they don’t – unable to respond authentically to God’s call in their lives, because they are too damn busy “administrating” this unwieldy and often un-Godly edifice known as the church.

    Well….yes and no.

    You are right about the “damned if they do/don’t” part. Night before last, Dear Friend got a e-mail from a parishioner that was so nasty that it made ME cry. Over nothing, of course, except that person’s wounded ego.

    But he was able to diffuse the situation because he IS responding to God’s call in his life. He puts God first—the first 45 minutes of every day are spent in prayer, and that, he says, is crucial.

    (BTW, we often pray together in Latin. Dear Friend–who grew up Southern Baptist and ministered in that tradition for nearly 30 years before becoming an Episcopal priest– loves the sound of it. I have come to feel the same way. Not sure I would like it in church all the time though…)

    I’ve been an Episcopalian now for almost four years, and the cadence isn’t there in their services.

    Really? I’ve been an Episcopalian for 14 years, and I can say pretty much the entire service for Eucharistic Prayers A, B, and C without even looking at the BCP. Maybe you just need more time to feel it?

    Of course, I came out of a nonliturgical tradition, so that may explain why I *do* feel a cadence to the service that you might not, given your experience in the RCC. But so many former RCs tell me that our service feels totally familiar to them–what do you see as the difference(s)?

    • episcopalifem permalink*
      May 14, 2010 11:21 am

      Hey Doxy –

      I don’t want to make direct comments about why I think what I think, in order to protect those who would not appreciate the airing of specifics, but, let’s suffice it to say in my various ministries (vestry, sunday school teacher, acolyte, usher, diocesan rep, EfM student), that I see parishioners getting in the way of God’s call over and over and over again. To me, it seems draining and depleting and pointless. It’s maddening, really. It’s difficult for me to conceive that this is what God had in mind for us all. The church, as an edifice, is more important to people then what we are actually called to do as Christians – which is a HELL of a lot more than attending an aethetically pleasing, conformist Eucharistic service each Sunday. Inertia is killing church as far as I can see, and spinning the wheels of people who could modeling activity Christianity. This may just be my opinion, and may reflect a current pessimism in my current mood, but, there you have it. This is not to say that any priest feels as I have posited – I’m asserting my own feelings here as to why I don’t feel called anymore.

      As for the cadence thing – I agree the the liturgy in TEC is familiar – but the rhythm is totally different. I don’t know if it’s because RCC can go to mass every day if they want or what, but, it’s just different. To this day, I want to break into some of the differences in the prayers with the way I hear them in my head from all those masses I attended when RC. I’m not saying the liturgy is poor in TEC – I don’t think that at all – it just doesn’t have the same cadence. (It’s almost a drone, really…in my mind…a vibrating, humming, human droning…it creates a certain atmosphere that I associate with solemnity). Even the way the priests intone the prayers has a different cadence – again – perhaps because RC clergy say it more often? I don’t know. I know that I have friends who are ex-RC who tell me the same thing, so I know it’s not just me, and when I go to an RC service I hear the difference distinctly. RCs, at least in the churches I’ve attended, tend to say the prayers with volume and conviction – and the numbers, at least in my area, are much larger – so the sheer volume of people praying is greater at any given mass then what I experience at TEC (again – don’t get me wrong – I prefer the intimacy of the services at my EC, but the effect is different). Perhaps it’s attitudinal? There is more outward expression of reverence in the RCC – perhaps more genuflecting, more bowing, recognizing the altar, etc. (Again, please don’t read this as this is NOT done in my current church, just that it has a different “flavor” when done then what I grew up with).

  2. May 14, 2010 12:16 pm

    I see parishioners getting in the way of God’s call over and over and over again.

    I would even go so far as to say that I see parishioners who think they ARE God. 😉

    <i?The church, as an edifice, is more important to people then what we are actually called to do as Christians

    I see that too. I ran smack into that brick wall over the healthcare reform debates with people who go to church faithfully every Sunday, and who will give lots of money for a plaque on some church building, but who don’t give a damn whether their fellow human beings are cared for. Makes me ill.

    Inertia is killing church as far as I can see

    I actually see consumer culture as the biggest culprit. People aren’t loyal to any one church anymore (and I say that having left the church of my childhood for more acceptable theological ground). And for many progressives, church just isn’t…necessary…any more. There is very little cultural pressure–even here in the Bible Belt–for people to be in church on Sunday. If you don’t like what the minister has to say–or a fellow parishioner pisses you off–you can either just go find another church, or you can worship at St. Arbucks or at the Box Springs Church of Rest. Very few people seem to be committed to church any more…and, on balance, I guess I can understand why.

    We are trying here. We are looking at the needs of the community and trying to meet them. Will it be enough to keep the church healthy and growing, as respect for “organized religion” continues to drop? I really don’t have a clue…

    There is more outward expression of reverence in the RCC – perhaps more genuflecting, more bowing, recognizing the altar, etc. (Again, please don’t read this as this is NOT done in my current church, just that it has a different “flavor” when done then what I grew up with).

    I get this. I’m very “high church” (in the sense of genuflecting, bowing, crossing, etc.) because that’s the kind of Episcopal Church that brought me into the fold. Dear Friend is also that way. But we are anomalies in our parishes, which are mostly low-church. I even had one older parishioner at Dear Friend’s church chide me for doing all that “Popish nonsense”!!! (Needless to say, I try not to sit next to her anymore. 😉

    • episcopalifem permalink*
      May 14, 2010 1:22 pm

      I’d say I agree with the consumer attitude implication, but I think, honestly, our human tendency to do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results, or to speak to deaf people very loudly as if it will overcome profound deafness, is still a good portion of the problem.

      We are so concerned with conservation and preservation – but those are for things that are limited or dying or dead. Is God dead? Does he need to be conserved or preserved? I somehow don’t think so. Our deep need to do so makes me fear we are all missing the point.

      I don’t know…maybe I’m just feeling frustrated in general, and it’s just another glaring question looking me in the face for which I have no adequate answer.

  3. Sherry permalink
    May 14, 2010 12:24 pm

    Oh Eileen, thanks so much for this. It completely opened me to something I’ve been avoiding on my blog this week. A Church tragedy. My issues with my church are not at the forefront for me now. I’m going on 2 years in TEC and am still wildly happy with it in most respects. But I resonate with your questions, because at different times, church sometimes doesn’t feel that it’s helping or is at least indifferent to my personal needs. Sometimes liturgy seems exactly right, and sometimes, it is dull and cold. I’m not sure that that is anyone’s fault, but still, I expect to find a special solace when I step inside it’s doors. It has always been where I find God closest. I just want to thank you for pushing me over the edge to speak about what has happened to us, and how I am struggling with it. Thank you.

    • episcopalifem permalink*
      May 14, 2010 1:03 pm

      I’m glad some good came from my blatherings, Sherry. I can’t even imagine the magnitude of that loss. On any level. It makes me numb just to hear of it. Prayers for them, and for your deacon, for your church and your church community as you try to come to grips with it.

  4. May 14, 2010 1:21 pm

    I’m not at all worthy of this link, but I thank you and Fran for it, very much. You’ve said so much here, and in an amazingly eloquent way.

    I’m open to a new liturgy, but in light of all that is going on in the RCC right now, this particular change feels like salt in the wounds of a great deal of people. It all seems to be connected, somehow.

    Have you read Take This Bread? It’s such a fantastic read, and is about radical love and feeding people, and it’s about what you wrote: “I mean, Jesus and his friends had dinner together as a group of friends – no one wore vestments or said canned prayers. They were just together, gathered in love for one another…” In other words, true communion, with no barriers to the body or blood of Christ.

    You closed your comment with this: “I am always torn between wanting the church as comfort and wanting it to be a living thing, which is active and relevant and growing – all of which necessitates change.” Yes! Completely, yes! That sentence gave me goosebumps. But I think I’d be more open to that change if it came along with a healthy dose of hierarchical change…something I’m not holding my breath for.

    Thanks again, for your comment and for this post.

    • episcopalifem permalink*
      May 14, 2010 1:42 pm

      But I think I’d be more open to that change if it came along with a healthy dose of hierarchical change…something I’m not holding my breath for.

      And this, my friend, is why I am no longer RC, because I agree with you readily and heartily.

      Look…I personally have no beef with saying the Latin Mass from time to time – or even have a particular service that is dedicated to being said in Latin. It is a way to recognize the history of the church, and to get a feel for the flavor of what that worship was about – how it sounded…what it felt like. I get that – I get that Latin helps some people feel elevated to the sacred/holy.

      I do, however, have HUGE issues with reverencing the Latin Mass as superior to the church in it’s Vatican II state, which both JP II and B XVI have worked to “undo”. I think, this may be at the heart of your reaction – it’s a pulling IN – a return to pre-vatican II – a closing of the doors, so to speak. (Of course, that is my personal reaction, which I may be projecting onto you…if that is the case, please accept my apologies!)

  5. May 16, 2010 2:44 pm

    I haven’t been to church, any church, for11 years. I’d like to go back, but manage to talk myself out of it week after week after week.

    I’ve knocked around the idea of the Episcopal Church, of the Methodist Church. Heck I’ve even considered a very conservative Presbyterian Church down the street.

    Maybe I want to much from church. Maybe I’m unrealistic. I want community. I want authenticity. I want casualness and friendship. And I want “putting on the mind of Christ” (and all the actions that follow) to be at the forefront of it all.

    Anybody know of a church like that? 😀

    Big hug Eileen.

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