Means of Grace, Hope of Glory


The Divine Generosity

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our
neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those
who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

That's the petition in last night's liturgy that most drew my attention. It was, for me, the voice of the Divine Charity, to use Underhill's words. 

I and many others of the church have been seeking a way to manage our uncharitable thoughts and contempt. I think that's the emotional starting place for me--I know I have been having those emotions. There are other words in the petition though -- "false judgments," "prejudice."  I haven't been quite up to acknowledging how those words may apply to me and those close to me.

Driving out the enemy

Just after the election I heard from some clergy about the pleasure a few clergy friends had taken in delivering sermons that drove some people out of the pews. There may have been some joking about a contest to see who could push the most Trump supporters to flee.

Most of us know there's something wrong with that. 

Our brothers and sisters in Christ are not the enemy. I imagine that the current conversation between Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood would be filled with demonic joy at being able to maintain their hiddeness as the followers of the Crucified One placed the label upon those "who differ from us."

The Divine Generosity  

Mother Sara asked me to cover tonight's mass. I do that when asked and when, on occasion, the assigned priest fails to appear. I'm happy in my semi retirement. I've asked to not be on the rota. But I fill in as needed. I enjoy celebrating in the parish's All Saints Chapel.

So, I read the propers and gave some thought to the homily. 

It's the Thursday after Ash Wednesday.  The Gospel reading is from Luke --

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it

There it is. One of the keys to understanding Christian spiritual life--lose your life to save your life.

Then what came to mind was a recent reading at Evening Prayer --

There we see that we are not to grow in wisdom and stature for our own sakes, in order to achieve what is really a self-interested spirituality. The growth is for a reason the points behind ourselves: in order that the teaching, healing, life- changing power of the Divine Charity may possess us, and work through us. We must lose our own lives, in order to be processed by that life: that unmeasurable Divine generosity which enters the human world in such great humility …  The School of Charity, Evelyn Underhill

For me Underhill's insight that, we lose our lives so we might be possessed by the Divine Charity, the Divine generosity, offers a way forward. I can decide to be generous in how I understand and respond to the new President's phrasing and strange use of language. And maybe some of the Episcopalians who voted for him can do the same in holy exchange. We can be generous with one another; with those who differ from us.

That doesn't mean we stop having the values we have. I believe that Christian ethics and morality call us to protect the weakest among us, to struggle against oppression, and to feed the hungry. We heard the reading from Isaiah 58 last night

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;

I hear that and I want the Affordable Care Act, protection for Social Security and Medicare, compassion toward immigrants, the safeguarding of voting rights, and the inclusion of all Americans in our common life.  The icons across the room from me are of Frances Perkins and Jonathan Daniels. That's where my conscience takes me. 

And at the same time I know that Paul Ryan, a baptized and practicing Roman Catholic, hears and believes the same words from Isaiah. And that his formed conscience takes him into a different place -- personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and strong families; that the role of government is to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals.

Paul Ryan and the 39% of Episcopalians who are Republicans, and some of the 12% who are independents, and some of the Democrats that voted for President Trump (see Pew report)-- are not my enemy. We simply differ about how to go about letting the oppressed go free, how the hungry are to receive bread and how the homeless are to be housed.

Anglo Catholic insight

My Anglo-Catholic heritage offers a bit of insight to all this. The starting point was that the church is the Body of Christ, not an instrument of the state. I think it's fair to extend that to say the church is not an instrument of a political party.

We are not the resistance. The word is simply not appropriate for the church in the current situation. It is a word now clearly identified with and appropriate for the Democratic Party and the Left.  We are not the Democratic Party at prayer.

We are to pray for those in authority -- including this President, by name. "No despiteful usage, no persecution, could warrant her in ceasing to pray, as did her first fathers and patterns, for the State, and all who are in authority." John Keble at St. Mary's, Oxford, July 14, 1833.

A caution in my Catholic mind is that the Oxford Fathers, and many years before Thomas Becket, got the theology right and the politics wrong. 

We are those called to lose our lives to save them. We are those called to be possessed by the Divine Generosity. We are those called to be generous toward those who differ from us. 






True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian for the health of the whole parish


Richard Baxter, the seventeenth-century Puritan, saw the “building up of the converted” to be of the greatest importance, and he particularly emphasized the care of the strong Christian, which is so often neglected. – From True Prayer: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality, Kenneth Leech

Possibly the biggest gap in the training of clergy is our failure to help them develop a workable practical/ascetical theology. Clergy need a way of seeing the parish church as a system, and while systems theory from the behavioral sciences is useful in that regard, it isn’t enough. The need is for an understanding that grounds the parish church in the church’s self understanding.

Kilmer Myers called them the “militant core,” Martin Thornton used the term Remnant, I’ve called them “the apostolic.” All ways of referring to those parishioners who have a mature, grounded, and disciplined faith and practice. More or less; there’s no perfect.

I’ll explore two models or theories of the underlying form and dynamics of the parish church. The first is Father Thornton’s Remnant theory; the second is my Shape of the Parish model. Each sets the “strong Christian” in the context of the whole parish.

Both theories share a set of assumptions.

-       The parish church is the Body of Christ in microcosm. You are the Body of Christ....That is to say; in you and through you the method and work of the Incarnation must go forward. You are meant to incarnate in your lives the themes of your adoration. You are to be taken, consecrated, broken, and made a means of grace; vehicles of the Eternal Charity. -Evelyn Underhill    

-       The parish exists to worship God and form the People of God. It’s primary cycle is that of Renewal-Apostolate.

-       The nature and purpose of the parish gets distorted as people naturally use analogies in their attempt to understand the church. The parish is not a business, a club, a mental health center, a social service organization, or a change movement – Father Richard Norris wrote, "Church means, …a collection of people who have been called out together by a voice or a word or a summons which comes to them from outside." He noted that people compare "various associations which are consciously and voluntarily formed for the pursuit of common interests, ideals or goals. … The danger is that parishioners begin to see the parish as a "society created by human enterprise and designed to serve particular human ends," that the church itself is created by the "agreement of a number of individual persons who presumably define the terms of their association and its goals."(Richard Norris, Understanding the Faith of the Church, Seabury Press, NY, 1979) 

Remnant Theory

Martin Thornton was addressing the tendency for the modern parish “to lack shape and form.” He saw too many parishes as caught up in a form of religion with an emphasis on numbers, the assumption that membership was nominal, and all that resulted in a kind of conventional respectability.

For Thornton the real work of the parish priest is to know enough ascetical theology to be a coach to the faithful remnant as they develop their prayer lives. It is to be “a working partnership between two souls.” Think – coaching athletes on a football team.

His approach was as a systems thinker (though he would not have used that term) as he set out to discover the “overall pattern, pastoral shape, form, and design” of the parish church.  Take note, it was something to discover not to make up. This wasn’t a set of new ideas about making the parish successful.

The parish church is the complete Body of Christ in microcosm. It contains the wholeness of the Body – it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic; it is the Body of Christ, the People of God. Its function is the cure of souls; the formation of people in Christ. And its “place” is some definable environment, usually a neighborhood, often some network of relationships with particular communities of people.

In Thornton’s scheme the parish consists of three strata or levels: the remnant, incarnational religion, and natural religion. This can be visualized as concentric circles.

Incarnational religion: babes in Christ yet rooted in Christ

I’m beginning with the second level because that’s who makes up the majority of all parish churches. Most lay leaders in most parishes are in this stratum. In our time they may be at the Eucharist frequently, or they may come once a month,  but have an ascetical discipline that is shaky in other areas – disordered patterns regarding the Daily Prayers of the Church and personal devotions,  an uncertain pattern of reflection, and a lack of clarity concerning service in daily living.

Some may be ready to move into a more mature pattern but their parish doesn’t offer the support and resources that would facilitate such movement.

Natural religion: a need for contemplation and adoration

This group of people response to God but not in terms of incarnational religion. They’re often tentative about the church and the sacraments. They believe in God in a broad, “the Creator,” manner. All children are at this level. Religion is an activity used to produce some benefit. So, we manipulate and do magic instead of contemplate and live in harmony.  Growth comes as a kind of rapport is established with others and creation. It’s a very early form of a capacity to contemplate rather than manipulate. The task is simply to feel at home in the parish.

The Remnant: the energy from this center spreads throughout the whole body

The heart of the parish church. People with the gifts and vocation to ground the parish in Christ. A heathy remnant allows the parish to effectively and efficiently engage the mission and to manage the polarity of change and stability. 

This is done in their living the Rule of the Church. By offering the Daily Prayers of the Church in communion with the whole church and on behalf of the parish. Note this isn’t praying for the parish but on behalf of the parish.

Thornton makes a point to note that this is a specialized role they play in service to the Body of Christ. It isn’t about being “better” than those at other levels. It is not the end of the journey. The movement from natural and incarnational religion to remnant is “the beginning of the journey towards sanctity in Christ.” 

Shape of the Parish

Shape of the Parish is one of the four models offered in Fill All Things: The Spiritual Dynamics of the Parish Church, Robert A. Gallagher, OA

This model has four levels of faith and practice: apostolic, Sacramental, Christmas & Easter, and Vicarious.

Apostolic Faith – People with a relatively disciplined, mature, full spiritual life; flexibility with self and others; an experimental and exploratory stance; competent and committed Christians

Sacramental Faith
– Relatively regular about Sunday worship. Possibly beginning to see own vocation and gifts. Accept “sacramental” approach to faith – see that outward, visible, physical and particular things, people and circumstances are used by God to draw us into deeper relationship with God, self, others, creation.

Christmas & Easter Faith – Do not accept “sacramental” faith. Are members of the church.

Vicarious Faith – Do not attend worship; not usually members; but may see the parish as “their parish” or be directly or indirectly influenced by the parish's life. Connected through geography, family friends.

“The ‘Shape of the Parish’ is a critical mass theory. Critical mass theories are used by many Organization Development practitioners. The model suggests building the level of commitment, competence and emotional maturity at the center of the organization so that it grounds the system in a mission orientation and an organizational culture that supports the mission. The grounding then is enfleshed; made real in the lives of men and women. It’s in the habits of people rather than statements of leaders.



Additional Resources

Remnant Theory

Order Pastoral Theology - Thornton's explaination of the theory 

A section of the book 

Facebook page for Martin Thornton


Shape of the Parish

Order Fill All Things: The Spiritual Dynamics of the Parish Church

A two page PDF of Shape of the Parish 

Power from the center pervades the whole - August 21, 2011   And an insert in the bulletin  


True Prayer Postings

True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian for the health of the whole parish

True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian - often neglected #2

True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian - often neglected



True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian - often neglected #2

Richard Baxter, the seventeenth-century Puritan, saw the “building up of the converted” to be of the greatest importance, and he particularly emphasized the care of the strong Christian, which is so often neglected. – From True Prayer: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality, Kenneth Leech

"Often neglected" – four more reasons why rectors neglect the “strong Christian”

In addition to the two factors noted in the earlier post, here are a few more reasons why rectors neglect people of apostolic faith and practice 

Third, “they’ll take care of themselves"

Yes in general they will. They’ll go outside the parish to be fed - to monasteries and convents, to national retreats and training programs, to other parishes offering deeper and richer resources of nurture. And as they do that, as they take care of themselves, your parish will lose something.  The synergistic energy set loose by their presence and the groundedness that these people provide when the parish church is their primary support for their faith and practice.

There is an additional aspect of this that has a sad feeling about it. These people are unlikely to complain. If asked they will talk about it. But these are not the grumblers of the parish (they manage their frustration by patience, self-care, and having a few people to “blow off” with).

Forth, some rectors will neglect the core because their attention is focused on other things.

This is often related to the factor in #3 above. Rectors can set off on new initiatives, often needed initiatives, and assume that the apostolic will be fine. It doesn’t work that way. The core must always be maintained and supported. And, the new initiatives must also be advanced. Both/and not either/or thinking is required.

It may help to look at a model based on the work of Stephen Covey. 

In Covey’s thinking a critical issue is the need for leaders to learn to focus on strategic issues.  By their nature strategic issues don’t have a natural demand system. Crisis will draw our attention. The normal and necessary business of the parish usually have routines and practices, structures and processes, that help us attend to them. Mature leaders and well organized parishes will have in place routines that provide for the nurturing of the apostolic and the training and guidance needed by those progressing toward a more apostolic faith and practice. Most parishes don’t have such routines in place.

Take a look at the chart --

What I’m suggesting is that parish leaders build in structures and processes that become part of “normal parish business” – for example, groups for mutual spiritual guidance made up of those already of apostolic faith, quiet days and retreats, attention to preaching to be sure it addresses this group as well as the Sacramental faith and practice majority, attention to the overall climate if the parish, maintaining the teams that offer the Daily Office in the parish, adult foundation course offerings, an opportunity at the beginning of every Lent to reflect upon their Rule of Life, and publicly scheduled times in Advent and Lent for sacramental confession. If such resources and practices are not in place then this becomes a matter for quadrant II – Parish Development. That’s to say it calls for special attention until a rich network of nurturing and support has become part of the “normal; parish business.”

A fifth factor causing the neglect is when we focus our energies on the majority of the members, the Sacramental Christians.

This seems like a natural thing to do. They are the majority. Most people at the Eucharist each Sunday are Sacramental Christians not apostolic. They often control the political and emotional center of the parish. So, yes they need to be attended to.

However, if we allow them to suck up all the energy in the long run we have poorly served them. They are best served if the parish has a strong apostolic core and an apostolic climate that is both well-defined while being accepting of people in all the phases of spiritual life. That offers an environment in which the Sacramental Christian is both invited to grow and is at the same time accepted wherever they are on the journey. The parish climate offers challenge and acceptance. 

The six factor that cause rectors to neglect the “strong Christians" is when they get drawn into some form of emotional reactivity.

The two most common ways in which this happens are:

1)   The priest gets obsessed by wanting the least mature people to “get it.” We find ourselves noticing the most tentative and immature adults in the parish. Either out of misguiding caring or out of annoyance, we want them to grow.  This is a problem often seen in the newly ordained, those who are in their first time-in-charge position, and those who by temperament get “hooked.” 

2)    The rector feels threatened by some people of apostolic faith and practice. That may be a form of jealously as the priest feels challenged by the maturity of the person. It may also be a situation where the person isn’t just more mature but also more competent about pastoral and ascetical theology and practice. Instead of using the person as a resource the priest attempts to avoid or control the person.



True Prayer Postings

True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian for the health of the whole parish

True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian - often neglected #2

True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian - often neglected


True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian - often neglected

Richard Baxter, the seventeenth-century Puritan, saw the “building up of the converted” to be of the greatest importance, and he particularly emphasized the care of the strong Christian, which is so often neglected.From True Prayer: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality, Kenneth Leech

Every Monday at Evening Prayer the second reading is from Ken Leech’s True Prayer. Recently the reading included his comment about the importance of nurturing the faith and practice of the “strong Christian.”

So often neglected 

The neglect he identifies rises from two factors.

First, most rectors have a weak grasp of the basics of pastoral theology.

Pastoral or practical theology reflects on and informs the pastoral oversight and functional tasks of the Christian community, especially the parish church. The part of the field that is addressed here is:

1)    how we understand contemporary society and human need, and

2)   from that to shape parish communities in a manner that will effectively address that society and those needs.

3)   The concern is the relationship between the parish and its context or external environment.  

4)   What kind of oversight, structure, and spiritual life do we need in the parish church to effectively form Christians, in our tradition, for this age?

One part of that task is very much about the context. How the church could best serve in Nazi Germany differs from how it might serve in an autocratic but non-totalitarian  society, and that in turn would differ from how the church might best serve in a pluralistic democratic society. The formation of members depends, in part, on our assessment of the situation we face.

A second aspect of the task is more about our understanding of how the church functions within its own self-understanding and inherent dynamics.  That’s about understanding what is innate in the church because that’s how God calls and creates us and/or because that’s how all human systems operate.

To connect that with Leech’s thinking – all systems depend on the nurturing of their most competent people to maintain the system’s identity and integrity, and to adapt in ways that allow the system to both survive and to be most effective in its setting. You need a critical mass of people to keep the system grounded in its purpose and identity. So, Jesus selected twelve to be that core. Just to work the image a bit – then there were the 70, then 5,000.

Second, most rectors don't know that they need to train the core or how to go about it

In Light the Dark Streets Father Kilmer Myers wrote about his work at Saint Augustine’s parish on the lower East Side in the early 1950s.  He wrote this:

One of the main tasks of the parish priest is to train the militant core of his parishioners in such a way that they understand as fully as possible the true nature of a Christian parish.  Kilmer Myers

Kim Myers spent a lot of his time at St. Augustine’s in the mix of social work, liturgical life, and community organizing that is common to most inner city work. He used the skills and knowledge useful in the situation. He also remained grounded in basic Anglican pastoral theology – you enhanced the parish’s life by nurturing the strong Christians among you.

In the Living Church of May 8, 1960, the book reviewer noted two books he saw as serious attempts of pastoral theology; works that could help the church address the practical needs of the parish church. One was Fr. Myers' book and the other was Martin Thornton’s Christian Proficiency. The two go well together. Thornton’s book is a resource for Myers' call “to train the militant core.” It’s basic insights still apply to our work today. Thornton’s book is our second reading at Evening Prayer on Thursday nights.



True Prayer Postings

True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian for the health of the whole parish

True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian - often neglected #2

True Prayer: the care of the strong Christian - often neglected


Managing a decision-making polarity 

There are two mistakes frequently made in parishes involving how we manage one polarity of decision making. 

One error we make is by airing every idea that floats about in the parish with everyone else in the parish. This is likely to produce anxiety and confusion which are enemies of real transparency and inclusion. At the moment we seem to be experiencing that approach at the highest levels of government.

The second mistake we make is to hold the formation of projects and ideas too tightly among the rector and vestry.  This approach usually involves the almost complete development of a project before bringing it to the attention of the parish community. This is likely to reduce trust, generate defensiveness, especially on the part of those who have now developed an investment and ownership of the project,  and cause unnecessary agitation and conflict among parishioners. 

Both mistakes tend to produce a less owned and less successful project. They are also likely to draw the attention of members away from their primary baptismal ministry into the institutional workings of the parish.

Our Benedictine roots can help us here

We might follow Benedict's advice to consult with the whole community about important matters and have smaller groups for other acts of consultation.

Whenever anything important is to be done in the monastery, the abbot shall call the whole community together and explain what the business is; and after hearing the advice of the brothers, let him ponder it and follow what he judges the wiser course. (Rule of Saint Benedict Chapter 3:1-2)

Structures and processes that rise from a Benedictine spirit and are sound acts of oversight.

  • Post the minutes of the vestry meeting quickly 
  • Have open vestry meetings and reinforce the message of openness
  • Accept that in a healthy parish few people from the broader parish will attend the meetings or read the minutes
  • As rectors have the responsibility and authority to launch initiatives apart from the vestry, wise rectors will find ways to share their thinking as ideas take shape and before they are fully formed.
  • Rectors and vestries are wise to draw on individuals with expertise in various fields related to issues and initiatives being developed. Think about expertise both in terms of content and process.
  • Rectors are wise to have a very small “council of advice” apart from the vestry. Use people that bring special skills and knowledge related to parish dynamics and ministry. They may have special training and experience or simply be among the wise ones of the parish.
  • Learn how to use testing processes early in the decision-making process – use both with the congregation at large and members of the vestry. For more on testing processes and other means of facilitating transparency and inclusion 

How much consultation?

Have the vestry explore what it considers to be the needed degree of consultation with the larger parish community                  Here’s a resource on that.


A process

Here's an example of a process that balances transparency with maintaining appropriate lines of authority and accountability ;and broad inclusion with expertise and responsibility. We are trying to avoid sharing ideas that are colorless and dull while also avoiding being opaque and muddy. Think -- straightforward, direct, and lucid; timely, trusting and engaged.

1.  Every six months or so have a process within the vestry in which it generates and discusses all the current ideas members have about improving parish life and ministry. Have the vestry establish priorities among all the ideas. This allows us to keep control over how use our time and gives us a sense of priority among those various offerings. 

2.   Once there is a sense of initial prioritization, the  vestry and rector can decide which of those items is likely to be of interest to the broader parish community. These should carefully selected. If we select too many items that is usually a way of avoiding our responsibility to lead.  We don’t want to draw the attention of most parishioners away from their own primary ministry and into the institutional life of the parish.

3.   Engage in a testing process with the broader parish.  This calls for some judgment about whether the issue at stake can be dealt with by online and quick survey methods or more effectively by face-to-face gatherings, probably at the coffee hour of each congregation within the parish. The testing could be as simple as a spectrum or involve more by asking people to use likes wishes and concerns 

4.  It’s important to report the overall results of the testing back to the whole parish and make a clear statement about next steps. Let people know when something additional might be brought to the attention of the parish community. 



Related resources

Benedictine Spirituality 

Benedictine spirituality and the parish church

A life, not a program

Caesura: Parish life lacking any sort of contemplative focus

Caesura: Levels of consulting in the parish

Caesura: Methods for “taking counsel” ..... Part One

Caesura: Grumbling and taking counsel in the parish community


Managing paradox, contradictions and all the good ideas

Look on in wonder and silence

All the good ideas

Esther de Waal's Living with Contradiction  It's her exploration of Benediction spirituality and how it is used by some to live with stability and integrity in a complex world. A world that is loaded with contradictions and often bad choices. 


Polarity images are from this site