My friend Amanda’s father is bed-ridden in the wake of some stroke-like episodes. Steve remains cheerful, engaged, and keenly interested in what’s going on around him. Yet basic questions and responses stump him. He knows that he has a response—sometimes a powerful one—but the translation from his internal perception and the related feelings into words doesn’t happen easily. I asked him about a picture sitting on the table and he broke into a truly joyous smile. He was able to tell me a few facts. He told me that the man on the left was his father pretty easily, but as he tried to get beyond that, to identify the relationships and how the picture captured something critical about his family, he appeared to literally choke on the words. His lips were pursed, the muscles of his throat tensed, his eyes got round, but no words came out. It was both painful and moving to watch him simultaneously care so much about these connections, yet not be able to effectively communicate the scope of his experiences.
I was reminded of Steve during the Bishop’s visit to my parish church last week. We were talking about the future of the parish and specifically thoughts about what it means to be an Episcopalian and how we share that with others. What struck me most was the obvious passion and commitment present in a broad swath of the community. But I was also struck by the difficulty in articulating why we’re there, who we are, and why anyone else should join us.
I’ve seen this over and over with parishes I’ve worked with and with parishes I’ve been part of. For many lay people, we understand that something powerful keeps bringing us back to the Eucharist, but we don’t have a common language to describe what that is or to confirm our underlying assumption that the power exists broadly and can be made available to others who might “come and see.” This has to impede our individual ability to progress our spiritual lives, as well as our ability to identify and deepen our expressions of faith in daily life—the myriad ways in which we live into our baptisms.
At the same time, I’ve noticed that many clergy hesitate to provide explicit direction and coaching about how to understand and participate in the church’s spiritual practices, and many hesitate to provide a vision of the parish church as specifically in the business of forming Christians. My sense is that the hesitation mostly stems from fear of imposing a bunch of “shoulds” or otherwise coming across as too pushy, self-righteous, or rigid. Excellent things to avoid! I also think Episcopal clergy as a group genuinely value the idea of self-management and the wide dispersal of leadership responsibilities. It seems natural to assume that lay exploration of spiritual life rightly comes from within each parishioner, rather than being imposed by the clergy.
How do we choose when we don’t know what we don’t know?
The problem is that no one can really make a mature and informed decision about how they will structure their spiritual life if they haven’t learned about the options that are out there. They can’t make mature and informed decisions if they haven’t received some assistance in how to do the things Anglican Christians do. We are an incarnational people and our practices matter. Why do we come to the Eucharist each week, even when we don’t feel like it? How do we get perspective on our lives and faith? How does each one of us “serve Christ in all persons”? Even more specifically, why do some people dip their hand in the font and cross themselves when entering the church? Why do we genuflect when we get in and out of our pews and how is it actually done? Is it possible to get something from Biblical texts that mystify, anger, or bore us?
To my mind, one of the great gifts of the Episcopal Church is the widespread willingness to encourage folks to follow their own spiritual path (a respect for each individual’s conscience, belief, and inclination) while also offering opportunities to participate in the liturgy (a respect for the tradition and wisdom of the Church as the Body of Christ and therefore much bigger than any one of us). Yet membership in the Body of Christ is no longer a given. It is no longer the very backdrop of everything else we’re doing with our friends and families, at work, and in the society at large. When God gives us the gift of someone at the door or in the pew, we need to respond to the spiritual need that represents by addressing it practically—they’ve come because they need something beyond themselves. And increasingly, they don’t have the language or understanding or experience to access what the Church offers. That doesn’t mean we get rid of the liturgy or dumb it down. What that means is the formation pathway liturgy itself provides is critical but it is often not enough on its own.
Spiritual Formation at the Center of Parish Life
I long to see us welcome newcomers and offer resources to existing members by teaching about the Christian life in concrete and practical ways—about our actual practices rather than what we might do if we were different. When I walk into a church, I look for evidence that they provide regular opportunities for parishioners—both new and longer-term—to reflect on their spiritual lives, deepen their spiritual practice, and generally build competence in the spiritual life. That doesn’t require a bunch of money. It does require commitment, thoughtfulness, and structuring such things into the parish’s schedule. It is also requires re-thinking the standard forms of Christian education and working to make them less didactic and more experiential, less abstract and more reflective.
If our purpose as a parish church is to renew our members in baptismal identity, our overarching strategy and our use of resources needs to reflect that. What does such a thing look like? I’d like to offer two examples and contrast what I think is less helpful with what I see as more helpful.
To that end, let’s do:
- Less or none of this: A Newcomers Class that provides a history of the Episcopal Church, some vaguely defensive remarks about Henry VIII, our kooky terminology, and some commentary on Scripture, Reason, and Tradition.
- Much more of this: Regularly offer and invite people to a several-session course in Anglican Spiritual Practice. Teach them about the Eucharist, the Office, Reflection, participation in Community, and Service in daily life using experiential and participatory methods with limited lecturing. Coach them in how to participate in the Eucharist, how to say the Office, how to have conversations as a parish that are grounded in Benedictine listening.
- Less or none of this: Broad exhortations (in sermons, newsletters, meetings) to engage in service and mission accompanied by criticism of those who see church as “in here instead of out there.”
- Much more of this: Teach parishioners about the cycle between Renewal in worship, Christian education, and community life, and their Apostolate with family and friends, in the workplace, and in civic and charitable work. Help people connect that power they experience in the Eucharist with their service in daily life and help them to develop ways of deepening and enriching that cycle.
It is, of course, important to allow parishioners an opportunity to ask their questions—they may actually want to know about the split with Rome, or what a narthex is. There is also value in figuring out ways to orient people about the parish’s culture and ways of being. Nonetheless, the focus of formation efforts should be around spiritual life.
It’s most fruitful to teach first about Episcopal spirituality. That’s who we are and what we know. It is our gift and I believe the world needs it. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with other faiths, teaching people about Buddhist meditation, offering workshops on interfaith dialogue, Sunday forums about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or study groups on books by non-denominational evangelicals. There is something wrong, though, when that’s all or most of what we’re doing. Again, it’s about emphasis and where we choose to put our time and energy in light of scarce resources.
In our parish meeting with the Bishop, there was no lack of love for the Episcopal Church or for our parish. There was obvious commitment and energy about this particular way of being a Christian. But there was little common language, and little common understanding of how we might share it with others. That common language and understanding will not spring forth spontaneously. It requires careful strategy and specific action by parish leaders.
I am convinced the place to begin is with overhauling our approach to formation and continually noticing if our actual behavior is aligned with our primary task. Are we doing the right things to form Christians in the Episcopal tradition and to foster a healthy cycle between Renewal and Apostolate? It’s not hard to do, but it is complex. It’s not expensive, but it carries the cost of giving up what’s familiar. It requires asking the right questions and then consciously developing our own competence as leaders to respond appropriately to those questions. Mostly, it requires harnessing and shaping the passion already present and then equipping the faithful to articulate that passion in both word and practice.
Michelle is the author of In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life, Ascension Press, 2011.