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Shape of the parish: The longing for holiness

Some new Anglican Christians have a longing for holiness.[1] They enter the parish seeking to become different and better persons. As the months go by they face two temptations.

The first temptation is a longing for an unattainable purity. The longing may be focused on themselves or on the church. They are so excited and invested in the Christian enterprise that hope may outrun reality.

The second is cynicism. As they spend more time in their parish church they begin to see the flaws of people and of the church as a whole. Feelings of discouragement can set in that undercut the new Christian’s progress.

The second may rise out of disappointments from the first or may be a product of individual temperament.


Ways to vaccinate the new Christian

First and most important – do not invite them onto the vestry, into a discernment program for holy orders, to offer homilies at the weekday masses, or to run the Godly Play program. They need time to attend to their spiritual life in these first years. Even though they may agree to serve, and in fact feel honored at being asked, when we do this we do them a disservice.

These invitations to serve the parish can confuse the person’s grasp of the primary rhythms of Christian life. Instead of learning to enter fully into the cycle of their own baptismal renewal and their apostolate in daily life, they are welcomed into the upkeep of the institution. Instead of having the time and coaching to establish routines of saying the daily prayers of the church, spiritual reading, and reflectiveness about life, they find their time used in going to meetings and their minds and feelings centered on parish finances and property.

Give them at least two or three years. They will be better able to see if giving their time and energy to the parish is what they are called to do. And if it is, they will come at it from a more grounded faith and practice. They will understand the essential “businesses of the parish church from a base of faithful and proficient practice.  There is an exception to this rule of thumb. For some of them it will aid their growth if they can serve the parish in ways that are directly connected or grounded in core spiritual practices. For example, serving on a daily office team, or assisting in adult formation programs they have gone through themselves, or working with the homeless program but only if it is a requirement that all serving in such work have a rule of life that roots them in Eucharist, Office and reflection.


Beyond that there are several traditional ways to vaccinate the new Christian against cynicism and this longing for unattainable purity.

We can invite them to look upon the Saints of the church. These heroes of our faith in the fullness of their humanity and holiness show us a way through cynicism and naïve religiosity. An example: For many Christians Dietrich Bonhoeffer has served as an antidote to these temptations. He provides an example of humility while engaged in political struggle.


Bonhoeffer's trust in God is apostolic. His participation in a plot against his government, and in an assassination plot of the government’s head, does not bring him to rationalization and self justification, but to confession and faith. Bonhoeffer does not engage in a scrambling for his own purity but looks to God and God’s mercy. He seems to move forward in responsible action accepting that in such action is always the reality of human limitation and sin. He depends “on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture."

We can also focus their attention on faithful practice. Provide them with the training and guidance needed so they might proficiently participate in the Eucharist, daily prayers of the church, a pattern of reflectiveness, the community of the parish, and service in their daily life of work, friendships, family and civic life.  The new Christian, or new Anglican, or even those simply new to the parish having transferred from being active in another parish, are all at a place in their growth when they may be most open to learning the competencies of Apostolic Faith and Practice.

If the opportunity is missed the person can too easily drift into and, for the time being, become stuck in their development.[2] Their growth gets short circuited. Instead of moving from experimenting to progressing and into a proficient apostolic practice they can find themselves settling for a stable and possibly static sacramental faith. They could even find themselves drawn into an immature or tentative expression of faith and practice. Some in their cynicism may drift away entirely or become Christmas and Easter people.

Send them on retreats to SSJE and SSM. Have a strong foundations program. Before Lent begins have a two session offering on developing/revising a rule of life. Within the first six months see that they have had an experiential program on participating in the Eucharist and the Eucharistic life.  Develop a fund that allows the parish to share in the costs involved.

Finally, priests can take notice of the new Christians and members. We can quietly pay attention while applying a bit of pastoral and ascetical theology in each case. I’d avoid creating some public formal structure in favor of an unobtrusive monitoring of the spiritual well being of people. When we do that we are able to avoid drawing them prematurely into roles that will distract them from their need and willingness to grow in the spiritual life. And we can collaborate with them in their own spiritual development.




Shape of the Parish model – Can be useful in assessing what kind of guidance may be useful for the new Christian, new Anglican, or new parishioner.

In Your Holy Spirit books     On individual formation   On parish formation 

[1] Not all new Anglican Christians share the longing. Many arrive seeking something more conventional and even superficial. Others arrive with a formed faith and practice as Roman Catholics or evangelicals and aren’t very aware that the Episcopal Church and Anglican spirituality offer much more than the liberty and openness they found missing in their former homes. Those matters aren’t the topic of this posting.

[2] See Shape of the Parish model