Thursday, May 21, 2020

Church: #ItsComplicated

Let me start with the confession that I've always loved church. As a kid I was the one who wanted to go when the rest of the fam was happy to sleep in on Sundays. I loved hanging out with my friends and asking questions of the grownups, loved the flannel boards and the Bible stories, loved following the altar guild ladies around and loved the hymns.

I was the kid who memorized all the verses of "The Church's One Foundation" in third grade and would sing them all ... over and over and over again ... from the backseat of the station wagon on family road trips until my mom promised me ice cream at the next rest stop if I would quit. (True story.)

So like a lot of other people right now I miss it. I miss it a lot. Not just because I've been a priest for 20+ years and it's my day job, but because I've always loved church.

And so with all the controversy right now about churches being open or churches being closed -- and who gets decide whether they are which and when -- I've been following the wider conversations that include what it is to "be" the church.

Who has the right to tell churches how to gather in public spaces and how those with the responsibility to make decisions on behalf of congregations -- and in the Episcopal Church, dioceses -- make those decisions in ways that protect both the health and safety of congregations and communities and the historic faith.

The most appropriate hashtag is probably #itscomplicated

But thinking about it today ... which I was because of the erstwhile DOJ calling our California Governor Newsom on the carpet for including communities of faith in his limits on public assembly ... I got stuck on the seminal question "what IS the church?"

I got stuck there because it seems to me before you can decide whether something is open or closed you have to define what that "something" is. And I was grateful that as an Episcopalian, the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer has already done that for us.

So ... ICYMI:

The Church

Q.     What is the Church?
A.     The Church is the community of the New Covenant.

Q.     How is the Church described in the Bible?
A.     The Church is described as the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are members. It is called the People of God, the New Israel, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and the pillar and ground of truth.

Q.     How is the Church described in the creeds?
A.     The Church is described as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Q.     Why is the Church described as one?
A.     The Church is one, because it is one Body, under one Head, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Q.     Why is the Church described as holy?
A.     The Church is holy, because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, consecrates its members, and guides them to do God’s work.

Q.     Why is the Church described as catholic?
A.     The Church is catholic, because it proclaims the whole Faith to all people, to the end of time.

Q.     Why is the Church described as apostolic?
A.     The Church is apostolic, because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles and is sent to carry out Christ’s mission to all people. 
Q.     What is the mission of the Church?
A.     The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Q.     How does the Church pursue its mission?
A.     The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.

Q.     Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A.     The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

So if you were reading for comprehension -- which I hope you were -- you'll notice one super striking thing that is totally missing: nowhere does the definition of the Church -- for Episcopalians -- mention a building. At all. Anywhere.

Oh, we love our buildings, don't get me wrong. We take care of them, we decorate them, we make beautiful music in them, we have awesome liturgies in them and they become sacred "thin places" for us where the distance between the finite and the infinite becomes translucent and we glimpse the indestructible power of God's inexhaustible love.

But if our Catechism is right -- or even close -- then the mission of the Church does not depend on whether or not we gather in buildings or on Zoom ... or even (fasten your seatbelts) depend on which sacrament we have access to how.

What it depends on is how we work to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ as we pray, worship, proclaim the Gospel and promote justice, peace and love.

So my fervent prayer on what feels like Day Bazillion Forty-Seven of #SaferAtHome is that we be given the grace to keep the mission of the church in our sight as we continue to journey through and to the other side of this global pandemic. 

Because there will be an "other side." And when we get there, the story we want to tell is about how we cared for each other on the way by being the Church -- not how we argued with each other about whether virtual community is valid community and who got to open which building to how many people when.

At least that's the story I hope we want to tell. I know it's the story I pray we will tell.

#BeSafe #BeKind #WashYourHands