Friday, April 22, 2016

out on a limb

Out on a limb…or… where your mind goes on a long car ride.

Not too long ago, I stood in front of the (then) Presiding Bishop, another 20 or so bishops and an auditorium full of priests and faithful laypeople and promised to “uphold the faith, unity and discipline of the Church” and to “conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church,” as part of my ordination vows as bishop. It was an awesome day full of awesome promises.   I remember it- and the gravity of the responsibility, well.

And, as I was driving one of my favorite routes yesterday- down Liverpool way, through Shamokin Dam, up to Williamsport and onto Mansfield-  I had time to think. Plenty of time.  I thought through this weekend’s sermon.  I did some morning devotions and slipped in my cd of great hymns from St. Paul’s (London).  I folded some folks into prayer who had asked for some special intentions. I listed to a live recording of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young  in Detroit (1969), and then my mind wandered to the future of the Church.

I was thinking, actually, about Peter and Cornelius and the awesome vision that God delivered regarding the broadening of the (early) “church” to include Gentiles- outsiders- and how this boundary-breaking vision was so important and instructive for the Jesus Movement in its nascent days.  I reflected on how I keep saying that I believe that God is leading us to a “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19) but that the vision of it is just not clear, yet.  And that our job is to be faithful in following God, to be discerning, and to look for signs of where the Church- one of our vehicles for accomplishing God’s mission- might be headed.   This is a big step for us- releasing our grip on what has been- (or at least being willing to put it on the table)  and stepping out to see what God has in mind for us now. 

Yesterday, a clergy person told me that we need to refrain from the “Little Liturgy of Wringing our Hands,” and get on with God’s mission.  Amen.

So, as I was driving around, I wondered- what might that vision be?  If I had to imagine.  Could I get something as mystical and symbolic as Peter did-  a sheet, filled with animals, floating down from the heavens-  or would it be revealed to me in the bottom of a Sheetz coffee cup or on a billboard on 11/15?  Neither, as it turned out.

But here’s where I went  (out on a limb):

I wondered-  “What is the sacramental RDA for Christians?”  Yes.  What is the “required daily allowance” of sacramental “goods”  and “action”(namely Holy Communion) for us to continue on as Christians in the Anglican tradition?

Let me unpack that.

From a problem solving perspective, in this largely rural diocese, one of the biggest “obstacles” to how we are called to be together as God’s people is in the celebration of the sacraments. We don’t have enough priests… or, enough priests who are able to work part-time.  Our Sacramental Theology in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition is quite high, requiring an ordained priest to celebrate- in the presence of others- and to invoke the power of the Holy Spirit to transform earthly elements into the Body and Blood of Jesus.  We feed on this body, receive sacramental “nourishment” that builds us up, draws us together in an intimate and deep way, and that empowers us to “do the work that God has given us to do.”  For me, the sacramental life is essential to my participation in God’s mission.  To try to do without would be like setting out to run a marathon with no water or fuel.  A guaranteed bonk.

But I grew up in the 1928 Prayer Book Church.  A church where we subsisted, largely, on Morning Prayer.  I have those canticles and psalms in my bones and from time to time, when an old psalm chant comes back to me, I am transported to the pews of St. Andrew’s, Kent… or St. James’, Farmington (CT) and can hear, see, smell, feel everything about those places, in those moments… the sensory memory is amazing.

With the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, our Eucharistic sacramental theology was kicked up a notch. (I admit to some oblivious years of the “Green” and “Zebra” books as I was consumed with high school, but when I woke up, sometime in college, we had a new prayer book and a new pattern of worship where Holy Communion was the order of the day - at least on Sundays.)  We continued to hold to a high vision of the priestly role in serving as President of the Eucharist and that was just fine-  especially in a region of our Church (New England) with a gazillion churches and a gazillion priests.

Rural Central Pennsylvania- and other parts of our Church- now experience a different story.

Congregations are smaller.  They cannot draw full time priests to come live with them and minister to their sacramental needs.  The financial resources are limited, the needs to maintain buildings take up much of a congregation’s assets and the money “left over” to pay a priest is little.   We can have the “building conversation” that asks all sorts of questions about what we “need” to worship God… and we can ask why we can’t just combine to save money or buy a storefront in which to worship. And those are good, practical questions.  But we haven’t really spent too much time exploring what it is that we really need as God’s gathered people to sustain us.  Do we need a priest and a building?  Do we need communion every Sunday?  Instead of our financial deficiencies dictating our sacramental menu, why not become theological, sacramental nutritionists and explore our Sacramental RDA?

So many of our rural churches in this country and in Canada are finding the need to share a priest between several small congregations, drawing on the circuit rider model.  Some of these congregational clusters include up to a dozen churches.  Sadly, when I spoke to a church leader in Nova Scotia some years ago, she told me that fewer people attended church on the Sundays when they “just” read Morning Prayer, the folks felt that “God traveled with the circuit rider” and wasn’t present unless the priest showed up.  Bonk.    In Africa, many churches in the Anglican tradition do not have their own priest and wait, patiently, for their sacramental time, and they nimbly shift worship times to accommodate a traveling priest and devote themselves to study and prayer in the “in-between times.”

I happen to believe Jesus, who said that “Where two or three gather in my name, I am there among them” (Mt. 18:20) but that seems a hard sell, sometimes, without the elements to share.

So- no answers here, yet, but a desire for conversation about sacramental RDA.

What do you need?

Is it time to re-think our 1979 Sacramental theology?

Where does the bow break?  Is it with monthly communion?  Lay presidency? The forming of regional centers (hubs) for regular sacramental nurture with parish churches serving as centers for study, prayer and service?

What is God putting in your sheet floating down from heaven, in the way of a vision?

These are risky ideas. It is a bit like playing with matches, inviting this kind of conversation- particularly for one who has vowed to “uphold the doctrine, discipline and worship” of the Church.  But it is necessary.    I don’t want to pray the Liturgy of the Wringing Hands” anymore but be joyful – and bold- in following Jesus.

What do you think?


  1. I have a friend who believes lay presidency is the answer. Not sure I'm ready to go there. I do like the "hub" model; small parishes can't be all things to all people - let's figure out what we each do best, and gather ourselves around a central mini-cathedral. And let's empower the laity to do more pastoral care and administration and mission.

  2. We in Lancaster have the beginnings of a hub model in the 6 Rim parishes. We must continue to discern how we move this forward in God's plan

    I am not in favor of lay presidency but I am in favor of lay and deacons leading the Liturgy of the Word with communion from the reserved sacrament. Roman Catholics have been doing that for years with a circuit rider priest showing up one or two times a month

  3. We in Lancaster have the beginnings of a hub model in the 6 Rim parishes. We must continue to discern how we move this forward in God's plan

    I am not in favor of lay presidency but I am in favor of lay and deacons leading the Liturgy of the Word with communion from the reserved sacrament. Roman Catholics have been doing that for years with a circuit rider priest showing up one or two times a month

  4. First, thanks for putting up on the table the sacred nature of the sacred realities (cows?) of our sacramental nature as Episcopalians. First, let me say that I came out of a Protestant tradition as a child. The Lord's Supper was celebrated monthly as I recall. There was a time when that was true of the Eucharist in The Episcopal Church and still is in some places. I think we have to make some tough choices, emotional ones. We need to however contemplate what we are willing to lose so that something new may happen. The Jews who listened to Peter had to let go of their propriety of Jesus the Christ as Messiah. They had to allow Gentiles to receive Christ's salvation. What do we need to loose in order to let salvation happen in new ways now? The real world economic and ecclesiastical realities are that there aren't affordable and attractive means to invite priests who have paid thousands of dollars and frequently are in debt, to serve on a full-time basis in rural regions. They can't survive without jobs. It may be that hubs may work and it may be that we should allow deacons, maybe transitional ones, to celebrate the Eucharist. What revenue streams might we create that are of a missional nature? What incentives may we put into place in rural areas that allow us to send out sacramental presiders to share the Eucharist? Maybe the Eucharist is what this is all about anyway. What does a 21st Century Agape meal/celebration look like? Who is at the Table and where is the Table located? What might we learn by trying on experimental sorts of sacramental activities where the old way of doing things doesn't work anymore. Is it holy and good to let old things pass away so that new things may come into being? I think that sending the Reserved Sacrament is certainly a reasonable manner to keep something similar going. I suggest that it is striving to keep old wine in old wine skins rather than trying to find how to get new wine into new wine skins. The challenge therein is that we've come to love how we've celebrated the Eucharist in rural, urban, and other settings. We need some alternatives - something that will harvest what is good from the creation that feeds us. Maybe it isn't about the presiders, lay or ordained. Maybe it is about what we are presiding over that is essential.

  5. I began in my first parish as a transitional deacon. A retired priest celebrated every other week and I did a deacon's mass on alternate Sundays. The congregation was very accepting of that arrangement. In France, because of the lack of priests in small communities, mass is celebrated on Sat. evening one week and on Sunday the next. In the Episcopal church, a Sat. evening or Sunday every other week service could have a theme - Taize or healing, for example - with consecrated elements, maybe a deacon leading the service. That assumes there are enough deacons. Then there are the issues of congregational life - pastoral care, vestry, community and diocesan connection - that may be difficult to turn over 100 percent to lay leadership. It would involve a lot of formation and training as well as acceptance by congregations of new approaches. Groups like the Rim churches can pave the way for these kinds of changes because the congregations have begun to get to know one another through occasional common worship, formation and community action.