February 17, 2011

The Resurgent Church

For the third year running I am taking part in a clergy action/study group called the Resurgent Church. It comes out of the incredible work of Anne Lukens, a rector in our diocese, who has convened small groups of 8-10 "practitioners" who meet for five hours five times during the year to do praxis on projects of our own choice. My three work projects have been Lay Presidency at the Eucharist, What is the Church at Rest (church buildings as spiritual practice), and now my new project, "Episcopal Church Music in a New Millennium."

These groups go far beyond the typical bitch sessions and gossip groups to be places that we can honestly wrestle with our practice of ministry. Anne continues to revise and refine the framework. Today as we began our first session of my third year, she offered up the following Operating Assumptions and Operating Errors concerning our denomination, our congregations, and our role as pastors that I found incredibly helpful:

Operating Assumptions

Denominational "tradition" (or heritage) is:

• Comprised of a loose and shifting network of practices, varying over time and space.

• Capable of being exemplified for inquirers (you can show it), but incapable of being totally described to them (you cannot definitively tell what it is).

• Made of eclectically accumulated materials always available for recombinations.

• Resonant with, or resistant to, thought and value in surrounding society.

• Capable of multiple interpretations depending on context.

• Organized by practitioners who act first and rationalize later.

• Argued over by various parties and defined pro tem by "winners."

A congregation is a social group that puts "tradition" to use in its own characteristic way; it is:

• A work in progress, a collage constantly under construction by current participants.

• A signature network of symbolic customs and gestures; if any are borrowed and tried out in other contexts, they take on different spins.

• A shared, interactive association intuitively and spontaneously recognized by seasoned members.

• A saint-studded and precedent-shaped assembly which follows its spiritual guides.

• An arena for debate over variations in esteemed norms.

• A gang of piecemeal collaborators who act nonchalantly but purposefully.

• A practical lab for developing religious identity and working theology.

• A corporate shaper of beliefs, behaviors and challenges to be addressed.

The pastor or priest is a catalyst in the congregation's relationship with its "tradition;" s/he is:

• A pioneer who gradually discerns the way forward in uncharted circumstances.

• A disciplined but rule-bending revisioner who notices discrepancies and works with them.

• A watcher of actions, reactions, and what makes sense to people.

• An interpreter of possible meanings and a tracer of trajectories.

• An explorer drawing pro tem conclusions from the way things are hanging together.

• A creative translator of past ways for the sake of present and future parishioners.

• A colleague in a community of commitment and conversation, working for a robust future.

Operating Errors

Modern thought mistakes "tradition" for an inert and static hedge against change, while actually it serves as an ever-evolving root system for human identity and vitality.

"Tradition" is not appropriately treated as:

• An "it" to be defined, explained, and conserved, or a fixed heritage betrayed by change.

A congregation is not appropriately treated as:

• The local chapter of a defining bureaucracy that runs on best practices and management strategies.

A priest or pastor is not appropriately treated as:

• A trained expert who certifies denominational orthopraxy.

This is important work that will change the face of our church and actually might save it for the new future that is unfolding before us. If you want to learn more, drop me an email atpstrimer@comcast.net.