During the two decades (1993-2013) that I served as a parish priest, first in Westport, Connecticut and then in Holden, Massachusetts, it became my practice to offer a “summer reading list” to those congregations. Usually it was books I was planning to read. Sometimes it was books I was suggesting that others might consider reading.
Three years ago, in July 2017, I offered a list of books on my blog. (I must have been missing the practice!)
That list can be found here.
I stand by that list. But the one I want to talk about this month is Verna Dozier’s,
The Dream of God: A Call to Return
. You can read the beginning of the first chapter of that classic
. But my hope is that while you are there, if you don’t already know this book, that you’ll order it and read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it.
It’s about how the institutional church has missed the mark.
You may find it funny or interesting that a Canon would affirm that point-of-view, but most of you reading this have at least met me, so you know that the reason I do this work is because I agree. Like Dozier, I care about the People of God – the Body of Christ. And am fully aware of the ways that the institution sometimes hinders the work to which we are called. My work, as I understand it, is to serve the Ordinary (aka the Bishop) by helping to unblock those things that hinder us in doing the work that God has given us to do in this branch of the Jesus Movement. Some days are easier than others…
COVID-19 has presented some real challenges. We have been experiencing some major disruptive change in our nation and in the Church. And yet I find myself returning to the themes that Dozier raised in
Dream of God
almost thirty years ago now.
Her main thesis is that the Church became too clergy-centered, and forgotten that the work of the Church is about the ministry of the Baptized. Perhaps we are now in a time and place to explore that thesis anew.
An observation: over the past four months, our Bishop has been exceptionally responsive to the pastoral needs of this time. He has been gathering with clergy and with wardens across the diocese from the very beginning of this pandemic. I have joined him in those meetings. Here is what I’ve observed: the clergy have been amazing. They have responded to the crisis. They have learned new skills. They are discovering new insights about themselves and the people among whom they serve. But also: our clergy are tired. Really tired. Some are on the edge of burnout. The work of these past four months is taxing and you can see it in their eyes. I love them. Truly. In fact, over the past seven years that I’ve been doing this work we’ve had clergy transitions in the vast majority of our congregations, so I’ve been able to welcome so many of them into our Diocese as Canon to the Ordinary. And those who were here before were valued colleagues and friends who go way back now.
So I say this in love – and I say it confessionally because I am one – this has been really hard work. And we are showing it. The Bishop has rightly been encouraging clergy to take their vacation time this summer and to find ways to refuel. I’m trying to do that myself. But I share this not to ask for anyone’s pity, but as one of the griefs I have felt: as I write these words, I was supposed to be on a plane to Paris for a River Cruise from Paris to Normandy. The loss of not doing that makes me tired and sad just typing this, and taking a few days off to work in the yard does not seem like a very good consolation prize! I’ll survive. And we will survive. I know that I occupy a place of incredible privilege in the society in which we are living right now. But I share it because I know that many of us, ordained and lay, carry a lot of grief in our bodies right now.
In any event, here is what I’ve noticed and recently shared with our clergy.
Those meetings with the wardens tend to be far more energizing.
The wardens are in a different place. Now maybe at work they are tired too. But when asked to reflect on parish life, they are seeing all kinds of signs of resurrection that are happening, perhaps better than our clergy can see them at the moment.
At a recent gathering they were asked, “What are you learning? Where do you see God at work?” They had a long list. Places where Bible Studies were floundering because it was hard to find a time that worked for everyone were now working on Zoom. (I’ve had my own experience recently with a five-week study for preachers and a four-week forum at All Saints in Worcester that had better attendance than the equivalent live events ever would have had.) Wardens spoke of Zoom coffee hours where you get to hear people’s stories, rather than gossiping in the same old small groups. They talked about welcoming in members who are homebound, or snow birds. They miss the Eucharist, to be sure. But they are finding prayer to be lively and the Word to be taking on flesh through recovering the Daily Office by praying Morning Prayer or joining our Bishop for Compline. More than a few talked about their ministries and the reality that the Church has absolutely not been “closed” during these past four months. They are connecting to their community in old ways and in new ways.
Now I’m not saying that the wardens are not tired too. Nor am I saying the clergy don’t talk about some of these things too. But what I am observing, I think accurately, is that the clergy may be experiencing more loss here of the Church that is disappearing and the Baptized may be discovering more signs of the new thing God is up to in calling us to dream together.
And this brings me back to Verna Dozier, whom I think might be very helpful in this conversation. I invite you to add her book to your summer reading list. And maybe in September or before that even, schedule a vestry conversation on Zoom about what wisdom she has to offer to your congregation right now, in this time and in this place.
It has become a truism to say that clergy were trained in seminary for a Church that no longer exists. I know what they mean, and I’ve said it, too. And it may feel as if it’s even more true today. But I think it’s only partly right. What I think is now happening is that we are being driven back to the basics. Back to what C.S. Lewis once called, “Mere Christianity.” Back to our roots. There are technical skills required right now that are brand new, to be sure. But what we need is not really another “how to” seminar. Rather, all of us are called to return to Scripture and to discover a Word of the Lord there. We learned, or at least began to learn, how to do that in seminary. The time may be even more ripe now than it was when everyone was on the soccer fields on Sunday mornings. To pray, and to serve, and to grow in Christ may be the basics we all need right now to keep us rooted in the love of God.
There is still a role for the clergy but it might look quite different as the institution changes. But here is what I wonder: might we have an opportunity to rediscover in the midst of all of this why it was we accepted the call in the first place?
I suspect that even when clergy have been sending people out into the world in mission for years or even decades, we are the ones who had become the most attached to our buildings. To “our” altars. We are on the verge of finding ways to re-enter those buildings in various phases. But my fervent prayer is that we take some time to reflect, together, as we do that on what has been good and what we don’t want to lose going forward. And that we hear the voices of the Baptized as we do that.
I also wonder: what if the laity are called to lead the way through this and show the clergy what lies ahead? Surely that might rock the institution! I wonder if this moment may be the moment where
The Dream of God
really takes hold as we remember that we are all living members of one Body. Most of us have no interest in “going back.” But as we move forward, what from the tradition will sustain us for the journey that lies ahead, and what do we need to leave behind because it weighs us down? I think the road ahead will be a long one – and maybe a circuitous one. Like Sinai. But what I know is this: we need to make our way together, and that with God’s help, we will. Forward then, toward the Promised Land – even when someone tells you about how good the leeks and melons back in Egypt were.