“You are so loved.”

At the risk of over-sharing: My wife typed the above into the open document I was working on while I wasn’t looking, which happened to be my dissertation chapter. Sadly, it did not belong in the spot where she put it. But as my dissertation topic is the love of God, it is rather the point of the whole thing.

For a little moment like that, I can only thank God for means of grace and hope of glory.


Anglican Buyer’s Remorse and the Illegitimacy of Jesus

I just finished the two books that are already out in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation. The sensibility is a bit like Game of Thrones in early modern England, which is to say it is a very un-romanticized telling of a story we are used to hearing in a more lofty register. The heroes doesn’t really come across as all that heroic, but interestingly, the traditional villain (Cromwell) comes off as quite understandable, even likeable (one cringes as he makes various deals with the devil that the reader knows will eventually lead to his own death). But it does make the Church of England (and by extension, its global cousins) look pretty ridiculous. We need a historic episcopate as a symbol of our continuity with the murderous political and religious machinations of the Tudor court? I see why for some people, all this talk about propriety and legitimacy just reeks of male, aristocratic power justifying itself. And it’s no use taking refuge in the Protestant wing of the church, as these books remind me rather painfully of how closely linked early Protestantism was then with both royal power plays and early capitalism. Let me be quick to say that in theory, I do not find Anglicanism’s historical (and contemporary) political entanglements any more troubling than those of the Lutherans, Calvinists, Catholics, or non-denominational evangelicals. Hell, it’s no use running off and becoming an Anabaptist, since even they have a history of violence, though they are often a bit better about actively repudiating it.

I am fairly skeptical about the likelihood or even possibility of any place where one could flee that is untainted. Wheat and tares, together sown, or something like that (or two cities and two loves, since I’m writing on Augustine). But seriously, Anglicanism… No, the Episcopal Church is not the Church of England. We do not have a Supreme Governor, nor are our bishops selected by a Prime Minister who doesn’t even have to be a Christian. But whenever you’ve managed to convince yourself that this isn’t what your own praying of the daily office is about, Psalm 45 or 72 shows up in the lectionary. And even if you don’t have a queen, and you don’t have to pray that she (and by extension, you) may know “whose minister she is,” you’ve probably been around long enough to know why the stereotype of your church as a church of the east coast elite exists, though you hopefully also know that it’s not entirely fair. You are yourself an Episcopalian by choice, even if you’ve visited too many parishes where the voice from the pulpit has been that of benevolent privilege (if not insipid works righteousness, minus the works).

But anyway, I actually meant for this post to be a reflection on the first chapter of Matthew. You see, Jesus is presented as the heir of a royal genealogy. It’s a very tidy genealogy, with 14 generations separating significant events, and only a few hints that it is not actually as seamless as it looks. It is a patrilineal genealogy, mentioning only four women. Like much of the Hebrew Bible, it reads like royalist propaganda, but it would be very odd propaganda that paints its kings in such an unflattering light. Actually, most of the monarchs in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles come off looking about as bad as the Tudors in Mantel’s novels, complete with murder, rape, incest, and the opportunistic fusion of political and religious power. And Matthew knows this perfectly well. Jesus was born into and was fully part of a history as screwed up as English history, and as screwed up as your own family history probably is if you scratch the surface a bit. He had to be part of history to redeem it.

But for all of the evangelist’s concern to show that Jesus is part of the patriarchal and royal history of Israel (and whether or not his goal is to endorse that history), he’s also quite clear that Jesus isn’t patrilineally related to any of these people! It was important to him to spend 15 verses setting up this picture of patriarchal succession and legitimacy from Abraham to Joseph with all the care of an English cleric trying to legitimate his preferred branch of the Plantagenet family, only to announce quite loudly that the messiah for whom he’s claiming this history is illegitimate within it! This is Joseph’s genealogy, and Jesus is only Joseph’s son by grace, not by nature (it should also be noted that he is Mary’s son by grace. He is only God’s son by nature, and became Joseph and Mary’s son so that we, by grace, can become what he always was by nature).

And I think that’s my hope for the Anglican tradition. We have a history that is weighed down with oppression, and more than a little embarrassment. It is tied up with English social hierarchy and British imperialism, and still uses symbols that have been used for the purposes of male, European supremacy and female, non-European subjugation (and we won’t even get started on interrogating those dichotomies in this post). But my hope (and to a certain extent, my experience) is that like the genealogy in Matthew, it can be the sign or even the sacrament of something else, something that is in it but not of it. Jesus redeems history from inside of it, though it has no claim on him, if we will but welcome him.

May the grace be given to us that was given to Mary and Joseph.

Should Every Church Grow?

I was edified but also annoyed by this list of 8 Reasons Most Churches Never Break the 200 Attendance Mark. All of the reasons the author gives are correct, and any church that discerns a call to grow should think over them very carefully. The basic thesis is that even when they are doing everything else right (he names prayer and love in particular, and asks us to “assume you have a solid mission, theology and heart to reach people”), most small churches are organized like small organizations, and usually grow to about 200, then lose people (and perhaps repeat the process indefinitely). If we want to reach more people, we need to change from being organized like a mom and pop store to being organized like a supermarket. This means moving a way from a pastor-centered model of ministry to one where lay people are empowered to lead and care for each other. I suspect that this is a practice that most congregations should cultivate, even those that do not discern a call to grow past 200 attendees.

And yet, something doesn’t sit well with me. It occurred to me that even as I am seeking to develop that skill set for managing a medium or large organization, I try to buy as much of my food as possible from farmers markets and local groceries, which are often more specialized. And I can only wish damnation on any economic trend or ideology that leads to the elimination of local bakers! This may be sentimentality on my part, or it may be my German wife slowly getting to me, but in the move from small-scale artisans to mass-production, something important is lost.

In this case, I probably agree with all eight things that most congregations should change, but the rationale given drives me up a wall. If you read the first few paragraphs, you’ll see that it’s completely inconsistent. “There’s nothing wrong with being a small church,” we are told in boldface. But every pastor really yearns for the church to become bigger, the next sentence tells us. And if we weren’t doing something terribly wrong, we would become bigger. Pushed on this point in the comments (and this is one of the rare occasions when I recommending reading the first thread), the author says that health equals some kind of growth. That’s one of those platitudes that seems intuitively true at first glance, but doesn’t really hold up to interrogation.

Growth doesn’t always mean numerical growth. Growth in holiness is not really quantifiable, and for most of Christian history, the monastery was considered the optimal place to pursue it. And even if we are talking about reaching more people for Christ, that is not the same thing as people coming to my church. Growth for growth’s sake is the way of capitalism and cancer, not of Christ, who lived and died in obscurity. I’ve heard several pastors say “God has sent you to be faithful, not successful” (all of them African American, and I wonder what that means).

Leave it to me to grant all the actionable points, but see heresy and capitalism lurking in all the whereas clauses. All well and good in practice, but how’s it work in theory? But I do advertise curmudgeonliness.

How about this though? Quite often, it seems like pastors struggle with the fact that their congregations just don’t have a vision for growth that entails significant changes to the way they have always related to one another, their pastors, and the world. And yes, those congregations will probably dwindle and die. But might it sometimes be that they don’t have this vision because God hasn’t given it to them? I know that when it became clear that the Shakers were going to die out, they mostly accepted it. Their purpose was not endless self-perpetuation, but to do the will of God. The moment for which God raised them was passing (like moments do). This may also be true for many congregations, or even denominations. It does not mean that they are failing. They have done what God called them to do, and now God will raise up others.

So in addition to learning a new set of leadership skills for a new time, we also need to learn something very old. We need to learn how to discern the mind of Christ. When has God not given us a vision for change, and when are we just being lazy? Neither is ever a foregone conclusion. And the question cannot be answered by the pastor alone. If I read 1 Corinthians 2:16 correctly, the mind of Christ is the corporate possession of the church, not of individual Christians. So I guess that, at long last, here’s what I’m getting at: let’s re-frame what we’re talking about here. It’s not a question of whether management theory can help the church. As painful an admission as this is for me, I think it’s pretty obvious that it can. But whatever our leadership style is, it needs to come out of our discernment practices. How do we discern the mind of Christ together?

They didn’t do a very good job of teaching me how to lead an organization in divinity school. I am now seeking to remedy this deficiency, and so are they. But they also didn’t teach me how to lead a people in prayerful discernment. That, I think, is the more critical omission. I wish we could just assume that every church has a solid mission, theology, and a heart to reach people, and that all churches and pastors were faithful in prayer. But somehow, I suspect that’s the exception rather than the rule. So yes, talk about leadership strategy. But I don’t want to hear it unless you’re also talking about prayer.