Written by: Rev. Dr. Philip Turner
Tuesday, March 10th, 2015
This is a hard time in the life of our church. It’s easy to spend most of our time obsessing about all that has gone wrong. However, the subject I have been asked to address, “Called to Serve”, points in a different direction. It points away from our discontent and toward a vision of a reformed and renewed church—a church identified by a commitment to service. “Called to Serve” has branding potential for a renewed and reformed church, but the potential will not be realized unless two words are added to the proposed brand name. Let’s not talk about “called to serve”. Let’s talk about “called to serve the Lord.” If we want to brand ourselves in a way that calls us toward a vision of a new day let us be known as servants of the Lord.
This addition is of crucial importance. The gospel now preached in The Episcopal Church rarely focuses on reconciliation with God. Its more usual focus is a range of moral, social and political issues about which God is said to have very particular opinions. I do not wish to be misunderstood. I believe there are compelling reasons for Christians to be involved in the moral, social and political issues of their time. I do not, however, believe that these concerns comprise for Christians the matter of first priority. I do not believe either that there are clear Christian answers to most of these problems. Most importantly, I do not believe that the primary reference of being a servant is care for one’s neighbors. For Christians, the primary reference for the word servant is Jesus Christ. This is the way Paul describes himself. The Letter to the Romans begins, “Paul, a slave (servant) of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God.”
Members of a reformed and renewed church will understand themselves first not as good, justice seeking citizens but as “slaves” or if you prefer “servants” of Jesus Christ. The question before us is how, in our present circumstances, we are to live as servants of the Lord. My grandson recently made the importance of this question clear to me. He has just begun study to become a Roman Catholic Priest. Not long ago, he brought home a young Hispanic man he has come to know through his work in an Austin parish. The young man posed a question that my grandson could not ignore. He asked, “What is the one thing in your ministry you wish to accomplish?
My grandson’s question has become mine. So my question to you today is not what it is about the present life of our church that disturbs you. My question is what is the one thing you would like to accomplish in your ministry. To stimulate your thought, I will give you my answer to this question. Though it took me some years to come to it, my answer is this. I want, as a servant of Jesus Christ, to do my part in forming communities in which Christ is taking form. I say it took me some time because when I was a lot younger my answer would have been I want to awaken my church to its social responsibility. Ten years in Africa and a number of years teaching in the Seminaries of our church have changed my emphasis. Over the years my focus has changed from making a Christian impact on American society to convincing my students that their primary calling is to be servants of Jesus Christ involved in building communities in which Christ is taking form.
This change in focus has presented me with a host of questions that are rather different from ones I once might have asked. My question is no longer of this type; “What stance ought Christians to take to Obama Care?” and “How can I lead them to the morally right answer to this question?” My first question now is “Given the fact that most Americans come to church to find personal satisfaction or useful services, how does a parish community become a body in which is Christ taking form?”
When we are confronted with questions we cannot avoid (as I believe this one to be) we naturally turn to the traditions we have inherited. We have no choice. We can only think within a tradition. I am prepared to argue that the tradition Anglicans have inherited has its foundations in the work of St. Benedict and Thomas Cranmer. Benedict saw each community of monks as a school for the service of the Lord. Their way of life together was intended to shape lives that take their form from that of their Lord. In the Benedictine tradition, that way of life is shaped by four key practices—common worship, study, labor and stability.
When Cranmer put together a Book of Common Prayer he hoped to render the parishes of the Church of England as schools for the service of the Lord. So he developed a Book of Common Prayer designed to provide parishes with forms of worship that shaped the lives of their members “in Christ” through each day and all the seasons of the year. He developed pastoral offices that addressed the primary transitions of life and life’s major crises. He had the Bible translated into the language of the people so that Biblical knowledge was open to each and every person within the parish. He developed homilies so that the Christian Gospel was preached in its fullness. And he located these practices within the labor and stability of rural England. Stability and labor were built into the settled lives of most Englishmen. Common forms of daily worship, open bibles and prescribed sermons in the context of such stability served to guarantee true worship and basic Christian knowledge within a settled community.
This is the tradition we have inherited, but times have changed. Cranmer could easily imagine the parish church as a school for the service of the Lord. Clearly, however, we inhabit a very different social world. Our congregants are in constant motion. They shop for their church as they shop for everything else. If they don’t like what parish X has to offer, they don’t have to leave town to find an alternative. All they have to do is hop in their car and try another vendor. Religion in the minds of most people is not built upon daily practice within a settled space but upon interest and feeling that may or may not be occasioned by their experience of parish life.
To think of the parish as a school for the service of the Lord, or as a body in which Christ is taking form, I am certain appears to the eyes of most people as a way of imagining church life that has long outlived its shelf life. If we want to revive the church we would be better served, as many of our leaders suggest, by a systems analysis that allows us to make maximal use of the resources of the diocese and its parishes. Better to promote church growth and maintenance through maximal use of resources than the formation of communities whose form of life reflects that of Christ
Please do not misunderstand me. I do not object to meshing the resources of dioceses and their parishes in an effort to attract new members and hold their interest. My question is why might we want to do this. My answer is so that their members might become servants of Jesus Christ and together comprise a community in which Christ is taking form. The question, of course, is just how is such a miracle to occur? In the remainder of these remarks I will share some of the thoughts that have come to me as I search for an answer. I do so in hope that you will catch a vision of a new possibility for our church.
The question is where to begin? I propose to begin where Benedict and Cranmer did, with our worship. Here it appears we have a lot going for us. I know a number of young people along with a number of new members of my wife’s parish who, despite all our bickering and division, have become Episcopalians. They have done so because they have been drawn into a form of worship that has been shaped through the ages—one that both retains contact with the early church and renders present God’s glory.
They like that; but I am not sure that their interest lies deeper than taste coupled with a desire for a richer religious experience. It is this doubt that prevents me from regarding the current interest in our worship in an entirely positive manner. I often wonder if the attraction is not a prime example of what Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “religion”–a well-meaning attempt to bring God on our own terms and for our own satisfaction down into our everyday world.
Be that as it may, no matter what the problems may be, we must begin where our tradition leads us—with worship. What would change our worship from an expression of taste and personal desire into the identifying mark of our lives? What would it take for our worship to reflect the fact that we are “Servants of the Lord?” What would it take for our worship to be the defining occasion for Christ to take form among us? The answer to this question does not lie in fiddling with the liturgy. The answer lies in changing the reason we are there. What if we were there because have been commanded to do this in remembrance of our Lord? What if we were there “to show forth the Lord’s death until he comes?” What if we were there because once more we enter into the reconciling act of Christ’s death and resurrection? What if we were there because we are reconciled sinners who now live in peace with God and one another? What if we were there because there we receive grace to live a form of life that reflects that of our Lord? What if we were there because once more we join the Angels and Archangels in the worship of God our Savior and so show forth the end for which the worlds were made?
If such a change were to occur, worship on the Lord’s Day would not be an activity we fit in as family demands and the soccer schedule allow. It would be an occasion from which we would never absent ourselves save for illness or extraordinary exigency. It would become the center of our lives–the place where God grabs hold of us and Christ is formed in us. It would be the place where we become more faithful servants of the Lord. It would be the place where the first commandment indeed becomes the first—the place among all places where we learn to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
What if? What if? There are so many others! For example, what if the common life of the parish, its meetings, its organizations, its social events, its outreach programs, its care for the elderly, the little children, the sick and the needy were understood not simply as good works but as occasions for Christ to take form among us? What if the activities of a parish were understood in the first instance as classrooms in a school for the service of the Lord? What, for example, would change if we understood the first importance of a vestry meeting differently than now we do. What if the primary point was not to approve a budget but to take on the form of Christ through our conversations, friendships, common projects, differences, gripes, arguments and personal differences? What if in the midst of these interactions we expected to acquire the simple graces Paul speaks of in his Letter to the Ephesians—truthfulness, humility, gentleness, patience. Our common life would become a space where we learn to bear with one another in love. It would become a space where we become eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It would become a space wherein we learn to put away bitterness, wrath and anger. It would be place where we learn to be tenderhearted and kind one to another. It would be a space in which we learn to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Should such a miracle occur, I believe the whole point of church would change. It would become the place we learn to be servants of the Lord. It would be the place we put off an old self and put on a new one (Eph. 4:22-24). It would becomes a place where are born again to a new life. It would become, in short, a community in which Christ is taking form. And should such a miracle occur, our parishes would become evangelical. That is, they would become communities dedicated to drawing others to Christ through speaking and living in ways that show forth the Lord’s death until he comes. Put quite simply our parishes would discover that the point is evangelism before it is church growth.
Evangelism is an aspect of the vision of our future I am here to advocate. I am aware, however, that here I tread on tender toes. Episcopalians are more comfortable with church growth than with evangelism; and because we are not Baptists, we are also uncomfortable with Revival. Among us advocacy for evangelism (that is witness with hope of conversion as opposed to revival or church growth) places one beyond the pale. Dick Reed, the former Dean of Virginia Seminary, once said to me, “Philip, where you come from in Virginia being an Episcopalian is something that happens in certain families. Evangelism is rude and Revivalism is in bad taste.”
Sadly, most of the Episcopalians for whom evangelism is neither rude nor crass have left TEC for what seem to them greener fields. Our parishes can envision themselves as providers of religious services and good works, but not as a living testimony to the saving action of God in the cross and resurrection of Christ. A close friend of mine was asked shortly after he was thrown out of Burundi, what was most striking to him about his time there. His answer was immediate. “For the first time in my life I met people for whom belief in Christ is a matter of life and death and so also a matter for which they are willing to die.”
For the people my friend grew to know in Burundi, communication of faith in Christ Jesus was a matter of life and death. For us, Christian belief is in large measure a matter of personal taste, moral commitment or comfort in times of trouble. And for the first time, in recent years Christian belief has become for many a matter of no concern at all. We have a new and fast growing category of religious identification in our country—people who call themselves “Nones”–meaning no religion at all.
The churches in America are now confronted with circumstances in which neither Revivalism nor Church Growth provide an adequate understanding of their relation to the larger society of which they are a part. The appeal of Evangelical Churches that focus on revival or Pastoral Churches that take pride in their interesting programs and popular services is in rapid decline. The churches of America are in competition for an ever shrinking demographic. They exist in a society whose ethos is no longer Christian in a way that either Benedict or Cranmer would recognize.
Do not these facts suggest to us that we need to reappraise what it is to be a Servant of the Lord and to think again about how our parishes and congregations are to understand their identity? Do these facts not pose a question to the churches of America? And does this question not provide a particularly difficult challenge for Episcopalians? The question is this. Is it not the case that a call to serve the Lord implies that one has been given a truth that is a matter of life and death, and does this fact not imply that our parishes and congregations are to become schools for the service of the Lord where that truth is both worshipped, taught, proclaimed and lived?
What I have said this afternoon is this. If we are called to be servants of the Lord and members of a community in which Christ is taking form we will have to change the way we think about our worship, the way in which we understand the purpose of our common life and the way in which we understand our mission. If I had more time I would go on to say something about the way in which we might form our brothers and sisters so as to become contributing members of a society in which our beliefs are shared by fewer and fewer people.
The relation of Christians to the social, economic and political issues of their time is a very important part of the vision that has become mine, but there is not time here to share my thoughts on this matter. Indeed, I have time only for one concluding comment. If the vision I have sought to share is to become a reality, there must arise among us leadership on the part of people who share that vision. Our church will be neither renewed nor reformed save for the presence among us of clergy and lay persons who, in a reflective way, “are the truth”—persons in whom Christ is taking form and so people who are recognizable as people who are called to be Servants of the Lord.
It may seem to you that I am dreaming the impossible dream. I do not think so. I believe God honors and upholds those who dare to hope in him and, no matter how unlikely it seems, dare to follow in the way he leads. I believe that if we follow in this way, God will establish us and in doing so renew that little part of his church to which we belong. I believe also that if we do not follow we will find ourselves among the branches he has trimmed from the vine.
March 10 2015 | Articles