Is community a sign of God or something else?

In recent years I’ve been hearing, discussing and reading about a topic some refer to as an “ethical spirituality.”  In The Agile Church, Dwight Zscheile talks about ethical spirituality as a challenge to communities of faith. He says “that the culture has shaped its members to operate primarily within…the predominant way of understanding spiritual practice in contemporary life…Yet it doesn’t necessarily connect clearly to Jesus (other than as a moral example…) and God’s active presence in the here and now.”[1] In other words, Zscheile is pointing out that living to be a good person without the message of Jesus and God’s Spirit sidesteps the point of deepest authenticity. The difference is not merely doing, but rather being or embodying.

So often this comes to light in institutional or community life. Is there a difference between accepting and including those different from ourselves or excluding them for the sake of keeping up appearance, maintaining the status quo or mere self satisfaction? How is this different from a sense of deep welcome that acknowledges that all are part of the same human family?

Could care of this human family as part of all of creation inspire us from the heart of God? I think so. It is not for a community of the faithful to “decide it will minister to this or that group. All it can do is try to live out the radical equality that is at the core of both Baptism and Eucharist, and welcome all who wish to share that life [emphasis added].” The Most Reverend Doctor David Crawley, Archbishop of Kootenay in the Anglican Church of Canada, responds here in support of the gay and lesbian community affected by AIDS.[2] With these words, Archbishop Crawley addresses the centrality of what The Reverend Dennis Berk calls the comprehensiveness of Anglicanism. It is out of the Church’s comprehensiveness that inclusive ministry emerges to all persons who desire a life in the narrative of Christian faith in the Anglican tradition. In any discussion about full inclusion, there are some key questions to keep in mind. What does it mean to live out the radical equality that is at the core of both Baptism and Eucharist? How are all welcomed who wish to share in this new life? Where is faith most apparent? Where is there a tendency to overlook issues and where is there a tendency to look beyond them?

Berk relays a story about a Pennsylvania parish where he served as its Rector. A new baptismal font was given to the parish. To make room for it, the historic, marble one was placed outside in an attractive garden by a busy street. (It is important to note that the church did the necessary work within the parish to educate its community regarding this change before its implementation.) Freely accessible to the world, the font stands without shame as an invitation to the world to all seeking a spiritual home. More than a thing, the font, a valued eschatological object of relation within the parish does not lose that status to the parishioners. Now, it has also become that to the world, a holding environment available to all. Thusly, the font most boldly embodies the witness of the Baptismal Covenant of all the baptized, literally inside and outside of that particular church. It affirms before the world in changing seasons and all types of weather. It gives witness to world events. It is a fresh projection of anamnesis propelling energy from inside the parish into every time and place. It moves from asking to being. We seek and serve Christ in all persons. We love our neighbours as ourselves. We strive for justice and peace among all people. We respect the dignity of every human being. These covenantal words are at the heart of the comprehensiveness Berk points out as a uniquely Anglican via media, qualifications for the lavish welcome that includes but is not limited to sexual minorities in its wide embrace of all who desire to enter the Church.

Berk sees a parallel between his parish’s outdoor font and an analogy comparing parishes to birdbaths or birdcages found in Jack Roger’s book, Claiming the Center. What follows are two original hypothetical parish situations. The hypothetical narrative, like the metaphor allegoric devices of Jesus, speak of real relationships and experiences. Observe where covenant, sacramentality and imago Dei are not present (as in the case of the Birdcage parish), or where they are present (as they are in Berk’s situation and the Birdbath parish).

Whatever the reconciling ministry situation, be it to LGBTQA persons, Jewish or Muslim neighbors or Syrian refugees to name a few, the parish must already have in place the mind of a reconciling community made up of reconciling people. Otherwise, reconciliation is not possible. Reconciliatory behavior is learned like any other empathic skillset. What might take the place of reconciliation, in the name of reconciliation, are strident, random rules establishing what could be described as an unspoken contract only known by a select group.

Birdcage[3] Church is a hypothetical parish that exhibits the patterns, relationships and experiences of actual situations. The caged parish emphasizes marked boundaries of domination with an orientation toward contractual obligations. The status quo inside is one of what looks and feels like nourishment, relative and safety for those in the know who appreciate its exclusive doctrine and attempts to rationalize and even deconstruct the Gospel. Questions or rejections from within the cage result in threatened or actual humiliation, ostracization and even expulsion. The clergy team may deconstruct and even counter central Gospel messages to further their own agendas. The name of Christ may be uttered in passing within a sermon once in eight weeks, if that. Under the guise of community building as this may be inside the Birdcage pseudo metanarrative, it contributes nothing to doing theology or being theological within or outside of the structure. Birdcage Church, therefore, is not doing ministry. It is Church in name only.

Symptoms include a narcissistic leadership structure spreading the contagion of anxiety along with a false impression of stability and security. An all too willing small group of “concerned” parishioners aid this process. “A spirit of inclusion and value of all people” is the focal point of Birdcage Church’s homepage and they highlight their open arm status to LGBTQA folks as well as their friends and family. Further, the parish boasts of their financial support from their benevolent fund to the rebuilding of war torn regions, they fund a food program run through a non-profit in a downtown park each summer and they even rent office and rehearsal space to the area Lesbian and Gay Chorus.

Through these efforts, the church attracts a fairly large number of first-time visitors to its services. Many, attracted by the church’s offerings are surprised by the cold first-time welcome will continue to attend an average of two Sundays a month. But, after six months they no longer attend. LGBTQA first-timers report feeling shamed as they receive icy stares, refusals of greeting from parishioners at the Passing of the Peace and a general atmosphere of unfriendliness. Most do not return on Sundays. Some who sing in the LGC even drop out of chorus desiring to separate themselves entirely from a church setting, even if that only means entering into a church building for rehearsals because of the shaming they received on Sunday morning. Most Birdcage attendees who leave choose to not attend another church following their experience there.

Birdcage Church is one way of becoming what Pamela Cooper-White calls an ideological subculture. Birdcage Church creates its own subculture by establishing its own norms and barricading itself from other. “While ideological groups and cults are not rare, they do not constitute the center of most individuals’ lives. No one escapes the force of culture, however. Ultimately, culture is the medium for all development, and for reality itself.” Social paradigms, by nature of relationship, define reality by naming. Naming takes the form of either “stewardship or domination.” [4] Birdcage Parish falls under the latter. When it comes specifically to LGBTQA understandings, the parish paradigm falls squarely under the view of others as a social construction.[5] It is precisely this human pattern that sets minority groups at opposition to the majority.

The ideological subculture of a stewardship paradigm is another story. I adapt Berg’s Pennsylvania parish to the hypothetical Birdbath Parish. This is the parish that moves their historic baptismal font outside in a gesture of sacramental synchronicity. This is its own coming out process reflecting the spirit of authenticity among the Birdbath community.  There for the world to see, the font reminds the baptized of their covenant sealed by the Spirit. The lives of the baptized in this parish are authentically lived in the world so that all may know.

These are courageous acts of public self-giving offering reconciliation for all people. The clergy and leaders of the parish acknowledge these efforts regularly, optimistically and enthusiastically in public ways. Their ideal efforts strive to live out the Baptismal Covenant in each moment to do the work of ministry that God has called them to. The waters of baptism are free to splash out into everyday life. This is done with the passion realistic spirit of eros stretching beyond the edges of the status quo enlivening everyone, even the simply unaware in the community. It will eventually touch them, too, or that at least is the future hope of the parish. The font exists as a vessel extending an invitation to all to freely sample and partake of nourishing, cleansing water as a gesture of grace. The vessel invites one to freely sample and partake.[6] Birdbath Parish understands that they are stewards of the grace that God offers freely. In living this out they tear down a previously shut door to the world.

Birdbath Parish is living out what Cooper-White quoting John Millbank affirms as post-modern Christianity. This is a Christianity that recognizes, values and reflects the same chaotic diversity found in the Holy Trinity, a “sign of God as community.” Just like the Trinity, the community acknowledges that it is always in the process of becoming. Christian expression is found in the community itself, in its relationship with one another and God. Millbank’s theory goes so far as to say that the core of Christianity is a “praxis of diversity.” Process theologian Virginia Ramey Mollenkott summarizes this succinctly when she says that, “God is a verb.” [7]

It is this recognition of imago Dei that erases the false self-centric social construct of labeling. The diversity of God is at work in God’s diverse creation. It is the authentic experience with the holy that leads to twinning of the people of Birdbath to the human family as well as with the complexities of the unity of the Trinity. This is not a new concept. The fifteenth century iconographer, Andrei Rublev’s “Trinity” (an object of relation) beautifully depicts this very idea with room for the viewer to interact on an equal plain with the Trinity persons. This, too, seems to be a healthy quality of postmodern Christianity­­­ — the return of an ancient practice.

Birdbath Parish is a place of intentionality and vibrancy without apology for its mission. It is an incubator for the discovery of actualization of authentic faith rooted in the freedom of its people. They are free to fully and deeply discern and grow their authentic sense of self. They imagine that their becoming more fully realizes their personhood as the people that God has created them to be. In so doing, they are realizing and witnessing to the comprehensiveness of their Anglican Tradition. Their spirit of authenticity is IMG_0044inspired by a very real commitment and actualization of the Baptismal Covenant that has yielded amazing results. This dynamic parish does not cater to distinct groups of people. It does not single out or advertise a political correctness guised as openness to ecumenical dialogues or inclusion of specific groups. It lives out its comprehensive heritage. In so doing, diverse walks of life, family units, generations, races and opinions relate to one another, to God and to the world through the covenant of Baptism.

When it comes to the LGBTQA community, William Countryman points out that “[n]o one can say exactly why God has called so many…or why God has prompted us to make our presence a public fact.” He goes on to say, “Our presence will awaken the church to the significant eros for all Christian faith and life… To welcome us will mean welcoming God’s eros in a new way.”[8] This then becomes, not a matter of social convenience, but a matter of living our vows authentically. All else is politics.

The hallmark of postmodern Christianity, as in comprehensive Anglicanism, is the sign of God as community, God as verb. This middle way has the capacity to hold and attract people representing many humanly constructed sides to realize a fuller experience of relationship with God and others. The church that celebrates the multiplicity of the Trinity celebrates the multiplicity of all of God’s people. This is where the example of the Baptismal Covenant can be most fully realized. When parishes live in unity around its promises, ministry is most authentically realized from all to all. This is the nature of ministry.

© Douglas A. Beck, 2017

[1] Dwight J. Zscheile. The Agile Church. (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2014). 80.

[2] Dennis Berk. Embracing Inclusion: Comprehensiveness in Anglicanism. (Reading: Areopagite Press, 1999). 13.

[3] I credit the popular 1996 film, The Birdcage, with placing pseudo gay metanarratives into mainstream Western culture. The film is the seventh remake of the 1973 play La Cage Aux Folles. For over forty years, this story in its various forms has been educating society about the everyday life decisions that sexual minorities face along with the assumptions and conclusions when one is forced to live under false pretenses. Continuing challenges inspire the retelling and remaking of this forty-year old story. Culture’s wide familiarity with the film is the reason that I chose to adopt the analogies of Berk and Rogers for this paper. In the church as in society, the negative prejudice toward sexual minorities is still the predominate reason for oppression as a result of inequality and injustice, suppressing the sense of the authentic self.

[4] Pamela Cooper-White. Braided Selves: Essays on Multiplicity, God, and Persons. (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011). 54-55.

[5] Cooper-White, 54.

[6] Berk, 13-14.

[7] Cooper-White, 91-93.

[8] William Countryman. Love Human and Divine: Reflections on Love, Sexuality and Friendship. (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 2005). 67.