Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

God, Words, Responsibility – From the Daily Office – August 6, 2012

John’s Gospel begins:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 1:1-5 – August 6, 2012)

Pulpit, Exeter CathdralReading these oh-so-familiar words in the introduction to John’s Gospel, I remember other words I read on another blog yesterday:

If the Church was meeting the deepest needs and yearnings of spiritual people, it would be a priority in their lives. But it is not, and it chooses to ignore everything except the obvious. Evelyn Underhill, the great Anglican mystic of the early 20th century, said that the “only really interesting thing about religion is God.” People aren’t staying away from the Church to play football or shop – they’re staying away because they aren’t finding God. (Do Anglican Churches Really Want to Survive?)

Reading those words I felt like I’d been gut punched, knifed, shot in the head. Not because they are wrong, but because I fear they are probably right, and I wonder what I and my fellow clergy have been doing for the past several decades.

Well, that’s not exactly true. When I read those words I didn’t wonder about other clergy at all . . . I just wondered about me. What have I been doing? Worship in the Episcopal Church takes the effort of lots of people – musicians, choir singers, lay assistants who read lessons, lead prayers, and help at the altar, sacristans who set things up and clean them up after its all done, ushers, greeters, and so forth . . . but it is the priest who designs the liturgy within the broad outlines of The Book of Common prayer, who presides at the altar, and who stands in the pulpit preaching the word. In 22 years of ordained ministry, I’ve done all of that and said a lot of words . . . a lot of words! If in what is happening on Sunday people are not finding God, it is in large part the priest’s responsibility, my responsibility.

Not solely the priest’s, by any means, but in large measure. Especially in a church which follows the catholic tradition of Holy Orders as sacramental and, by its rubrics and canons, makes the parish priest the final arbiter of all worship experiences. Yes, one could recruit and work with a worship committee, and yes, one does work with the musician and all those good volunteers, but in the final analysis, as our canons put it, the senior pastor has “full authority and responsibility for the conduct of the worship and the spiritual jurisdiction of the Parish.” There is even a canon declaring that, in regard to worship, the ordained minister in charge of a congregation, “shall have final authority in the administration of matters pertaining to music.” So I say again, if in what is happening on Sunday people are not finding God, it is in large part the priest’s responsibility.

In 22 years of ordained ministry I’ve said a lot of words, sung a lot of words, heard a lot of words, quoted a lot of words. I hope that God was in some of them.

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Father Funston in the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

4 Comments

  1. Wendy Dackson

    If you’re wondering whether it applies to you, I’d bet it doesn’t. It’s those who think, ‘oh, that’s somebody else’s problem, not mine’ who are the ones in trouble!

  2. eric

    Wendy, thanks for the affirmation, but I do believe the issue is a broader one. I’m reading the newest report from Public Religion Research, and it is not very energizing!

  3. Wendy Dackson

    It’s a bigger issue, indeed, than individual priests or congregations. But I’m pretty unconvinced that the way forward is to scrap institutions altogether–make them over so that they do what institutions do best, in terms of resource conservation and deployment (not just money, but knowledge, traditions, talents, practices), and for effective good work beyond what small groups of people can do.

  4. eric

    Thanks again! I’m entirely in agreement with you about the institution.

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