Annual Parish Meeting 2017

181st Annual Meeting Address

Jan Smith Wood

January 29, 2017

 

I am thankful to Bruce for his address and for helping us to remember all that we have accomplished together in the name of Christ.  It is extremely important to keep in mind the distance one has traveled: it helps us locate ourselves.  We also locate ourselves by understanding our context and the particularities of this day.

For most churches in America today, the picture of our particularities is bleak. We remember the church of our youth, or the stories of the church in mid-century America and consider ourselves failures, our church a dim shadow of what it has always been. We think we are living in the last gasp of American Christianity – at least as practiced by mainline denominations, including the Episcopal Church.

What if there is a different narrative? A different way to see where we are now? I know there is and I invite you to consider this different narrative with me.

It begins with a longer view of mid-century America (by mid-century, I mean the middle of the 20th century, post World War II)  It is human nature to think that the way things are is the way they have always been. It is human nature to think that the way things were in our youth is really the way they have always been and should be. For most of us, that metric is Mid-Century America.  However, Mid-century America was most definitely an anomaly. It was an unusual era and there is no going back to that reality. 


Consider this. Post World War II saw the greatest investment in common life by our government, before or since. It was the era of the GI Bill: more people (mostly men) went to college than ever before and a college education became the norm – but it was an education underwritten by “we the people”, by government investment. The same is true for our national highway system and for all manner of infrastructure in this country. We invested in people, in communities, in systems. It was an age of prosperity unlike any other.


This prosperity also had in a dark side – at minimum, it was a “mixed blessing”. Post-war, we saw the rise of the nuclear family and suburbs without sidewalks or a center. DDT and Round-Up. Cold War and global economies. Nuclear threat and arms races.

We also saw a phenomenal rise in church attendance and affiliation – perhaps in response to these twin phenomenon of extraordinary prosperity and generalized fear of annihilation. The photographs we have of Grace Church in the 1940s and 50s showing a full church are testimony to this.  Mid-century church attendance, like so many other matters, was amplified and normalized – and we’ve never been the same since.

America, for various reasons, has never been as firmly “churched” as the rhetoric would have us believe. In fact, I think one could make a very good case for America being Spiritual But Not Religious for most of our history – with a brief foray into being “church folks” in the mid-century.

 

This is one part of the picture – the story of the Church in America: we normalize a peculiar era and think we’ve failed in our day.

Another part of the picture is the story of the Christian Church in the world: the past 2000 years. (In this regard, I commend to you the work of Phyllis Tickle.)

Every 500 years, it seems that the Christian Church undergoes a sea change, a seismic shift, a radical reformation – or Great Rummage Sale as Tickle calls these times of upheaval and re-forming. There have been three thus far, and we are at the beginning of the fourth.

The Settlement of Constantine in the 4th century – and the merging of Empire and Church

The Great Schism in the 11th century – and the East/West division of the Church.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century

We are in the beginning stage of the next rummage sale: the Great Emergence. This title is a “place marker” more than a descriptor. As with any change, it is hard to see where we’re headed when we’ve just begun to head out.

When we think about history, we tend to think that changes in the past were neat and tidy. Shifts were clear and transitions were clean breaks. Such ‘tidiness’ is apparent only when we look back across centuries. (This is the historical version of the adage that “hindsight is 20-20”) In the midst of each “rummage sale”, it was not clear what was emerging. It was very clear what was being lost. None of the changes were rapid, irenic, or predictable. It took generations for change to become clear, for benefits to be made known, for the new to become the true, and for the continuity between what-was and what-shall-be to be evident.

So it is today. We are at the beginnings of change, the start of the journey, the weak dawn light of a new era. We will not get where God would lead us if we devote ourselves to feeble attempts to recreate some ephemeral “good old day”. We will not see the work of the Holy Spirit if our hearts persist in mourning what-was. We will never get up and follow Jesus Christ on the Way if we plant ourselves unyielding in the past.

This is a generational transition. It will take generations for the new kind of church to become clear, familiar, and “the way it’s always been.” We are merely the first generation to experience the great “rummage sale” this time around.

What does that mean for Grace? For you and me today? For our neighbors?

First of all, God is in this. The demise of the church-we-grew-up-in is not the end of Christianity or the end of faith. When we let go of anxiety and nostalgia, our eyes can be open to seeing the holiness of this day.


Furthermore, Grace Episcopal Church has a distinct advantage and deep resource for moving into the new era with creativity and imagination. We have an inordinately abundant endowment which allows us to concentrate on the bigger picture, beyond keeping the lights on. Our financial abundance is one resource among many, but it is a key resource that can assuage our anxiety and increase our openness to change with faith and creativity.

As we move into 2017, it seems opportune to consider the six great questions: who, what, where, when, why and how?

 

WHO are we called to be, for Christ’s sake?

WHAT is our purpose?

HOW are we becoming that?

WHERE are we to practice our faith?

WHEN shall we practice?

WHY are we Christian?

These are questions we need to ask, about ourselves, individually and collectively, each day. They are deeply personal, and they are absolutely informed by our faith community, our gatherings and our relationships with one another as people of Grace. 

It is appropriate at this Annual Meeting to consider some answers.

WHO are we called to be, for Christ’s sake? Reconcilers. Compassionate. Humble. Peacemakers. Poor in spirit so we may be filled with God’s Spirit... (Sound familiar?)

WHAT is our purpose? The classic answer is that our purpose is to praise God. Micah tells us how: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God. (Simple, but not easy.)

HOW are we becoming that? By personal intention and purposefulness. Alone and in the company of others. Seeking congruence between what we say on Sunday and what we do on Monday.

WHERE are we to practice our faith? Everywhere. Like the question as to whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if there is none to hear, so the question of where we shall practice our faith: If I am not a Christian everywhere, am I a Christian anywhere?

WHEN shall we practice? At all times. No matter the cost or the vulnerability to ridicule (or worse).

WHY are we Christian? This is the question upon which all else depends. Saying “because I was born that way” doesn’t count. Why are you Christian? What difference does it make?

It is to be hoped that, this year, we will continue to ask these questions. Of ourselves. Of one another. Of the Church. Of God.  They are questions appropriate to all times and place, but particularly so when we belong to a church with significant assets of many kinds at the beginning of another great Rummage Sale. 

 

WHO are we called to be, for Christ’s sake?

WHAT is our purpose?

HOW are we becoming that?

WHERE are we to practice our faith?

WHEN shall we practice?

WHY are we Christian?

 

Let the questioning begin.

Let the quest continue.

 

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