Case in point: a conversation which began almost a month ago; when engaging with the blog posting of one of our more conservative bloggers my response included the word ‘reactive’ to describe the role the Church too often takes in contemporary life.
Turns out, it took Terry a whole to track me down, but several days later he sent me an e-mail. ‘The comment you left- short as it was, really bothered me. Just what did you mean, by your “almost inevitably reactionary?”’
Turns out the author of the original post is a social acquaintance of Terrys- the cousin of a neighbour who is a good friend of Terrys. Their paths crossed at a recent anniversary party where doing ‘the networking thing’ they’d exchanged cards and through this he’d eventually checked out the blog in question. Terry himself eventually admitted that not only is he not an Anglican; he and his wife have pretty much ‘sleepwalked’ through much of their involvement with the local congregation of the denomination they were both born into.
A response from me not only welcomed his kiwi voice but clarified the difference between ‘reactionary’ and the word I had indeed used. Which apparently only encouraged Terry to write and ask: ‘ok, then what did you mean by ‘almost inevitably a reactive stance’?
In brief, I explained how too often when the official or visible representations of the Church engage with situations or issues of contemporary life they almost inevitably arrive with trunks of doctrine and great suitcases of scriptural verses- their minds essentially already made up before the conversation has even begun. As a result they almost invariably not only fail to meaningfully engage, they usually don’t even hear what the ‘other’ party might be saying.
‘You mean like the danged Pope on condoms?’ he shot back. ‘Talk about being out of touch with reality!’
‘The pope’s one example of the Church’s failure to engage meaningfully with contemporary reality- yes, but there’s also all the missed ‘headliner’ opportunities.’
‘I give you three names- Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. Dawkins and Hitchen lead the way with what many conservative Christians simply objectified & dismissed as ‘attacks on God. And while Harris might not have caught quite the same volume of limelight he’s on his third, general release book- just in time for the Christmas holidays; positing that science is the only basis for an authentic moral code.’
‘I remember hearing something about Hitchen’s book- probably in the media.’
‘And where was the articulate reasoned engagements by the ‘professional,’ the ‘expert’ Christians... and I’m not talking about Sunday sermons, letters to the editor or even personal blog posts here. All three men, to varying degrees of success chose the public area of published books (also available in electronic versions)- equally available to individuals wrestling with the current behaviour and issues within their own denominations and to those outside the Church who might pick up either author out of idle curiosity but end up finding what they read only affirms their troubled personal experience of the Church... And where was the voice of the Church, engaging in the same forum, the issues these three men raised?’
‘But wouldn’t that have been “reactive”?’
‘I’m not talking about taking on the three men personally, or even a point-by-point refutation of their arguments. I’m talking about looking at their work as symptoms and addressing the underlying issues- the real questions; contemporary anguish or indifference- in an articulate, engaged manner- IN EXACTLY THE SAME FORUM... You can’t tell me that our Churches have become so addled with their unilateral pronouncements that they’ve forgotten how real engagement & communication work?’
‘At least two of those three men probably became millionaires on those particular titles, and there was the leadership of my particular denomination working itself into a very expensive fit over the election of one honestly gay bishop?’
‘To say nothing about Bennie finally working his mind around to allowing that condoms are permissible- for male prostitutes?’
‘As if anyone even considers what the Pope might have to say on the matter anymore? He’s effectively made himself irrelevant- on condoms and everything else.’
‘But what’s your alternative then?’ Terry asked before signing off.
‘Well as people of faith- people who believe in the active, engaged, passionate presence of the Holy Spirit in the everyday reality of our lives, we might be a little more open- ready to see what’s really going on ‘out there’; ready to listen; to learn- ready for whatever the situation might really be to be a learning opportunity for us as well as a "situation to be addressed".... It’s my experience that whatever the experience one might be stepping into, Ruah is usually there already ahead of us.’
Obviously a patient man, Terry didn’t give up on me and once I’d explained my slip- using Hebrew, probably in the cause of simplified keyboarding Terry shot back’ Keep going.’
Turns out he’d never heard of St. Patrick’s Breastplate. When I waxed slightly lyrical speaking of the Holy Spirit not only actively, if exceedingly patiently present in our lives but ‘above us, below us, before us and working in our wake, within us and without,’ things got really interesting.
‘Whoa! You really believe all that?’
A couple prayerful, thoughtful of days before days before I wrote back: ‘I can only represent my experience, but for me I guess what it boils down to is the seal of our baptism- as simplistic as that might sound. Scripture and countless glowing examples in history stand proof of our Lord’s promise being kept- to send the Comforter. Not that I’m in anyway implying that the Holy Spirit works only in and through the lives of the baptised, but if She is present anywhere, it’s got to be through Baptism.’
My friend had no problem with that. ‘But I’ve got to remind you, I’m not really sure I’d call our gang a sacramental church,’ he reminded me. ‘In a way you Anglicans are so much luckier- having so many more clear issues and concepts to tussle with. We prots most of the time aren’t too clear on what we believe about most things.’
THAT sure gave me food for thought, and brought to mind another cherished correspondent, E.S- more on her later.
It was only several emails later we ‘got back on track’ as Terry called it. ‘About this reactive thing that got us started in the first place.’
‘You’re having an argument with your eldest son, but before the two of you even get together around the kitchen table, you’re already clear an your position- you’ve argued it out in your own mind, and possibly even with your wife; you know where you stand and what you want out of the exchange with your son.’
‘And that whole ‘conversation’ idea- talking things out- the meeting of your individual realities- really nothing more than a sham?’ I suggested. ‘An exercise in enforcement?’
‘But what about if both of you allowed it to be an open opportunity for relationship?’
‘Relationship? Fighting over him using the car’s relationship?’
‘EVERYTHING is relationship. Especially if you’re a person of faith- everything is implicitly a sacramental relationship between three parties in this instance- you, your son and the limitless possibilities for understanding, growth, healing, insight and transformation the Holy Spirit brings to that kitchen table.’
‘Are you actually suggesting the two of us should have prayed before having that discussion about the car?’
I confess I chuckled.‘Not necessarily. I’ve seen too many instances where prayer has been used as a passive/aggressive opportunity to frame an argument or make points before the ‘discussion’ even begins... The two of you however could have each taken a couple of deep breaths while maintaining eye contact to disengage from the argument you’d already won in your own minds- to authentically arrive in the sacrament of the situation you found yourselves in.
‘Maybe we ought to clear up just exactly what you mean by ‘sacrament’ then,’ Terry suggested.
That’s when the comfort of a great catechist in my life- Father James R. Allen came to the fore ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible grace’ I quoted from memory.
For the next several days the emails really flew- sometimes two or three from Terry to my one- but eventually he brought us back to the issue with his son: the argument about using the car.
‘How about the possibility that it’s rarely about the seemingly obvious?’ I suggested. ‘Consciously, or subconsciously when you’ve ‘worked it out’ in advance in your own mind, the memory or resonances of many or if not all of the unsatisfactorily resolved situations in your long history with that same son kicked in too, to one degree or another. And equally, consciously or unconsciously, all the times he felt you hadn’t really listened- hadn’t to his mind understood or agreed with what he was saying- they call kicked in too. So essentially the two of you were bringing whole armies of history to that kitchen table- none of which were voiced outside your respective minds, but each of which had a vote in how you’d decided the matter.’
‘So what would have been a ‘sacramental’ approach?’ Terry asked almost forty-eight hours later.
‘How about, once you’d each drawn those couple of breaths, you as the parent opened things up to something radically new by telling your son you wanted it to be different this time? Perhaps, instead of sitting across the table from each other, the two of you had gone for a walk, or you’d teased the ‘issue of the car’ away from your shared history by asking what he thought was really at stake?’
‘OK, keep going.’
‘Maybe the two of you even managed to tease apart the car issue and your frustration with the condition of his room- and in the process discovered that his ‘slovenly chaos’ is really a statement of personhood... Maybe the two of you end up having a whole discussion about ‘personhood;’ about how your particular family functions and what it’s like for each of you in your ‘role’ of son and father- I'm suggesting that just might be the real conversation behind the car and just how wilfully defiant the state of his bedroom might be.’
Eventually Terry responded. ‘I’m not saying you’re right- or wrong. But fuck, do you realize how much things would have to change around here? Is that what you mean by sacramental?’
‘Hmmm the word ‘transformational’ is what comes to mind. But yeah, sacramental covers the same reality too. To plagiarize Ms. Oprah, it’s all about living our ‘best lives-‘ "life more abundantly”, our Saviour called it.’
‘Which means the next time Zack and I have an issue, we’re got to work at leaving all the past issues outside?’
‘Perhaps it’s the only real way of moving forward- by first stepping, un-armoured and unadorned into the raw sacrament of the present moment, to see what the grace in each of you and working through both of you is capable of.’
‘And what about old Bennie and his effing condoms?’ Jay shot back within twenty-four hours?
‘I can’t speak for ‘Bennie,’ or the Vatican’- no, make that I wouldn’t want to speak for them... but maybe, just maybe what we- the generic Church- has to do is flip the sacred paradigm and start right where the Holy Spirit places us- un-armoured and unadorned. Yes, with Scripture, dogma, canon law and whole libraries of commentary and opinion as references. They’re all the legacy of patriarchy, and if we’re really supposed to be outliving that mentality we’ve got to start where we and the Church are supposed to be- in the rawness of the very first sacrament: Life itself- the sacred, unadorned reality of our lives.’
‘No scripture? What are all those pastors and ministers going to talk about?’ Terry asked with what I’m sure was a generous chuckle on his end.’
‘Not quite what I was suggesting,’ I reminded him. ‘Scripture- which we Anglicans believe contains everything necessary for salvation, but not that everything in Scripture is necessary for salvation’ is our heritage, our sacred history,
our reference or context. Dogma, canon law, all those tons of tomes of theological opinion and theory are all historical artefacts- but none- none of them are meant to supplant, or take precedence over the raw, sacred and very real vocation to engage the Holy Spirit, Herself in that primary sacrament- Life. That’s when dogma becomes idolatry.’
The exchanges with Terry continue- at least once daily- a sacred, wondrous, and at times outrageously funny exchange (like when Terry suddenly remembered I’m gay). But sharing what I have of our exchanges has brought us to where this exploration needs to be left for now- flipping the paradigm of patriarchy and mustering the grace to embrace- to step into- to each day step up to meet the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of our very lives.