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The Rev. Michael Sullivan The Rev. Michael Sullivan
The Rev. Michael Sullivan is rector of Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church in Atlanta, GA, and the author of two books.

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The Episcopal Church

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Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA


Giving up Church for Lent

March 01, 2012

When you’ve been ordained as long as I have, you start to forget what life is like away from the Church. That’s not all bad, I suppose, for after all, it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a priest, rector, pastor, and guide along the way. 

 

At the same time, however, I get the feeling every once in a while that my training has produced a priest that is speaking a foreign language much of the time. Lately, with the good and honest work my parish staff has been doing, I’ve received a rather large dose of reality confirming that my acquired language skills reflect a life lived in the church. We’ll be in a staff meeting, discussing something really important about an upcoming program, when all of sudden, the priests will dominate the conversation.  We’ll be using theological, liturgical, and other “whatever-ical” words that no one understands. In that moment, the energy drops, very possibly the oxygen levels as well.

 

We priests usually don’t see it coming. We have not a clue. We’ve been so well trained to theologize that it’s second nature, just like a doctor’s mallet to the knee or elbow at an annual exam – a reflex without reflection.   Luckily, our staff wants to learn, to exchange ideas and push in ways that challenge our intellects and our souls.  So, we have a rule: you may interrupt, stop the conversation, and bring the discussion back down to earth.  This simple rule has been a real asset to our team, a trust and collegiality builder, and it has brought deep change to the way we do “church.”

 

So consider this manuscript – the one you are reading.  Right now, you’re reading this reflection, and despite my wordsmithing, I know that the same thing could happen: priestcraft, with all the special words and trappings, could creep in at any moment.  It happens in articles like this one and certainly in pulpits across the country every Sunday.

 

In this holy season, I’m supposed to teach about one thing: Lent. Perhaps you expect a lesson on penance, pascha, litany, liturgical catechesis, or lenctentid. (And if you know what lenctentid means, well, you’re in the priestly club with me, collecting dusty words for dusty days – and yes, the pun was intended: it’s Lent after all).

 

These expected words are indeed important, and as priest, I feel a deep responsibility to teach them so that the tradition of who we are can not only be preserved, but lived anew, afresh in every generation; but when these trappings become a barrier to the Gospel itself, running interference with the Good News of Jesus and distancing priests from the very Body itself, well, we might just need to give up the “church” for Lent in order to discover a new discipline, practice, and way of life.

 

My brothers and sisters, the Church, the great and marvelous Body of Christ, is going through a major shift; calling it a “phase” instead of a “reformation” or “shift” will not make this transition go away. On the one hand, our shift is about numbers. Within my own denomination, The Episcopal Church, the average parish is losing over 10% of members and attendance every 4-5 years.   In addition, some experts claim that the majority of parish budgets are declining at a rate between four and eight percent per year. This trend is not reserved for Episcopalians alone, but all mainline churches, and according to recent studies by the Pew Charitable Trust and others, non-denominational churches are actually no better at retaining their members despite what we sometimes hear.  The average non-traditional church loses as many members as mainline churches in an endless cycle of conversion and falling away. These are dismal facts, these numbers of change, and they apply to all of us claiming the name of Jesus. They are not uplifting. They are not what we want for the Church, our parish, children, or for any one. We want to pass on the Good News faithfully and preach words that mean something about real life.

 

I may be wrong. I may be very, very wrong, but increasingly, I believe we, the Church, are called not to speak like seminary professors but like fellow pilgrims along the pathway of life. This is the real shift, the real pivot point behind the declining numbers.   The language of the Church may be cast in such “priest talk,” such religious speak, that the world cannot hear it; the language may not connect to people’s every day lives. Our words are marginalized, tossed about by political candidates without challenge; we have lost the very words we wrote to sustain us.  Saying the people in the pews are illiterate is just a way to preserve the status quo and keep the institution going, or rather, to “strut[ ] and fret [ ] . . . upon the stage,
 and then [be] heard no more.”

 

Hear the Good News: the admission of this very milieu is the Gospel truth.  We need honesty and authenticity about our real faith journeys in and outside of the Church.  We need priests and people willing to say there are days when the world seems flooded; when despite belief and faith, we see only waters covering the earth. No rainbow. No dove. Just flooded waters.  And on some dark and lonely days, instead of hearing “you are the beloved” like Jesus with John at the Jordan, we must admit that we feel less beloved and more driven to the wilderness.  We could use fancy words to describe these confessions. We could explore the theories of the atonement, and why, Christ’s work has brought a realized eschatology for our ascetical life. Any old priest knows how to do that, how to say those words.

 

But a pilgrim confesses Jesus as Lord, and along the pathway of life, admits that following Jesus is not easy.  Heartache still visits.  Hurt still lies in wait.  Failure is not a mere memory.   Yet despite these very things, the pilgrim proclaims, “I need you Jesus.  I need you disciples, fellow pilgrims along the path.  I need you.”  In that place of honesty, the Church is born again and again and again. 

 

Sure, as a priest, I’m here to write these reflections, teach, pass on the tradition, and use big words that show my classical seminary education; after all, that education formed me and shaped me into who I am.  For that, I am thankful.  But I am also here to learn in the school of God’s love, to expand the boundaries of my heart as it encounters the face of your journey and soul. If our life as disciples along the way can once again become the Church’s life, then we need not worry about the trends; we need not worry about the shift; we need only embrace the reformation of our souls.

 

Such is the call of Lent, the call to give something up.  It is the call to journey with each other in our lives, following the strange and wondrous calling of our Lord Jesus Christ.   Thanks be to God for sacred people and places of honesty and hope.  Thanks be to God that when you’ve been ordained as long as I have, you remember that the definition of “Church” does not begin with a fancy word, and certainly not the word “priest.” It begins with the word “community.”  We need each other. 

 


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