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“How do we live as God’s church, now?” A reflection. by the Rev. Jason A. Fout, PhD

The following paper was written by the Rev. Dr. Jason A. Fout, associate professor of anglican theology at Bexley Seabury and co-editor of the Anglican Theological Review. It was written in conversation with the Partnership’s canon theologian the Rev. John Downey and several other members of clergy.

Since the middle of March we’ve all become accustomed to a “new normal” with the COVID-19 quarantine, various partial levels of re-opening of society – and what may soon be a closing down again. Social distancing, face masks, and arguing over face masks, have become commonplace; six months ago they were unknown. We have, most of us, gone without in-person worship services since well before Easter. Recommendations, best practices, and medical guidance have been fast-changing. This is as one would expect, but still difficult to take.

I’ve been listening to quite a few of my clergy colleagues over these last weeks and months, especially when they are in groups, and I’m quite struck by what I hear. More than a few of them speak with what sounds, on the surface, like courage and optimism: “We’re doing fine!”; “We’re getting visitors to our services we never would have met otherwise!”; “See, we never needed that building anyway!” Several even speak with an impatience about their parishioners, who may be upset by the change and are eager to go back to “normal”. I’m no longer surprised by priests who claim that they are busier now than before the pandemic hit.

But I wonder. As I reflect on it, this seems more like denial, avoidance, and a good bit of over-functioning. One friend admitted “I’m so tired. I just want to go back to my church.” Another protested that “ministry is all about relationships. It’s impossible to have a relationship via Zoom. And I am prohibited from connecting with new people in new settings. This is really hard.” The truth is, whether we can admit it to each other or not, many of us are feeling vulnerable and in a precarious situation; we can’t clearly see our future and the present seems to be constantly shifting under our feet. We want to provide leadership, but we might be having trouble managing our own anxiety.

This is all layered on top of a longstanding but subtle malaise about pastoral ministry we’ve lived with for some time: Andrew Root, in his book The Pastor in a Secular Age, drawing on the work of philosopher Charles Taylor, tells the story of the evolution of pastoral ministry over two millennia.[1] It’s a detailed story, well told, but the upshot of it for our purposes is that we live in a secular age: in terms of what Taylor calls the “social imaginary”, belief in God is personal and purely optional. This is a problem, not least because it raises questions about how the church may speak about divine action in a meaningful way. Instead, those in pastoral ministry are increasingly seen as anachronistic, irrelevant, perhaps only a step up from a costumed medieval reenactor in a summer Renaissance fair. And so we feel increasing pressure to become therapists, community organizers, entrepreneurs, social workers, or CEOs growing (or maintaining) the business.

Again, this is a problem for all baptized Christians, but rather pointedly for those of us responsible for preaching, worship, sacraments, teaching, and everything else we are charged with in our ordination. To be plain, we do not preach ourselves, but Christ crucified. The gospel of Jesus Christ and what God has done in and through him is what sustains the church. In a setting where talk of God is by its very nature considered either suspect or purely personal, it may feel as if we are cut off at the knees.

We might feel that challenge especially sharply right now.

We might find that we have a few members who aren’t really missing corporate worship very much, or even the life of faith itself. Church was an occasional pastime rather than a function of a deeply held faith or growing relationship with God in Christ. How can we be a credible witness to God?

We might find that we yearn to be able to lament to God (as NT Wright suggests in an essay in Time Magazine, for example). But perhaps we can only talk about “lament” in the abstract, for fear of seeming unintelligible to others – and in that omission, leave out the crucial aspect of what we propose to do.

We might also miss out on something too. I’ve been finding some of what the theologian Sam Wells says helpful here. In his book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics[2]  he sets out a perspective on how the church might “become a community of trust in order that it may faithfully encounter the unknown of the future without fear…. In new and often challenging circumstances.” (11, 12) He draws on concepts of improvisational theatre as an analogy for how the church might live faithfully in a world it doesn’t control. Rather than needing to be in power and make everything work out – which is a tempting fantasy not just for the church but for humanity in general but also leads to the kind of overfunctioning and anxiety we’ve seen – Christians are to attend to their own story and practices, seeing in them keys to their own deep formation. This doesn’t mean retreating into unchanging rules, or grasping for false certainties. It does mean finding ourselves most deeply in Scripture, worship, and prayer, and trusting that such faithful engagement with God forms us to live in such a world.

There is much in what Wells says that could be useful to us, but I’ll focus on one distinction he makes. We take most of what we have to respond to in life as “givens” that we have to accept: we are limited by death, sin, the limits of our body and health, and so on, and these are the serious sorts of things with which we contend, as individuals and communities. (125) COVID-19 might seem like such a given. These are the difficulties that much of conventional ethics tries to address.  Responding to these adequately implies having sufficient knowledge and control in hand to make everything turn out all right. (Of course, this is rarely if ever the case.)

Wells suggests instead that there is only one true given: God and what God has done for the world, what we call the gospel. Everything else is not a given, but a gift. When we are faced with a gift, we actively accept it, asking ourselves what we can make of it in light of what is given. We consider these gifts – from COVID-19 and mortality, to Black Lives Matter, to scarce resources to meet a diocesan budget — in light of the given of God and the gospel, and working to receive this gift and use it in such a way that it becomes part of the story told about the real given.

Part of the value of this is that we realize it isn’t all up to us: the most important things of all (creation, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ) have already been taken care of and cannot be nullified. We are free then to embrace our finitude, our imperfections, and not be fooled into thinking it’s somehow all up to us. We are freed from needing to make it all work out! We are also freed to try something, however modest, to be faithful to what is given, as we seek to respond to the gifts we face.

In working to respond to gifts in light of the only true given, we transform fate (a false given) into destiny (which is a gift). (126)

[1] Andrew Root, The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2019.

[2] Grand Rapids: Baker. Reissue Ed. 2018