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|This page last updated 15 April 2007|
Our Piece of the Puzzle
15 December 2000
The future of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion seems to many to be a puzzle with several missing pieces, as it were. Threats of schism, the uncertain ecumenical scene, and the indifference of society to the institutional church, among other things, cloud the picture of what is yet to come. We do not know whether things will turn out well or not. In some quarters (though certainly not all), there is high anxiety.
For the Rest of Us, who do not minister in the rarefied atmosphere of Lambeth Conference and Primates’ Meeting, our piece of the puzzle that we hold is no mystery, however. It is the biggest piece by far, in any event. It holds the key to the future. It is to do the work of the church, and do it better.
We have several well–known descriptions of this work of the church. One way to define it is to make, nurture, and send forth disciples of Jesus (Matt 28:19-20), so that we might “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP 855). The diocese and the national structures exist only to enable our parishes and missions to fulfill this mission, and to start more in order to increase the church’s capacity to do yet more work.
While it is certainly true that for Episcopalians the local church is the diocese, the fact is that most of the work of the diocese gets done in its parishes and missions. The bishop’s ministry connects your church and mine to the universal church, and this is essential. But before people get confirmed and ordained, they first become ministering Christians in little communities like your church and mine that dot the neighborhoods, towns, cities, and counties of our land.
Think of your congregation, Gentle Reader. It may be large or small or “just right.” It may be young or old or middle-aged. There we worship the God of the Scriptures, in the rhythms of the Prayer Book and Church Year. There the Gospel is proclaimed and God’s praises sung. There the faith is taught, and people are equipped for their unique individual ministries to the neighborhood, town, city, county, the world. You and I find healing in our church for our ills, our pain, and our grief. To that familiar font we bring our children to make the baptismal covenant and discover the transformation of the Spirit. In front of the altar that we gaze at so often, couples make the covenant of marriage. Before it we at last lie in death, our lives changed, not ended.
You and I complain how much those buildings cost to maintain, but so much good happens within their walls. Of course, the work of the church spills over into private homes as well. After Sunday morning, God’s people gather for more work. Your church—no matter how small—has a school of some sort, where the faith is passed on to the next generation, awaiting Christ’s return. Young people gather for fun and teaching. Adults too take classes of various sorts, studying everything from the Bible to making a budget. Many parishes have a nursery or day school as well.
In our congregations, people gather to pray, whether informally or in the cadences of the Daily Office. The poor are fed, clothed, counseled, and on their behalf an army of their advocates work from the churches. In those buildings, addicts take together the steps that can lead them out of bondage into new freedom. Support groups of all kinds meet to see people through various crises. In your church as well as mine, we sponsor concerts, plays, lectures, art shows and other events to enrich the people of the whole community.
You can add lots more details that make up the special unique life of your church. But there is also more that we do in common. We elect our bishop, the symbol of unity beyond our walls. Our elected representatives also serve on the ruling bodies of the diocese. From our parishes come the people, lay and clergy, who, with the bishops we have chosen, do the work of the Episcopal Church at the national level. Furthermore, every deacon and priest once had a church to raise them up, help them discern their ministry, and present them to the bishop and diocese for ordination.
Obviously, the biggest piece of the puzzle of our future lies in the life and work of our congregations. The Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meetings, the General Convention, even our diocesan conventions—how often do they really affect the life of your church? In our pews is where the shape of the future is to be found. The sap first proceeds from the roots to the top of the tree, before it comes back down again.
People who want to see the Episcopal Church change (in whatever direction) need to convince the Episcopalians of the neighborhoods, towns, cities, counties—the real Episcopal Church, in other words. The most important issue for dioceses and General Conventions is how to help our parishes and missions become ever more effective in making, nurturing, sending forth disciples to do the ministry of healing and reconciliation for which the whole creation groans. This cannot be done by fiat of prelate or canon law, or by organizing a pressure group. It can only happen one person at a time, beginning with me, and then with you. The better we equip individual Episcopalians for their unique ministries, the richer and more attractive our congregations’ life will be. Then we will send even stronger delegates to conventions and fitter candidates for ordination. This is turn will further strengthen and deepen the lives of our churches.
If our congregations help us Episcopalians become more faithful, more hopeful, more loving in doing the work of the church, our future is no ambiguous puzzle to make us anxious. It will be secure and satisfying, bringing us ever more joy as we share Christ together and then take Christ to the world around us. For the most part, the greatest part, the future lies in our hands.
Fr Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this essay. You can write to him at email@example.com.