Saint John's in the Village

An Episcopal Church, where in the name of Christ you are always welcome


By The Rev'd Richard A. Norris
Professor, Union Theological Seminary

When Bishop Grein asked me to speak on this occasion, he suggested that I say something about my "vision" of the church for a new millennium. This, needless to say, gave me pause, for I am not, as far as I have been able to determine, a visionary. Amos once said, I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son, meaning by those words that he was not a professional soothsayer, but a mere amateur, a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees upon whom God had laid the responsibility to carry a special message. Well, I am not even an amateur prophet, like Amos, for God has not as far as I know assigned me any special message to bear, and neither for that matter has the Bishop of New York. I must therefore speak simply for myself, and for what I am: an ordinary teacher and interpreter of the Christian "thing."

I am bound to say further that my personal take on human affairs tends normally to be less than dramatic. There are people who perceive a crisis in almost every turn of events, and to their insights the world is frequently much indebted. Nevertheless -- and of course you will understand that this is a mere prejudice of mine - such an outlook has always struck me as a journalistic habit of mind, born of the need to buy attention with one's headlines. I tend - wrongly, perhaps -- in the other direction, and am most impressed by the ordinariness and dailiness of things. When the millennium dawns, I am sure that my first thought will not be a question about what wonderful or terrible thing is about to happen as a result of the progress of the second-hand on my watch: no, it will probably be a question about what there is for breakfast.

You will understand, therefore, that what I am about to say does not qualify as visionary, but concerns the present in the first instance, and the future only because it is the very next thing, today's tomorrow; and further you will appreciate why the issue I am addressing -- mission or "evangelism" -- is an ordinary and daily issue that has a certain dull, bread-and-butter quality about it. In my eyes, that is what makes it important.

Before one can address the issue proper, however, one has to consider the body that carries out this "mission" and the context in which it is carried out: our church, if you will, and our world. Of course the Episcopal Church - and, I suspect, Anglicanism generally -- has always had a hard time distinguishing between church and world, since we come of an establishmentarian tradition that has tacitly taught us to perceive the church as, roughly speaking, the world at prayer - as a dimension, the religious dimension, of a nation or society. This attitude, however, creates a habit of mind that in our time and place is sometimes embarrassing.

There was of course an era when it made some sense: a time when it was generally assumed that Christianity was everyone's religion, even if relatively few people took it with undue seriousness -- a time indeed when in this country Protestant Christianity was unquestionably the "establishment," culturally if not politically speaking. But it is so no longer; and that, moreover, is not merely, or even principally, because of religious differentiation, i.e., because there are Roman Catholics and Jews everywhere, not to mention Buddhists down the street and Islam around the comer. The real cause lies at a deeper level: namely, that in wide swathes of this culture of ours religious heritages are on the whole "out," even if religious practices of one sort or another remain on the whole "in," frequently in the form of what is called "spirituality." And the reasons for all this have to be sought in the culture that defines what we experience as our "world" -- the world whose chaplain the Episcopal Church has always sought to be. There are two particular aspects of that culture which are important here -- aspects of what for buzz-word purposes we can call post-modernity.

The first of these is that traditional American -- and to some extent western-- individualism has taken on a new quality or a new dimension. Americans have always valued independence or self-reliance, and indeed we raise our children to exercise it, both in relation to their parents and in relation to all other embodiments of authority. Further, Americans have traditionally had a deep concern for the rights of the individual before the law (though I sometimes fear this concern is fading). Nowadays, however, this traditional individualism has, like those old Ninja Turtles, mutated so as to include a perception of the individual as an unique assemblage of needs -- for recognition, for self-expression, for fulfillment of "potential," for health -- that can claim a right to be satisfied. This, I think, is what one means in the last resort by the observation that ours is a "consumer" society. Consumerism is not just the habit of shopping addictively for the latest fashion in clothing or computers; or the belief that such shopping is what makes the world go 'round. Rather is it a perception of the cosmos as a sort of shopping-mall, in which there is something for everyone, whether in the form of "things" or in the form of ideas, activities, or skills. In such a society, I must of course know, or decide, what my needs are -- what vocation to follow, how to express my inner self in clothing, what sort of person I want to have a permanent relationship with; and then I have the right to expect that there shall be, in the grand cosmic mall, a way of satisfying them. So we all think: and that is individualistic consumerism, which only the thoughtless could label as simply or necessarily "materialistic." In the end, it is a perception of the world as a device for the satisfaction of individual human needs, or at least of "felt needs."

But there is a second dimension of this culture of ours -- a dimension which, when wedded to our individualistic consumerism, lends a very distinctive quality to the world of modernity, and indeed of post-modernity. It is a certain attitude with which we approach the world of nature, the world of social relations, and indeed our very selves. I call it the engineering attitude; others, more precise perhaps than I, have called it technocratic. I tend to avoid the latter word, because by using it one can give the impression that technology as such is the problem; but that is not the point. The problem is the reduction of the world around us -- and even of ourselves as we look at ourselves -- to objects that can be manipulated to suit our aims. The world is composed of "things," then, that have no meaning in their own right, but only the meaning we assign them in the activity of making them over. The engineering attitude, in short, sees the world as something that is to be made, remade, and made over for the sake of the fulfillment of human --and individual human -- needs. Otherwise put, it consists in the attitude that we are in control: that we are able, or ought to be able, to make of the world what we please, if only we can come up with the right techniques, just as a child can mold plastic putty to whatever shape she desires.

Now in this modern and post-modern world, there continues to be talk of God, of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, of religion, and prayer, and the like. Indeed the talk is very widespread, and in sections of our world, even popular. This talk may sound, from time to time, a little odd to traditionalist ears, but it is not always easy to put one's finger on the oddity and define what it is. What it seems to amount to, however, can be stated in general terms: it has to do with the way in which God, and all these other things, are necessarily located in a world of the sort we have been looking at. From the point of view of consumerist individualism, they are items available for appropriation (let us not say "purchase") in the great Mall: they are products which profess to satisfy needs and contribute to a fulfilling program of individual self-development -- products that come highly recommended and that are well worth trying if you like that sort of thing. (People who have a religious faith, The New York Times tells us reassuringly, recover from heart-attacks more frequently than others.) From the point of view of the world-engineer, they are modifiable objects that can, like a suit of clothes, be cut to fit our needs or desires, being in this respect just like redwood trees, petroleum, the constitution of the sovereign state of New York, and my "public image."

And now perhaps it is possible to see and to say why die traditional Anglican approach to the relation of church and world might lead to confusion and embarrassment: or, to put the issue more constructively, why Anglicans need to think more carefully and more deeply about simple and obvious matters like mission and evangelism. Can Anglican churches continue to play their traditional role as chaplains to the established order of things when the order of things is based on tacit assumptions -- let us say dogmas -- that displace God and indeed reduce God to the level of an idol? Can they come to honest terms with that world until they ask in what respects it is and in what respects it is not licit to treat nature, human persons, and the Deity as the objects of "policies" that we evolve for our own purposes?

And just to keep the questions going: Are God, say, Jesus, and the sacraments "products" that the church creates and then sells? Perhaps so. And if they don't sell do we then engage in a bit of serious market-research and bring out new models? And if not, why not? I walk into Barnes & Noble, and there lies another interesting new book which exhorts people to get rid of old-fashioned dogmas about God and Jesus, say, and come up with pictures -- not dogmas, you will note - that meet "our" needs more adequately. This is nothing more than a request for the theological equivalent of "the Caddy that zigs." Is there something wrong with having a God that zigs? On the other hand, who are we to make God over? Can something that we make over be God, in any serious sense of that term?

In this setting, then, the church -- or churches -- are bound to question whether they can if they value honesty and authenticity, play according to the rules of the going cultural game. No doubt there are "adjustments," as we delicately say, that have to be made to the realities of the churches' situation; and no doubt too -- and I would say this with some emphasis -- there is something true that churches can learn from this as from any other human culture (after all, Christians and their churches helped to generate this "world" of ours). Once that is said, however, it must also be clear that churches have to resist the temptation to function as organizations or corporations whose business it is to provide people with what might be called religious resources: "five weeks to a meaningful mystical experience;" "wellness through prayer;" "manageable morals for adolescents." I have said elsewhere, and I repeat here: the church is not - and cannot be if it is honest -- a corporation with stockholders, managers, employees and customers; nor can it define its "mission" as the provision of whatever product it is that increases customer numbers and loyalty. To us, the church often looks like such an organization, because that is often in fact the sort of organization that dominates and indeed symbolizes our world. We even tend to envisage government on that model. Nevertheless, the church is different: it has members, which no corporation has; and above all it is not free-standing and self-generating. It exists in relation to -- and only in relation to -- a reality of which it seeks to be the collective and communal "minister."

Let us say, then, that in the first instance the aim of the church's evangelism, is to bring people into a certain relationship: a relationship with God, a relationship represented by Christ and shared with Christ, and a relationship empowered and sustained by the Holy Spirit. That is the name of the game: to be a member of the church is, very simply, to stand in that relationship, the relationship in which baptism sets one.

But that is only the beginning of the story. For the body - the assembly - the church that evangelism thus creates has a mission: a mission whose character is, in its fundamental shape, dictated precisely by that relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit. In the Gospel of Matthew, moreover, there is an interesting word used for the people who share this relationship: they are said to be folk who have been made disciples . The risen Christ tells his disciples to make disciples: not to save souls, not to make the world safe for democracy , not to sell useful or meaningful religious notions and devices, but to make disciples. And what I propose for a moment to do is to ask what it might mean for the church's mission if we thought of it as a people whose members are disciples.

The first thing to be said about disciples is of course that they are followers. The image of following Christ is regular in the gospels; and oddly enough it returns in the Book of Acts, where what we call "Christianity" is simply and straightforwardly called "the way," or "this way," and the suggestion is that people walk in it or follow it. Then of course in the Gospel of John, Christ himself is said to be "the way" to be followed: and the following of him is said to lead disciples, in the end, to the "place," if that is the right word, where Christ himself has gone before. That "way," then, is surely what we call, in what is by now unfortunately a dead metaphor, a "way of life," and a path to be followed: and to follow it is to walk with Christ.

But if disciples are "followers," they are also learners, or better, perhaps, apprentices. In our experience, apprenticeship is not so uncommon a phenomenon as our habitual disuse of the word might suggest. Great musical performers will sometimes tell of the teachers from whom they learned not just their techniques but also much of the spirit and style of their playing: and when they do so they are describing an apprenticeship, however conducted, a relationship in which, by attending to and imitating a master of their skill, they learned to do it well -- perhaps even superbly -- themselves. My grandfather was a first-rate plumber, and even as he was going about his work, he would remember the practice and teaching of the man he had learned his trade from. Apprenticeship, then, is a walking in a way, a following, but it is also a learning-process, in which a skill is reproduced, but reproduced in a new way and a new life and new circumstances.

What skill is it, though, that followers, apprentices, disciples of the Christ are in the business of learning? It is not a particular vocational skill, like playing the violin or being a high-class CPA or running a restaurant; nor is it a serious hobby in the way that, for most people, skill at golf is -- or at chess or at the cultivation of orchids. It is skill in the kinds of wisdom, discernment, deportment, and action that enable people to do what Jesus did: to let the promise of God's justice, of God's reign; show - gleam, shine, if only briefly -- in this world of ours. In his healings, his teaching, his proclamation, Jesus fashioned signs, portents, anticipatory "showings," of God's reign: his life was a manifestation and an enactment of God's "new thing," confirmed and fulfilled by his resurrection. This skill of which we are speaking, then, is not a program or a policy or a sentiment, though it may be embodied, at a given time, in any of these. It does not take one form but many, in accordance with people's differing temperaments, circumstances, jobs, problems, relationships. It is not easy to describe, but when it occurs it startles and creates wonder and evokes thanks and summons love. People might even, when they see it want to learn it themselves.

But there are two essential things to be added here, and carefully noted. First of all, discipleship is a way of learning and growth. I have sometimes thought that one of the great virtues of the Gospels is the way in which, as they construct their pictures of Jesus, they portray his disciples: who, like most apprentices most of the time, are constantly getting things wrong, failing to see the point of what the master says, committing intolerable gaffes, and finally, it would seem, running away in despair. That perceptive if fanatically single-minded heretic Marcion did not see how people like that could possibly be trusted: the apostles, he thought, with the sole exception of Paul, were unworthy of respect because they obviously lived in a state of uninterrupted incomprehension. And perhaps he was right, at least to a degree: perfection is not normally an attribute of learners, not even of the ones who chance to get A-'s; and the expectation of, or demand for, perfection, for an ideal "finished product," will always be disappointed. The church, then, as a body of disciples, is a collection of students, and it always has a lot to learn. There is a tendency, as one can hardly help noticing, for people to think that once someone "goes to church," as we say, all righteousness is fulfilled. In fact, that is only a start on the pilgrimage of discipleship.

It follows, then, that the church's mission -- to enact in this world of ours a way of life and to engage in action that lets God's "new thing" show -- has a special and peculiar character. It is rather like an attempt to perform the script of a play or a musical score -- in this case, the script or the score of God's Kingdom; but the people making this attempt are, as we can see by just looking around us or peering in a mirror, amateurs, apprentices -- in a word, disciples. They carry learner's permits only, and what their performance amounts to is always nothing more than a rehearsal - a practice session. But then some things are infinitely worth practising; and even when they don't quite come off, they are better than most things that do come off. As G.K. Chesterton once said, "If a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing badly." That is a paradox, but it is not a joke.

But at this point perhaps it is useful to look back for one final minute. If "evangelism" means introducing people into the life of discipleship, and if "mission" means living that life out as pilgrims chasing the promise of God's Reign and therefore as apprentices in the world to the Word of God, then there is a genuine conflict between the mood of our post-modern consumerist culture and the culture of the people of God. One thing they have in common, to be sure: both are engaged in a search, a search for human fulfillment. The way, however, in which this search is pursued differs profoundly from the one to the other. The culture of consumerism is in the business of refashioning the world to suit its "needs," hopes, and ambitions. The culture of the people of God encourages people to reshape themselves and their society in the light of God's promise in Christ, and to recall their world to what God intends by it and is making of it. The one answers to nothing save itself; the other responds to God's call in hope and faith and therefore, however tentatively, tries to live out God's justice. The one -- to use a current buzzword -- knows no ultimately significant other; the other lives out a relationship to an Other that is the very source of its life, its energy, its boldness.

These paths are, then, in many ways mutually inconsistent, and it is foolish not to acknowledge the fact. This is not to say that they cannot communicate: that Christian believers do not and should not experience the doubt that always accompanies faith, or recognize that the mood of the culture at large lives in them too. Neither should they refuse to acknowledge the daring faith that this consumerist culture represents: a faith that we human beings are for better or worse the sole masters of things, that "religion" and "God" and all that are our dreams and our creations, and useful in the same way as anti-biotics and automatic coffee-makers - that is, to the extent that they serve our ends, allay our fears, foster our "health," and make us "feel good." But our God, as someone has said, is a "consuming fire" and cannot be absorbed into the object-world of modernity, or post-modernity for that matter, there to be manipulated at will.

Hence as Christians even Episcopalians have something to learn in the role of disciples. As individuals and communities, we are in training, like apprentices, and -- also like apprentices -- our training is connected to practice -- or I would better say practicing, learning to move in rhythm with the creative and redeeming Word of God. And the question that arises is what this might mean, demand, require, if it is to be done decently.

Everywhere one goes in the world -- and this is no effect of either modernity or post-modernity: it is merely human -- one finds people believing that everything is finally settled, or else demanding that it shall be. Personally speaking, I have always found this attitude an odd one, for experience on every hand contradicts the belief and turns down the demand. No doubt a few things are fairly well settled: there are, says Paul, faith in God, hope in God, and love for God growing out of the knowledge of Christ and the gift of the Spirit; but still, he insists that our knowledge is imperfect, and more than that, that now we see by way of a mirror in an enigma. We can look forward to the day when we shall know deeply even as we are deeply known; but that day is not yet, and it will come when our thinking and acting accord with God, when we are finally "with it." In short the church in its mission is engaged upon a project, an enterprise -- not its own, but God's, begun in creation and continued in the incarnation of the Word; and the end will come with God's "new thing," which the body of apprentices called "church" is learning to be and to do. Everything is not settled, then. There are things to learn, truths to embody (for that is the way truths are genuinely known, after all), places to go. And this is the first requirement of mission: that we be prepared to learn, to move, to grow. God may love us just as we are (as it is currently fashionable to say); but God nevertheless expresses that love by nourishing us so that we may grow and wax fat and become other than "just as we are." Face it.

But the second requirement of mission -- and of the learning and growth it brings with it -- is that the church, or better, the churches, equip themselves to enable people's learning and growth. It seems to me, however, that we are ill-served in this regard. Churches -- even Episcopalian churches -- are pretty good at various sorts of therapeutic activities, from soup kitchens for the hungry to counseling for the troubled. They are not, however, so good at enabling people to grow in their apprenticeship: in understanding their faith - this relationship to God that is called "new covenant" -- more deeply; in putting it to work in community and family and workplace more wisely and discerningly; and in appropriating it more fully in prayer.

One important reason for this, I suspect, is that we need one another's help in this business of mission and on the whole do not get it. Few if any parishes or congregations are equipped to be "complete" churches; that, I take it, is why we are Episcopalians and not Congregationalists -- at least in principle. If then the church is to be a school of apprentices in the living out of the Gospel, something needs to be done about the lack of real connection between congregations and the lack of what I think of as the circulation of talent among congregations and other church institutions. When I consider all the variety of talents and gifts represented just in this room, I wonder what would happen if we actually made optimal use of them. We need to hear from each other and learn from each other -- not busily and dramatically but quietly and soberly and systematically.

To be parochial, to be sure, is human. People need places where they belong and where things are familiar. One of the reasons why they need such places, however, is precisely because the security such places provide makes learning and the growth and change it brings easier. How then can we organize -- not the diocesan administration, bless its heart, but the parishes, religious orders, schools -- so that when need arises, there are networks that can bring needed knowledge and skills and leadership to the places where they are in fact wanted? How do clergy and laity alike learn to think of themselves as belonging to something larger than their -- probably small--congregations, and as needing and being prepared to help and be helped in the church's carrying out of its many-dimensioned mission? The Diocese of New York takes great pride in its diversity, and reasonably so. But what is the point of this diversity if all we do is contemplate it and clap? The point of being diverse -- and we are diverse in more ways than we recognize -- is that we are able to teach one another, complement one another, and indeed sometimes compensate for one another. Diversity, in a word, is a resource for mission, an occasion for learning, and a stimulus to growth in discipleship. Surely it can be put to work. 

© 1998 The Rev'd Richard A. Norris