Monday, July 20, 2015

All Religion is Local

Vie de Jesus Mafa, The Transfiguration
If "all politics are local," as the old adage goes, it's probably equally true that "all religion is local." Or at least we tend to behave as if that were true.  The day-in and day-out of parish life persuades us that the way we do things in our parish is normative for others in our tribe, such as the Episcopal Church.  The way we worship, the language we use, the hymns and music we sing, the way we run our meetings.  Now, even if we don't assent intellectually to this idea, we can often act unconsciously as if OUR way is THE way. We assume quite innocently that this is just how Episcopalians (or Lutherans, or Baptists) do things.  But religion is, at its heart, deeply contextual.

Bishop Lee installs the new vicar.  Photo from Br. Ron Fox.
Which is why I'm really grateful to gather on occasion with other Episcopalians to be reminded that I am part of a community much larger than what I know and do.  Over the last four days, I've been to three different Episcopal congregations to either lead or participate in worship. What is remarkable to me is the way that each of these communities of faith--as unique as they are--embodies the concept of the Church, with a capital "C."  As member congregations of the Diocese of Chicago, all three are firmly rooted in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, despite the great variety and diversity of worship styles and cultural contexts.  It can be a wonderful experience to be thrown off kilter, pushed out of our comfort zones, and be invited into something unexpected.

On Thursday evening, I participated in the installation of my dear friend, Fr. Robert Cristobal, as vicar of St. George and St. Matthias Episcopal Church, an historically African American and Afro-Caribbean congregation on the south side of Chicago.  Much of the music was unfamiliar to me, and I noticed several visitors surprised by the exuberant engagement of the congregation with the preacher during his sermon.  And yet, here was the fullness of the Anglican tradition: the bishop, the Eucharist, the Book of Common Prayer, clergy and people of the Diocese worshipping together as one.  It was beautiful and joyous, compelling and powerful.

Chicago Chapter-in-Formation of the Society of Catholic Priests
On Saturday morning, I gathered with other members of the Chicago Chapter-in-Formation of the Society of Catholic Priests at the Church of the Atonement, Chicago for a Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary, followed by the chapter meeting.  The service was a solid Rite II Eucharist from the Book of Common Prayer with the usual Atonement embellishments. We shared our latest news over brown-bag lunches, talked about the contributions we could make to the life of the Diocese, and engaged in a theological reflection based on the words of the new Presiding Bishop-Elect, Michael Curry.  On Sunday, I drove out into rural/suburban Kane County to celebrate Mass with St. James Episcopal Church in West Dundee, IL, which, as a rural parish, was preparing for its upcoming Rogation celebration.  It had been several years since I had done a Rite I Eucharist, and so I tripped over the King James English, which had at one time been so familiar.  Of course, their customs for celebrating the Eucharist differed a bit from mine, and we laughed over the imperfections and miscommunications we committed, such as when the server failed to do the ablutions after communion, and I forgot to return to the chancel following the dismissal for the announcements. We are all a product of our patterns, our routines, our contexts.

St. James window in West Dundee
I picture for myself the scene at Jesus's Transfiguration.  Matthew 17 records that right after Jesus appears transfigured in dazzling white, flanked by Moses and Elijah, "Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’"  One cannot help but wonder what Peter would have come up with if he had been allowed to build those dwellings.  Would they have all been identical?  Would Jesus, Moses, or Elijah have had any say in what their dwellings looked liked, how they were laid out, or how they were decorated?  Would James and John have been included in the design and building?  Would the three apostles have divided up the work and each taken responsibility for one of these dwellings?  Would they have fought for creative control or would they have collaborated harmoniously?

As it happens, each of them is credited with building a version of the Church in various places, all of which look very different from each other.  These apostles too understood that the Church is contextual, shaped by the unique identities, experiences and situations of the people in a particular time and place.  The lesson for us is to embrace the possibility that the Church can look and behave differently than we are used to, and yet we can find a place for ourselves in this new and unfamiliar incarnation of the Body of Christ.

Peace and blessings,
Fr. Ethan.+


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