On Bulletins

Penelope at One Can Not Have Too Large a Party (How True!) asks about the use of putting everything in the Sunday Bulletin.

I’m for it.  The arguments against it are trivial.

It was once a serious issue in my congregation.  I had started, over time, to include more information in our weekly bulletin.  Initially it was simply the responses of the congregation.  Then I included more of the priest text.  Soon, the hymns.  Announcements.

No papers flying about.  No need to juggle books and worry about choosing the right one.  Ushers freed from handing out the various additional hymnals when we needed them.  We included sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop.  We could use more from the Book of Occasional Services.  It was full, and comprehensive.  Like Anglican and Catholic Christianity should be.

Of course, this caused a little consternation.  Our bulletins have become fairly thick, including the lessons, ministry schedules and announcements.    But of course, quietly, a few asked why we didn’t use the Book of Common Prayer or the hymnal any more (although we often still did for non-Sunday worship), and more complained about the destruction of large forests for the sake of the priest’s pride.  “We’ll help people who are visiting” they would assert confidently.

The sentiment was generous, but I’d never seen it happen.

The central question I posed back to them: what do recent members and visitors think?  Has it made worship more comfortable for them?  Did they come to our congregation because they wanted to become more familiar with the books?  Or were they coming to be a part of a hospitable, welcoming community?  Most of the few individuals who raised the questions about the bulletin were people who grew up in the church.  After many years of formation, the seasoned don’t experience our service the same way visitors and seeker do.  I’d change it back if that’s what our recent members desired.

Some enjoy learning the intricacies of worship and its complexity.  But a service that is too obscure can also be an unnecessary stumbling bloc to individuals looking for a community or a spiritual home.  So my criteria for analyzing whether a bulletin should be complete, is to first learn what the new members think.

And let’s face it:  saving paper is a ridiculous criteria.  Perhaps once we’ve given up seating meat twice a week; forgone air travel; started walking or riding our bike as a primary transportation, then we can get all fussy about paper. Download it on an ereader!  But until then, it seems to be miserliness masked as righteousness; a sacrificing of hospitality for some reason that cannot be fathomed.

But there are three challenges a full bulletin does not accomplish on its own.

A full bulletin is merely one example of hospitality.  But it cannot, on its own, overcome a parish that does not really want to grow.  It comes out of a generous spirit; it does not create it. It cannot hide it.

A full bulletin cannot mask rushed, incompetent, or lazy worship.  Worship that does not allow for some silence and reverence; that has cringe worthy music and singing; and includes dull, tepid and inauthentic preaching; will not be aided by a comprehensive bulletin, even if it is illuminated by hand by a order of monks with gold leaf.

Having a complete bulletin also does not excuse any pastor from teaching, in some fashion, the tradition.  We should be actively, continuously, repeatedly, be helping people explore their relationship with the transcendent using the many practices at our disposal, whether it be the symbols we hold, the words we read, or the prayers we say.  Those who want to learn about the Daily Office, about asperges and anointing, church seasons and colors, should be offered those opportunities.  And certainly, we can deepen people’s spirituality as best we can, so that they do not need even the bulletin or the BCP.  They can just look up, around, and participate in the liturgy by simply lifting their hearts to God, and learning to listen.

But we do this in steps.  Certainly do not skimp on strong worship; work hard on your sermons; love the stranger.  As you have done these these, you will find a complete bulletin will be a useful tool for everyone.

A Workshop

For some, the road to conversion is quick, immediate, unmediated. Angels appear in the sky; a voice is spoken; if lucky, we hear.

But for some of us, the road has been less direct.  There is also deconversion, a leaving behind and a reconsideration of the past; hesitations as we progress.  We stumble.  The signs along the road reveal themselves to have a multiplicity of meanings.  Although we engage in the sacraments and practice the pieties, the conviction moves between disinterest and passion.

My own conversion, a slow turning into the tradition, came less though an immediate experience of the transcendent (although I’ve had a few).  It was enhanced and guided through the steady reading of a rigorous literary tradition.  Cultural critics such as Christopher Lasch, Marshall McCluhan, and Neil Postman; poets like Robert Browning and WH Auden; novelists Marilynne Robinson and Annie Dillard -are just a few writers who have led me to this well spring that I now inhabit.  This, combined with the social gospel tradition, has kept my interest.  And throughout my working life as a priest I’ve sought writers who wrote beyond the easy caricatures or archetypes of cast before us in culture, as this atheist author describes the work of Marilynne Robinson in the New Yorker.

Certainly I was primed in my house by combination of progressive politics, literature and poetry; and I was not hindered or overwhelmed by any sort of institutional abuse that rendered me unable to hear what was said. This journey as someone who trusts the tradition, as “a person of faith,” has sometimes seemed solitary.  My family is content with the blessings of secularism, samsara and sensuality, and for them I am glad.  They remain wary, for good reason, of American Christianity’s provinciality, a small-mindedness I’m eager to break.

In this context I recently participated in the Glen Workshop at Mount Holyoke College.  It’s organized by Image Journal, a literary magazine that comes out of Seattle Pacific University.   It’s focus: arts and faith in the tradition of Religious Humanism – especially as framed by an incarnational theology as traditionally described in the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican traditions, but with a broad appeal across the ecumenical spectrum.

I took a class on memoir taught by Lauren Winner, who demonstrated generosity, depth and insight as a teacher.  She explained how the practice of writing is a way of discerning the truth; of uncovering our self-deception; of challenging and owning our fragility.  Seeming to address my own most immediate concern, she clarified how memoir is not autobiography.  It’s a task, a story, written from a first person perspective.   The narrator is a character; and not necessarily the protagonist.   These short nuggets of wisdom are not exhaustive.  Certainly each one deserves its own comment.

Of course, a good part of the course was listening to the wisdom and insight of the class.  The workshop provided some space for us to explore difficult transitions and conflicts with people who were magnanimous.  We took each other seriously – not that we didn’t share in laughter – but we knew that we were in a space of trust, where people could receive and speak criticism in order to sharpen our work.

Gregory Wolfe has gathered exceptional writers and teachers who are seriously engaged in the tradition of Christian Humanism.  I would suggest to anyone active in the church and the arts consider the Glen Workshop.  It’s one I will look forward to participating on a regular basis, even if not as a workshop, but as a retreat.

I also met a number of remarkable people.  Here are a few who blog: Katie Leigh, Rosie Perera, Kristen Writes, and Kari, to name some with whom I will be linking.

I mistakenly called it a “conference,” to an eight year old.  My friend Katy’s daughter, Olivia, then asked me if the conference was boring.  She then asked me if they had waterslides.  Which they did not. Such a lack did not severely disengage me from the workshop and most likely I would have been to shy  to try it out if they had them.

One of the poets mentioned in one of the lectures was Robert Browning.  As I participated, I kept remembering the following poem, which seemed to describe the heart of the workshop’s work and theology.  I was glad to be with people who were at home in this effervescent, magnanimous and joyous land of words and images within the broad swath of the tradition.  Beyond the miserliness in the current climate, here are words of redemption.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge |&| shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast |&| with ah! bright wings.

The Question of Infant Baptism

Episcopal Cafe links to Fr. Arnold’s speculation about the uses of infant baptism.  Fr Arnold notes that the current discussions of open communion have the unintended consequence of diminishing the necessity to baptize children.  They would be able, he muses, to take communion whether baptized or not, and thus could delay being sprinkled by the pastor until they wanted to make the decision.

It’s a useful point, one that should help frame the discussion of open communion.  Would one, for example, be able to take communion and make a deliberate decision not to be baptized?  What is being said about baptism in such a case?  Is the understanding of baptism, in such an example, accurate?

Because it seems to me that most parents who want their child to make an adult decision will do just that.  They won’t baptize them.  This was my own case:  I chose to be baptized when I was 13.  My parents believed that religion was choice someone had to make with some deliberation and thought.   So is the question about the church just not doing infant baptisms at all, in any circumstance?   I can’t imagine there being such a rule inhibiting the church from doing so and remaining in the Catholic tradition.  Of course, even in free protestant churches they have ceremonies that have some elements of a baptismal rite for babies.

It will certainly, however, become custom that we baptize more adults.  This will naturally happen as our culture becomes dechristianized.  It does not, however, require any change in church teaching.

Is there an instinctive preference of the church body?   I’m not sure why there should be one.  We should baptize children and adults. What makes us catholic, I argue, is that we have a universal sense – we can do both without shame.  It’s not a zero sum game.

There’s another question that infant baptism and open communion skirt around: is there anything peculiar or distinctive about being a Christian?  Does being a Christian mean anything different than being a buddhist, Jew or Unitarian?  Or are we all the same religion deep down?  The problem is that usually when we say such a thing, we imply that everyone’s a secret Christian.

In my own practice I do spend a fair amount of time asking parents about why they want their child baptized.   I seek to have parents who can be informed as their child ask questions about their faith, who can say the baptismal covenant with some integrity.   I think, also, people may decide to reject Christ, but they can do this even after being baptized.

And this is the work of a pastor – to help others in their discernment. My ambivalence is grounded in the unwillingness of priests to share what the church traditionally teaches while breaking reasonable rules the church has ordered.   We’ve found lots of excuses for not sharing what a critical faith looks like; opportunities for parishioners to deepen their spirituality, or invigorate their sense of commitment.  We’ve become scared of asking people to sacrifice anything.

Are there any parents who are testing bringing children to communion before baptism?  Or is it an invented problem arising from our frustration that, in spite of our outward progressivism, our churches are not growing?   As I see it, an inclusive liturgical practice does not make up for parishes that don’t know how to care effectively even for the Christians already in their communities.   My suspicion is that our “inclusive” practices divert us from the practices that will truly make our institutions welcoming.

Nobody is really asking the church to give up infant baptism.  Certainly, however, we’ll have to baptize more adults as families decide to forgo the ceremony.  What do we offer someone who has decided to become baptized?  Do we offer them new life?  Of if we do not, or if we don’t think such a thing exists, than yes, baptism is irrelevant, and we not need it to orient our common life.