Monday, January 27, 2014

Larkin, Hotchkiss and Wilson on the Church and Time

Philip Larkin wrote a poem called "Home is So Sad" and I think he describes the situation of the declining church well.
Home is so Sad

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16659#sthash.VkdAOqh1.dpuf
While the poem is literally about the old home, it is also applies to the church and congregation. "It stays as it was left, shaped to the comfort of the last to go as if to win them back."

Dan Hotchkiss, writing in an essay published by Alban Institute, describes a meeting of a church in decline:
 As I looked around the room, I saw a familiar mix of people: long-time members whose
idea of progress sounded a lot like the 1950s or the 1960s; newcomers attracted by the grandeur of the building and the smallness of the congregation; and specialists (musicians, mostly, in this case) passionate to hold on to their small plots of turf. 
What bound them together? The building. A few conventionalities of faith and practice. A lot of family tradition, and some truly touching care for one another. And the music. Each person had, for the moment, a sufficient rationale for staying. But was there energy enough to drive a turnaround? I frankly doubted it. 
As congregations shrink, the members who would be the most help turning them around often are among the first to go: the energetic, outward-focused people with an urgent sense of purpose and good skills for group decision-making.
No energy for the turnaround needed, or as Larkin puts it "no heart to . . . turn again to what it started as, a joyous shot at how things ought to be, long fallen wide."

This is the contradiction in congregationalism: the freedom of the congregation to serve its own needs ties the congregation to the life-cycle of its members.

There are institutional steps that can be taken to serve the needs of the members of declining congregations, while preserving and freeing their assets to be used for a new "joyous shot at how things out to be."  I believe that every congregation that is not, right now, effectively recruiting younger members and a new generation of leaders, should write out its last will and testament, its final directives, its end of life plan. It would be an exercise to concentrate the mind on its institutional mortality. Like the monks who meditate in their graves, the congregation will savor the life it has, and use it well.

But how to break free of the life-cycle chains that bind a congregation to the life-cycle of its members? How to keep what Hotchkiss calls the "energetic, outward-focused people with an urgent sense of purpose."

I think it takes religious leadership with an acute historical imagination, leadership who can articulate the meaning of this present moment in time. Not just as sensation, but in as a moment on the clock of the world.

Flip Wilson
Have you ever noticed that "time stands still" in moments of great joy, great terror and great sorrow. If the sanctuary is the trap we build to capture that moment, so that we can revisit it again and again, the church has based itself on a rapidly receding past. Karl Barth said that the preacher mounts the pulpits with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. Today, we might say that the preacher carries the world's wisdom in one hand, and a twitter feed in the other.  Whatever. The religious institution must be what Flip Wilson, noted twentieth century ecclesiologist,
humorously called the "Church of What's Happening Now" -- a place where the deep significance of this moment is made clear: today's joys; today's terrors; today's sorrows; today's duties; today's hopes.  Not as an isolated moment out of time; but as a moment of this historical time.


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