A Lateral Move

Wednesday nights are the occasion for a community Eucharist at Ripon College Cuddesdon (a bit like Community Night at CDSP). Tonight I had the pleasure of hearing Tim Naish (Dean of the Oxford Ministry Course and Lecturer in Missiology) preach. It was a very fine Lenten sermon. Tim unpacked the readings — the act of covenant making between God and Israel in Deuteronomy and Jesus’ declaration that he had come not abolish but fulfill the Law. The core theme was the ways in which people are drawn into the life of God and the transformations that unfold from that.

What might have been an offhand illustration in the middle of the sermon struck me. Speaking of invitations to a deeper life, Tim asked how should church leaders respond when parishioners, after being moved by formation programs like Alpha, ask what is next for them to do in that community.  The implication was that, generally, church leadership is not always equipped to take people deeper.

In my mind flashed all the amazing things that parishioners can do if they are empowered to. And not just inside church walls or doing explicitly “churchy” things like helping with the parish soup kitchen. I got to thinking of Martin Luther’s conviction that all Christians have a vocation to minister and that their occupation is where they are called to live out that ministry.  When a parishioner asks what is next, perhaps the best thing to do is to ask, “What is God calling you to where you are already?”

This is a different way of envisioning being church.  It makes being church less vertical. Parishioners are not only receiving things from church. It makes church more lateral.  Parishioners are being church. Not just on Sunday, but every day. They bring the church into the world. What can you imagine empowered parishioners doing? Reading the letter of resignation from a Goldman Sachs employee, I can envision brave stands for corporate ethics, a move away from decisions made solely on dividends and market share, a fair distribution of executive and worker pay.

Of course, what I am describing depends on the baptismal ecclesiology embedded in the existing life of the Episcopal Church and expressed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. I have written about this elsewhere with my colleague Ruth Meyers on the subject of sanctity. At its core, the baptismal ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church holds, much as Luther did, that all Christians by virtue of their baptism are commissioned as ministers of Christ’s reconciling love. This love has practical expressions in acts of compassion, charity, and justice. Ministry in this forms does not require ordination. Ministry in this form can be lateral.

To emphasize the lateral dimensions of ministry, that all Christians are called to it, might be a way of moving the Episcopal Church out of its current structural crisis.  If, as has been argued by the Crusty Old Dean (aka Tom Ferguson), the era of centralizing denominational systems is over, if the vertical alone won’t cut it anymore, then it is time to make a lateral move. When we speak of the riches of the Episcopal Church we name our sacraments, our historic episcopate, our tradition, our appeal to a reasoned interpretation of the Scriptures. But we also have a gift in our baptismal ecclesiology. We still need funding sources form the national church. We still need offices and centers that can help people coordinate ministry and offer resources, best practices, and sites for making common cause. But we do also need a new way of expressing our core ministries of worship and mission. If Episcopalians really mean it the Baptismal Covenant when they vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons, they can find ways to fulfill it in lateral forms of ministry

What would it look like if parishes and dioceses set to work to ensure that the Christian life carried over from Sunday to Monday by explicitly linking the worship and teaching in church to the rest of life? To be sure there are many places that strive for this, but many that falter. And regardless, there are still more to be reached with the message of God’s transforming grace. And there are more corners of our culture that need the witness of Christ’s love and desire for justice. All levels of the church (Episcopal and otherwise) need to awaken to the need to nurture disciples of Christ who will take Sunday to Monday. Discipleship breeds mission. It is time to pick up the pace and to spread our mission out of the vertical structures and make lateral moves that educate, equip, and empower all Christians to be ambassadors of Christ’s reconciling love and desire for justice.

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Filed under Discipleship, Ecclesiology, Episcopal Church and Anglicanism

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