The Genie Is Out Of The Bottle

My first two parishes were in rural areas where fellow priests were twenty-five miles away. Things changed when I moved to my present parish. The mother parish had three priests on staff not including the mission priests. Even better they were all members of the apostolic clergy group. This was a group made up of Orthodox, Roman and Anglican clergy. I learned more about the faith, worship and theology than I did in seminary. It was also fun. 

At my first meeting, I asked about complaints from my Altar Guild about the wine staining the purificators. I asked what type of wine they used. The Greek priest who was hosting the meeting brought out wine for each table. It was one of the most interesting morning meetings I ever attended. It was a dark red Greek wine. I asked the priest if it stained his purificators. He assured me it did not. The Russian priest next to me whispered in my ear, “Their purificators are red.”

There were also moments of clarity. At one meeting, the Anglicans were discussing the various Eucharistic prayers. There was animated debate concerning the value of the ’28 or the ’79 prayer book. The only consensus was that no one liked Eucharistic prayer C. My Russian friend once again whispered in my ear, “Options destroy tradition”. 

This was nearly thirty years ago. Sociologists were telling us then about cafeteria religion. A decade before I moved to Michigan there was a strong charismatic influence. Their language, music and style of worship were different than traditional Anglicanism. There was an emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the individual’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They stressed the importance of Holy Scripture, sometimes without a relationship to Holy Tradition. In this area, some even lived in a commune. Among the other Episcopal churches, some provided traditional services, some had services in contemporary language, and others had both, at two different services. There were still Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals, but now there were multiple varieties of each. 

In my first parish I had a wonderful summer family who had a five year old. When she came to the Altar rail her mother would place a cookie on the rail. Since she was too young to receive communion she was given a cookie so that she didn’t feel left out. Today, that couple would seek out a church where children, toddlers, received. 

Faith has become an individual thing much as in the time of Judges. Every man lived by his own conscience. This would include actions. When I was growing up you were baptized near birth. around the age of twelve you were confirmed by the Bishop and then received your first communion. Early in my ministry there was a movement to be like the Roman Catholics and admit children to Holy Communion when they were in second grade and have confirmation at a later time. It was a consequence of separating the initiatory rites in the West many centuries ago. But the ’79 Prayer Book also opened the way for infant communion without the Chrismation. Therefore we now debate paedocommunion. More options not only destroy tradition, but harmony.

I can drive west or south and find an Anglican church where it appears you can receive communion without being baptized nor confirmed. In one, they would like you to be baptized but if you believe that Jesus Christ is Lord you are welcome at the communion rail. At the other, the cup of salvation is open to anyone no matter what their beliefs – Christian, Jewish, Muslim. I can drive any direction and find women at the Altar celebrating the mysteries. I can drive south or southwest where I am back in the fifties and can enjoy the Prayer Book (’28) and be back at the low church I grew up in.

I think you get the picture. The genie is out of the bottle and I have no idea how to get him back in. But this article isn’t about the varieties of our Anglican expression. It is about Lent. 

As you read this you should be in the last weeks of Lent. The ’79 Prayer Book has an excellent description of why we have Lent in the exhortation in the Ash Wednesday service. Notorious sinners were being brought back into the church and those who were to be baptized were preparing to become Christian. When we make the sign of the cross with Ashes on Ash Wednesday we do it on the forehead. (Unless there is a bald man in front of us, then we have a whole canvas.) When I went to Israel, my second day of the tour was Ash Wednesday. At the Church of the Transfiguration I asked a priest if he might give me ashes. He said the usual prayers and poured the Ashes right on top of my head. My friends tell me that this is the way ashes are sometimes given in Europe, just as when people in the Old Testament would rend their clothes and throw ashes onto themselves as a sign of extreme sorrow and repentance. 

Pius Parsch writes that in the early church on Ash Wednesday the Bishop of Rome would have the “notorious sinners” stand before him in vestments of repentance say some prayers and pour ashes on their heads. They would then walk out of the church and do acts of penance until Easter. We read similar things in the Canons of the Councils of the church. Those who were excommunicated would sit in the back of the church or in the courtyard. Think about this for a second. These people are excluded from communion. They are singled out, maybe even pointed at. Yet, they submit. Like St. Peter, they knew there was nowhere else to go, that Christ and his Church had the words to eternal life. 

A cafeteria can be fun. I know some who go to “all you can eat” buffets. The food isn’t all that good, but there is lots of it. Sometimes we eat only what we like, which is not necessarily what is good for us. Lent was always interesting on the Tuesdays most of us in the apostolic clergy ate lunch together. My Orthodox friends ate salad. Depending on what week in Lent it was, they might not put olive oil on it. There would be lots of cabbage. Some of them gave up marital relationships during Lent. This was hardly what they liked, but as penance and discipline, it was (and is) pretty effective. This was prescribed for them by church canons, so that it also gave them a chance to exercise obedience. If every man is his own judge there is no obedience and little discipline.

Perhaps you are reading this right before Holy Week. This week gives us much to meditate upon and offers us the opportunity to increase our fasting, by adding some extra food to abstain from, or increasing our prayer time, but also to try fasting from the concept that “the church is here for me”. Palm Sunday is the gate to Holy Week. Christ our King enters the City of Jerusalem. Yet most of those who waved palms totally misunderstood who Christ was. They saw him through their eyes and their needs rather than God’s purpose.

Each day of the week we will read the Passion as portrayed by one of the four Gospel writers; on Maundy Thursday, how Christ taught us to be servants. Do we consider that servanthood also applies to our willingness to support an imperfect church which does not meet all our needs and wants? 

On Good Friday, we see the depth of Christ’s love when he died for us sinners, even those who want to sing hymns we dislike, or say the service too quickly or read the lessons too slowly. At the Easter vigil, we see the church in all her glory. And on Easter Day we see Christ breathe on His church, as God the Father breathed life into Adam. This week we have the opportunity to see the glory of God’s church rather than focus on our expectations and our needs. The Passion of Christ should burn away our imperfections as fire burns away the dross of the silver.

Our attachment to a church can be for many reasons. I know people who go to a particular church because of its choir and music. Others attend church where the service is short. (I have Roman Catholic relatives who drive across town to attend a Convent Mass rather than go to the parish church down the street because the Convent’s Mass is fifteen minutes shorter.) Some go to certain churches because the children are sent away and do not disturb the big people. 

You may have lots of choices but during the closing days of this Lent we need to ask which choices and options lead to eternal life. Have we been obedient and disciplined or merely lived in our comfort zone? Have we written our own words to portray the road to happiness? At the Easter service will we be singing, “Jesus Christ is Risen today” or Sinatra’s, “I did it my way.”? 

There is still time to choose the way which leads to eternal life.

Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.