Although the incident took place over a decade ago, I remember well the words that Miss Louella, one of the matriarchs of a small Appalachian mission church that I served while teaching at the University of the South, used in berating a younger parishioner. The occasion for this scolding was an argument regarding the construction of the new church and the younger parishioner’s threat to leave if she didn’t get her own way on the type of wainscoting to be used in the sanctuary. Shaking a pointed finger Miss Louella chided the younger woman, “I don’t ever want to hear such nonsense about quitting the Church. You don’t quit your family. This ain’t no social or service club, it’s a family, the family of God! If you get mad or angry because you are not gettin’ your own way, you stay and fight. If you lose the fight you still stay. That is just the way it is with family. Don’t let nobody throw you out. Don’t let nobody rile you up to the point where you are ready to leave. The family, the Church, is the one place that will take you when no one else will. Don’t you forget that, ever.”
Within recent weeks it has been difficult, if not impossible, to pick up a national Church publication or diocesan newspaper and not read about threats of schism, the formation of a “new national diocese,” and the threat of a “Synod” to chart a more “traditional” (read “true”) course for the Church. Similarly reports of dioceses in the southwest or northeast withholding their National Church assessment because of some unhappiness with either the leadership at the National Church or House of Bishops fill the news.
Whether voiced by a bishop, dean of a seminary or a priest of a parish, the threats are hardly veiled threats to withhold money or withdraw support by either not participating or founding some new ecclesial entity or structure.
Miss Louella would call such selfish individualism, crass parochialism, and self-centered divisiveness, “nonsense.” She would chide those who make such threats; those who fail to understand the nature, function and theological doctrine of the Church. While she may not use the exact verbiage or vocabulary that follows, I suspect that she would advance the following warrants in support of her argument against voting with your checkbook or your feet.
1. The Church is not a voluntary organization, service club or fraternal group. The Church is a covenant community. While borrowing from the insights of sociologists and social psychologists in talking about the Church as a voluntary organizations, first and finally, the Church is a redemptive community wherein salvation is experienced even in the midst of pain, turmoil and dissension. We do not pay dues to maintain membership nor do we withdraw our pledge or attendance if we decide we do not agree with what the Church has decided in its councils. While we may feel impatient with the Church’s decisions, or even disagree, as members of the ecclesial covenant family we are called to participate responsibly. Such participation means arriving at decisions that contribute to the ongoing tradition, not as a body of lifeless and fixed content, but rather a living traditio, an ever evolving tradition that is alive, vibrant and guided by the movement of the Holy Spirit. Such guidance and openness to the Holy Spirit requires loyalty, deep commitment, serious argumentation and sustained dialogue.
2. Voting with one’s checkbook or one’s feet is idolatrous. It assumes that we have all the responsibility as a self-directed religious body with some special gnosis that others must abide by or they are unfaithful, not traditional. The Tradition is a new Covenant born of and continuous with the Old Covenant. Those who vote with their checkbook or feet fail to see such continuity or that the Covenant is initiated by God and is binding, the very meaning of the word “religion” from religio. We are bound together by covenant in ways that matter decisively and eternally. Schism as separation is the root meaning of the word “sin” and the opposite of covenant as being bound together at God’s initiation. Being in covenant, we are called to the hard work of theology. Theology as a collaborative enterprise requires patience, forbearance and humility while remaining within the councils of the Church to discern the movement of the Spirit and God’s will.
Withdrawal from such a covenant vocation is antithetical to the very nature of the catholicity that is supposedly being “saved” by those who vote with their checkbook or feet.
3. To withhold one’s money or support or to withdraw from participation is seen by those who do so as a God given or inalienable right. In a free society and democratic country the individual certainly has the right to exercise free will in joining or leaving voluntary organizations. To reiterate, the Church is not a voluntary organization, but a family wherein one is adopted through baptism. The appropriate response is to protest and call for reform rather than abandoning one’s family or withholding support. This is our legacy and this is our tradition as a protesting (Protestant) Church that grew out of reform (The Reformation). In withholding support or withdrawing, protest and reform become impossible; the covenant is broken, dialogue ends, the family is divided.
We would do well to recall that the reformers never thought of themselves as starting a new Church or establishing a denomination, synod or national diocese but rather made every attempt to reform and protest within the Church. Said differently, as a family member, to renounce my family is, in the very deepest sense, to renounce myself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the recent protest of those social ethicists, sociologists and theologians who remind us that our identity is not an individual affair but rather a corporate or communal gift. The recent success of Robert Bella’s, Habits of the Heart, underscores the need for us to develop a communal sense of identity to include a corporate and community ethic to guide individual behavior.
Bella’s premise that our culture has become far too narcissistic finds expression in the privatization of religious experience and the parochialism that is so pervasive in all churches. Rather than a sense of covenant obligation born of a commitment to the other and Other, and the priority of community, we tend to stress individual rights over individual responsibility and see litigation as an answer to all conflict. Rather than covenant existence, we exercise “contractual existence” born of the notion that “If I don’t get my own way, the contract is null and void.”
In contractual existence, if my needs as an individual aren’t met, I vote with my checkbook or my feet. In Covenant existence, I recognize that my community is a creation and gift of God and that I am to exercise the rights and privileges as well as the responsibilities in helping to form and reform the community through appropriate protests and debate. Such debate often requires sustained dialogue and calls us to relax our need for “instant gratification.”
4. The last warrant is a fallacy that betrays the ubiquity of parochialism. Those who suggest voting with one’s checkbook argue that such money should be redirected to outreach within the community. If we have learned nothing else within the last few decades, we have learned that we are a global community. Withdrawing support for the National Church and our obligation to foreign and domestic mission only reinforces a sense of isolation and parochialism, even if it is given under the gloss of doing mission work within the particular diocese or parish church community. Stated simply, we have an obligation to the larger Church family. Cuts in funding to the National Church do not punish national leaders but only diminish our already paltry efforts in domestic and foreign mission work.
I pen these thoughts during the season of Advent, a season of repentance, anticipation, judgment and reform. While a truism, it is almost trite to note that the spirit and the sense of Advent as a time or preparation for the incarnation of humility has been lost in our society. We would do well during this season, in lighting our Advent candles, to rekindle our commitment to something beyond our own selfish prejudices, commitments and ideologies that we hold as a possession or inalienable individual right. All that we have is a gift. Through stewardship and participation in the covenant community, we return to God that which is God’s.
During this season let us repent of our idolatries, our selfishness, our short-sightedness and our inability to love when we don’t get our own way. We don’t pledge or give to the National Church, the Diocese or the parish because we are in agreement with everything that happens within the local or larger Church. We give and participate because it is a part of our baptismal identity and part of our obligation as sons and daughters in the family that we call Church and to the parent that we call God. In the name of His Son Jesus, I wish you a blessed Advent and joyous Christmas.