If you were wildly in love with church as a kid, it’s a confusing and painful thing to grow up. Over time, I learned that some of the teenagers I idolized in my childhood church dabbled in drugs and at least one deacon dabbled in adultery. As an adult, I am cognizant of the broader church’s sins; I now know about the Crusades and colonialism, about sex scandals, abuse, racism and oppression. I learned about American churches that supported slavery and Jim Crow. I’ve experienced sexism and misuse of power among church leadership. I’ve met two pastors who shocked me (and made me cry) with their meanness and narcissism. I’ve stuttered in embarrassment over the antics of the religious right and winced at the smugness of the religious left.
Yet I still can’t shake my love for the church, in its variant and frail forms. This love eventually led me to seminary and, after a long process of discernment, to ordination as a priest. Over time, I came to understand that the church—with its grape juice and fried chicken, with that basketball hoop and fellowship hall, that Bible and baptism—was not just a place I went for friendship or family ties. The church was, and still is, making me. What has kept me in it is not nostalgia about good people and potlucks, but rather that my understanding of the world—my whole life—has been shaped by the story I learned there.
One of the implicit assumptions of philosophical liberalism, on which America was built, is that transcendent truths are indeterminate and therefore only relevant to our private lives. Since there can be no sweeping story that is both knowable and true, we are metaphysical castaways, left to individually hew out meaning from our lives: the only “transcendent” story is that we each must construct our personal (small “t”) truth from our individual (small “s”) story. And yet, the idea that we are self-constructed and self-actuating individuals, unmoored from any larger community and tradition, is itself an inherited and contingent story.
Years ago, a non-Christian friend told me that he was glad that Christianity “works” for me. I said with a laugh, “Oh, it doesn’t work for me. Sometimes it seems I work for it.” What I meant is that in significant ways trying to live by the Christian story has made my life harder. It has cost me some likability in my urban, educated, progressive circles; it has motivated ethical decisions that have forestalled some happiness (in the short term anyway); it has squashed any impulse to “follow my bliss.” So why not choose a different story? Peculiar as this might have sounded to my friend, the answer is that I actually believe that Jesus rose from the dead—and that therefore I can know and interact with God. That is, I think the Christian story is true.
The Christian story is formed around an understanding of creation, fall and redemption through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is because of that story that Christians can give an intelligible account of who we are, where we come from, where we are going, what kind of place the world is, and how we should live. And essential to the Christian story is the belief that God himself has formed and preserved a particular and everlasting community, which we call the church. Michael Ramsey, a former archbishop of Canterbury tells us, “We do not know the whole fact of Christ incarnate unless we know his Church, and its life as part of His own life … the history of the Church and the lives of the saints are acts in the biography of the Messiah.”
Though the Christian story is replete with celestial wonder, it is an abundantly carnal endeavor. Passing down this story of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension is not merely, or mainly, an exercise in cognition. Nor is it a divinely inspired game of telephone, where we simply whisper a message to the next generation through the ages. Inevitably the story comes to us through ordinary people over dinner tables, at work, in songs, through worship, conflict, failure, repentance, ritual, liturgy, art, work and family. Christianity is something we believe, but it is also a practice. Central to our practice is what Christians call sacraments, where the mysteries of faith are manifest through the ordinary stuff of earth—water and skin, bread and teeth.
Though communicating the Gospel—the “good news”—is always part of our mission, the church doesn’t merely communicate information; it also creates the conditions for personal and communal formation. In this sense, the church is a community of character formed by a Nazarene rabbi whose teachings and practices shape our imaginations and our way of life. Our attempt to live in light of the narrative of all existence originating from God, humankind separating from God by sin, and our restoration to God through Jesus determines the texture of our identities and our moral universe.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul outlined this formative nature of the Christian story: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” Arguing against the Gnostics of his time, Paul was calling on the Roman Church to see their bodies as instruments of worship, rather than degraded and inferior objects that we must transcend to reach a “pure” spiritual state. He called them to this ethical reality “in view of God’s mercy.” It is only in light of the story of God’s mercy that a Christian moral imagination about human bodies can be formed. In other words, Paul appeals to the story of Christ to make an ethical call to the church. The story begets a people.
Today, as ever, the story of the church coexists with other stories. Even one who believes the Christian story to be true is aware that it is not the only story. All institutions, groups and nations are shaped by a story and those of us in the church simultaneously inhabit other formative communities shaped by different—even opposing—narratives. This is why the theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls the church an “alternative polis,” whose purpose is to embody—to actually look like—God’s kingdom coming among a community of ordinary people: tax attorneys and auto mechanics, stay-at-home moms and the homeless.
Shaped by the story of Jesus, this “alternative polis” scandalized the ancient Roman world with the notion of inherent human dignity for all people, even for unwanted children and women. David Bentley Hart notes “the bizarre prodigality with which the early Christians were willing to grant full humanity to persons of every class and condition.” Motivated by the vision of a church from “every tribe, tongue and nation” (as the Book of Revelation describes), all people—regardless of ethnicity, rank or birth—were welcomed in the church through baptism. In the ancient world, this was outrageous; today, as Hart reminds us, we lack any awareness of how radical this was at the time. The Christian vision of innate human dignity so transformed the world that it now seems natural to the proudest atheist.
The same story that motivated monks to invent hospitals, birthed mass literacy and spurred abolition in the West, motivates countless other compassionate efforts initiated by Christian organizations around the world. In the local church I serve in now, there’s a nonprofit that began a community health clinic, an organization that brings yoga into schools, job-search support for ex-convicts, a ministry to support international students, and training in financial literacy for the working poor. (These efforts remind me of a favorite Onion headline: “Local Church Full of Brainwashed Idiots Feeds Town’s Poor Every Week.”)
Yet it’s not humanitarian aid where I find the most astonishing goodness in the church. I am glad that the church builds wells in developing countries—but secular NGOs do that just as well. For me, the allure of my Christian community is in its quiet, ordinary goodness, the silent ways I watch people care for each other, week in and week out: the young man who gives an elderly friend a ride, the women who meet over coffee to pray and talk, the new mother I visit to bless her newborn and drop off a baby blanket from an older lady in our church, the meal team who will drop by her house with soups and casseroles, and her fellow church members who will check in to see how she’s doing. These small stories of love are what make a life, a family and a community, but they are also the course of an average week.
Yet if the church is an alternative polis, one of its chief characteristics is the striking failure to be a fully realized moral alternative. Because we receive the Gospel from human hands, our human selfishness and limitations—marked by sin and the pain that comes with it—constitute a significant part of our story. I have seen pinprick glimpses of unmitigated glory in the church, but I have also seen ignorance and self-satisfaction, abuse and oppression, selfishness, bullying, manipulation and all manner of viciousness. As a priest in the Anglican Communion, I’ve seen our entire denomination around the world divided over questions of biblical teaching around human sexuality and marriage. As a female priest, I’ve been publicly mocked and privately humiliated by men who not only oppose women’s ordination (a view from Scripture one could reasonably hold) but who are sexist and just plain mean.
Such examples are sometimes used to accuse the church of hypocrisy, but part of our witness as an alternative polis is that we admit we are failures but have received grace and offer forgiveness. Church is not a place where we go to profess our virtue, but one where we go to confess our lack of it. This is a fairly radical idea in our broader culture where, as theologian Martin Marty puts it, “everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven.” For Christians, our very creeds claim that we fail to live up to that which we proclaim. Every week we kneel together in confession, abandoning any hope that we are the righteous ones, the ones on the “right side of history.” The church, says ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, is “first and foremost, a community of forgiven sinners gathered under the cross. Not a community that embodies the practices of perfection or that is simply separate from the world, but a body of believers who still live ‘in the flesh,’ who are still part of the world, suffering the transformations effected by God’s grace on its pilgrim way.”
My daily life as a priest doesn’t always feel transformative or transcendent. Far from a perpetual spiritual high, my time is mostly taken up with staff meetings, budgeting, email, worries about building maintenance and a lack of parking. Yet I am often overwhelmed by the richness and radiance I get to witness in this community.
Each Sunday during communion, when the members of my church come to the table, I watch their faces. Many tired. Some sad. Some lit up with joy. One kid who has special needs approaches me like he’s won the lottery. His voice rises, “Oh boy! Oh boy!” (It’s probable that he understands this meal better than the rest of us.) A woman follows him with tears streaming down her face. Her husband is dying. Another one comes, a teenage boy, who I noticed during the sermon still has enough sweetness in him to lean his head on his mother’s shoulder, even though he’s three inches taller than her. A woman approaches who asked me to hear her confession days before (a practice Anglicans don’t require); she told me dark secrets, and I put my hand on her head and pronounced Christ’s absolution. Now, I welcome her again to the table with us.
I believe that somehow this communion table I stand at each week stretches through time and space, so that when we drink wine and eat bread together, we are eating and drinking with every Christian around the world and throughout history. I am there with Mary Magdalene and Dorothy Day, with Saint Augustine and my dad, with thousands upon thousands whose names are forgotten but whose lives are part of my own story. Hands after hands open before me—all different colors of flesh, all different sizes and ages—all open to God, stretched to receive and be washed clean. I see it every week. So common, so routine, yet I have scarcely seen anything so mysteriously beautiful.
At the heart of the church is either total folly or the mysterious power and love of a dying and resurrected God. If it’s the former, as Paul said, Christians are “of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, we are total idiots, and you should feel sorry for us for wasting our short lives on a fiction. And if it’s the latter, however I define the church, then there is a remainder; something that can never be summed up by scientific or sociological account. According to Pope Paul VI, the church is not a rational experiment but “a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God. It lies, therefore, within the very nature of the Church to be always open to new and ever greater exploration.” As post-Enlightenment Westerners, we are in the habit of speaking of mystery as if it’s a code to crack, the true-crime novel we haven’t finished yet. For Christians the world is a different kind of mystery, one crackling with possibility and saturated with God’s goodness. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it, “Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.”
Hiding in church as a child, I felt I was part of something: a story, a family, a global alternative polis, a forgiven people. I had friends there and good food and ritual and music and meaning. But beyond all that, there was something more. Just as I could tell you all about me, yet there’s some mysterious life—some essence of me—that can’t quite be pinned down or summed up, so there is the mysterious power of the Trinity forming, humbling, remaking, and sustaining this creature called the church. That holy and mysterious remainder is, ultimately, why I embarked and remain on my crazy mission to stay forever in the church, living on treasure chocolates and the off-key descants of the saints.
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This article appears in the forthcoming issue of The Point,
as part of the symposium, What is Church for?
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Art credit: Federico Pietrella