The title deserves an explanation, on the off chance that the geekiness is lost on anyone. This is the fifth in a series of posts on the subject of sanctuary, and while “Generations” was not the fifth film in the Star Trek series, for some reason I was stuck on this title after I saw “Sanctuary IV” written out. So, yes, I really did go for the random Star Trek reference.
I suppose it’s a good sign that I didn’t go for “The Empire Strikes Back.”
The title is, however, a tad more than a goofy joke, as one of the elements that has fed the corruption in the church, about which I rambled last time, is a rather striking generation gap. Like many mainline Protestant churches, the one I attend has a significant gap in the 30-50 age range; that is, at 34, I’m often the “next oldest in the room,” but with 20 years between me and the next person (assuming Rev. Dean isn’t around, as we are both in that lovely and empty mid-thirty range. He’s just more into said age-range than I am. And also G., who is one of a very few fortysomethings in the congregation.)
Given the great divide in age, it is really, really easy to lean on the generation gap as an excuse for why conversations (when they happen) go so badly. But, it oversimplifies the matter, and even distracts from the central problems, to do so. And, I am wildly guilty of being the person who leans so heavily on the age gap. As Rev. Dean has pointed out, however, the split in the church may look like it’s generational, but it is not–it’s largely theological, and the theological divisions tend to mirror the most typical of such debates: how to read and understand scripture, what an invitation to “everyone” really means, etc. In the last of these, you see some of the clearest examples of the theological plurality of the congregation–elders invite the congregation to the table with phrases that run the gamut from restrictive (“those who have professed the Great Confession”) to the “kind-of-sort-of open” (“those who believe that Christ is [fill-in-the-blank]”) and to the what seems to me to be the most authentic openness (“Everyone is invited. It is not my table to decide who may come.”*). And plurality is fabulous, when respect for that plurality also exists.
Without respect, the process will fracture.
Rev. Dean and I began, during the summer, talks about a book–or series of articles–or something attempting to articulate the need to and the various ways to preserve and/or create an atmosphere that supported the authentic voice in the body of the church. We acknowledged that one of the first frameworks needed to create a sanctuary–a safe space for worship, as well as for spiritual and community outreach and development–was integrity. For me, at least, integrity regards ethical frames for decision making processes, as well as compassion and honesty. Often, however, the decisions we make within the church are often knee-jerk, not necessarily ethical or, for that matter, spiritual, Biblical, or thoughtful.
A specific for instance: several years ago, we started an early morning service on Sundays. Most of the songs are a cappella (and it’s really funny that way), we embrace silences, and we talk–quite a bit, often–after the sermon, about our responses and thoughts. The service manages to operate between spaces of quiet and loud, secular and spiritual, and it does so quite beautifully. I’m proud of the service, and it breaks my heart that having accepted a role as elder has effectively prevented me from attending the service of my choice (I’ve no particular need nor desire to sit through both services, and either G or I have had to serve at or immediately after the late service for much of this year). I suspect know that this is one of the elements of my desire to leave the church–the disconnection I feel from the service I am having to attend of late.
But, getting the service started all those years ago involved a major sleight of hand on my part. I dropped the bomb on the church board in the form of an announcement, not as a voting matter, in large measure because we feared that it would be shot down. And that fear was apt, I believe even now, given the rancor that STILL exists about the existence of the early service. Truth be told, it wasn’t a voting matter, I do honestly believe it, because no additional funds were required as the early service donates its own communion supplies and we did not use the services of the organist at the time that we still had an organist.
But, the overriding reason for the announcement that came only a couple of weeks before the service was to begin (2, I think), was to prevent discussion and derailing. I was clear about this in my own mind, and I shared my rationale with others, so it’s not like I can really pretend that it was just a matter of policy. I used a particular slant on policy in order to stifle conversation to get my service through.
My intentions–to get a service that was badly needed for the spiritual development of some members of the church (myself included)–were honorable, but my methods were exploitative and seriously lacking in integrity. I chose not to trust the process, nor the people of the board, based on a set of assumptions. And, even if these assumptions proved to be correct in the end, I remain accountable for my methods.
I apologized to the board and the church some months (or was it a year later??–dude, I cannot remember) later, during mediation, when it became clear that my actions, whatever the honor of their intent, had cause hurt. And I had sacrificed my integrity in the eyes of other members of the board in order to preserve what I believed to be the right thing to do.
I still believe the service was and remains a good and valuable piece. I believe that the nature of the service demands authenticity from each of us–honesty, integrity, and a willingness to listen to one another, even when we disagree (and, as Rev. Dean is well aware, my disagreement in inevitably worn on my face–I cannot hide it). The authentic voice of the service, then, demands a respect for plurality.
This is a good thing.
The bulk of the members attending this service, not incidentally, belong in the gap generation I discussed at the outset. Of the members of the congregation as a whole who remain angry about the existence of the service, most are in the so-called “Greatest Generation,” who make up a large population with the congregational body. The express anger over the change we forced upon them**, over the supposed extra costs associated***, and over the “separation” that it has caused within the church.
Of the last of these, I can say only that the separation is imagined on one level; while part of the intent of creating the service was indeed to give space to some members during a time of major strife, that is not what remained as the service became part of our lives. We do not see ourselves as a separate body from the congregational whole; that separation comes from the members of the congregation who remain angry and nurse hurt over the service’s very existence.
I do not know how to reconcile my belief that this service has a place in the church–and important and necessary one–with the reality that I felt it necessary to resort to rather underhanded means to push it through. I recognize that I was responding to the corruptions I already perceived, but I was doing so by emulating and exploiting that corruption. What would have been the most ethical thing to do?
I realize that I could have handled it differently–not dropping a bomb (as it were), but bringing people on board through a careful PR campaign, but I don’t really know if it would have worked, had I done that. I thought about it; I prayed about it. That service needed to come to fruition–it is a good and beautiful thing, and in a less corrupted place, it could and would have with ease.
The corruption I keep mentioning is simply the lack of integrity and the suppression of authentic voice. People who challenge are often shot down or shunned. These days, agents of and for change are even threatened with bodily harm. Such threats are the logical result of the failure to recognize one another as humans and to act toward one another with respect.
It seems to me that for a community, and particularly a Disciples community, to have integrity (our mission calls for a “passion for justice” for goodness sake, and integrity and justice seem to me to be intertwined), it must first demand respect of one another. Not elder or youth worship, not clinging to change nor to tradition, but an honest respect for one another as human beings engaging in a specific kind of spiritual discourse. The moment we lose sight of each other as people or of ourselves as greater than a generational construct, we begin to fall apart. That inability to remain ethical and honest, the desire to put one’s own desires before that of the community and the collective discernment of God’s will, those are the forces that brought us to where we now stand, with a threatening letter and a congregation more lost than ever before****.
*I imagine that it would surprise no one to discover that I fall in the last of these categories. In fact, while I can preach an acceptance of plurality until my face turns blue, the differences mentioned here are a serious sticking point for me theologically. The communion table isn’t my table to invite or to turn away. Everyone is welcome.
**And, in fact, the letter writer I mentioned here remarks on this, writing that “we [the older members of the congregation] will not change. We do not want to change.” The service itself demands nothing of the resistant-to-change group, other than knowing that the service exists. This would be my other point of frustration. In all honesty, from where I sit, it feels for all the world like there is a group in the church who has bought into the adage that older folks hate change–because the resistance is vitriolic to the point of ridiculousness.
*** I’m so tired of this particular canard.
****Or, perhaps not. I may very well be projecting something here that isn’t an accurate reflection of what the congregational body feels. I know damn well it’s what I feel, though.