Category Archives: Formation

Pass My Exam!

As most of you know, I’m doing quite a lot of teaching right now… I’m up to my eyeballs in my new day-job teaching high school and had already committed to teaching two Master’s level classes before getting that job offer. Thankfully, I had taught one of those before—my Church History class. However, I decided to do something a little differently this go around…

I’m trying to prepare my students to use their Church History where it counts—at the back of the church when some one asks an innocent question that is best answered with thirty minutes and a pile of books yet you know their eyes will glaze over after just a minute. Therefore, I’m giving an exam where the students will have to prepare short [short] answers to the kinds of questions that I’ve heard.

So, how well would you do on my first-section of the semester exam? It spans the period from the writing of the New Testament to the Church Fathers (end of the 4th century). Here’s the study guide I gave them:

H601 Study Guide for First-Half Exam

The few dates I actually want you to memorize (and why)

  • AD 70–The Destruction of the Temple: This event ended the plurality of Late Second Temple Judaisms and set the stage for the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity as distinct entities. The Early Church saw the destruction as confirmation of Jesus’ prophecy in the Gospels. Also, it established Vespasian and Titus as the new dynasty of the Roman Empire
  • AD 136—end of the Bar Kochba revolt, the third and final Jewish revolt against the Romans that led to Jewish expulsion from the region of Jerusalem. Continuing anti-Jewish policies played a role in Jewish-Christian self-differentiation.
  • AD 180 (roughly)—Irenaeus writes Against Heresies and demonstrates a coherent Christian self-understanding embodied in the three marks of the Church that is only two generations removed from Jesus’ own circle: (Irenaeus learned from Polycarp who learned from John the Elder)
  • AD 250—The Decian Persecution: This is the first time that persecution of Christians became a matter of Imperial policy requiring sacrifices and written proof of thereof. Although short-lived, it set an important precedent.
  • AD 313—The “Edict of Milan”: While probably less formal than an edict, this was the agreement between Constantine and Licinius to allow Christianity throughout the Empire
  • AD 325—The First Ecumenical Council at Nicea called by Constantine to address the Arian Controversy and ended the Quartodecemian Controversy.
  • AD 380—Theodosius declares Catholic Orthodoxy the religion of the Empire.
  • AD 410—The Sack of Rome by Alaric and “the Goths”: More an internal policy dispute between a Roman army and Roman officials than a barbarian sack of a civilized city, it nevertheless prompted a crisis concerning the efficacy of Christianity as a state religion.

Important Relationships (and their chronological order where pertinent)

  • Apostolic Fathers—Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, the anonymous author of the Didache (The first generation of Christian thought and witness after the age of the New Testament)
  • The birth of Monasticism: Origen – The Desert Fathers & Mothers, know Antony and Pachomius – Athanasius – Jerome – John Cassian – Evagrius of Pontus
  • The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Ambrose – Augustine – Jerome – Gregory the Great
  • The Four Doctors of the Eastern Church: John Chrysostom – Basil the Great – Gregory of Nazianzen – Athanasius
  • The Great Trinitarian Champions: Athanasius of Alexandria – Leo the Great – Gregory of Nazianzen – Gregory of Nyssa – Basil the Great
  • The African Fathers of Latin Christianity: Tertullian – Cyprian – Augustine

Be able to identify:

  • The Three Marks of the Church according to Irenaeus (Canon/Creed/Apostolic Succession)
  • The main idea of the Gnostics
  • The main idea of the Arians
  • The two positions in the Quartodecemian controversy
  • The main idea of the Donatists
  • The main idea of Ecumenical Councils

Short Answer Questions to Prepare:

  • Why was the destruction of the Temple in 70 such a big deal?
  • Acts says that the Early Church was “of one heart and one mind.” Is that really how it was and how do we know?
  • I hear that the Gnostics were very spiritual people—why did the Early Church think that they were so wrong?
  • As long as we have the Bible I don’t know why we need any of this other stuff.
  • I’ve been reading the Gospel of Mark—it seems to me like Jesus becomes divine at his Baptism. Is that right?
  • I just think the idea of dying for a belief is strange. Why wouldn’t early Christians just fib and skip the whole martyrdom thing?
  • Why did the Romans want to kill Christians, anyway? What were the Christians doing that was so bad?
  • Christians hid from the Romans in the catacombs so they wouldn’t get martyred, right?
  • Why would reasonable people believe in all of this allegory stuff? Why not just read the Bible the right way?
  • Well, I take all of this stuff with a grain of salt. We all know that nobody thought Jesus was a god until Constantine decreed it to be the case.
  • If the creed is what the church believes, why are the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed different?
  • The Church Fathers may have written a lot of stuff but that’s just their opinion. Why should theirs be any better than mine?

Xunzi’s Take on Ritual: Part 2

Here’s the second part of my presentation for the Society of Scholar Priests. Part 1 introduces Xunzi as a pre-modern person interested in how ritual practice forms virtue; part 2 is here, part 3 is looking at classical Anglican liturgy with Xunzi’s thoughts in mind.

(Production on the next Liturgical Look Forward is running behind, but it should be up at some point today…)


I’m going to abstract out of Xunzi’s thought four big picture points.

  1. Human nature is bad; because it’s bad it must be corrected by means of external tools following an external pattern.

  2. The efficacy of ritual lies chiefly in its ability to channel emotion and shape affect.

  3. Ritual is essential, but for ritual to be most effective requires teachers.

  4. Ritual creates a harmonious society by inculcating proper relationships


1. Human nature is bad; because it’s bad it must be corrected by means of external tools following an external pattern.

Mengzi—a Confucian teacher in the previous generation—teaches that human nature is good. Since it’s good, in order to know what is good, we simply have to look within ourselves. Goodness is inate. While our good nature may be corrupted by society or through some other problem, it’s always there and its development is a natural process. Thus, meditation and introspection are key tools for forming the virtues because they enable us to look inwardly and tap into that inherent good nature. As a result, Mengzi can use the metaphor of growth. So, seeds of virtue within human nature will naturally grow. It’s one-directional process and there’s a certain natural inevitability to it. Just like a plant, if human nature is given what it needs and is not interfered with, virtue is going to grow. So, Mengzi can use agricultural metaphors.

Xunzi doesn’t. He’s deliberately setting himself up against Mengzi and he uses no agricultural metaphors for the human spirit or for the acquisition of virtue. Instead of being agricultural, all of his metaphors are about crafts; they’re technological. A piece of clay is never inherently going to become a pot. If you don’t do anything to it, it’s just going to sit there.  In the same way a piece of wood is never going to spontaneously turn into a wheel. Instead, it requires an artisan to steam the wood and use a jig to shape and bend it into a new configuration. These are the metaphors he employs before turning to the construction of virtue within humans.

Someone may ask: if man’s nature is evil, then where do ritual principles come from? I would reply: all ritual principles are produced by the conscious activity of the sages; essentially they are not products of man’s nature. A potter molds clay and makes a vessel, but the vessel is the product of the conscious activity of the potter, not essentially a product of his human nature. A carpenter carves a piece of wood and makes a utensil, but the utensil is the product of the conscious activity of the carpenter, not essentially a product of his human nature. The sage gathers together his thoughts and ideas, experiments with various forms of conscious activity, and so produces ritual principles and sets forth laws and regulations. Hence, these ritual principles and laws are the products of the conscious activity of the sage, not essentially products of his human nature. (Burton, 160)

[All quotations come from Burton Watson’s translation of sections of the Xunzi whom he romanizes as Hsun Tzu]

So—there are two external things at work here. There is the tool and then there’s the pattern. So, there’s the means by which character is shaped, then there’s the pattern of what you’re trying to shape it to. So where do these come from? This is directly related to the question that Lizette Larson-Miller raised in her talk: if liturgy is primary theology, where does liturgy come from? What’s it’s initial source? Xunzi invokes the sage kings of antiquity and points to the rites handed down in the traditional documents:

In ancient times the sage kings realized that man’s nature is evil, and that therefore he inclines toward evil and violence and is not upright or orderly. Accordingly they created ritual principles and laid down certain regulations in order to reform man’s emotional nature and make it upright, in order to train and transform it and guide it into the proper channels. In this way they caused all men to become orderly and conform to the Way. (158)

Well, ok, great—but where did the principles come from?

The former kings looked up and took their model from heaven, looked  down and took their model from the earth, looked about and took their rules from mankind. Such rules represent the ultimate principle of community harmony and unity. (107-108)

Xunzi is invoking a received pattern here. The Five Classics refer to a triad between heaven, earth, and humanity. Each of these has a Way, a Dao. As far as the Daoists—like Laozi and Zhuangzi–were concerned, these three ways are interwoven into one great unnameable indescribable Dao and human virtue consists of cooperating with and conforming one’s life to the Dao of heaven and earth. You align your pattern with the cosmic pattern. Xunzi says, no, that’s not going to work—because if you look at heaven and earth, things aren’t perfect, orderly, and harmonious. The natural world has lots and lots of disorder in it. So as far as he’s concerned, you can extract some principles of right living by the observation of heaven and earth, but humans are the ones who bring order to both heaven and earth. Our job isn’t to passively float along accord to their Dao; instead, we need to discern the patterns, figure out how order needs to be brought, then to accomplish it. Thus the first job of the sage kings is to ask—what’s the cosmic pattern supposed to look like. Where is it orderly and harmonious, and where is it not? What are the patterns that do work? So—from that work of observation the sage kings figure out what the patterns of humanity are supposed to look like.

Next, the tools. Then they abstracted from that big-picture goal what rites and rituals and ceremonies are needed to do the work of shaping people to create virtue. Ok—so how do they figure this out? Here we get to Xunzi’s anthropological principles and to his functional approach to ritual and that leads to our second point:


2. The efficacy of ritual lies chiefly in its ability to channel emotion and shape affect.

Emotion is at the heart of Xunzi’s anthropology: “The basic nature of man is that which he receives from Heaven. The emotions are the substance of the nature and the desires are the responses of the emotions” (151).So, Xunzi sees us principally as emotional beings. We act out of our emotions and our emotions give rise to our desires. Alright so what’s the problem here? Well—here’s where we get to why he says human nature is bad:

Hence any man who follows his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal. Therefore, man must first be transformed by the instructions of a teacher and guided by ritual principles, and only then will he be able to observe the dictates of courtesy and humility, obey the forms and rules of society, and achieve order. (157)

So, this is where I’m going to qualify his language a bit. When Xunzi says that human nature is bad, a precise way to frame it is that human nature is inherently anti-social because our tendency is to follow our desires regardless of the consequences for ourselves or for anyone else around us. That’s our nature: we’re selfish and will live a disordered existence in order to satisfy these desires.

[In many ways, I see his perspective as parallel with an Augustinian post-lapsarian anthropology: while humanity is created good in the image of God, the corruption of Original Sin does make us inherently selfish and disordered—a condition from which we need to be redeemed. Obviously, we and Xunzi disagree on how that redemption happens!]

What do we do about desire? Well, some philosophies said that desires can be extinguished—whether through force of will or meditative training, desire can be stopped. Xunzi had a very clear teaching on this point: “Beings that possess desire and those that do not belong to two different categories— the living and the dead” (150). Desire is not the kind of thing that can be extinguished. Instead, it can be channeled and directed and modulated:

What is the origin of ritual? I reply: man is born with desires. If his desires are not satisfied for him, he cannot but seek some means to satisfy them himself. If there are no limits and degrees to his seeking, then he will inevitably fall to wrangling with other men. From wrangling comes disorder and from disorder comes exhaustion. The ancient kings hated such disorder, and therefore they established ritual principles in order to curb it, to train men’s desires and to provide for their satisfaction. They saw to it that desires did not overextend the means for their satisfaction, and material goods did not fall short of what was desired. Thus both desires and goods were looked after and satisfied. This is the origin of rites. (89)

If the people have emotions of love and hatred, but no ways to express their joy or anger, then they will become disordered. Because the former kings hated such disorder, they reformed the actions of the people and created proper music for them, and as a result the world became obedient. (115)

Music and ritual, then, are the means by which emotions are channeled and expressed in appropriate ways. They take the urges that are going to arise in humans naturally, but they place boundaries and limits on them. He points in particular to the way that burial and mourning rituals function:

Rites trim away what is too long and stretch out what is too short; eliminate surplus and repair deficiency. Extend the forms of love and reverence, and step by step bring to fulfilment the beauties of proper conduct Beauty and ugliness, music and weeping, joy and sorrow are opposites, and yet rites make use of them all, bringing forth and employing each in its turn. (100)

So—rites and music don’t suppress feeling, they direct it. They guide it. Sometimes they may need to temper it, but Xunzi’s starting place is with humans as emotional animals whose responses and anti-social tendencies can be remedied by means of ritual patterns that can model and inculcate proper desires and proper social relationships.

3. Ritual is essential, but for ritual to be most effective requires teachers. 

So—rites are essential. But, they are not self-evident. They can lead individuals in certain directions but are going to be less efficacious if they are not fully understood. You can’t just be self-reflective. You can’t look into yourself and figure out they are or aren’t working because the principles are external to you. You need a teacher to get the most out of them. Here’s the long version:

In learning, nothing is more profitable than to associate with those who are learned. Ritual and music present us with models but no explanations; the Odes and Documents deal with ancient matters and are not always pertinent; the Spring and Autumn Annals are terse and cannot be quickly understood. But if you make use of the erudition of others and the explanations of gentlemen, then you will become honored and may make your way anywhere in the world. Therefore I say that in learning nothing is more profitable than to associate with those who are learned, and of the roads to learning, none is quicker than to love such men. Second only to this is to honor ritual. If you are first of all unable to love such men and secondly are incapable of honoring ritual, then you will only | be learning a mass of jumbled facts, blindly following the Odes and Documents, and nothing more. In such a case you may study to the end of your days and you will never be anything but a vulgar pedant. If you want to become like the former kings and seek out benevolence and righteousness, then ritual is the very road by which you must travel. (20-21)

Learning by itself is no guarantee of virtue. You’ve got to have a teacher. Here’s the short version:

Ritual is the means by which to rectify yourself; the teacher is the means by which the ritual is rectified. If you are without ritual, how can you rectify yourself? If you have no teacher, how can you understand the fitness of ritual? If you unerringly do as ritual prescribes, it means that your emotions have found rest in ritual. If you speak as your teacher speaks, it means that your understanding has become like that of your teacher. If your emotions find rest in ritual and your understanding is like that of your teacher, then you have become like a sage. Hence to reject ritual is to be without law and to reject your teacher is to be without a guide. . . . Therefore learning means learning to regard ritual as your law. The teacher makes himself the standard of proper conduct and values that in himself which finds rest in ritual. (30)

4. Ritual creates a harmonious society by inculcating proper relationships 

Confucian thought is not modern Western thought. It is not egalitarian. Instead it is inherently hierarchical and, indeed, hierarchy is very much seen as a good thing. Kongzi [aka Confucius) himself laid out five fundamental relationships between unequals that must be kept in correct relationship in order to ensure the smooth functioning of society. Xunzi insists that the correct relationships are embedded within ritual:

Heaven and earth are the beginning of life, ritual principles are the beginning of order, and the gentleman is the beginning of ritual principles. Acting on them, practicing them, guarding them, and loving them more than anything else—this is the beginning of the gentleman. Therefore Heaven and earth produce the gentleman and the gentleman brings order to Heaven and earth. The gentleman forms a triad with Heaven and earth; he is the controller of all things, the father and mother of the people. Without the gentleman, Heaven and earth will lack order and ritual principles will lack unity. There will be no true ruler or leader above, no true father or son below. This is what is called the extreme of chaos. The correct relationships between ruler and subject, father and son, elder and younger brother, and husband and wife begin and are carried through to the end, end and begin again. They share the order of Heaven and earth, they last for ten thousand generations. They are what is called the great foundation. The rules that govern mourning and sacrificial rites and the ceremonies of the court and the army are based upon this single foundation.  (44-45)

Men, once born, must organize themselves into a society. But if they form a society without hierarchical divisions, then there will be quarreling. . . . This is why I say that ritual principles must not be neglected even for a moment. He who can follow them in serving his parents is called filial; he who can follow them in serving his elder brothers is called brotherly. He who can follow them in serving his superiors is called obedient; he who can follow them in employing his inferiors is called a ruler. (46)

The patterns in ritual lay out the social scripts for how one is supposed to behave towards those arrayed around you in social relationships. If we live into the ritual then we will be taught the proper kinds of actions and the proper kinds of attitudes that we should use for people all of the way up and down the social scale. This happens most powerfully in full scale, whole community ritual activities.

Most of the time that Xunzi talks about ritual it’s rather generic and in passing. There are only a few specific rites that he goes into detail on. Otherwise he just assumes that we’re familiar with the ritual environment of 3rd century BC China. The two he does dig into in detail have very specific social hierarchy connects. One is burial and mourning rites for parents, the other is a community feast that takes place at a village school. He describes how the host treats the guest of honor, and then how all of the people in attendance are served. He ends his description of it and summarizes the ceremony like this:

When the distinction between eminent and humble is made clear, when the complexity or | simplicity of the ritual is adjusted to distinctions of rank, when there is harmonious pleasure without abandoned behavior, drinking according to distinctions of age but with no one left out, and drinking and feasting without disorder—when these five types of conduct are achieved, they will be sufficient to insure moral training to the individual and peace to the state, and when the state is peaceful, the world will be peaceful. (119-120)

I find this significant. His ideal ceremony for describing what a well-ordered society looks like and how a well-ordered society is formed in the first place is a community feast where everything is done in good order and where no one is left out. It’s really hard for me to read this and not to make the move to the Eucharist! So—let’s go ahead and do that. Let’s move away from Classical China and move into Classical Anglicanism. After making one over-arching concluding point.

For Xunzi, ritual is about moral formation, virtue acquisition, through training a new habitus formed in and through ritual action. Even though there’s a lot of talk about learning, and a teacher is essential to get the deepest meaning out of ritual patterns, the most important thing about ritual is to do it and to gain a new way of being through ritual action. We perform our way into virtue. We don’t think it. Our emotions are trained and modulated and the affections are shaped. This is an incarnate and incarnational process. We’ve mentioned muscle memory several times across presentations. And here it is again. The renewing and redirection of desire is trained through ritual participation and the way we relate to one another is formed through deliberate patterning. Ok—now that we have that piece in place—let’s take a look at some Classic Anglican patterns and practices and see if we can find anything new…

Serious Liturgical Geekery: Part 1

I often post sections or entireties of presentations that I give for various groups—this is one of them.

I was invited to present at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Scholar-Priests this past month on the broad & general topic of the liturgy and formation. This gave me an opportunity to play around with a concept that has been bouncing around in my head for several years and to re-attack something that I had been previously from a new angle.  Because I’m reworking some stuff here that I originally wrote for the SCP conference in Detroit several years ago, there is material here that some long-time readers will likely recognize, particularly in the latter stages. However, there’s a lot of new things too and the new things make the old things more interesting! (I think so, at least…)

This is part 1 of 3; part 2 is looking at Xunzi’s arguments about what ritual is and how it functions; part 3 is looking at classical Anglican liturgy with Xunzi’s thoughts in mind.

So, without further ado…

Whenever I take on a big topic—and Liturgy and formation is a very big topic—I always like to try and get some outside perspective. We tend to get caught up with the usual authorities and in the usual takes on the situation as laid down by the usual authorities based on the usual stances and approaches. So my reflex is to go find somebody else. Somebody who does not share all of the fundamental assumptions that we start from and that isn’t locked into the philosophical constructs of late post/modernity and the combined academic and ecclesial culture of the Episcopal seminary. But yet—still has something interesting and compelling to offer. So, someone disconnected from our conversations but who still has a perspective worth engaging.

Our liturgy and its liturgical cycles are the product of a pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment world. Not pre-technological, not pre-philosophical, but thoroughly pre-modern but in no way does that mean primitive. So, in order to understand the motivations and spirit that had a hand in the construction of our liturgical cycles, I like to find interesting thinkers who were thinking about these topics—ritual, ceremonial, what it all means and why we do it—who are pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment, and pre-modern yet are dealing with these topics in interesting and sophisticated ways.

As a result, I’d like to introduce you to a thinker who will most likely be a new acquaintance to most of the folks here. Xunzi was a philosopher writing in the Confucian tradition right around the fall of the Zhou dynasty and the rise of the Qin. Born around 313 BC, he died in about 238 BC. We don’t have a lot of biographical data about him. He was born in the state of Zhao which is in the northern part of China up on Yellow River. Like many of the sages of the time he bounced around between the governments of the various warring states that existed before the rise of the dynasty that would unite China under a single Emperor, Shi Huangdi, in 221 BC. He was a teacher, a ritual specialist, and a magistrate before losing his position when his patron was assassinated in 238. He retired into obscurity before his own death. His writings are collected in a book known by his name, the Xunzi, divided into 32 essay-length chapters.

To put him in philosophical context, Confucian thought begins with the writings of Kongzi (Confucius) who died in 479 BC and whose writings focused on building a strong and virtuous society grounded in traditionalism, right relationships amongst and within a stratified society, ethical improvement that classified people on a spectrum from petty to gentleman to sage based on their investment in ethical progress. Much of the thought of Kongzi consists of reflection on older books of learning, histories, poetry, and ritual thought to be written by the philosopher kings of old. These are referred to collectively as the Five Classics. So references to the sage kings or the former kings refer to this body of traditional material that was seen as a quasi-divine revelation.

Around the same time as Xunzi, you have the philosopher Mengzi (or Mencius), also a Confucian thinker who advocated a human nature is essentially good and offered a moral and ethic program based on self-reflection. Since your nature is good, all you have to do is look inside yourself to know what is right. Mengzi becomes the central bearer of the Confucian tradition going forward and he is considered one of the four great sages of China along with Kongzi and two other later thinkers who will not appear in this paper.

Also at this same general time was Zhuangzi, whose book bearing his name would become one of the fundamental texts of the Daoist tradition. His basic concept is that there is a way (Dao) or fundamental pattern woven into the cosmos that can be discerned. The true sage is the one who conforms to this great Dao agreeing with Mengzi that human society is often responsible for people losing their way morally and ethically.

So—why is Xunzi interesting at all? Why bother going through all of this? Xunzi represents Confucian heterodoxy—his is the path not taken, and it’s because he fundamentally disagreed with Mengzi. Whereas Mengzi developed his moral thought based on the premise that human nature is good, Xunzi went in the opposite direction. He states clearly, repeatedly, that human nature is bad. I’m going to nuance that in a little bit—that’s his language, which is intended to be deliberately provocative, not mine. What Xunzi does believe is that because human nature is bad, it must be corrected and the ritual is the key. Of all the Confucian writers, he is the one who speaks the most and the most clearly about ritual and about Confucian metapraxis: why ritual should be done, why ritual is important, and how ritual functions as a formative tool to create virtuous individuals and a virtuous society. So here we have a 3rd century BC voice explaining what ritual is, how it functions, and how it creates virtue. He is thoroughly uninvested in our arguments and language games and in our philosophical constructions.

One other very important point about him: Xunzi denies any supernatural efficacy to ritual acts. As far as he is concerned either the gods and ancestors don’t exist or they do not care to intervene in human affairs—he’s kind of analogous to the Epicureans in that respect. Rather, he is arguing that ritual does what it does on its own terms and by its own means—not because a god or ancestor or spirit is functioning supernaturally through it. So, what I’d like to do is get a sense of where Xunzi is coming from, and then take a look at some components of Classical Anglican liturgy from the perspective that he shows us. I’m not proposing any sort of syncretism, of course; in fact, I disagree with Xunzi on some really important points. What I’m suggesting is that looking at how a pre-modern, pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment ethical thinker deeply invested in ritual and ceremony can break us out of our boxes and give us new eyes with which to look at our familiar practices.

Brief Random Thought

I think I’ve thought this out loud before, but it’s worth saying and pondering again…

We have to recognize the reality that the church in America finds itself in.

At the same time that mainline membership is dropping, we get the attendance anomaly reading between the lines of the last big Pew Research study.

  • Only 33% of mainline Christians say that they attend church weekly. But…
  • 54% of mainline Christians say they pray daily and, if you add in those who pray weekly (23%), you get 78%.

Let’s face it—we all know people who are turned off by organized religion. I know people who say they are Christians yet don’t darken church doors because the services don’t occur at convenient times, they feel that people would judge them, or because they feel unworthy/guilty (thinking particularly of some veterans I know). While I’m firmly in the camp that says that Christianity is a team sport and we need to gather together for important spiritual and theological reasons, we also have to ask ourselves about the pastoral and spiritual care of Christian non-attenders.

What can or should churches/dioceses/denominations/people who care/etc. be doing to extend resources to people who want and need them? How do we enable daily prayer or prayer practices to touch, inform, and form non-attending Christians? Sure, it’s be great if they also joined themselves to communities—but if they continue to choose not to, how do we nurture even a nebulous kind of community to support their faith?

Counting Christians

Bishop Martins has a good post up on Covenant about ecclesiometry: how we count the people in churches and what these mean for us as a church. Do read his article as he makes several good points about why and how we measure.

A central point that he makes is that we have to wrestle with the new realities of a post-Constantinian age. That is, in previous decades, we could assume that most of the people we were working with were baptized believers who knew the Christian story and what we were doing was inviting them into our version. That will no longer be the case in a post-Constantinian world and, as a result, a crucial metric will be adult baptisms.

I totally agree with that.

That having been said, I’ve been thinking something slightly different around this same issue… I completely agree with the ideas around the post-Constantinian age and also about the criticality of adult baptism—no argument at all from me on those points.

However, I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re on the cusp of a post-Constantinian age and not yet fully inhabiting it. Instead, I’d suggest that before we come to a true post-Constantinianism, we are currently inhabiting—and have been for the past couple of decades—an intense reshuffling of American Christianity in a Church Marketplace. Denominational loyalty used to be a real thing: you were what your family was. With the collapse of grand narratives and joining patterns, that paradigm fell apart.

The biggest movement was, of course, out altogether. Having less social pressure to stay in churches, many people left. Some, because they never really believed to begin with and felt more comfortable saying that; others, because they had other commitments, other demands, and church didn’t seem that valuable.

I’d argue that the other important movement besides the movement out was the movement across: the reshuffling of people into other denominations based on preference or fit. And, given the heavily political polarization of American Christianity since the rise of the Religious Right in the ’80s, those decisions have been as much political as theological.

I’d love to know if we have been keeping records on receiving and confirming people into the Episcopal Church.

Both M and I were received and from different church bodies at that. Many of my IRL and online Episcopal friends also came from somewhere else. Many are former Roman Catholics who came to a place where women could be ordained; others were Evangelicals or Fundamentalists who came to a place where their sexual orientation was not a matter of continual attack.

The combination of these two movements—movements out and movements across—I imagine that at this point we have the lowest percentage of Cradle Episcopalians (i.e., adult members raised from childhood in the Episcopal Church) that we have ever had.

This matters in a lot of different ways. In the context of ecclesiometrics, it means another important stat to keep our eye on. But—perhaps just as or more important—this feeds into the current identity crisis and the anxiety of identity that I contend is driving so many of our contentious issues right now including the debates around Communion Before Baptism and Prayer Book Revision.

Why No New Oxford Movement

There was a thought-provoking post up at Covenant the other day on Fr. Hendrickson’s call for a New Oxford Movement.

Both posts are worth reading and pondering.

But the time is not yet here. Sadly.

Fr. Hendrickson, a figure who needs no introduction to most of my readers, is—by all I can tell for someone who doesn’t attend his parish—a great priest and I count him as a friend. He is one of the core people who assisted in the creation of the Society of Catholic Priests here in North America. There is a point he makes in his original post that I think may explain why we still lack such a renewal:  Individualism unchecked.

A friend asked what a group of us thought of the article. A fellow layman explained his experience of being or, perhaps, finding his place as an Anglo-Catholic within a reverent low-church parish. That was something I resonated with very much and this is my reaction…

The elephant in the room is Catholic Anglican identity: What does it look like, what does it mean, how does it live? The chief issue that the Society of Catholic Priests has brought out into the open and laid bare is that organic “Anglo-Catholic” identity has broken down thanks to splits, departures, and arguments. It’s no longer a matter of being formed organically in a loose network of affiliated parishes; it’s largely a matter of self-study by clergy and laity grouped around a set of disconnected idiosyncratic parishes whose ritual practices and theological teachings are, again, based these days largely on the memory/dream/projection of an organic past and whatever self-study the rector/former rector thought was right (or fun, or liturgically titillating). There won’t be a new Oxford Movement for the Episcopal Church until those of use who identify as Catholic Anglicans figure out why we do and what that looks like, and how that theology is expressed, habitually and ritually. And the key point there that my friend has identified is how lay Catholic Anglicans live that stance out in parishes that aren’t Catholic and (these days) may only be marginally Anglican. Like mine too…

A revival of Catholic Anglican substance will not occur by means of priests writing treatises. That ship has sailed; those days are past.

A revival of Catholic Anglican substance will occur when the imagination of the lay faithful are caught by a vision of the church that is deeper, more beautiful, more compelling and that can be practiced even in communities that fail to grasp that vision or perceive a different vision of the church at work.

Church as Resource 1

I saw two things yesterday that made me remember a third and that tapped into something that I’ve been thinking quite seriously about for a while now.

The first was Kyle Oliver’s post on Formation with Young Adults. Do read the whole thing, but these are some of the lines that jumped out at me:

Young adults – those in their 20s and 30s, often called Millennials – seem to be everywhere, except, of course, in church. If we truly believe that the church needs millennials, and that millennials need the church, what is the way forward? . . . 

The challenges are real: Pew Research reports that only 18 percent of Millenials say they attend religious services “nearly every week” or more, as of the late ’00s. Religion may well become more important to the Millennials as they age, but slight upward trends do not change the experience of church for the young adults who are currently attending, where the young adult experience can be one of isolation and alienation. It is often difficult to form a critical mass for young adult fellowship or programs. . . .

What no denomination can afford to continue is the habit of trading on denominational loyalty alone. For example, in the Episcopal Church, campus ministries flounder when they say “We’ll be a home for all the Episcopalians on campus.” Many Episcopalians aren’t looking for such a home, and many more don’t particularly care if the Episcopal shield is on the sign out front.

A post-denominational approach acknowledges that the broader Christian tradition is much more important than the way denominations slice and dice that tradition. Denominational identities can help us form distinctive, authentic Christian communities that don’t assume a membership model of the past (“every Methodist will join our group”).

Gathering around a common Christian identity – core teachings of the faith, patterns of common worship and fellowship, a desire to grow and live in integrity – is more engaging than denominational differences. . . .

Online spaces are a primary outlet for all kinds of authentic expression, including religious expression. We shouldn’t assume that young adults demand that all of our faith formation practices have an online component, but strategic efforts can lead to additional “faith touches” and a sense of ongoing connection and belonging amid busy young-adult lives.

I was reminded of this later yesterday evening when I heard a report on Marketplace that has been excerpted for this article on the growth of the fitness industry into a $3 billion business.  Here’s the section that caught my attention in particular:

What is the “mind and body” part here? There is this quasi-religious, sometimes cult-y thing going on.

Well, it is a symptom of our times in many ways. We are an anxiety-ridden, stressed out people here, especially in the urban centers of the United States…. You know, there have been a lot of studies around millennials, especially not going to a lot of organized religion, but they are finding a lot of community in their social groups. And a lot of those social groups are manifesting around fitness boutiques, running clubs, cycling clubs. And part of it is, people feel better after they exercise. It calms them down, and there’s a lot of science around that. You know, you go for a run you clear your head … you feel like you can deal with your life a little better.

The irony, of course, was that I had just dropped off G at ballet and was on my way to the gym to work out…

I totally identify with this because I’m part of it. Furthermore, at least a couple of clergy have said to me that if they weren’t clergy serving parishes, they’d much rather spend nice Sunday mornings out for a run or bike with friends. And—Sunday mornings are precisely when people my age and younger gather to run and bike, and the majority of races are held then. Despite this, M and I have noticed that many of the runners we know are quite religious, most of them Christian (and Saturday vigil masses are very popular among the Roman Catholics for obvious reasons…).

The key limiting resource for people like me—middle-aged(!), middle-class/affluent, educated, white people—is time. Yeah, we may be cash strapped too, but the time pinch sometimes hurts worse than the money pinch (and those two are interconnected in ways that are better saved for another conversation…). If we are going to spend the coin of our time, then we’d better be certain that we’re getting a good return on investment.

If I choose to go for a run on Sunday morning, I can see some very clear, very immediate results that also point towards long-term benefits. It gives me an opportunity to be social by hanging out with my running friends (and there’s nothing like a twenty-miler to spark long soul-baring conversations that can lead to good friendships), I feel better, I can see the benefits on the scale and in my increased level of fitness. Too, I can feel confident that the benefits of this run will keep on going. It helps me stay in a healthy (and fun) habit that will keep me active longer and reduce medical bills in the future.

The goal of the Christian faith is to live the reconciliation with God effected through Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It’s about living a life that is deeply in touch with reality and that strives to point to the principles of love, justice, compassion, and mercy that we believe have been woven into the fabric of everything by our good God.  My belief is that living this way should and can have a number of practical everyday benefits.

However, we as the institutional church have failed at drawing a clear connection for our current society regarding how sacrificing a Sunday morning that could be spent doing other beneficial things helps us achieve this goal and this life.

Furthermore, the institutional church has, in some cases, actively assisted in alienating people from the Sunday morning experience—even those who continue to identify as Christians. This is where the first two pieces also got me thinking about the third piece, one from Tony Clavier last year on the “Dones.”

Easter Sunday brought with it the usual railing from clergy and churchfolk about the C&E crowd: those who only darken our doors at Christmas and Easter. Some clergy heap scorn on them. I don’t feel scornful, but I have been frustrated with them in the past. Undoubtedly some of these are P3s (People with Pious Parents) who have no connection or desire for a connection to a religious life. But others are people who do self-identify as Christians and who do feel some obligation to show up occasionally. My frustration as a member of the institutional church is driven by the knowledge that if we all acted this way, the institution itself would collapse on itself and leave them no where to g for their occasionally fixes of public worship.

Now—what I’ve done here is set up some thoughts around people who don’t show up at church for a variety of reasons yet who may well have leanings in that direction.

I could go in a lot of directions from this point. This is what the question that’s been rattling around in my head for a while, though…

Based on the 2015 Pew Study on the Religious Landscape of America, 40% of Roman Catholics say they attend church between two times a month to a few times a year; 20% say they attend “seldom/never.” Likewise, 43% of Mainline Protestants say they attend two times a month to a few times a year, and 24% attend “seldom/never.” And yet, despite “Unaffiliated” being the category with the greatest numerical growth, these infrequent attenders choose to identify with a faith group rather than be called a “None”.

Now—this next part boggles my mind… Working from a related drilldown question on frequency of prayer correlated with church (non)attendance, 50% of the twice a month to a few times a year folks report that they pray daily; of the “seldom/nevers,” 27% say that they pray daily. (This data is displayed on the same page linked to above, just lower down.)

If we believe what these numbers are saying, there’s a whole lot of prayer going on from the C&E crowd or people who never do darken our doors.

What do we do about this?

From where I sit, clergy have a stake in institutional survival. They have to if they intend to get paid to do their thing and to have a stable place in which to do their thing. Thus, they have a vested interest in getting people in the door.  Personally, I think the faith thing works a hell of a lot better when people are coming in the doors and are doing things together because, properly done,  Christianity is a team sport (i.e., see any of the passages where the Body of Christ is discussed particularly those by Paul…).

However, what is the church doing (i.e., what are we doing…) to serve as resources or to provide resources for those who choose not to be involved in our Sunday morning activities, yet who still acknowledge some sort of faith pull to the degree that they would tell a surveyor that they pray daily?

I’m reminded too of comments from readers here who tell me straight-up that they don’t attend anymore or do so infrequently yet are still attracted by and/or participate within the church’s patterns of prayer.

Consider once more the fitness crowd. Here is a body of people who—whether they’re actually regular about it or not—believe in the value of disciplined, long-term activity for personal growth/benefit.

What can we be doing to make the connection here that hasn’t happened?

(And I’ve got no answers, just questions…)

On Children in Church

My latest post is up on Grow Christians, a site for Episcopal families with children.

This is an initial post on having kids in church coming from my particular perspective: the single dad in the pew juggling two kids… That’s in no way intended to minimize the work and impact of Mother M on raising the girls up in the faith, rather, it reflects our usual Sunday morning reality: She’s working—I’m managing the girls.

I’ve got a few more posts outlined in my head that fit into what may become an occasional series, “Secrets of a Pew Whisperer.”

Here’s what I’d consider the key point of this first post:

[M and I] care about how our children believe, and the way that they inhabit, engage, and ultimately own a place in the worshiping community is an essential part of that. In our baptismal vows, we promise to share the Good News with others; as parents, our primary mission field is our own kids.

In the next set of thoughts, I’ll likely revisit one of my fundamental convictions about the character of the Episcopal Church and one of my real concerns with the continued relevance and vitality of the catholic movement within it: a lack of openness to children as full and welcome members of our communities and people with ministries to exercise among us.

On Formation

As someone who cares deeply about spiritual formation, it’s always interesting to me when I get little glimpses of the process especially when I see it in my children…

My 7th grader is required to do a Bible journal for her Bible class wherein they write reflections on the chapter of the Bible they have read that night for homework. In the car on the way home yesterday, she was leafing through her journal, looking at the comments her teacher had left. They’re working through 1 Samuel right now, and she said her teacher (a former RC priest) was very pleased with her entry on chapter 2; she had gone through the Song of Hannah and had called out all the way through it the parallels with the Magnificat.

Here’s the thing, though—she was writing the Magnificat from memory and I have no idea when she’s heard it last… Now, generally M and I pray the Offices separately rather than together and as a family because if we tried to coordinate them, we’d rarely ever pray them. Sometimes in Lent we try to do Evening Prayer together as a family, but we’re not as regular about that as we’d like to be. So, it’s not even from frequent recent repetition that she was able to pull it up. There was a time for a year or two when we tried to get daily Evening Prayer going in our former parish and G would often be there and would sometimes lead the service. That was probably three or four years ago. Was this passive formation from then expressing itself now? I have no idea.

The other thing that struck me as she was reading what she wrote is that the text cited was recognizably BCP Rite I as she quoted verbatim the phase “sent empty away.” I wonder if she chose this because it’s simply the way she remembers hearing it, or because she and her best friend are self-consciously antiquarian Anglophiles (no idea where she gets that from…), or if the now non-standard word order makes it stick more firmly in the memory. I suspect the last, although all three are likely in play.