I’ve been watching various reactions to this piece float by on my Facebook feed over the past week or so. The reactions are mostly from clergy in agreement with the author, collectively appalled at those who would dare ask them to preside outside of their sanctuaries, frustrated by those who ask them to officiate at weddings even though the couples themselves “don’t care” about the language, the sacrament, the Word, the blessings that we as church bring.
But as I read their reactions I wonder, who do we think is out there today? Only those who understand the mystery, the value, the sacred we embody in our liturgical worship? I live an incredibly “churched” part of the country. At times I have felt we are “over churched” and even here the day is gone when people come to us seeking the blessing of the church because they deeply value the blessing of the church. Sure it happens sometimes, but not always. I actually hope and expect to encounter people who come to me/us seeking something which they don’t understand and have no idea how to value.
It’s on us to re-instill meaning, to teach the depths, to invite those with no experience of who we as church are into an experience of who we as church are.
What a beautiful thing it could have been to meet in a hollowed out church and speak of generations of congregations who had gathered and prayed there, of clergy who had presided over Sundays and all various forms of sacred passages, of couples who had been married there…What a beautiful thing it could have been to speak to this couple of what was lost and how important it is both to connect with a “communion of saints” in life and marriage (i.e. the “hallowed,”) and to be attentive to the “hollow” that eats at us all, threatening relationships and communities. An empty church is in some ways the PERFECT image to use to reflect with people unfamiliar with the faith on what faith and blessing and church are, and what we are not. And empty church is in some ways the PERFECT image to use to reflect with people on how to maintain relationships that are loving, and sacred, and that are very much needed in this world and also challenged by it.
What a beautiful opportunity this could have been to bring the church to hungry people, teaching liturgy rather than expecting couples (or anyone for that matter) who come to us today to prove that they understand the church’s value or meaning before experiencing it.
As an ordained Episcopal priest, I lean in the direction of saying Yes to most (not all) invitations to preside at weddings and funerals too. Like Atkinson, I present very clearly that what I will bring will be Christian and Episcopalian. I then I explain to couples what that means – the wedding will contain Scripture, prayers, vows, blessings and a Trinitarian understanding of God. One of them has to have been baptized (because I am for the most part canonically sound) and if they are game, so am I – even if they say something like “we don’t really care.” Of course they don’t care. Many of them have never been taught why they should, or given too reasons not to.
At the service, I vest as an Episcopal priest. And in the process of premarital work (which is now always pastoral, evangelical and catechetical) and the wedding itself I show them how our faith connects with their moment of deep love, commitment, celebration and hope. It is an offering we make as church.
These couples and the people whom they gather are part of the “mission field,” the part that invites us out to be among them without their understanding exactly what that means. This means that such couples are actually part of the easy mission work we’ve been given to do not the hard work; they are of the kind that comes with an (at times literally) engraved invitation. If the clergy who are called to lead our church can’t go there, why would we expect others to?
The harvest is ready, the fields are ripe. How can we say, “No?”
Hallow on, church. Hallow on.