I occasionally trespass against the tenth commandment. Particularly when I hear the descriptions of congregations busting at the seams with young families, moving into spanking new buildings, offering innovative and popular ministries, congregations like The Meeting House franchise or others of that nature, I admit that I covet.
I covet the obvious things. I’m a chronic over-achiever who has been well-taught to gauge success according to quantifiable measurements – like worship attendance, annual financial returns, growth in membership, for example. Any of my own experience in parish ministry of this kind of accomplishment ends up feeling very fragile and modest when I hear people describing the rampant growth, the blatant, undeniable dominance of these charismatic/pentecostal/evangelical versions of Christian ministry. I feel myself envious of that level of absolute assurance that must come with God so clearly choosing the pastor at the helm of that particular ministry through whom to work in such powerful and fruitful ways.
But that’s just the most obvious reason why I stray into covetousness. It also goes deeper. I grew up in a politely Christian family. We went to church regularly and didn’t talk about prayer or divine encounter or God’s will outside of Sunday services. The worst thing that one could become, in the circle with whom I travelled, would be an evangelical Christian. I have continued to grow and serve in the Anglican tradition, and while that politeness is not across the board, it does run rampant. I am envious of — or it might be more accurate to say that I secretly long for — an expression of faith that can speak of individual relationship with Jesus so fluently, knows prayer is a game-changer, expects practices of tithing and Biblical study, and assumes that Christians will think critically about the values being presented as normal in our secular society.
There is a reason why God forbids covetousness. Among other things, it leads to a crisis of our own self-worth. Along with my fellow clergy, I take the Great Commission seriously. Although we all get sick of hearing Anglicans complaining about not having youth while simultaneously declaring that they want to attract young people, most of us do, nonetheless agree that Jesus’ call to make and baptize new believers must have something to do with the generations of people younger than us. I very much enjoy the challenge of extending our communities to those currently self-defined as being outside of the church. And at the same time, I find the work to be slow and intense – a great deal of output for dicey returns. The ease with which these non-denominational mega-churches are able to establish a franchise, going from ground zero to congregations busting with young, tithing, committed families has caused me to wonder, at times, if the market hasn’t already been cornered. Why am I expending such enormous mind-energy-prayer resources into (for example) a very new, and very ancient, Eucharistic worship expression, attracting 30 people who would probably otherwise not be in church, when the operation down the street can provide a televised sermon, a full range of age-specific Sunday school classes, singles-youth-men-women’s groups, and an articulation of the faith that is clear, consistent, that gives people the assurance of knowing exactly where they stand and precisely what is required in response?
Sin is often defined as disconnection from God. Sometimes when we are hardest on ourselves, we justify our attitude as modesty or humility. And, too often, we are using pietistic language to mask our utter refusal to trust in God’s faithfulness to us, to honour what God is doing in our lives.
If sin is disconnection, then Conversation 2014 in Montreal last week was atonement. At-One-ment. It was re-connecting. Each burning question was given time and space to be brought to the floor, was given opportunity for conversation, for gathering the collective wisdom of our peers. And the conference was centered, not on false humility, but on the expectation that God would be present, God’s living Word would be revealed to us, through us, through the people gathered, in the conversations initiated.
I heard from colleagues who had grown up in the evangelical tradition, who found themselves called into the Anglican expression, recognizing and then claiming as valuable the gifts of conversation, bread breaking, apostolic lineage, mystery and openness, congregational song and prayer, the enacting of liturgy rather than performance — gifts which are particularly strong in Anglicanism. I heard people share their stories, not of success in ministry, but of pure white-hot truth in ministry, those moments – usually involving personal relationships, intimate and authentic expressions of community, moments not well-represented in our annual tallies – when one person’s life changes forever. Or when one person’s life changes forever again. Stories, not of a come-to-Jesus moment, but of our daily need for conversion; ‘to be baptized once again this day,’ in the words of Martin Luther. I heard smart, young, endlessly gifted people, people who, as one of my colleagues commented, could have done ANYTHING with their lives and yet chose to do this, telling their stories in a way that made it clear that there is something about the Anglican tradition that allowed them to connect with Christ, that rather than looking for the newest and best and brightest and most innovative and best-resourced church on the block, these are people who found their way into this walk with Jesus through a church that isn’t Mega in any sense, but is nonetheless continuing to offer itself for the purpose that Christ might, day by day, year by year, build us into a church. Not the biggest church, maybe. (maybe our definitions of what constitutes ‘big’ change in the kingdom of God, ie. consider the mustard seed) But a church that is proclaiming the Good News and bearing witness to God’s transformative life. I heard people brave and committed to seeking something other than the world’s definition of success, to boldly living out the Great Commission on a scale that is meaningful only on the level of witness, the level of our stories. A Stuart McLean version of Jesus’ church: We may not be big, but we’re small.
I also found in my colleagues some of those bridges to the things about the evangelical tradition that were touching my heart somewhere deeper than a mere desire for success. One of the caveats of following Christ is that we never get to rest on our laurels as being a finished product. Anglicans can learn something about claiming the gifts of the Spirit as not just for the Pentecostals. We can learn something about inviting our people to a higher bar of spiritual practice. We can learn something about the deep, rumbling hunger for good teaching, for being formed – by Bible, practice, community – into something, someone, quite different from the business-as-usual version of the 21st century North American individual. It isn’t us vs. them anymore: liberal versus conservative, catholic vs. evangelical, traditional vs. charismatic. We can learn from one another. We can trust that God isn’t just working through us, God is also working through others, and God is bringing us into conversation with one another for the sake of deepening and broadening the impact of the Good News it is in us to proclaim.
I brought, I asked, I heard, I found. And I gave thanks. With 35 other colleagues from across the country, I gave thanks. I left behind for a few days the feelings of inadequacy and dislocation that can so permeate our individual ministries, especially when we get breaking the 10th commandment. I gave thanks to God, who against all odds, is clearly up to something. I gave thanks for people with whom I share the journey, who could have been anywhere and chose to be here. I gave thanks for God taking the time to slap me on the side of the head once again, to remind me that, yes, there is a purpose in this too, in me too, and yes, small and personal also matters alongside big and corporate. I gave thanks because, envy aside, I wouldn’t be here either, I wouldn’t have found my way to Jesus, let alone found my way to serving as a priest in his church, if it hadn’t been for the communities that have welcomed me out of the Anglican way – with Word and Sacrament, with honest proclamation and struggle, with some believing and some doubting, with a healthy dose of poetry and art and story and music, with colleagues and fellow Christians who manage to keep it real.
 Forgive me, any of the labels we give seem inadequate and a mis-use of our Christian language.