Thursday, October 12, 2006

We are the Church!

I’ve given a lot of thought lately to the phrase, “We are the church.” It’s not something that’s really ever jumped out at me before, but as we were driving across Texas last week, my birthdad asked me a few questions about my views on theology and the church. One of his questions was “Who is the church?” My reply just popped out:

“WE are the church!”

It is a phrase often heard in the Episcopal Church, one emphasizing our democratic nature. As most readers of this blog will know, congregations choose their own priests, and come together with other congregations to elect bishops. The Presiding Bishop is elected by the other bishops, and the real governing body of the church, General Convention, is made up of elected representatives. Given this bottom-up hierarchy, when you want something done, you mustn’t sit back and think, “Man, I wish the church would get in gear!,” and you needn’t worry about who to call to make it happen. You yourself can start a group at your parish, or introduce legislation at the next Diocesan Convention. Who is it that will weigh in on this legislation? Who will vote at the next parish annual meeting? Look around next Sunday morning – that’s who. WE are the church.

We are very fortunate to belong to such an inclusive body: few other churches operate under such a system. Most other Anglican churches don’t, the Orthodox Church doesn’t, and the Roman Catholics certainly don’t. Personally, I like it this way: God calls some of us to be clergy, some of us to be doctors, and others to be car mechanics. All of these are vital missions, equal to one another in worth – I sure can’t fix my engine when it breaks down, but I’m gonna need someone to do it! So, if we are all equal in importance and value, why should some have a louder say in the governance of the church than others? We are all God’s children, all subject to the same Gospel instructions, so let’s do it together, as a community.

This all came up in conversation with another volunteer in the Ninth the other day. She’s new to the Episcopal fold, having been raised Catholic. We were talking about the importance of a smile and a good attitude, and I mentioned that part of the importance is so that we may leave ninth ward residents with a good impression of the Episcopal Church. The volunteer said yes, that’s right, we are representatives of the church, aren’t we – but no, Deacon Dick and I replied, we are not representatives of the church, WE ARE the church. (She laughed, and said she’s still working on the Episcopal lingo.)

It’s a true statement. It might be a bit more obvious who they are when they have that big Episcopal shield looming behind them than when they are walking alone down the sidewalk, but everywhere a church member goes, the church goes. The church is not sitting on some distant throne, appointing people to go forth and represent her in the ninth while she watches from afar. No, the church itself is getting up from that throne and walking over to the ninth to hand out staples. The church itself is rolling up its sleeves, getting its hands dirty, and gutting homes. When you see that RV or those wheelbarrows, they are not tools sent by the church; they are the actual church in action. It’s an important mission: we are, I am, the Episcopal Church in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, Louisiana, ordained by God to feed his sheep.

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