How Church Members Need to Listen to their Critics, and the Critics Need Humility

I have been at my present position nearly six months now, and some of my time has been spent in visiting and making contact with people who are on the edges of the congregation. Their comments are always useful, because they give me, and now you, a picture of how we look to others. One of the most common things I have heard is ‘Well I don’t go there any more because of X’ In this case “X” can be a particular practice, or an event or person. It seems the whole or Montreux is full of English speaking people who don’t go to St. John’s any more.


What can I make of this? Well the first thing is to take a critical look at ourselves. Recently I heard the new bishop of Washington on a ‘pod cast’. She was saying that as the Episcopal Church in the US has shrunk, congregations have become smaller, and now operate like big families. There is a matriarch and a patriarch, and no matter what, if the Matriarch or Patriarch don’t want something to happen, then it’s not going to happen! I remember one person describing their parish in Melbourne to me like this. They said ‘We are a ‘cliquey’ lot. We are hard to break into. But once you have shown the determination to break in, then we’ll love you through thick and thin!’


All this describes the kind of concern for the inner life of a congregation which has lost sight of its mission. Take the idea of wearing name tags for instance. I have heard people (not just here) say ‘’But we all know who we are!’ This presumes that no one new is going to come: that the simple thing of making your name known to someone who does not know you asks something unreasonable. But if you speak to people who are on the fringes of the congregation, or who are new, then they will tell you that to have some one’s name on them is very important to them.


The next issue has to do with being welcoming. On the one hand, there can be a kind of forced hospitality, which requires every one who is new to wear a ribbon to indicate their status. This is the kind of hospitality that says ‘We have ways to make you known!’ It is a false hospitality because it is disrespectful of the other’s wishes, perhaps, to remain unknown. On the other hand some people are just so reserved, or not concerned with their responsibilities as a member of the congregation toward a new person, that it is often heard ‘Well I came there once, and no one said a word to me! ‘


The business of hospitality is not easy, because it requires us to be open to another, to make room for them. That means changing ourselves to make more room in us for someone else. It means taking the risk that says ‘Will you tell me how we can be of service?’ That is what I hope we are achieving at St. John’s. While making it a ‘value’ of our place that people are made welcome, and identified as new or a visitor, and invited to stay for coffee, we also try to respect people’s privacy if that is their desire


The other thing that goes into the mix of Church life is simple bad behavior; (obviously off putting). The Church is a place for wounded people. It is a place where we are allowed to come into contact with our inadequacies and not be condemned, but loved and forgiven. It is inevitable that from time to time our wounded-ness is going to emerge. Members of congregations who have been around a long time have found ways of dealing with this. Here I have seen two people ‘have words’ and those same two people, the next Sunday, take the Eucharist seriously, and ask forgiveness of God, and then of each other before sharing the ‘Peace’. Other times it is common to hear ‘Oh, that’s just ‘X’ being ‘X’. We love them dearly, but they are a pain sometimes. Mostly we ‘work around them’.


Sometimes bad behavior has been challenged, as it should be, and I have also seen great growth in love and commitment because of it. I have also seen people walk off because bad behaviour has been challenged. And the cycle begins again ‘I’m not going back there because of ‘X’.


All of this has to do with the question ‘What does it mean to say ‘We are the body of Christ?’ The Church is not a shop. We live in a ‘consumerist’ society where the ‘customer is king’ but the Church is not a bunch of consumers of religious goods and services, but the Body of Christ. Each member, functional or dysfunctional belongs to the Body. The Church in it’s liturgy, and so its life has given us the means of reconciliation so that we can stay belonging to one another in the Body.


This is the spot where I would like to turn my critical eye to those who have said ‘I am not going there any more because of ‘X.’ ‘ The Church is a good place to learn humility. Every young clergyman is told by nearly every older clergyman that the Church is not our possession but is given to us by God. We are not the choosers of our fellow Christians, but the acceptors of them. Just as God receives us ‘just as we are’ so for those who want to join the Church, they too need to learn humility about Church members. I can write these reflections, which call us who claim the name Christian to live a life worthy of our calling. But at the same time, we are not perfect. Are the people who ‘don’t come here any more’ such wonderful people that they will be sullied by contact with us sinners? If they are so morally strong as to be judges of our behaviour, why is it that one or two incidents are enough for them to excommunicate themselves? The Eucharist is God’s own ‘covenanted means of grace’ as the technical phrase goes. Just as the Christmas Carol says ‘Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light’, so in the Eucharist, put on by sinners, God chooses to act and to make forgiveness and reconciliation known and available to us if we will take it seriously.


St. Paul says ‘we have this treasure in earthen vessels’. This is true. God chooses ‘cracked pots’ (pun intended). Just as it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the Reign of Heaven, so it is harder for proud people who think that they do not have planks in their eyes to see that God is present in an imperfect Church.


So there is the mystery of the incarnation: God’s presence with us. The Church is as the reformers said ‘always in reform’. It is right that we listen to our critics, in order to be made aware of how we fail to live up to our high calling. At the same time, I would like to call on our critics to be a bit humble and not so brittle about our failings. As I was reminded this morning when I was admitting to a failing of mine ‘Well, let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.’


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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