Monday, September 15, 2008

Thoughtful Thinking and Parish Ministry

As I perused my friend Nathan Humphrey's excellent proposal to unite the alphabet soup of "continuing Anglican" churches and halt the disintegration of the Anglican Communion and, to a lessor extent, the Episcopal Church, I took note of the fact that it has been far, far too long since I really dug into any sort of in-depth study of an intellectual discipline besides the basic discipline of writing a sermon every week. Perhaps that is because one doesn't get many "points" in parish ministry for such intellectual pursuits, perhaps it is because such things also do not pay the bills, perhaps it is that the demands of life simply crowd out such things. Most likely it is a combination of the three.

Ironically, it is my observation that we need more, not less, of such intellectual forays in the church. This is especially true considering the highly politically charged atmosphere in today's church and society. The Episcopal Church has a reputation as a thinking-person's church, although I cringe when I see that asserted as a unique attribute since it seems to assume that members of other churches are not thinking people. In any case, Episcopal clergy continue to be required to acquire a Masters level degree or equivalent and so there is some justification for the premise that both our clergy and laity are, in many ways, supposed to have more than a couple of marbles running around upstairs.

At the same time, such intellectual pursuits appear to be losing their perceived value. Several seminaries are either scaling back or combining with other institutions, fewer and fewer parishes can afford a full-time seminary-trained priest (and even fewer place "spiritual development" or "teaching" above pastoral care as priorities), and most laity are far too busy in their own daily lives to take advantage of seminars, quiet days, or other learning opportunities that such a seminary-trained priest can offer. The result, it seems to me, is a much more frantic, politically charged, and increasingly panic-stricken church culture with little time or inclination for reflection or thoughtful contemplation.

I'm not sure what the solution to this is, except for the church to stand up and affirm the value of a theologically deep, intellectually rich, and deliberately thoughtful Christianity in opposition to a world that is often philosophically shallow, intellectually bankrupt, and frantically busy. I find myself constantly having to take a deep breath, think things through, and resist the temptation to "fast track" programs or ideas in my own ministry. Perhaps the emerging "slow church" movement might have something to teach us here. That sense of slow, deliberate, and thoughtful spirituality might well be the key that ultimately saves both the Episcopal Church and its members.

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