Talk about surprises, I found myself an official parishioner, attending a parish conference! This Conference was led by Larry Peers of the Alban Institute. I have some experience with conferences and their leaders. Perhaps I am too familiar, having worked for many years for an institution that designed them. I did the visuals, ad nauseam. This was before power point. How many clever slide shows can one tolerate? I was past my limit.
The conference was called to explore directions for the coming years and so I also had some question about the appropriateness of such a new member participating; but in this case everyone was called, and there was no choosing, they wanted bodies. I must also acknowledge that whatever my snide preconceptions might have been, I have become very fond of the members of the Emmanuel congregation, and really looked forward to spending the Friday evening, and the Saturday with them. It has been an enormous gift to me to feel the freedom to live openly in this odd little relationship with my "Friend" as I call Him, without worrying about my doubts and questions and what I call my "little heresies" making me an outcast from a hypocritical group. So I attended with these surprising people, and I want to tell you that Mr.Peers conducted the most amusing, intelligent and energetic conference I've ever attended. Those three adjectives are rarely found in the same place, and I extend to him my highest compliments, but the issue I want to address is more specific than all this.
Mr.Peers had very skillfully brought us through a process that began with the establishment of the history of the parish and ended in an agreement on the issues that we want to go forward with. It was rather remarkable that such a disparate group could conduct themselves with real intelligence and courtesy to one another. To me, as a newcomer, it seems that they were quite self critical. I will give an example. One woman when asked about regrets, regretted that the music program was not as uplifting as it once was. I can't imagine what that "once" might have been because the uplift newcomers experience is every bit as intense as I ever heard described. I believe she was a member of Emmanuel Music, and my identification as an artist tells me that like all serious artists she was unable to step back and see the glory of their accomplishment because her standards are so unrelentingly high. Since they get no applause for their playing during the service perhaps they have difficulty understanding their impact. I find it interesting that they never brought that up in this process.
Of all matters, the thing most interesting, and most telling for me occurred at the very end, the final item to be agreed upon for the agenda for moving forward. Was Emmanuel church committed to Christian education and formation? What controversy could there be in this for an Episcopal Parish?
I took a deep breath. I will remind my readers of the commitment of this parish to Boston Jewish Spirit, and their acknowledgment that the path to spiritual growth lies through a dense fog of questions and doubt. My single greatest objection to other churches has been the idea that there is only one path, only one destination, only one guide. It suddenly, and distressingly, seemed that my association with this parish which has become so very important to me, was suddenly on the line. "Christian education is bad enough. Every fiber in my brain sees that as dangerous. The whole point of education is to teach a person to think; to learn the skills that will enable them to reach their own decision after rigorous exploration. To restrict that process to one point of view seems like a betrayal of the idea of education. Even worse, Christian formation, a kind of programing that the post twentieth century community can only view as dangerous, whatever the intent.
My object here is to comment not so much on the content of the debate that followed, but on the fact that it took place and was resolved, at least to the extent that the word "Christian" was not acceptable, and while the parish was committed to supporting people on their spiritual development, they saw that while their worship service is a Christian service, to then take the step the proposition implied would negate everything the parish stood for regarding openness, ecumenism, and especially would counter the association with Boston Jewish Spirit which the group had posited as one of the things they were proudest of.
It was an interesting exchange, at times tense, very dangerous considering the emotionally explosive potential of the matter at hand, and a marker to define the intellectual and moral integrity of these people. In my view, and to my great relief, I can tell you that they passed that test with flying colors. This is an issue that not only strikes to the heart of Christian belief, but also at the very meat of our relationship with the diocese, this is after all an "Episcopal" church, and this parish has gone head to head with the episcopate before, to their expense but not regret. The issue was resolved only to the extent that it was tabled for further discussion. It was agreed that without "Christian" it would have passed. This was conducted in a rather remarkable way: there was no loss of courtesy, and those with strong opinions said their piece and and gave over the floor. There was a dialogue rather than a rancorous disagreement. Actually some said afterward that their was rancor, I didn't sense what I would call that, but if there it was contained in a very adult way.
"Emmanuel" means "God is with us." One of the features of our sanctuary is a great window called "Emmanuel's land." The reference is to Pilgrim's Progress. It shows pilgrims being given a glimpse of "Emmanuel's land;" a distant arcadian place with classical structures right out of Poussin. I've asked my Friend where that land is. He tells me that the Gospel of Thomas is correct, "the kingdom of the Father is all around you, you just can not see it."
The next question is obvious, how do we come to be able to see it? He says to me, " What's happened to your memory? You were going on and on about Rev. Werntz prayer for days, have you forgotten? Have the courage to seek after truth, 'come when it may, cost what it might.' Lack of courage is the curtain that covers the window."
When one of the members of Emmanuel Music stood up and objected she showed us the courage to seek after truth- no idyl bargain, I say again. And the participants courage to engage in the discussion was very reassuring to me.
I happen to know that at least one version of hell is a place with out logic, where the connection between words and truth is utterly broken, where life is a maze of hypocrisy and stupidity that renders one's hard won intelligence completely useless. I think this is why Job always held out, to do otherwise would be to surrender his integrity. I know that when everything is taken from us, but we have our integrity we have all. That is the lesson of Job.
So on Saturday evening, when M's courage pulled aside the curtain, I saw "Emmanuel's Land"
Thank God for that.