In an earlier life, I was a historian and although I am reluctant to enter any battles about the inherent virtues of studying the humanities nor inclined to argue for the study of history on instrumental grounds, there are times when even a brief foray into history can provide useful perspective from which to study current problems.
So it was this week. I was trying to write about the shape of the future church, to help clarify some work we’d done in strategic planning on the diocesan level. At various points in that process, we had alluded to Jackson Kemper and the missionary impulse that founded the Diocese of Milwaukee. As I prepared to write, I turned to a history of the Episcopal Church and to a history of the diocese. A superficial read of relevant chapters of both works was eye-opening. Typical church histories of the mid-twentieth century are largely stories of institutions–the formation of dioceses, the founding of parishes and other institutions, the inevitable personality struggles between competing egos and competing visions, and the biographies of the “great men.” In the stories I was reading, I learned about failures–failed missions, failed schools, failed ministries. I read of heroic efforts by clergy and laity preparing the ground and planting seeds that bore fruit decades later.
I wondered what readers fifty years ago would have made of those histories. How would they have interpreted them? No doubt there would have been some sense of failures and missed opportunities, but from the perspective of a thriving church and diocese in mid-century, the end of the story was clear–thriving institutions and vital ministries that reflected the bustle of the post-war boom in America.
Fifty years later, I had a very different reaction. Not just because of the different way history is written today (I’m more curious about those lay people, and especially lay women, than the bishops and priests; I’m more interested in the lived religion than in the bricks and mortar, more interested in the edges, the boundaries between insiders and outsiders, the interplay of religion and social forces).
As we stand at the edge of a frontier as vast and unknown as the one Jackson Kemper entered in the 1830s and 1840s, I’m interested in the forms that ministry and mission will take on that frontier. Kemper and others of his generation had a clear sense of what the church should look like. When they established a parish or school, they built edifices that reflected those ideas–solid, sacred buildings of wood, brick, and stone. They built institutions that were meant to serve those churches and schools and were meant to convey a sense of the sacred, of dignity, and of permanence.
The institutional histories tell the stories of those buildings, the ministries and people that inhabited them. But often the most interesting stories are of those institutions that failed, efforts that came to nothing or transformed into something quite different than the original intent, like the quasi-monastic community that founded Nashotah House and moved on to Minnesota.
I was reminded of this narrative of success and failure again this morning when I read an article about the death of the last Beguine. A relic of the Middle Ages, at one time communities of Beguines thrived in the towns of what is now Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Rhine area. They weren’t quite nuns; they didn’t take vows but lived in community, praying, working, passing in and out of their houses. Some of the great spiritual writing of Medieval Christianity are products of the Beguines. The Church frowned on them, worried about them, and over the centuries sought to force them into more traditional and typical forms of monastic life. They survived through the centuries, a relic of an earlier age and probably not particularly relevant to either the religious lives or the cultures of the communities in which they lived, certainly not after the seventeenth century.
The story of the last Beguine, those episcopal histories I read, were all stories of institutions, stories of success and failure, growth and decline. They teach us important lessons about adapting to cultural contexts and the willingness to experiment. They also teach us about the problems of institutions, the inherent tendency to try to preserve them when they may no longer be needed or wanted.
I would draw two lessons from these stories. 1) the importance of adaptability. The decline of the beguines was only in part due to official resistance. In the long run, changes in society made their very creative response to a particular set of cultural crises basically irrelevant. 2) the impermanence of institutions. Our solid buildings are deceptive and stifle our creativity and the Spirit’s creativity.
Where is the spirit blowing today? Will we have the courage to let it lead us into the future, or will we stay behind the walls of our dying institutions and become the last Episcopalians?