All religion is local: the sacraments of space and place

Amidst all of the back and forth over General Convention, the commentaries and the rebuttals, I came across several pieces that help to refocus our attention on what really matters. The story of mainline denominations, of Christianity in America, can be told in different ways. There are the long-term trends of course that can be detected from a birds-eye view or from a historical perspective. Such analysis has its place. Indeed, it helps us understand what’s happening in the larger world and how those larger trends are shaping our immediate experience.

But there is also the local, the particular. Many of those who responded to the weeping and gnashing of teeth pointed to experiences in parishes and in the lives of people who have been transformed by the gospel. Tip O’Neill famously quipped that “all politics is local.” In spite of the fact that the Episcopal Church is spread across sixteen countries and bound together to a greater or lesser extent with the worldwide Anglican Communion, at its heart is the local church, the congregation that meets together to worship, to celebrate the Eucharist, to love God and our neighbor. For most people, their experience of church, of being in the Body of Christ, takes place almost entirely in the local congregation. It is there that they experience and see Christ, and seek to follow him.

By focusing on the local, the incarnational, we might avoid some of the political debates that we find ourselves in. At least that’s what David Finch thinks. Writing in Christianity Today about The Sacraments of Place, he argues that Christianity in America has become more ideology than faith:

Unfortunately, the church in North America is now defined more by what we are against than who we are or what we are for. This kind of ideology happens all the time in our churches. We notice it when someone says, “Oh, that church is the Bible-preaching church—they believe in the Bible,” implying that the others don’t. “That church? They’re the gay church and that one is the church that is anti-gay. We’re the church that plants gardens and loves the environment”; and, “Oh, by the way, you’re the church of the SUVs.” On and on it goes as our churches get identified by what we are against. We get caught up in perverse enjoyments like “I am glad we’re not them!” or “See, I told you we were right!” In the process we get distracted from the fact that things haven’t really changed at all, that our lives are caught up in gamesmanship, not the work of God’s salvation in our own lives and his work (mission Dei) to save the world. This cycle of ideologization works against the church. It is short-lived and breeds an antagonistic relationship to the world. In the process we become a hostile people incapable of being the church of Jesus Christ in mission.

He argues that the remedy to ideology, both for evangelicals and progressives, is to refocus on the local:

I suggest we can do this by “going local.” We can resist the ideologizing of the church by refocusing our attention on our local contexts. In going local, we inherently refuse to organize around what we are against and instead intentionally gather to participate in God’s mission in our neighborhoods, our streets, among the people that we live our daily lives with. Here we gather not around ideas extracted from actual practice in life that we then turn into ideological banners, but around participation in the bounteous new life God has given us in Jesus Christ and his mission. We participate in his reign, the kingdom, by actually practicing the reconciliation, new creation, justice, and righteousness God is doing and made possible in Jesus Christ. Here we become a people of the gospel again. It is only by doing this that God breaks the cycle of the ideological church.

Andrew W. E. Carlson agrees. In A Sense of Place, he writes about his experience in a church on Aurora Ave in Seattle and reflects on his experience using Flannery O’Connor’s writing:

Jesus mingled with the socially demoralized, living alongside them in their present state of reality. The challenge of our work, which centers itself on that story of incarnation, is that we have to learn how to balance the neighborhood as it is with our hope for the way things one day will become. Our church community has found that committing to remain in this tension between those two ways of seeing the world is surprisingly radical. It deviates from the well-intentioned imperialist dreams of those who wish to drive out the “problems” in order to, as representatives of the city would say, “revitalize Aurora.” But one of the first things Ben clarified when he got this community in motion is that we are not out to impose our view of what a redeemed Aurora should look like, rather we’re attempting to discover that redemption together with our neighbors. Ben says we are searching for the marks of incarnation in Aurora under the assumption that, despite the general public’s perceptions, “a faithful and loving God is already at work. We simply wake up to what the Spirit is already doing.”[2]

Tripp Hudgins moves from the local space of neighborhood to the even more local space of the church building. He asks important questions:

Is architecture a worthy artform? Does it convey the Holy? Can it? Or do the present-day economics of architecture preclude a healthy faithful expression of awe, wonder, and expectation? Do these symbols (steeples, education wings, etc) actually speak of economic excess? These may be helpful questions for us to ask for they ask us whether or not our relationship with our sacred spaces is indeed ethical as Sandlin challenges us. Have we let our appreciation of beauty and wonder morph into a false sense of entitlement or (more gently) sentimentality? Are our spaces capable of serving the Risen Lord who is and was Jesus the Christ who had no place to lay his head?

I think the answers to his questions lie in the relationship of the building and the congregation that gathers in it with the neighborhood that surrounds it. How is the building “sacred space”–not just for the worshiping community, but for the whole neighborhood? How does it make the sacred present for those who walk by? How does it incarnate Jesus Christ for its neighbors?

One of the things that has struck me since becoming the Rector of Grace Church three years ago, after working and living in very different environments for many years (primarily academic communities), is the complicated relationship of an urban church to its surroundings. Grace provides an oasis of beauty to the community primarily through our garden. At the same time, our food pantry and the homeless shelter that we house provide services and occasionally an experience of the sacred to those who come to us. Many of the same people who enjoy Grace’s beauty complain about the eyesore of a line of men waiting to enter the shelter on a cold winter’s night.

One of the challenges facing us is how to make our space “sacred space” for our community and neighbors, offering a place of respite, peace, and grace in the midst of an urban landscape that is partisan battleground, instrumentalized for profit, and a playground for the wealthy and the young. Yes, it would be cheaper to do our ministry elsewhere (although where better to have a homeless shelter than in the middle of a downtown, and if not us, who would provide that space).

But we have a building that is more than 150 years old. Other churches have moved off Capitol Square over the decades, and our urban landscape is less interesting, less beautiful, poorer as a result. Those of us in urban churches have to wrestle with the question of our ministry and mission, in the context of our neighborhood, and in the context of our space.