Tag Archives: Anglican

Beloved but Messy: A Review of Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong.”

I never believed I would be someone who would enjoy reading books on ecclesiology.  Reading about the nature of the church never once appealed to me as a viable good time option.  Yet here I am, reading books on the nature of the church, and loving it!  The latest addition to my reading was Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church.”  I received a complimentary copy as part of Crossway Publishers Blog Review Program; it as a part of that program that I offer this review. 

Hill’s book is refreshingly approachable.  Although Hill has clearly done her reading, and has earned her theological chops, A Place to Belong is rooted in a real-world expression of the local church.  By that I mean, Hill writes about the church as we experience it, speaking of such things as “peppermints” and church-ladies”, “church dinners”, and “favourite pews.” These references are not simply quaint stories or humours anecdotes, however.  For Hill, these references are the church.  A congregation made up of individuals who have previously determined their favourite place to sit is not a lesser image of the church… It is the church.  In this way, the reader is able to recognise one’s own local congregation as he/she make their way through the chapters.

While Hill writes theologically, her theological vision of the church is not divorced from the messy realities of life. Thus, as Hill points out, the local church “doesn’t always seem gorgeous.” (12)  I find this quite a profound realization, and one that can so easily be overlooked.  The church is a messy reality.  It is that way because we are that way.  With fresh honesty, Hill offers a vision of the church which includes the truth that “I have sometimes been hurt by people in the church – ignored and misunderstood and intentionally deceived.  I know I have hurt a few people myself” (12).  Hill offers no rose-coloured treatment of the church.  This will undoubtedly speak to those who have struggled with the church.  With Hill they will find a sympathetic voice.  It is simply true that ‘belonging to the church doesn’t always seem like much of a glorious privilege” (13).  This acknowledgement is refreshing, and should be recognised as an essential part of our ecclesiology. 

The messiness, or brokenness, of the church, however, is not the end of the story, for ultimately, as Hill points out, this is the church that Christ loves.  Upon this reality hangs Hill’s entire treatment of the church, and it is precisely why we are called to love the local church.  The church is not a platonic ideal that exists only in abstractions.  Jesus loves the local church, in all its messy expressions.  Hill reminds the reader that the New Testament frequently addresses the local church, filled with its conflict, fighting, and imperfections, as “Beloved.”  Thus, as God loves the local church, so ought we. 

When we approach our conception of the local church from this footing, we are grounded in the biblical vision of the church – and our own call to be a part of it.  This speaks loudly within a culture where church attendance has been continually in the decline.  The popularity of ‘spiritual but not religious’, and the too-often toted mantra of “I can worship God anywhere’ has helped contribute to the slow ebbing away of the Church’s vibrancy.  Yet it is not simply because of its structure that we are called to be a part of the local church.  Nor are we to belong to the church simply because it is always pleasant for us.   We are called to the church because the gathering of the local community is a gathering God loves.  God delights in the local church, and works through it.  Thus, our involvement in the local church is an expression of, and a participation in, the delight of the Lord.  Hill’s emphasis on God’s love for the church being the basis for our love for the church is a needed reminder for us.

All this being said, there was one element of Hill’s book I did not appreciate.  Hill is clear that her vision of the church contains only male leadership.  In the fourth chapter Hill tackles the biblical concept of Shepherds, suggesting that the leaders of the local church – elders/pastors/priests – are raised up by God and offer a needed ministry.  Despite the potential to drift into clericalism, Hill has some good things to say about this.  Yet it seems that Hill almost goes out of her way to attribute such leadership positions to men alone.  She writes about the how the service of ordination is a response to the church having been “encouraged to identify men who are gifted for leadership” (65).  Similarly, in the final chapter, she highlights church administration being structured around inter-church elders meetings; meetings “where the gathered men discuss common concerns and make decisions that promote the good of the local church” (137).  Frankly, this seems ripped out of a manual from the 1940s. There is no recognition that such a framework is simply not how other local churches function.

I found this element of the book disheartening, and ultimately disappointing.  Up to this point, Hill diligently sought to present a vision of the local church that was approachable and relevant across any denominational context.  Furthermore, as has been mentioned, her vision of the local church is rooted in a deep recognition of the fragility of the human gathering.  Yet when approaching church leadership, there was none of this sensitivity.  Chapter 4, and her discussion of male elders, is presented in a way that would make one think this is a doctrinal necessity.  There seems to be no recognition that other denominations may involve non-male leadership, or employ alternate forms of church governance.  More to the point, there seems to be no recognition that several streams of her own denomination (Presbyterian) actively ordains women!   Unfortunately, Hill missed a profound opportunity to lend her voice to ecumenical unity. Hill could have put forward an ecclesiological vision that included a shared participation in the one story of Christian ministry, despite different understandings of who gets to be ordained.  Instead, however, she turned inward and puts forward a vision of church leadership that is set firmly within a very narrow, and I would argue antiquated, understanding of ordination and leadership.

Did I enjoy reading Hill’s A Place to Belong?  That’s hard to say.  I enjoyed the reflections that reading the book prompted within me.  Yet I can’t get passed her fourth chapter and I find that it, unfortunately, sullies the rest of the work.  In the end, I do believe Hill has an important offering for how we understand the local church, and our call to be a part of it.  I am sure her book will be one that I reference in my own teaching, preaching, and writing about the church.  Unfortunately, because of what I see as a glaring blunder regarding her picture of church leadership, I may be hesitant in recommending this book to others.

An appeal for Church unity with reflections from the Parable of the Good Samaritan: My response to General Synod.

Last week was the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.  It is the church that I have belonged to since as long as I can remember.  It is the church that I was ordained in 16 years ago, and it is the church that I love.  For a good several months, however, I have watched comments fling about online, I have read blogs and articles, I have listened to people speak at each other rather than converse with each other.  The issue:  Changing our cannon on marriage.  Make no mistake, despite the election of our new primate, despite the good work done in supporting indigenous self-determination, this was the main issue at Synod.  This meant that when it hit the floor of Synod, speakers quickly piled up. Tensions were high, emotions were hot, veiled insults were flung, and in the end, a vote was cast.  Yet in this me vs you way of governance, this vote insured that there would be no winner for our church.  And, although a frequent theme of this year’s synod was UNITY, when the issue of the marriage canon came, it was clear that church unity was far from people’s minds.

At this point I should be clear that I was not actually at Synod.  While I watched the live feed as much as possible, I could only view what the camera showed me.  Still, over the past week I have thought a lot about church unity and about what  embracing  church unity might mean for the Anglican Church of Canada.  And so, it is on the matter of unity, with some references to General Synod, that I offer this blog.

An important understanding is that unity is not something that we necessarily bring about by being the same.  Unity is not the same as uniformity.  In fact, I would say that unity is not actually about us.  The more we focus on ourselves, and the more we try to force some unity by way of our own actions (or vote), the more we move away from the true unity of the church.  Why? Because we are not the creators of unity.  Jesus holds the unity of the church together. Thus the unity of the church is a gift to the church. That is, the church can only understand itself a united body as it focuses on the good news of Jesus, feeds on the body and blood of Jesus, and is empowered by the spirit of Jesus.  The unity of the church is a function and by product of the church’s identity in Christ Jesus.

Jesus unites us.  This probably sounds simple, but sometimes the simplest of things can be the most profound.  It is the presence of Christ the unites the body of Christ, this means that unity doesn’t dismiss our differences, or our brokenness.  In fact, within the unity of the church (held by Christ) I am free be completely different from you, as different as iPhone to Android, Stampeders to Roughriders, Yahoo to Yee-haw.  What is more, embracing a Christ-held unity can mean that I am allowed to think that you are wrong, or mistaken, and you can think I am wrong.  However, if Jesus is your Lord, and Jesus is my Lord, then together, Jesus is our Lord.  Unity exists with You and I, we and us, resting in the hand of Christ Jesus.

Our expression of unity is rooted in the primary call of our lives: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.”  We heard this passage last Sunday in Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-32). Jesus commends the expert of the law who cites this as the “way to eternal life.”  “Do this and you will live” Jesus says.  As we who read religious blogs are probably aware, this appeal to loving the Lord, flowing into love of neighbour, isn’t just something that sounds nice doctrinally but doesn’t mean much practically.  That first phrase was part of Shema, a passage in Deuteronomy that the Jewish people, as a nation, were asked to recite daily.  The Shema spoke fundamentally about who Israel were as a people.  They were the Lord’s chosen.  They were people who lived their life with the presence of the Lord.  The Shema reminded them that the Lord defined what they were passionate about, defined how they thought about things, defined what they gave their energy to and what they avoided.  That same call is true for us.  Jesus commends it to us.  And so, if we are ever asked: “what is the church about?” or “what is that which unifies the church?” we should say that we love Jesus with all our passion and prayer and intelligence and muscle.  This is the foundation of everything we are to be as a church.

The sad reality of our history is that we often make the church about so many other things.  We have made the church about social justice, or about conservative morality, or it’s about progressiveness and liberation, or about the colour of carpets and the dangers of hymn-book revision.  Don’t get me wrong, some of those things may be well and good… they just do not create unity.  Again, the unity of the church is held by Jesus because Jesus alone is the unity of the church.

Now before we smile and say “absolutely” we need to recognize there are radical implications that flow from this.  The love of the Lord leads to love of neighbour.  Referring again to the parable, there was a long-standing rabbinic practice that linked the Shema and the command to love our neighbours.  That being said, there was a debate about who constituted one’s neighbour.  One interpretation saw the command in Leviticus 19 as a call to love only the Israelite neighbour.  Love your neighbour, as you love yourself… because they are essentially just like yourself.  This is why the expert asks Jesus “who is my neighbour?”

(As a side, can I just say, I love the humanity in this. We do this don’t we? We often attempt to justify what not to do, define to whom something does not apply.  Peter asks Jesus: “I only need to forgive 7 times right?”; The expert request: “tell me who I may legitimately not love.”)

To think this way is to think that the love that we have for God, and the unity that Jesus creates within the body of faith, is only to be expressed within certain circles or toward certain people.  It’s designed for people like me, who look like me, or think like me, or vote like me. In response to this flawed way of thinking about the other, Jesus gives the most extreme example of understanding another’s humanity.  In her commentary on the passage, Amy-Jill-Levin notes that in order to understand the parable of the Good Samaritan you need to ask yourself “is there anyone, from any group, whom we would rather die than acknowledge.’

Leading up to the General Synod, in blogs, articles, and comments, and then later during the Synod itself, I heard statements that I can only interpret as a refusal to acknowledge the other. I quote:

“Why do you have so much hate in your heart?”

“How can these people call themselves Christians and vote this way?

 “The Bishops clearly don’t love everyone.”

 “These people don’t read the bible rightly.”

“People who agree with the marriage change have a different understanding of Jesus.”

When we make such statements, I believe the heart of Jesus breaks and he weeps over his church. Such statements mean we think the unity of the church occurs when others agree with my side of the argument.  Love your neighbour only as they are like yourself. The danger in all the statements above is that it pushes us toward excommunication. After all, it’s not that much of a leap from saying “they have a different understanding of Jesus”, to saying “they don’t belong in my church.” If we so distance ourselves from the others, to deny any sort of unity in humanity, or faith, then we will never be the good Samaritan.  We will never embody the sacrificial love that Jesus calls us to.

What if the entire church is lying bloody on the road, feeling beaten up by controversy, and insults, and mudslinging.  What if all of us, regardless of what we think about a host of things, is hurting. What might it mean for us to love the church the way the Saviour loves the church? The love of the good Samaritan didn’t try to change the wounded man.  In fact, the Samaritan was willing to be inconvenienced in order to heal the wounded man. This is the radical, Christ-like, ‘I’m willing to bear the scars of the cross’ type of love that the unity of the church calls for. Can we embrace someone who voted differently than us?  Can we share communion together? Can we allow the Spirit of Jesus in us to see the Spirit of Jesus in them?  We have seen this radical unity in the history of the church and we need to see in now.

What we are called to, what we need to be refocused on, is not a unity centred on ecclesiastical polity, or watered-down theological politeness, or appeals to social agencies or structures, or some human call for us to think the same way.  We are called to a robust and radical understanding of unity that transcends all our human brokenness, pride, arrogance and waywardness. And let’s be honest, all of us are broken, prideful, arrogant, and wayward at times.   We are called to the unabashed witness to of the power of Christ to unite and heal.  We are asked to testify that unity overcomes estrangement, forgiveness heals guilt and joy overcomes despair.

Love the lord your God with passion, prayer, intelligence and muscle, living that out to those who are fundamentally different than yourself.  This radical call is far weightier that just a religious soundbite. Jesus says to the expert in the law, he says to us, “Go and do likewise.”  And before we say ‘Yea but .. .’ Jesus stops his sentence right there.  Jesus doesn’t give any more clarification on the issue so neither should we.  We act this way, radically, boldly, faithfully, because we trust that the Spirit will inspire the community of faith to treat us in similar fashion.  This isn’t about one side giving, and the other side receiving.  It is about all us giving and receiving the Spirit of Jesus together. Because when it comes down to it, the unity of the church isn’t something that we try to bring about by our decision making; it is something we receive by Jesus alone, and it is a quality that ultimately Jesus alone will protect.