Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Generational Narcism

Serving historic churches is a mixed blessing. The long history, the structures-physical and organizational, and the reservoir of ministries accomplished are all things that provide for the kind of inertia that save many of us from immediate irrelevance. If it were not for this institutional and spiritual inertia, inertia of a good sort in that it connects us to the historic witness and its trajectory, my 293 year old congregation might have ceased to exist independently about a decade ago. Generational Narcissism, the sense that my generation is the only one that matters, interferes with the positive aspects of standing among the great cloud of witnesses.

It was in an invitation from a local synagogue, one celebrating its 110th anniversary, that I was reminded of this obligation that may constrain but may also be a factor in giving life. At the turn of the 20th century a Jewish community of Eastern Europeans was established in my town. Coming from varied backgrounds from within their own faith, they put aside their differences in order to form a synagogue. Then, interestingly, they were aided in their effort by two local churches, one Roman Catholic and mine. The aid was structural, contributions to a building to house the congregation, and relational, a teacher to instruct these young Eastern European Jews in the Hebrew they needed for their Bar Mitzvah. To imagine a group of early teenage boys trooping to the Episcopal Church for Hebrew instruction is quite intriguing, especially in the late nineteenth century. Hearing the story bound me to its narrative. I stood no longer on my own, I stood in that line of rectors, good and bad, that led the spiritual life of this community.

I have been known for both creating change and reinforcing tradition, hard things to do. Hard poles to manage. The change that I am aiming for is not to totally redo things in this place, but to give it form in a new context which both honors the traditions and takes us into the future. My parish is on less solid ground financially than the one now tended to by Chris. So it needs updating, not upbraiding, and it needs a congregation, which when asked which traditions are really important, can tell me clearly, distinctly, and with a sense of spiritual understanding that shows not only local but universal connections as well. None of us stand alone in the Church.

The mixed part of this blessing, and one in which generational narcissism plays a major role is in the unfortunate history that is part of my parish's past. I am not talking about wrestling between Rectors and congregants. That is tough stuff but not the worst. Rather it is this institution's history with slavery as a commercial enterprise and the source of wealth for prominent members and leaders of this church as well as the source for many of its buildings. Focusing on recent history, and not connecting to our past, allows us to forget the degrading impact of this legacy, one which should firmly ground all the generations of this parish in the notion that they are not perfected but redeemed, and that with our holy deeds have come unholy ones as well. Humility, it seems, is the response that is appropriate to the views of the heights, depths, and faithfulness of the Church and its congregations.

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