The following quote is from Stanley Hauerwas’ book Resident Aliens. It has hung in my office for years and I find myself reading on many occasions. As a college chaplain, I am often thinking about how to talk to my students about church; what it is, what it isn’t, why they need to be a part of it, and how to think about it. Hauerwas’ poignant words reveal a reality many feel but do not see.
What we call ‘church’ is too often a gathering of strangers who see the church as yet another ‘helping institution’ to gratify further their individual desires. One of the reasons some church members are so mean-spirited with their pastor, particularly when the pastor urges them to look at God, is that they feel deceived by such pastoral invitations to look beyond themselves. They have come to church for ‘strokes,’ to have their personal needs met. What we call church is often a conspiracy of cordiality. Pastors learn to pacify rather than preach to their Ananiases and Sapphiras. We say we do it out of ‘love.’ Usually, we do it as a means of keeping everyone as distant from everyone else as possible. You don’t get into my life and I will not get into yours.
Hauerwas’ diagnosis reveals a room of strangers who give lip service to community and pastors who go from being gospel purveyors to religious infomercials.
As Anglicans, we are no more immune from this situation than any other denomination. Our traditions and liturgy do not implicitly safeguard against superficial, detached church experiences and communities.
I’m reminded of satirical video called “Shallow Small Group” that comically promotes a small group where no one has to get into the mess of each other’s lives or dive into transformational discipleship. Instead, members can eat, hang out, and enjoy simple chit-chat that never gets beyond small talk.
It’s funny because it’s true.
I believe that all of us have participated in or observed the kind of setting Hauerwas describes. The problem with this image is that it reduces the values of a church community to: create distance and consume.
The spiritual marketplace, in reaction to the decline in church membership, has quietly allowed these values to make their home in the latent messages of our promotional strategies and practices. Just as Hauerwas and others have observed, church leaders risk conforming themselves to these goals in an effort to keep parishioners or to reduce conflict.
Yet, the end result is a church that is not really focused on the gospel and parishioners who are not a part of Christ’s body. Instead, they are disembodied consumers seeking out an optimal situation, free from mess or contact.
As I reflect on how we can push back against this problem in our own settings, I am reminded of some key Anglican practices that redefine the heart of this problem. While the setting described by Hauerwas is full of people who are looking to create distance from each other and consume a religious product, our liturgy refocuses these issues.
First, instead of maintaining distance from each other, we explicitly come together as a unit to create distance from sin.
As a newcomer to Anglicanism, one of the first things that struck me about liturgy was the corporate confession of sin. It remains one of the most precious and moving moments of our worship. Together, we call out to the Lord and make a deliberate confession of our sin in corporate language.
Sin is in the business of isolating as it destroys. While there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God (as Romans 8:38-9 so powerfully declares), sin whispers shame and compels me to hide.
While sin cannot change what is true, it can certainly make me believe something untrue. Sin distorts our reality and this distortion has effects on how we live as Christ followers and how we live in community with others.
I had a pastor once who used to say, “When we refuse to deal with our sin, we make everyone around us deal with it.” The corporate effects of our personal sins is a hard pill to swallow, but is an important reality exposed in our corporate confession.
This confession is a beautiful counter-narrative to the situation described by Hauerwas. Instead of distancing us from each other, our confession binds us together in our brokenness. It unifies us as sinners and receivers of God’s grace. In coming together, we deliberately distance ourselves from the effects of sin every time we worship.
Second, we do not consume a religious product, polished and sanitized for our comfort. Instead, we consume the blood and body of Christ.
Growing up, my church hardly ever took communion together, and the central focus of each service was undeniably the sermon. This product of the free-church tradition is relatively recent to church history. It has become so commonplace in our American churches that we forget that, for centuries, Christians have kept the Table as the central focus of worship.
This does not diminish the importance of preaching in the service, but in Anglican liturgies (and all classic liturgies of the Church) the sermon is a step on the path towards the Table where we take communion.
I’ve grown to love and appreciate this practice and how it transforms our desire to consume for personal gain into a corporate consumption of a life-giving mystery. The Eucharist is infused with Christ’s sacrifice, grace, and mission. It is an act of intimacy where we come, not on our terms, but as ragamuffins, humbly postured and receptive.
We are what we eat, we become what we consume. As William Cavanaugh reminds us,
The consumer of the body and blood of Christ does not remain detached from what he or she consumes, but becomes part of the body: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them’ ([John] 6:56). The act of consumption of the Eucharist does not entail the appropriation of goods for private use, but rather being assimilated to a public body, the body of Christ (Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, 95).
Even though our liturgy has been designed through the ages to create distance from sin and to humbly consume the body and blood of Christ, we are not free from the Western ideals of autonomy, comfort, and individualism from seeping into our churches.
At the end of the day, it is not simply well-crafted liturgy but rather the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives that pushes beyond ourselves to love God and love neighbor. In our Anglican worship, we seek to remind ourselves of the gospel truths that shape us and draw us together in oneness in Christ. It is God’s grace and mighty work in us that accomplishes this and gives us the ability to fight back against secular ideals and temptations.
May we take a lesson from Hauerwas and examine our own churches and our own lives. May we surrender to transforming work of the Spirit. This Spirit is like a mother dog feeding her puppies, drawing them to herself for nourishment. In doing so, they in turn, are drawn closer to each other, finding necessary warmth and bonding.
We do not need to simply be slaves to this “conspiracy of cordiality.” We can let our weekly experiences together draw us to love God and love neighbor, the Lord being our helper.