What I Learnt From a Year at Saint John’s Cathedral

This post originally appeared on The Mustard Seeds Blog at Saint John’s Cathedral.

imageFor the past eleven months or so, I’ve been working as Missioner-in-Residence at Saint John’s Cathedral, Denver. I realised that I was in over my head almost immediately after I arrived. This was a new role, not just at Saint John’s, but (I think) in the Episcopal Church—the role of a young lay-person charged with trying to facilitate encounter between diverse groups of people, both within and outside the Cathedral, in the hope of empowering those loving relationships which manifest the Kingdom of God. There wasn’t much of a blueprint to work from!

The learning curve was steep, then—and I can see its incline continuing far off into the future. But I believe that I have been taught an awful lot at Saint John’s since I’ve arrived, both about the Cathedral in particular and about the Church in general. So before I leave, I would like to share a few of those things on this blog, in case they might be helpful to others in the future.

1. Treasure

There is much to treasure at Saint John’s. We have a building which can provoke the genuine awe of worship, and the name ‘Cathedral’ gifts this parish a certain position in the wider community. Through both of these things, we have been gifted with a significant number of other material resources.

The greatest treasure at Saint John’s, however, is not to be found in material goods of any kind: the greatest treasure at Saint John’s is its people. I’ve been blessed to meet a significant number of you throughout the year, and without fail I have been blown away by your kindness, your compassion, your desire for justice, and your willingness to explore what it means to walk in the love of Christ. I have been blessed to accompany you as you’ve stepped into unfamiliar places—The Saint Francis Centre, The Network Coffee House, MetroCaring. And I have been blessed to see you open yourselves to the possibility of transformation in these places, in such a way that you have gone on to bear the light of Christ to others through your mere presence. Beyond this, I have been blessed to hear your stories, to share mine, and to enter into fellowships the depth of which I would have once thought impossible.

This is not, of course, because the parishioners at Saint John’s are perfect, better than others, or even good (‘good’ and ‘bad’ are exceedingly unhelpful terms when it comes to talking about people; they imply a substantive which is inapplicable to beings who are fundamentally loved, not judged)—it is instead because the Church itself is a construction of hearts and minds and souls, not bricks and glass and mortar. The Church is constituted by its people, not its buildings. For it is the people of the Church whom God calls to bear the love of Christ into the world, so that might all know they are beloved. And it is the people of the Church who are blessed by God, so that they might confidently love God’s creation in its entirety, irrespective of fear or self-doubt.

We are not to judge each other if we find these calls difficult, whether inside or outside our church: it can never be the role of Christians to inveigh against each others’ supposed failures or imperfections, whether of heart of nerve. Nor are we to sort ourselves into hierarchies of love and faith. Our call is instead to abide with each other in our imperfections, knowing that we are all, together, loved and blessed by our Creator. And there are so many people at Saint John’s who have been blessed with the grace to live into this love.

When we consider the future of Saint John’s, then, I believe that we must remember this lesson which you have taught me: that its people are its truest treasure, because it is the people of the Church who are first and foremost treasured by God, and it is the people who are called to live as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.

2. The Intimacy of Faith

The second thing I have been taught is this: the fact that Saint John’s greatest treasure is its people has significant implications for our future—specifically, that any future direction we take must be geared towards empowering those people to do the work of the Church. This work is not the preserve of priests: it is the call of the laity, and the matter of our response to this call is (quite literally) our responsibility. Everything at Saint John’s must therefore serve to empower the laity to live into this call.

This empowerment cannot be accomplished through clerical leadership, moreover. Clerical teaching and the administration of the Sacraments are essential to the life of the Church, but they are not sufficient for its fullness. Clerical teaching can aid the laity in discerning its call through edification and clarification, but it cannot be that call, and neither can it do the work of discernment for us. The administration of the Sacraments invites us to be transformed through encounter with the living God—but it is we who must live out this transformation, no-one else. We cannot outsource our Christianity to ordained ministers.

Neither can this empowerment be accomplished through our own individual resources, however. We cannot be empowered by things like money or personal connections. We cannot be empowered by things such as knowledge, drive, or a passion for justice. It is helpful to have these things, certainly, and they can always be turned to the service of love—but if we have these things alone, without love, then the most we can do is raise our voices and purchase solutions. After we have done this, we will still be alone, and the problems we have sought to fix will eventually re-emerge out of the gaps left by untouched social divisions.

No—the only thing which can empower the people of the Church is the love of Jesus Christ. And this is a love which must be shared through relationships grounded in the intimacy of faith. If the laity of Saint John’s is to be empowered then, we must empower each other. And we must do so by building the relationships which are premised upon this intimacy and determined by this love, discerned as we explore this faith.

We are good at doing ‘big’ things at Saint John’s—we can put on events which will be attended by a decent number of people, which can be heard about without needing to inquire, and where we can be sure we will meet good friends. This should never be denigrated, and is a wonderful thing. But we are still discerning how to do the small, the quiet, the intimate.

And we are often good at making friends at Saint John’s, at finding people whose company we enjoy and whose worth we instinctively value. We are good at building communities and committes based on shared interests and shared commitments. But we are still discerning how to build relationships which are premised on one thing only—the fact that we are each of us loved by Jesus Christ. We are still discerning how to build relationships through the shared exploration of faith, whether through Scripture or through other theological resources. We are still discerning how to build relationships which are not grounded on the fact that we like each other, or share each others’ opinions, priorities, hopes, or dreams, but instead on the fact that we are each of us loved by the same God.

This year has taught me that to be part of a relationship which is grounded in the love of Christ is to be empowered. For to be in such a relationship is to know that you are loved, without condition, without imposition, without fear. It is to know that you can love—without condition, without imposition, without fear. These relationships can cross, and so destroy, just about any boundary. I have seen the materially rich and the materially poor brought together in the love of Christ, and I have seen them equally enriched and empowered by this love. I have seen friendships between the severely mentally ill and the so-called sane, friendships which are truly profound. I have seen individuals and communities empowered by the fact that they have been invited to share the hidden things about themselves, and have been loved all the more because of them. And in all of this, I have seen communities where before there was loneliness, and a Church where before there were isolated Christians. I have been welcomed into such communities.

On the basis of what you have shown me, I am convinced that the future of Saint John’s is to be found in these relationships—both within the parish and across the city. It is to be found in these relationships above and beyond anything else. Saint John’s certainly needs a Dean, but we do not need a Dean to lead us, to reveal to us our identity as a Church (and the idea that we do will only entrench our own passivity): the people of Saint John’s are already capable of this themselves, insofar as they are capable of coming to know each other through the faithful love of Jesus Christ. And Saint John’s certainly needs leaders, lay and ordained, of principle and vision. But principle and vision without love, intimacy, charity, and understanding are as likely to sow division as they are to invite people into the love of God. Relationships which are founded on the intimacy of faith do not depend upon a budget moreover, nor do they depend upon hierarchical leadership: all they require is that the beloved of Jesus Christ risk loving each other too. We must seek to build these relationships in the interim period, then, not wait for someone to tell us who we are—for it is in these relationships that we will come to know ourselves, to know each other, and to know God.

Learning

The third lesson which the people of Saint John’s have taught me, and the last one I am going to write about here, relates to learning. The relationships which I have seen grow here, the relationships in which I have seen people empowered (and been empowered myself), have manifested an important aspect of learning. Specifically: they have taught me that learning which ends in knowledge is the death of wisdom.

In many ways we know a lot at Saint John’s. We are typically university educated, typically aware of the dangers of an uncritical acceptance of certain types of tradition, and are typically able to apprehend the big picture when it comes to subjects such as homelessness and poverty. But within the Church, as in all places, knowledge must always be a spur to further learning, not an excuse to stop at lessons learned. We must never rest comfortably in what we know—we must never stop learning, questioning, exploring.

If we know some of the causes of homelessness, then, we must go on to meet the people who suffer from it. If we know the inadequacy of fundamentalist theology, then we must explore the tradition which it has distorted. And if we think we know the right thing to do, then we must get to know the people we wish to be doing it with. We cannot assume we know the solution to an injustice, yet fail to name a single friend who suffers from it—for if we cannot stand as friend and neighbour to the oppressed, in person, then in our own small way we are entrenching the very isolation and the very injustice by which they are oppressed.

All this is a long way of saying that if we know that God is love, then we must forever learn what this means anew. We can never know how much we don’t know, especially when it comes to God—and so we must always be learning, inspired by the knowledge that we have no idea what we’re going to find out next.

Again, this exploration is not something which can be effected by priests, teachers, or leaders. The role of a teacher is instead to equip a student to teach themselves—and this is what Father Patrick, to take one example, has done to a quite exceptional degree. In his teaching he has introduced us to an entire world of faith, showing the dizzying interconnections which unite the different strands of our Eucharistic tradition. But he has taught us this so that we might go on to learn, not so that we can rest happy in the belief that we now know enough. Similarly, we have learnt a lot about the conditions and causes of homelessness through the Clarkson Project. But this knowledge should inspire us to seek an even deeper knowledge, as we step beyond comfort and try to build relationships within this world which we have learnt so much about. It should not be an reason to think that we have therefore collectively done our part in the fight against the injustices of poverty and homelessness.

I say all this because you have shown me the effect which a life of perpetual discovery can have on individuals and communities. I have seen people here transformed by taking the next step and encountering to the unexpected voices which communicate unexpected truths. I have seen people transformed by relationships which have shown how much there is still to learn, and how much there will always be to learn. And beyond this, you have transformed me. Through my work here I have been forced to go places I never thought I would go, and I have been taught lessons which I didn’t know I needed to learn. I have encountered people I thought I knew about, and I have been taught how little I knew of them, of myself, and of God. And I have been shaken, in the best possible way, as each new step has shown me how much more there is to learn of God’s grace than I could ever have imagined.

Summary

These are three of the lessons which I will take with me, then, and lessons which I hope are worth reading about. The first is that the treasure of the Church is its people. The second is that the power of the Church rests in the relationships between those people, relationships grounded in the intimacy of faith. And the third is that the life which is empowered by these relationships must be one which forever seeks to learn more of love—for there will always be more to learn.

I believe, moreover, that these lessons have a Trinitarian structure. The first is a lesson of the Son, who reveals that God is concerned with living beings of flesh and blood, here and now. The second is a lesson of the Father, who reveals that all of creation is bound together by the love of its Creator. And the third is a lesson of the Holy Spirit, who reveals that God’s love is endless, such that it will forever be calling upon us to new discovery and new learning. I can think of no better argument than this for the idea that people can bring each other into the knowledge and the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ. I can think of no better argument for the idea that loving relationship reveals the reality of the Triune God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

These are the lessons that you have taught me in my short time here. I could not be more grateful for the love and support which I have been given. And I could not be more excited to see what the people of Saint John’s do next. Thank you—all of you.

 

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