Wednesday, March 23, 2005

why we christians do what we do...

Shelley asked in a comment below why people in churches sometimes act out toward each other, the one place you would think that people might treat each other with more respect or courtesy. I've been thinking about that question, too, and would like to hear anybody else's thoughts on this. I've been fortunate to have worshipped in parishes where civil wars have not taken place, but I have witnessed some pretty tough situations in my own parish. It could be possible that recently many Episcopal parishes have felt an increase in strained interactions, but I have no hard evidence of that.

That reminds me of a documentary on PBS recently, The Congregation, about the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Pennsylvania, a very liberal congregation near Philadelphia that had a very popular, charismatic minister for several years who particularly emphasized social justice issues. The documentary was about, among other things, the new minister Fred Day who replaced the long-term pastor, and how the congregation reacted to Day in his first year or so at the parish.

Day's theology was similar to the congregation -- at least from what one could observe from the film -- but his style or tone was completely different than the previous fellow, and was more traditional. And for one year, we see a congregation fretting over process in order to address the anger and concern of a portion of the congregation who did not like the new minister.

Outside of these process meetings, we rarely actually see or hear direct criticisms. But there is one scene where a man stands up in a church meeting and he says really hard and rude things about the minister, about his style and about his leadership. I suppose the fellow thought he was empowered to speak the "truth." Or perhaps he was just tired and angry and thought it had to be said. Maybe he has that particular disorder that folk attribute to the president of Harvard and so he just blurted out what he thought, not realizing that it also included what seemed to me to be "below the belt" arguments, descriptions, tones. The minister listens to the attack as if the guy was talking about someone else. He tried to keep a distance about it.

A few times in the film, lay folk tell the minister that they don't now how he could take such attacks and they apologize. Sadly, the Rev. Day eventually left, deciding that he could not continue to receive repeated personal attacks. Fortunately for him, the Methodist system is set-up better than most Christian churches to react to placements of ministers. I hope they gave him an assignment at a parish that was less hostile. The real loss was to the congregation. The minister was the target, but one can't help but think that it will be harder for those folk to live together and work together and worship together after a long state of war.

Churches are made up people that are good, bad, flawed, frail, all over the map. Our human condition doesn't stop when we enter a church. Our humanity doesn't justify acting out in bad behavior. But one doesn't have to read much of the Old Testament, for example, to come across thrilling, interesting, human and flawed characters.

Many people are quite passionate about their local parish. Their lives are invested in it -- they have spent time and effort being apart of it. Divisive issues could be related to church personnel, to other parishioners, or it could be theological (such as the debate ongoing among Anglicans about homosexuality, gay bishops and same sex blessings of unions). Some folk see their parish church as a life-long club, and the longer one is a part of it, the more entitled that person is to make decisions. Sometimes a favorite priest or pastor develops a devoted following, or inversely, develops a group of people who don't like him or her. Churches are messy places. We forget that many of the epistles or letters in the New Testament were written to local churches and in part were responding to local problems, debates, issues.

3 comments:

Shelley said...

Thanks for the response on the comment and question, Don.

I haven't been in church for many years, but I've never forgotten when the one I belonged to back in Washington ran the minister out of town because he had an affair, which he later admitted to and begged for forgiveness. Evidentally his wife and God were willing, but not the church.

And he helped build that church with his own hands, too.

Dymphna said...

Years ago, when I was studying Scholastic theology at an Oblate seminary, I realized something: where two or three are gathered in His Name, at least two are vying for power.

Because this is clothed in ecclesiastical language, it is easier to disguise what is frequently an immature, dependent personality who first makes a god out of the minister and then makes him a devil. Projection.

Dymphna said...

Years ago, when I was studying Scholastic theology at an Oblate seminary, I realized something: where two or three are gathered in His Name, at least two are vying for power.

Because this is clothed in ecclesiastical language, it is easier to disguise what is frequently an immature, dependent personality who first makes a god out of the minister and then makes him a devil. Projection.