This past week I spent some time at the Society of Catholic Priests in North America’s third annual conference. It was a wonderful time and the Society has become a source of real joy since we worked to get it started three years ago. Particularly meaningful, for me, was spending time with Bishop Frank Griswold, the 25th Presiding Bishop.

He is one of those people that, by just spending time with him, you feel like a better person, Christian, and minister. His presentation on the Sacrament of Reconciliation was the best approach I have seen to the topic blending theology, spirituality, and a down-to-earth kindness. He has accepted an invitation to be the Episcopal Visitor and Sponsor of the Society and its ministry and witness will be so much the richer for it. A bit of its history and mission may be found here.

One of the attendees had a co-worker send her a text that said that she could not believe that her colleague was missing a staff meeting to “go to Benediction.”

It was an interesting comment – as if deciding to worship would be a ridiculous thing when one could do real work and bring the Kingdom one staff meeting closer.

My friend was able to reply, “Actually, we are in a session right now on church planting.”

How many Episcopal clergy conferences these days are centered on church planting, church growth, evangelism, and young adult ministry?

These are essential topics for any church that hopes to have a future to engage. New churches, new members, new believers, and new generations are part of the growth of a hope-filled and joyous Church.

These endeavors are undergirded and strengthened by the very essential things we did at other points at the conference – worship, fellowship, and contemplation. The strength, vision, and stability that make church planting and growth possible are rooted in the essential, the core, the heart of our faith. We are able to serve God when our will is entirely turned toward him.

What has, traditionally, made the catholic movement within Anglicanism able to flourish when it has is its deep sense of the ongoing grace and presence of God. We strive to make that Presence known in service, worship, and evangelism. Striving for beauty in worship says something about striving for the beautiful in our communities and within ourselves.

We offer not lessons about God but a relationship with him.

It says something deeply disturbing about the Church when we are often tasked with defending beauty. For it, somehow, is not real ministry – or is a waste of time, efforts, energy, or resources.

Dr Derek Olsen, one of the presenters at the conference, puts it this way:

“…the search for beauty is tied deeply into the search for truth and goodness. The arts of ministry, preaching, singing, architecture are arts…we can either do them well or we can do them poorly; we can either choose beauty or we can settle for whatever comes out. However, should we choose to settle for whatever comes out, we are compromising the spirit of the God who created all things wonderfully.”

I would commend his presentation to anyone interested in the intersection of worship and ministry (http://www.scribd.com/doc/67290095/SCP-Ceremonial-9-30-11)

Striving for the beautiful in worship conditions us to strive to make God’s presence more beautifully known in the many other parts of our lives that we are called to make worshipful as well. It inspires and gives hope even amidst things passing away.

From the First Annual Conference in 2009

What I was struck by at the conference was the general level of optimism in the room. There was a sense of real joyful anticipation among those in attendance. Many church meetings these days feel a bit like a wake for the Church:

“Oh, I just remember the good times…”

“You know, God has a plan for these things…”

I keep waiting for someone to say “It looks so peaceful…so natural…”

There is deep-seated fear, sadness, and a sense of loss that are palpable in the Church these days – and there are reasons for grief. Yet, we are now tasked with moving on (grieving a bit) but now getting back to the work of God. The world’s need for news of God’s love is too great for us to indulge in self-pity and strained good-byes to a Church that never really existed.

The only thing the Church has to offer and has ever had to offer is the worship of God who calls us to relationship. That worship is the heart of evangelism. It is the pulse of outreach. It is the essence of the history and future of the Church.

I am not talking of worship in the ritual sense – though that is vital too. I am speaking of something deeper, the turning of the heart toward God. This is what the Church is called to – turn its heart, the heart of its believers, and the heart of the world around us toward God.

It is the genuflection of the heart in awe.

The SCP Conference attendees were full of joy because they understand this. Many of our churches are doing vital work because our first priority is not social service but worship. A worshipful Church that focuses its being on the adoration and proclamation of God in all things is one that can find the strength to stand fast – to dwell in the heart of God – when challenges arise.

A rooted Church can find the inspiration to serve, the joy to evangelize, the courage to speak for justice, and the daring to change its own structures.

There are concert halls that will offer more beautiful music. There are social service agencies that will serve the poor better. There are local community groups that will organize friends and neighbors more effectively. There are political committees that will lobby with greater impact.

If our ultimate reason for being Church, for coming together, is not to worship God in his temple then we should pack up and let professionals in these other fields handle the work.

All of the other things the Church can do, the missions it can undertake, the ways it can be present in the community – all of those things flow out of a worshipful centeredness that must be planted deep in the heart of God.

It was a joy to be among priests so obviously taken with the Holy as we pondered and sought new ways to share that Presence with the world around us.

I will leave off with my favorite line from the conference – again from Dr Olsen:

“First, it’s worth taking a look to see how your servers, your altar guild, yourself, and other folkstreat the vessels after the services are over. Do they treat them like sacred things worthy of respect,or do they handle them carelessly, like something to be tossed around? It’s one thing to treat them with reverence during the service, when everyone’s watching, but what happens when it’s over?”
“Second, it’s worth taking a look to see how your servers, your altar guild, yourself, and other folks treat the people at coffee hour. Do they treat them like sacred things worthy of respect, or do they handle them carelessly, like something to be tossed around? The difference between the two is clear:the vessels no longer have the blessed sacrament within them. The people at coffee hour do.”

Robert+

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