A: In the past couple of weeks we’ve been talking about ways to help heal the church. What other suggestions do you have for Christians who want to live a life of faith without compromising their logic or their ethic of inclusiveness?
J: I’d definitely say the Church needs to teach holistic balance. They need to teach people on an ongoing basis how to balance the mind, body, heart, and soul.
A: This is a topic that could fill many, many books.
J: All the better. As I’ve said before, the path to peace begins with education, not with piety and not with covenant.* The Church needs to expand the source material it relies on to teach its new insights. The Bible by itself won’t cut it. Not even the parts of the Bible that teach the truth about God the Mother, God the Father, and me. You can only read from the Gospel of Mark so many times. You need some other source material to work with.
A: Can you give some examples?
J: Actually, a lot of open-minded ministers are already including other source materials in their services. They’re using poetry, music, dance, art, drama, and spontaneous prayer to expand the scope of their services — to let the experience breathe. There still needs to be some structure to the service — it isn’t healthy, especially for younger children, if ministers do away entirely with a recognizable format — but these other “languages” are valid ways for people to connect with God’s voice. The important thing here is to be conscious of the content and — most importantly — the intent of the other source materials that are being chosen. The intent is what matters. There’s no point filling a service with new songs and new poems if the new material tells people the same thing they’ve been told for centuries — that they’re unworthy of God’s forgiveness and love and guidance. The new material must encourage people to think in positive ways about themselves and their relationship with God.
A: While not overdoing the whole self-esteem thing.
J: Yes. It’s not helpful for a service to slide in the direction of Prosperity Gospel teachings. Prosperity preachers are no more balanced than fire-and-brimstone preachers. Prosperity Gospel teaches various versions of the “God-As-the-Great-Gumball-Machine-in-the-Sky” doctrine — various versions of the “God has to give you whatever want if you ask in the right way” theory.** These teachings feed — and feed upon — people’s undiagnosed status addiction. It’s not a healthy way to be in relationship with God. A healthy relationship with God involves a balance between your own needs and other people’s needs, a balance between encouraging people to be their best selves and encouraging them to take responsibility for harmful choices they’ve made on purpose. The Church’s job is to help people recognize and maintain this balance.
A: So you don’t recommend that ministers get rid of the Prayer of Confession in their services?
J: The Prayer of Confession is a crucial part of helping people recognize the balance. Of course, the Prayer of Confession needs to be written with the utmost care. It needs to strike the proper balance between encouraging people to be honest about their intentional errors while at the same time leaving room for them to feel optimistic about their ability to learn from their mistakes and to feel God’s forgiveness.
A: I remember with excruciating clarity the penitential prayer (or “preface” prayer) from the 1962 Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Communion Service prepared us for the sacrament of the Eucharist by having us all recite in unison, “We not not presume to come to this thy table, O Merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in they manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table [emphasis added]. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.” This prayer always made me feel like crap. The line about not being worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under the table stuck in my head, too, as I’m sure the authors of the prayer intended. In the Anglican Church’s newest prayer book for Canada — The Book of Alternative Services — this prayer has ostensibly been removed from the new Holy Communion service. But the intent is still there.
J: This is exactly the sort of prayer that’s harmful to people’s relationship with God rather than helpful.
A: I think many church leaders and church elders and even some Christian parents are afraid that if faithful Christians aren’t forced onto their knees in fear and obedience then mass chaos will erupt in our society, and civilization will fall apart.
J: Yes. Many church elders do believe this. They believe this because they’ve been told to believe this by authority figures in their lives — whether parents, ministers, theologians, saints, or scripture. They’re genuinely frightened. They believe they’re doing the right thing in promoting this kind of fear in people’s relationship with God.
A: What’s your suggestion for healing this problem in the Church?
J: Ministers and church elders must look to the second step of the Peace Sequence for guidance. The Peace Sequence I taught was education-then-mentorship-then-personal-responsibility-then-peace. Those called to the task of ministering to the spiritual aspect of humanity must first be educated. Then they must accept the mantlehood of mentorship. They must stop trying to “save souls” and instead start trying to “mentor brains.” A minister in the third millennium must be a bit of a jack-or-jill-of-all-trades — knowledgeable about the history of the church and the history of church doctrine, but also aware of trends in science, psychotherapy, the arts, and politics. An effective minister isn’t somebody who’s hiding his or her head in the sand like an ostrich. An effective minister isn’t somebody who preaches “escape from the sins and evils of the world.” Instead, an effective minister is someone who isn’t afraid to look at Creation in holistic ways, balanced ways, and wonder-filled ways. An effective minister is someone who teaches people how to live as a human being according to the needs and wishes of the soul.
A: The good soul.
J: Yes. The good soul that everyone is.
A: I suspect that most people in the world today wouldn’t even know how to begin to imagine what Church would look like if it operated in this way.
J: Well, for starters, the Church would be a place that’s integrated into the wider community. This idea isn’t really new. Many heart-based Christians have tried to take the church into the community and the community into the church. This is admirable. The great stumbling block to progress in this endeavour has always been their doctrines. It’s the doctrines themselves — and the intent behind those doctrines — that drive a wedge between the church and the community. You can’t go around preaching that you’re chosen by God to be saved and not have people notice how hypocritical your claims of love and forgiveness really are.
People these days have access to information — lots and lots of information. They find out pretty quickly when pastors and priests have been charged with crimes against their neighbours. It looks hypocritical. And, indeed, it is.
A: I spent two years in full-time studies with theology students, most of whom planned to go on for ordination. Even among United Church candidates, there’s a belief that ministers-in-training are there because they’ve been “called.” I have no problem in general with the idea of people feeling called to particular tasks in life. But this was different. These ministers-in-training seemed to believe that their call was somehow “more special” than other people’s calls. They didn’t see their job as just another job on a par with teaching or medical care or firefighting or environmental cleanup. They thought they were somehow “different.” I also noticed that a few of these ministers-in-training got a strange light in their eye when they talked about their special — and highly controlled — right to bless the bread and wine of the Eucharist. It was not a pretty sight. It was clear some of them wanted the status of being “specially chosen by God” to bless the Elements, and maybe even facilitate their Transubstantiation into something more elevated.
J: Well, as for that, there’s no transsubstantiation — no transformation of the “inner reality” of the bread and wine. There’s mystery and wonder in every stick of bread that’s baked in the world, and the Church’s bread is no better. Unfortunately, there are too many priests and too many ministers who want the Church’s bread to be better so they themselves can claim to be a unique and indispensable part of bringing the bread of God to the people of God. This is not mentorship. This is exactly what it sounds like — narcissism.
A: So part of the journey of healing the church is to heal what it means to be a minister.
J: Yes. The minister himself or herself must first understand what it means to live a life of balance — a life in which the needs of mind, body, heart, and soul are recognized for what they are.
It should go without saying that a religious acolyte who intentionally chooses a life of imbalance — who intentionally chooses a life of asceticism and celibacy and seclusion and obsessive forms of daily worship — is not ever going to be “simpatico” with his own soul. And he’s never going to be equipped to guide others. He’s never going to have the personal tools necessary to become a spiritual mentor to others. He who preaches the importance of balance but doesn’t live according to the needs of balance is a hypocrite.
A: As I recall, this was one of your favourite themes 2,000 years ago.
J: Hypocrisy and narcissistic intent are incestuous bedmates in the history of orthodox Western Christianity. Where you find one, you always find the other.
* See The Peace Sequence.
** See also The Law of Attraction in the Gospel of Matthew.