Michael Fitzpatrick is a parishioner at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, CA. After growing up in the rural northwest, he served over five years in the U. S. Army as a Chaplain's Assistant, including two deployments to Iraq. After completing his military service, Michael has done graduate work in literature and philosophy. He is now finishing his PhD at Stanford University.
This month’s title is lifted from Bishop John A. T. Robinson’s essay collection by the same name. More and more my mind has wandered in this direction as disillusionment with secular policy solutions has set in over the past few years. Is there anything that we as the Christian community following the Lord Jesus Christ in word and deed can contribute to the rampant political struggles that face our society?
The Church is not perfect. Church history is littered with abuses, and fraught with schisms over weighty and not-so-weighty disputes. Where parishes once split over disagreements regarding the nature of the Lord’s presence at the Eucharistic supper, today I weep with pastors and parishioners whose dear friends have left the local parish over pandemic masking requirements. It’s not easy to imagine we have anything to offer political conflict and policy needs in the public square when we cannot seem to find ways of being together even in our own pews.
Yet as the Church we are defined not by our merits, but by the One who is the Head of the Church, which is his Body. Whether or not we have anything to offer the world begins by whether Christ has anything to offer the world. And the Good News of Jesus Christ, which we preach in every homily and proclaim at every Lord’s Supper, is Good News for the whole world, not just the Church. The Church is that community of persons who have responded to the Good News and have covenanted themselves to Christ to become one Body with each other.
In my parish, our discipleship theme this year is the Rule of St. Benedict, so I’ve been reading the Most Rev. Rowan Williams’ wonderful new collection of essays, The Way of St Benedict. It’s a remarkable book in that it doesn’t merely introduce readers to Benedictine concepts, but relates those monastic ideas to the parish life of our modern congregations. I also think the book sets forth some compelling insights into the unique contributions the Church offers the world. Williams points out that “all communities need a medium of exchange, a language that assures their members that they are engaged in the same enterprise.” We cannot have community without common life. Much of the division we experience in our world today is a byproduct of a globalist pluralism that has eroded our communal “currencies” or mediums of exchange, making it harder for people to have enough in common so that trusting relationships can form.
Parish life is precisely that community which has covenanted together around a multi-layered currency with deep roots across space and time. It’s not merely that we have eucharistic rites, time-honored prayers, baptismal initiations, evangelical witness, and spiritual formation as our currency; rather, it’s that all of these things are expressions of the more fundamental bonds of unity that arise out of our being one Body committed to this community and these people for no other reason than Christ. We embody the realization of common life that the wider world so desperately seeks.
How exactly do our parishes, with all their imperfections, embody the aim of common life? Through Christ removing our freedom to not be together. One of Williams’ central theses about the significance of the Benedictine Rule is that it makes stability a virtue. If there is no assurance of stability, “if the other person is there, ultimately, on sufferance or on condition, if there is a time-expiry dimension to our relations with particular others, we put a limit on the amount of otherness we can manage,” Williams writes. “Beyond a certain point, we reserve the right to say that our terms must prevail after all.” There is always the possibility in our relationships of picking up our ball and going home when things don’t go as we want. But coming together to be a church community is not voluntary, not an expression of what I do or do not want. Choosing to follow Christ is voluntary, of course, but once we have chosen Christ, we have also chosen the community of those others who have chosen to follow Christ also. We have committed to “holiness as an unselfconscious getting used to others” such that, no matter who they are and no matter who we are, because of Christ we will be a community together.
In many ways, this vision of church life is radically at odds with our world, and even with the conception many of us have of our parishes. Many cultures in the 21st century operate on a basic principle that no one should have to be in community with people they don’t want to be in community with. Yet our parishes are places where people who perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be in community form a liturgical bond because Christ wants to be in community with each and everyone one of us. I love and respect my sister in Christ because Christ has called her to the baptismal covenant just as much as he has called me. Is this how we typically see our parishes? Quite often when parish stewardship commissions ask for testimonials for why parishioners should pledge tithes to the church, the results are positive attestations about how much they love the people there or how welcoming the community is, etc. But perhaps that is not why we should commit to a parish in tithe and worship. Perhaps we go to church not because we like the people there, but because Christ has called us to worship in the pew next to people we wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead with!
Stability in community exists in faithful parishes because Christ has called us to be the Church, not because of who we are. Since Christ will always choose us and forgive us, we are not free to fail in choosing our siblings in Christ, or to forgive them when they hurt us, or to seek their forgiveness when we sin against them. Our covenant relations create a space where the natural currencies of the world, rights and merits, have no place. We are not members of the Body of Christ by right, as if we were entitled to God’s grace, nor are we members by merit, as if we impressed God with our righteousness. In a remarkable passage, Rowan Williams describes how Benedict’s rule only recognizes one status, and that is seniority, how long one has been in the community. He glosses this by noting that seniority simply measures one’s capacity for stability; to be a senior monk is simply a way of answering, “How good are you at stability?” The more senior a person is, the longer they have maintained fellowship despite disagreement or dislike.
While these insights are drawn from monastic life, Williams insists that this is true of the Church as a whole, that our sole concern should be continuing to love and serve our sisters and brothers in Christ despite disagreement, despite incommensurable backgrounds, despite a confusion of languages, despite social stratification. That doesn’t mean harms and injustices are ignored; it simply means that our commitment to Christ is such that we will strive for forgiveness and reconciliation, no matter how much humiliation this requires of our ego (for was not Christ humiliated for our sakes?). Only in an environment where the other will not give up on me no matter how egregious my mistakes can stability truly thrive.
Williams’ remarkable reflections on the virtue of stability to be cultivated in church life also demonstrates powerfully one way the Church can shape the world for the good. In a world where people can end relationships on a whim of “irreconcilable differences,” where people gather together according to tribes and ethnic communities and echo chambers, the Church can speak with her voice to advocate for the importance of stability with those we count as other, that the only currency which ultimately matters to form a common life is that which trades in stability, a willingness to not abandon common life even when the going gets hard. Christ does not abandon us, and therefore we do not abandon each other. So, being this kind of Church in the world, we can bear witness to a community life which does not see the other as expendable, and does not see relationships as conditional. We can transform political conversation from its current shrill tenor into a cooperative enterprise for mutual flourishing.
Let us be the Church, by covenanting to love one another as Christ has first loved us. And then, let us be the Church in the world, loving and serving our neighbor in such a way that the world’s political institutions might come to us and say, “Hey, teach us how to be more like you, more like this Christ you follow.”
Michael Fitzpatrick welcomes comments and questions via email@example.com