The hope of the SCP, as I understand it, is to cultivate priestly vocations deeply rooted in the Catholic habitus of Christ’s Church in the hopes of better sustaining the clergy of the Church and renewing the apostolic zeal to restore all things to God in our Lord Jesus Christ. For such a noble task to be successful, it’s important to know where we are. Proper cultivation requires careful attention to place. So, to get a handle on where we are, let’s consider two figures: the fire and the tree.
Fire, as a material reality, lives by destruction through expansion and indiscriminate consumption. Death, fire’s stern ruler, guides this unified principle. The fear of death causes fire to ceaselessly seek new fuel – of whatever type it can find. The avoidance of death is the only good. For fire to avoid death, however, requires the death and annihilation, the coming to nothing, of something else. Think of a house fire. The ashes may be useful for something, but the charred remains are useless as a house. The house’s ruination was a necessary condition for the fire’s life. Either the house is saved but the fire extinguished, or the house is destroyed and the fire lives. No other possibility exists. Fire, having extinguished the life of all it has touched, also loses its life and dies. Fire only lives through destruction; the cessation of fire’s destructive power yields fire’s own death.
Trees live through conservation under the principle of enrichment and preservation. They drop leaves that replenish the nutrients they’ve extracted from the soil as well as give the soil solidity and strength through vast root systems. There are many accounts of early American settlers marveling at the soil’s fertility in the so-called virgin forests of the east coast. Big, beautiful trees had created rich, vibrant soil. A necessary condition for the life of trees is the life of the soil around it. Without the continued nurture of their soil trees cannot live. As a result, their life contributes to the vitality and health of what it lives on. Even their death contributes to the life of what gave it life. The soil from which trees live receives its life and health from the trees decomposition. Trees only live through conservation; without it, soil disappears and trees themselves die.
These figures place in view opposing modes of life. One is characterized by depletion, a conversion of life to death through failing to recognize either borders or satisfaction. The other is a life lived through preservation that uses some of the life around it only to return that life to its sources, and even in its death it gives itself to the place where it lived as an act that makes new, strengthened, and more vital life possible.
Fires and trees can’t live any other way. Fires can’t live by preservation. Trees can’t live through destruction. Human beings, however, are free to live in any number of ways. It seems obvious which makes for a good life, but it must be admitted that so much of our contemporary Church is consumed with living like fire. The gleam of fire, or the fear of death, has sparkled in our eyes. The sustainable, careful habits of trees have failed to impress. As a result, we have pursued ways of living that we hope generate rapid growth and expansion without asking about long-term viability, its effects on the sources of our lives, about the inheritance we have received, or the inheritance we’re leaving. That’s all fire-breathing stuff, and it has consumed our church.
The Church lives by fire when we spend time at expensive conferences on the topic of “welcoming,” which never fail to include public shamings for those who might not be inclined to the kind of desperate begging for new people that also characterizes fast food chains. And since we have taken on the characteristics of fast food chains we, too, begin marketing ourselves in a similar guise. The effects have been devastating because marketing, always looking for a competitive edge, lives by devouring the most unsustainable, disposable materials. Living by fire and putting trust in marketing can be fairly easily equated, and we have numerous examples.
We laud ourselves as welcoming and diverse, yet we can’t explain why we’re overwhelmingly educated, disproportionately wealthy, and have little to no presence in rural, “uncultured” communities. Not unlike most marketing schemes, we’re not terribly interested in a coherent vision. The moment we detect a cooling of the flames in our latest we’re-welcoming-and-diverse campaign, we ramp up the “don’t check your brain at the door” sale, which has the convenient dual function of praising our own intellectual habits while belittling other dense, out-of-touch, close-minded churches (but we’re tolerant!). Our target audience – any educated middle class person with ears – tipped off by the insistent reference to the vacuous term “mystery,” ought to quickly recognize that our priests, to say nothing of parishioners, cannot begin to articulate or exposit the Creeds, let alone think with subtlety or clarity about the different strands of our intellectual heritage. Their religious MBA (the MDiv) has ill-equipped them for such a task, but relating to people, after all, is what seminary is all about, not the formation of mind, body, and spirit to be competent bearers of a tradition. “People skills” provide the chimera of being a compassionate community. When this fails, we chuck the entire gas can onto fading embers and declare that our true Anglican identity is not Erastian, but prophetic. As prophets, we tell ourselves that we are a unique people who make no peace with injustice; we console ourselves by noting that our shrinking ASA is the lamentable result of speaking truth to power. What we fail to mention, however, is that unlike Isaiah, we are prophets with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of property, extraordinary insurance packages, and a pension that causes envy in the eye of our business-clad parishioners. But we’re definitely prophets, Most of our priests, after all, prefer rural Mississippi, but because the poor areas are so saturated with clergy, some sad souls must undertake the insufferable task of ministering in the barren wildernesses of New York, Boston, DC, Los Angeles, or the Bay Area. Indeed, we are the prophetic church.
Sarcasm aside, what else would we expect from two generations of clergy educated on attempts by consumer-minded seminaries to be cutting edge and experimental instead of training its students in the way of life necessary for the flourishing of clerics? Attempts at intellectual buffet-style novelty and liturgical experimentation have simply reduced our ranks to a mass of poorly trained therapists because, while the Daily Office, fasting, and confession are all optional to ordination, Clinical Pastoral Education is not. Intellectually, without a firm grounding in Scripture, Patristics, and Anglican Divines, we slide in the vague moralisms we learned as undergraduates. We are more prepared to question the authority of Scripture than that of private judgment or personal experience while conflating the skepticism of the Academicians with Anglican comprehensiveness. Liturgically, we descend into a veritable buffet of sentimentality, drawing from all sorts of parties, loyal to none. The result is sermons that sound more like apologias for the Democratic party than the proclamation of salvation from all political savior myths in the person of Jesus Christ, and liturgy that looks and feels more like arcade fun zones than the heavenly Jerusalem. In such environments, it can be no surprise priests are more prepared to commune the unbaptized than they are to read the Exhortation, if only because we don’t know the Didache, and all the documents following, explicitly denounces the practice, and we haven’t the faintest idea where the Exhortation might be found. We are just as likely to post “No Trespassing” signs outside our parishes next to the “Episcopal Church Welcomes You” ones, since, after all, our church is a house of prayer for all well-mannered, safe people.
These are all instances of living like fire. The results are entirely as expected. Many have left our parishes, and many have come looking for a place with good music, and less demands than their local YMCA membership. And just like fire, it has left everyone involved worse for wear. Both a distinctive Anglican intellectual tradition and a coherent liturgical, sacramental habitus have been used as pyre.
Ironically, all this burning away of what we stood on, I think, has been undertaken in good faith. There has been no malicious intent, not even when traditions were consciously charred, because I take it that most of it has been done as an attempt to be faithful to the movement of the Spirit, and out of love for the Church. We have done these things because we think we have been following the Spirit. Yet our judgment has been that the Spirit is more at work in Pride parades than in Corpus Christi processions. Not only that; our clergy are better equipped and prepared to both participate in and argue in defense of the former than the latter. That should give us pause. It should bend our knees, moisten our cheeks, terrify our hearts. As a church, we no longer believe that the sacramental life will save us. We speak and act as though something else must. We are engulfed by flames. And for what? Apparently something interesting to fewer and fewer folks. They can get parades of all kinds anywhere. Christ need not be risen for a parade. Not so for Corpus Christi processions.
So that’s where we are, a burned over pile of ash. If we’ll suffer St Paul, he can illumine our next move, “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” To where do we turn to be saved? “To the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.” And where is his mercy to be found? “All glory be to thee, O Lord, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only begotten Son to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption.” And what is the content of this tender mercy? “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 we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” And what is the effect of this dwelling? “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.” And what is the vine? “Thou rod of Jesse’s stem, from every foe deliver them that trust Thy mighty power to save, and give them victory o’er the grave.” And what’s the fruit? “His beauty doth all things excel, by faith I know, but ne’er can tell, the glory which I now can see, in Jesus Christ the apple tree.”
Christ is the tree. Christ himself, waiting to be found, loved, and adored in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, is the tree that gives life. That we have fanned fire upon fire, and lived to tell can but be attributed to Christ’s sustained presence among us in celebration after celebration of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If we want to cultivate something life-giving, if we are truly searching for deep, abiding roots, we do well to submit to the One who on Easter Morning appears to be a gardener. It is the Mass, diligently, reverently, even obstinately said, in the well-worn, now unfashionable garb that takes too long to put on, with attention to the details of movement, posture, and pitch of voice, with the requisite preparatory and concluding prayers, each and every day, that will turn us into trees that can resist the flames of our day. In the Mass the fruit of unending life becomes manifest. It is fruit that comes from the old, holy rood, and nowhere else. It is the fruit that both gathers all life into itself and produces it afresh everyday. Christ is Tree. Christ is Fruit.
If we are serious about the cultivation of deeply rooted Catholic priests, we must insist on daily Masses in all of our parishes. We must attend to the Tree. We must sit awhile under its broad, ancient canopy, sheltered from the scorching fire of the sun. We must gaze upon this most beautiful tower that has endured all manner of fire, each one purifying it with greater and greater resplendence, showing it to be the only truly saving tree. We must see “a beauteous tree uplifted in the air, enwreathed with light, brightest of beams. All that beacon was enwrought with gold. Four jewels lay upon the earth, and five were at the crossing of the arms. All the winsome angels of the Lord gazed upon it through the firmament…Wondrous was that victor-tree, and I was stained with sin and wounded with my wickedness. I beheld the cross of glory, shining in splendor, graced with hangings and adorned with gold. Worthily had jewels covered over all that forest tree.” Then, and only then, will we be, “trees planted by streams of waters, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” Then, and only then, it shall be said of Catholics the world over, to the praise of the Most Holy, Blessed, and Glorious Trinity, “Everything they do shall prosper.” Not a bad place to be.
The Rev. Justin Fletcher serves as Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Chickasha, OK. He is a member of the Blessed Sacrament Chapter of the Society, whose members serve in Oklahoma.