Status Update: Massachusetts Council of Churches

(These are my Director’s Report notes from the Massachusetts Council of Churches Annual Meeting “Christian Unity in the Digital Age” on Saturday April 28, 2012)

It is good to be with you today. I give God thanks for the MCC’s Board of Directors, all who serve on the many working groups, and all who give financially throughout the year to forward Christ’s hopeful, audacious prayer that we would live and act as one Church. Joel, Gayle, Polly and Robert are an wise and generous Executive Committee.  I am especially grateful for the MCC staff- Administrator Fred Hayes and intern Nicole Bernier, who come to us through the Life Together program of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Fred, Nikki and the staff of the Wellesley Hills Congregational Church worked very hard to make this day run smoothly.  Join me in showing them our gratitude.

One evening this winter, I sat down in the dark wooden chairs at a nearby monastery for evening prayer. After a long day of ministry with the changing MCC, I needed to be in a place that was familiar, steady, dependable. I pulled out the hymnal and the prayer book and sat still in the darkness. Across the aisle from me, I saw a glow coming up from behind a pew. A young woman was peering over her iPad. Even here, amidst the cold stone and monastic chant, I could not escape new technology. An iPad in a monastery at evening prayer? Was nothing sacred?  Didn’t our faithful old prayerbook work just fine? Was she tweeting, facebooking, skyping? Couldn’t I rest for a while in a corner of the Church that wasn’t in the midst of change? The service began the same way it always began and moved along that dependable course, while I sat in my pew and fumed.  A few days later, I found out that the young woman was visually impaired and was reading the large type liturgy off of her iPad. Isn’t this where we are as the Church in Massachusetts? A time of dramatic, destabilizing change, unsure if the things we see changing around us are indeed helpful and holy.

You know these changes in your own community- Church is no longer a given in people’s lives. We can’t depend on all the familiar ways of communicating and it seems like a new media platform pops up every other day. We don’t automatically have a place of privilege waiting for us in the public square. We can’t presume Church: A recent Gallup poll identified Massachusetts as the fourth “least-religious” state. We can’t depend on denominational identity in the same way. Raise your hands, how many of you have been formed by multiple Christian communities? We’ve all heard it before, but the era of cradle-to-grave anything is mostly over. The Presbyterian Church (USA) just said that 58% of their members did not grow up in their tradition. As the Pew Forum’s US Religious Landscapes Survey  notes, 44% of Americans “now profess a religious rather affiliation that is different from the religion in which they were raised.”  Whether it’s new evangelical converts to Orthodoxy who didn’t grow up speaking Greek or the flux between Protestant and Roman Catholic communities, the composition of our local churches is changing.  Christian unity matters because the divisions of the church are now in every local congregation.

All these changes are multiplied when we gather with a council of churches.  We can go at it alone, each trying to forge their own way through this time of immense change, doubling down into our denominational bunkers. Or we can work together, recognizing that God is doing a new thing with all our churches and we might have something to learn from one another.  You are a part of the new thing God is doing here.

I believe the Massachusetts Council of Churches can adapt and must adapt to our changing landscape and the changing needs of your churches. I am taking to heart this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth: “We will not all die, but we will all be changed”(1Cor 15:51b).  Christ’s prayer for the unity of his Church is timeless; our ecumenical structures are not. The Massachusetts Council of Churches is changing. You saw our budget, 53,000 less than the year before. We cut the Associate Director position. And we will be ok because we are a people of the resurrection. Some things will change, some things will die. But the bedrock truth of our faith remains that we are one in Christ. Christ’s prayer for the unity of his Church is timeless; our ecumenical structures are not.

Even amidst all this change, let me be clear on this:  For unity stronger than simply intra-Christian strategic cooperation or temporary agreement on a given advocacy that ends when we disagree, we must be absolutely clear on our theological foundation. Christian unity is not optional, not something we just check off or outsource to a committee. Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon has pointed to our “faulty ecclesiology,” where “councils are often regarded as organizations alongside churches, but this misses the point. Councils are not organizations the churches join, but covenants they make with one another to express something of our unity in Christ.” Here, we are a part of a covenant made with God and one another. This is a holy thing we do together. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit will not abandon us yet.

The Massachusetts Council of Churches is a 110 year old expression of our unity in Christ in Massachusetts.  We inherit a strong legacy of common Christian witness to justice and reconciliation. In the past year, we have done right by that heritage. Together, we created and participated in a massive interfaith service marking the 10 year anniversary of September 11th in Boston- and we connected and promoted hundreds of local commemorations around the state on that Sunday. We held strong where we could, and faithfully lost the battle to stop casino gambling. We became an internship site for the Life Together program as a sign of our commitment to raising up new leaders and ecumenical formation. We held a wonderful interfaith dinner and marked Jack’s departure as executive. We transitioned to a new leadership and continued the hard work of reassessing our structures and resources.  We are imagining new ways for our traditions to interact. We invited ‘Ecumenical Pilgrims’ to visit two different Armenian Orthodox Churches for Armenian Christmas, as a way of experiencing the diversity of the body of Christ here in Massachusetts. We have restarted the Christian-Muslim dialogue. We welcome our musicians and liturgists to our ecumenical hymnal event at Boston University School of Theology. We have developed a robust digital ministry that has us connecting with new communities. And coming up, we will be present- not just me but representatives of the Board as well- at every one of the denominational gatherings this summer. As the United Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians in Western MA elect new Bishops, we will be an ecumenical presence.  And at the end of May, we are partnering with many denominations and Christian agencies for a Week of Ecumenical Advocacy- you are invited to talk with Nicole Bernier and Ruy Costa of Episcopal City Mission about how you can be involved.  We are digging deeply into relationships with local congregations and ecumenical clergy associations across the state. It is a great joy of this ministry that I get to visit local congregations and tell the stories of what we are doing together. Now, my calendar is looking a bit empty after, well tomorrow. So invite me to come guest preach and teach in your local parish (laura@masscouncilofchurches.org) . I am committing to be present at churches in every county in the Commonwealth this year. We are setting clear and measurable goals for our shared ministry. We are building a strong web of relationships to strengthen the body of Christ.  Together, we can and we will be a unified, vibrant, hopeful witness.

You are a part of this change. This annual meeting is an experiment as we test out those strategic goals we set last year that prodded us to think about new communities to connect to, younger leadership, better communication and events relevant to vital, local congregational life. All the while, we are holding constant to the bedrock commitment to Christian Unity even as we explore this strange new land of social media and what it means for the Church. Social Media commentator Jim Rice draws on Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church and suggests that social media’s ability to collapse time and space provides us with “new and tangible analogies of God’s transcendence and immanence.” Our experience of social media can provide us with new analogies for the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”  Let me be clear, I am not saying that social media will save the Church or the ecumenical movement. That is Christ’s role. But it’s adapt or die.

If we choose to avoid social media, we concede space and a conversation about the nature and mission of the Church will go on without us.  This is also not just a technical fix about how to create your church/organization/council’s Facebook page  It is an adaptive challenge to take our established ecumenical relationships and open ourselves up to the new and somewhat unclear expression of the Church in social media. What could the chaotic, conversational, boundary-crossing networks of social media teach us about what Christian unity might looks like in ways unlike what we have imagined? What new thing might God be doing in our midst?

It is good and right that we explore this together. We have four very wise shepherds in front of us to kick off the conversation. You have their bios in your bulletin. I am deeply grateful to Jack, Keith, Vicki and Domenico for your ministries and your willingness to be here today. Thank you for teaching us.


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