Monday, April 23, 2007

The church as a "public" institution

As I mentioned yesterday, the Diocese of Southern Ohio has a new bishop, and his consecration will be this Saturday. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will come to Columbus to take part in the ceremony. So, ever since I knew this event was coming, it has been my intention to attend if at all possible. On Friday, I heard from my rector that there was indeed a ticket being held in my name. So, yay!

Well, maybe "yay" isn't quite the right word. I'm pleased that I will be able to attend, and I'm sure I'll be glad I did. But this is going to involve a number of things I *don't* particularly relish--crowds, trying to park at Ohio State, standing for extended periods of time...

Probably some incense, now that I think of it. (Wrinkles nose in anticipation)

Anyway, knowing that I had this event coming up, I knew couldn't pass up the opportunity to hear the bishop-elect speak at my church last night. And then, actually *having* something a little unique to blog about, I couldn't pass that up either, could I?

Tonight I'll share the first part of his talk, in which he addressed what it means for the church to be a public institution.

Rev. Breidenthal started by telling us that his most recent position was Dean of Religious Life at Princeton, which he said was a "fancy term for University Chaplain". Most of his work has been as a teacher in one way or another, with students of different ages and situations, and alongside other teachers. Speaking at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and Univerisity Center, he said that it was a relief to be in a setting where he could say that proudly "without it being assumed that therefore I am unworldly". He noted that the university setting is, in fact, the intersection between many, many communities, where it is impossible to isolate oneself from the "real world".

About being "in communion": Communion is not a product of agreement, but has to do with staying at the table, respecting each other's arguments, and having reverence for the basic commitments that bring us together around the altar in the first place.

Breidenthal said that it was important for the church to be "public". When the Roman Christians emerged out of the catacombs, the first thing they did was build churches, and they built basilicas. He said these were the Roman version of today's mall--an enclosed forum with room for businesses, shops and vendors all around the edges, and a lot of space in the middle where public disputation could happen.

So it is significant that they, once they started to build churches, chose the basilica model, which was basically the agora, or public forum. Where God and God's people were interacting publicly and opening themselves to a world where there was really no reason you couldn't be part of that community as long as you were willing to be baptized. And to be baptized wasn't to enter a community, it was to be expelled from any community that was exclusive.

We tend to think of baptism as inclusion, but in fact, the primary metaphor of baptism is birth, and birth is about expulsion into something large and scary...and public. And so, the early Christians at their best--they were able to be as crabby and exclusive as we are--but at their *best*, they understood the Gospel to be utterly practical to the world. And they understood the church, not primarily as a refuge, as a place of withdrawal from the world and safety from the world, but they viewed the church as a people in exodus--in exodus out of all of their exclusive and closed communities. This is what it meant to define ourselves as a people who included all people, without exception. That every possible non-universal identity was transcended by membership in the church.

So, one reason why I think that campus ministry, and churches that have strong and intentional campus ministries, why that's so important, is because the university recalls the church through its initial public witness. And parishes like St. Stephen's help remind other parishes that may be in danger of becoming *just* extended families, that however small or suburban they may be, they are, each of them, a gateway into the whole world. I like to think of going to church as not going inside, but actually going through the doors into something outside.
More to come, as I find the time, on topics such as ecumenism and interfaith relations--the hard, but necessary work of coming together, respectfully, in our diversity.