Is it Decline, or a Different Kind of Progress?

A Reflection on the Gospel for March 22, 2015

John 12:20-33

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

by David Somerville+

                 Henry Sloane Coffin was president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church until his retirement in 1945. He died nine years later, having seen the swelling prosperity of mainline Christianity begin after World War II. Coffin beheld something inauthentic in all this expansion. It was reflected by a kind of theme park artificiality in some of its physical structures. Many of the buildings of that era looked classical or gothic from a distance, but were actually made of cinder block, asbestos, poured concrete, and topped with fiberglass kit belfries, knock-offs from such familiar icons as the Old North Church. About these slick, new structures, both material and spiritual, Coffin remarked

There can be no question but that Church membership has been made too cheap.  It has become largely a convention. At present our churches draw and hold the settled and … repel the venturesome, which is precisely the reverse of the New Testament Church.

              Coffin’s assessment must have provoked heated discussion in those days, and now, more than sixty years later, there can be more discussion along parallel lines as we look at Jesus in the Gospel for next Sunday in which he says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”

              In the years of Coffin’s comments, The Holy Spirit was speaking to me. I was a struggling little piece of adolescent grain. It was late in the summer of 1960 at the end of a decade while America was still enjoying its love affair with its national self. It was a confident assumption then that of the two super powers, ours was the one favored by God, a fact I assumed was obvious, and beyond dispute as evidenced by our nation’s size, and prosperity. I did not have the maturity to question those assumptions. I had no idea that to be a good Christian, and to be a patriotic American were not the same thing.

              I did not know it in 1960. But here is what I believe was going on. God was in charge of my life and was causing me to find the Episcopal Church. Then I assumed that I was the one who undertook conversations first with my brother’s girl friend, and then with a newcomer to our rural New Jersey neighborhood about this intriguing catholic and protestant church. How could that be? The newcomer was a retired burlesque dancer from New York, a childless woman full of love and laughter. Harriet and her husband, John, had just finished building a house across the street from where I was growing up. I had assumed that I was the agent who confirmed the truth of these conversations with my brother’s girlfriend and the dancer by finding an article by W. Norman Pittenger about what Episcopalians believe. I assumed one Sunday morning that it was my New Yorker friend, Harriet, that invited me into her funny little car, a Nash Metropolitan, and she drove to the 11 o’clock service. (I had no idea that the Holy Spirit was involved with this). After the service, the rector explained to me what the word “Eucharist” meant. He was a colorful character, always ready with a joke to illustrate his points. Father Holmes was not the kind of minister I had ever seen before. He wore an unbuttoned sport jacket, and smoked an occasional cigarette – quite a contrast to the pietistic clergy I had known that generally wore prissy, twice buttoned business suits with a white shirt and dark necktie, and who were always cautious about “worldliness” in their conduct.

              My parents were delighted to follow me into Harriet’s parish church in the town of Flemington. It’s people were friendly, casual, and conversant about lots of interesting subjects that were beyond the pious talk of how the Bible is the Word of God, and how important it is to be “saved” and to know for certain that we are “Justified by Faith”, and to “think only on these things”.   All of us felt accepted without being judged. We were never bored with the somber, repetitive. Sunday God talk that I assumed was always a part of church.

              Calvary parish provided a therapeutic milieu. There had always been something quirky about my parents, and I, too, spent my adolescence feeling strangely awkward and odd in addition to being skinny, and neither as tall nor athletic as I wished I were. I did not always feel accepted at either the school I attended or the neighborhood of my childhood (except for Harriet).

              Eight months later, I met the diocesan bishop from the See of Trenton, the Right Reverend Alfred Lothian Banyard, who had come for his annual visitation and confirmation of some twenty kids in the parish. (I was confirmed a year later). The Average Sunday attendance was about 125. On Confirmation Day, the whole parish, both vested and otherwise, waited like wise virgins for the bridegroom in the church yard a full hour before the Bishop’s arrival in his black Sedan DeVille from the Cathedral office in Trenton. We all wanted to be the first to see the large Cadillac, bearing its triumphal license plate “ALB 1”

              The Bishop was about 6 foot five – before he put on his mitre. His presence was regal! His voice was deep and sonorous. His sermons were unequivocally authoritative. He had a deeply loving, thoroughly paternalistic heart. There was a joke associated with Bishop Banyard’s management style among the streetwise clergy and lay leaders in the diocese. It was a paraphrase of Saint Augustine of Hippo who wrote in the fifth century after it had been determined that the doctrine of Pelagius was heretical. “Trenton has spoken. The matter is finished.” The clergy at diocesan gatherings would make this cryptic remark with knowing eyes. I had no idea then what they were talking about.

              The sixties was the decade of my evolvement from being a small, skinny teenager to being a college and seminary graduate of barely average size, and ordained with the same giant hands on my head that confirmed me.

              Bishop Banyard, I had learned along the way, had his favorites. They were his honorary canons, rectors of his larger parishes. These priests served on his prestigious committees, and were always quick to remind the bishop of their loyalty to his authority. I was given the assignment as vicar to the Church of the Good Shepherd, a mission congregation of working class folk in the southern part of the state near the Pine Barrens.

              I tried to be obedient in this world in which big things and people were preferred, and the best things in life were the big things growing from big to bigger! The archdeacon, a genial man in a purple cassock, told me the week before my first Sunday there at the Good Shepherd that it had been a mission since 1918. “It was high time for that to change”, the cleric explained. “Now with some hard work by a man of prayer, like yourself, Father Somerville, Good Shepherd can grow to become self-supporting!”

              Sometime during the first month in my assignment, I was the at-fault driver in a minor accident. I had no collision coverage. Nobody was hurt, but my young wife (Pam, not Sherry) and I were living from paycheck to paycheck, and I did not have the $1600 necessary to repair the front end of my car. I told Bishop Banyard about my situation in a letter to him that was not intended to ask for assistance. Nevertheless five days later, a kind note of encouragement came from him with a check for the full amount from his discretionary fund.

              About a year later, Bishop Banyard scolded me for wasting money on a secular psychiatrist, and that attendance at the little Church of the Good Shepherd was waning only because I was neglecting my prayer life! He was not finished. The bishop then started a non-sequiter tirade about my haircut! “David, I will not tolerate disobedient, humanist hippie priests in my diocese!”

              Bishop Banyard’s own doctor had at some point urged him not to attend the House of Bishop’s meetings during the 1960’s. These gatherings, the doctor had concluded, were not good for the bishop’s health. I, at the time had no way of knowing that this was particularly unusual.

              In 1973, I was called to a larger parish as an associate rector, and had begun to broaden my professional interests by taking a chaplain’s commission with the New Jersey Army National Guard. I felt a need to engage the ethical challenges of service to a secular institution as an alternative to parish work. And since my seminary days, I had a vocational interest in ministry to the sick through hospital chaplaincy. At the time, the armed services offered programs in Clinical Pastoral Education that were fully funded. Once again I thought that I was the agent of this move, not being particularly attuned to the real source of the “still, small voice.” I was just aware that I had little prospect of ascending the ecclesiastical ranks to receive that much coveted diocesan sign that I was truly “gifted and devoted” in the bishop’s eyes, namely the purple cassock with title “Canon” (which in reality I never found to be that much of a turn—on). There was a part of my soul that kept asking, what is the point of a purple cassock? And yet at the same time I was craving some tangible sign that I was “successful” Maybe a purple cassock would alleviate some of my self-doubt.

              I wonder how many times over the years of studying from time to time commentaries on the Gospel lesson about the grain of wheat, discerning what it really means by being required to die to be fruitful. When would it occur to me that this lesson is about little me, a grain of wheat? A life of striving for a purple cassock seemed petty. But I did not want to vanish into the ground either. It was in this that I had to wonder: Do I really want to live into my vocation? I did not have the personal permission to say “No”. But I had no enthusiasm about giving up my ego to be planted in the ground, which would then snuff out my will. After all, I was still attached to some cherished misassumptions. I was not sure I really wanted to rise from the death of my old nature.   Did I truly want the new spiritual detachment from those purple cassock fantasies of prestige and popularity?

              So here, Dear Reader and good friend, this was my crisis in living into my vocation. I was feeling estranged from God and myself. I had been a part of a traditional, old profession – one of the oldest in that brotherhood of the three prestigious professions of Christendom with its two siblings, law and medicine. But somehow, the goal posts were moving as the post-modern milieu took root. Thoughtful people were changing, and I was discovering ambiguity in lots of places both within myself, and in the world around me. I could no longer take seriously the idea that God ever favored the profession of ministry as something in any way better than serving as a volunteer. I wanted a meaningful vocation. But I also wanted the recognition and benefits that come from being a proven professional. Is that the same as coveting a purple cassock? I was not sure.

              During the seventies before going into the army chaplain corps, I found myself wishing that I could have followed a less complicated career track, one with fewer side roads and cul-de-sacs: Maybe if I were a better priest I would have begun as a curate. Then after working there for three to five years go to a small parish that had budget enough for a full time rector at the diocesan minimum with a part time organist/choir master, a secretary, and a custodian. Then at about that time, have the first two of three attractive, heterosexual children with a pretty wife who faithfully plays the Sunday school piano. Then after ten years at that, being awarded a purple cassock along the way, be called to a larger parish where I would participate in the breaking in of a new curate by showing him or her that “if you play the cards right, you will get a purple cassock just like mine! Then finally before retirement, send the children off (tuition free as rector’s kids) to Hobart and William Smith Colleges, which would be the beginnings of the three of them in any combination of the traditional professions.

              All of the above might sound nice to anyone with the spiritual depth of a birdbath! But how often does that happen anyway? It did not happen to me. How often the traditional career track still functions, I do not know.

              What is more important is that times are getting better for authentic Christian spirituality — possibly because it is getting worse for the presumptuousness of the plastic Christendom that was the successful product of its time when automobiles had tail fins and necker nobs. There can be no question that Henry Sloan Coffin was right. Church membership had been made too cheap once, but now all that is in a process of change.  Professing faith in Christ and his church is no longer the conventional thing to do because of the social advantages involved with that.

              At present our churches with their declining numbers, may be laboring under what could be mistaken for “reduced circumstances”, But they are becoming less repellent to Dr. Coffin’s identified population of “the venturesome”, the kind of member who also is an active minister, animated by the spirit of the of the New Testament Church.

              Christ calls us to be vital parts of something more than an organization. The church is organic, a mortal body that lives daily with its vocation to loose its life for its head’s sake (Jesus Christ), and to realize that as it appears to be dying, it is actually modeling for us, even as we are actively dying with it, its resurrection reality. We are being stretched to relinquish the idolatries of worldly success –so that Christ’s mission to transform the world with his values of eternal life over material success may be rediscovered as the body becomes willing to bleed and die in transition to its new, but eternal self.

                        Even if it were possible, the superficially optimistic church of the fifties is a place to which I do not wish to return. For if I did, what would I get? The delusion that mainline American Christendom promotes the Kingdom of God, a society of justice, a place of diversity where dynamic conversations are held to perfect the ideals of gender, ethnic, and racial equality, as if the institution wanted to be a quilted patchwork. Well, it did not ant to be a patchwork. It never did. It valued decorum, conformity, and pretty, well-behaved children who were “to be seen and not heard” — unless they were singing patriotic songs on cue.

              The evolving church, the one outside the margins that define propriety, is not so simple. It is both a participant in human social life, but also its critic. It is a member of the cast in the world stage, but it also sits in the audience assembling notes for critical review. In a Church like that, its ministers have more important things to be concerned about than who gets to wear a purple cassock– which is just fine! Wheat grains going to the ground don’t need cassocks anyway.


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

2 Oxford Biblical Studies

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