When I say “the church” in this particular context, I don’t mean the big church, the one that stretches across time and space – although I am profoundly grateful for it, for all of the sinners and the saints who have carried the faith for us across the years. Nor do I mean a particular, physical church or parish – although I am profoundly grateful for that too, for the opportunity to serve with you within a specific beloved community.
No, today what I mean by “the church” is the institutional church with all of its rules.
Maybe that sounds odd.
Bear with me.
I’ve been thinking a bunch lately about our culture’s profound suspicion of constraints, rules, structures, institutions, and so on. Generally speaking, our habit is to paint these things as impediments to our creativity and our freedom.
Largely lost in this conversation is the creativity and freedom that a human being can find within the rules of an institution. Think about, say, marriage. In some respects, an individual is radically limited within marriage: think of all the people out there whom one is prohibited from dating! But at a deeper and more satisfying level, the partners in a vital marriage find profound freedom within its rules.
My experience is that the church is similar. I am deeply free within its rules, including its thoroughly human and thoroughly flawed constitutions and its canons. (It is fascinating to read Thomas Merton’s correspondence, written barely over 50 years ago, and to see therein his comfort with obedience to the institutional church. Even as Merton is exasperated with his Prior, he remains obedient to him.) The canons, for instance, invite me into the hard and vital spiritual exercise of staying in relationship with folks whom I struggle to understand and struggle to like.
I just finished reading Hope Larson’s graphic novel adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” to our youngest child. I had forgotten Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful meditation on constraints that is found within it: A sonnet, one of the characters says to another, has rules. But within those rules, you are allowed to write whatever you like.
Clearly, there are endless examples of times when the rules of the church haven’t led folks into freedom and creativity, when the rules got applied in a screwed-up way. Clearly, that happens still. I guess I’d like us to name the pain of that reality without having to go to a binary place in which the sometimes selfish or foolish functioning of the institutional church means that we are better off with no institution at all. Because, gosh, Johannes Bach and Nadia Bolz-Weber and Winnie Varghese and so many others have found such profound and divine creativity within the rules of this institution.
So, in this season of thanksgiving, here is my gratitude for the beautiful and broken institution that we call the church.
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The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.