Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sacred Places In-between

In my readings about place this semester I ran across an article by Steven Pickard in the Journal of Anglican Studies: "Church of the In-Between God: Recovering an Ecclesial Sense of Place Down-Under" (May 2009). It's an unlikely journal for me to run across, but Ebsco is a rare and beautiful thing. I talked about Pickard's article in our church's adult Sunday School this morning, and the class had some interesting responses.

Pickard writes from the perspective of an Anglican in Australia, and while I am neither, his observations have wider import. He describes Australian Anglicanism as "a colonial church 12,000 miles on the other side of the known world, on the largest and driest island continent on Earth." Consequently church members set about trying to establish a sense of home, which they do, but they remain oriented to faraway Britain instead of their immediate surroundings. This makes it difficult to adapt to their physical surroundings as well as their fellow inhabitants, particularly indigenous people that got colonized upon.

Their situation isn't identical with ours, but middle-class churches can identify with their situation to a considerable degree. Particularly, he suggests, globalization creates insecurity on so many levels (homogenization of places, economic dislocations, &c.) that we may well feel the need to establish roots in secure and protected spaces. And this is OK, as long as we don't just stay there. To quote the hymn "In the Garden," which by the way is 100 years old this year, "he bids me go; thru the voice of woe his voice to me is calling."

It is good to be welcoming to visitors, but today's churches have to face the reality that many people are not likely to seek them out. Through much of the 20th century, going to church was socially-expected, and people went where their parents went, or their neighbors, or co-workers, and then they kept going, and the churches didn't have to work too hard to attract people. Maybe they could put more energy into weeding out the undesirables? Anyway, in today's more secular America, this is quite clearly no longer the case. And that stands to reason: my comfort at my church stems in part from going there for 22 years, which means I know a lot of the people, the theology, the location of the rest rooms, and perhaps most important the unwritten rules of normal behavior. An outsider obviously is not going to feel that degree of comfort; in fact, they are likely to be uncomfortable in inverse proportion to our comfort! So only some other strong motivation is likely to bring them in.

Pickard advocates what he calls "life-at-the-boundary," the boundary, that is, between the safe place of our church home and the relative chaos of the world beyond. It is along these boundaries, he says, where routines and roles are disrupted enough to allow "new and creative opportunities for life together [and] new patterns of human interaction arise." He draws on a book which I have not read, A Christian Theology of Place by John Inge (2003), to argue that any "location of meeting and activity in the interaction between God and the world" could be a sacred place. Pickard cites two familiar, powerful incidents in Jesus's ministry: the encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria, which occurred because Jesus led his disciples out of the comfort zones of Judea and Galilee into decidedly alien territory; and the post-resurrection encounter with two followers on the road to Emmaus, where the men do not even recognize Jesus when they see him apart from their usual meeting place.

The members of the class took the class in a number of different directions, including: encouraging members of the community (however defined) to share their talents and gifts, developing a sense of acceptance in the church, issues with welcoming new ideas, and the trials of relocating to a new town. All agreed that going out beyond our shelter is a core part of the church's job. That much was not even controversial.

So why is it so difficult to do? Pickard stresses the aspect of risk, and I can certainly identify with that. I am not comfortable meeting new people, particularly in unstructured situations. And time is always in short supply, even in the City of Five Seasons. I wonder if there are sufficient opportunities available, or even structures where those opportunities could be created? Habitat for Humanity builds or work trips or medical missions are great experiences, maybe even life-changing, and I think Pickard is thinking of more routine encounters. There are opportunities for charitable work with meals programs, health clinics, and homeless ministries in our town, but those are encounters specifically designed to help those in critical need. Are there "in-between places" where people can meet mutually?

Toward the end, the discussion went off to discuss our church's welcoming stance towards gays and lesbians, and how some people may not feel welcomed in a church that welcomes gays. Moreover, our church sponsors a Boy Scout troop, and the Boy Scouts have their own rules and issues about homosexuality. Those are interesting and difficult questions, but I think are NOT the issue here. In those cases the church is addressing how it deals with people in its own home. The "in-between places" of which Pickard writes are no one's home, the encounters are mutual, and structures and rules remain to be negotiated. It is in such "neutral places where relationships are less clear and consequently open to new possibilities."

Are there such places?

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