A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
The History of Us: Drama, Romance and the Church
July 13, 2003
Ordinary Sunday 15 Mark 6:7-13
The announcement that Barry White had died came through as I got off the plane from one of the most romantic weddings I have been involved in. I don't know why I was so struck by the news; I had never particularly listened to his music and there was other more pressing global news. Maybe it was what he represented, or maybe it was because of the heights of emotions I had just experienced. It was my sister's wedding in New York City and it was spectacular from start to finish.
She arrived looking stunning in a park under the Brooklyn Bridge, with a Didgeridoo greeting her. They were married and then performed the grandest swoop kiss I've ever seen. Then it was onto a water taxi for a ride to the reception past the Statue of Liberty. All this excitement shared by a family for whom it is rare even to be all in one place, let alone in NYC. Even a hard nut like me got a little choked up by all this romance. How could you leave an experience like this and not feel motivated to find more romance in life? It is at times like these we find inspiration for the earthy and human joys, the love making and friendships. So maybe that's why I was so affected by the loss of Barry White, the sultry saint of romance.
I came back wondering why we don't talk more about the earthy matters of everyday life in the church. The passions, the tragedies, the enlightenments; these are some of the great moments, we talk about them with our friends, but for some reason in church, we become too pious. Maybe we need to introduce a Barry White Saints day, where we urge each other to keep believing in romance. I can imagine an exclusive "Eros Mass" at St Matthew-in-the-City (inclusive liturgy of course - an inclusive exclusive!) Aucklanders would flock to it!
The strongest impression I gained from my trip to the US was an appreciation of the secular nature of New Zealand, and Auckland in particular. Churches in America are impressive. They have an array of programs which outdo anything I have seen in Australia or New Zealand. I went to churches with staffs of 140. I saw churches with 1000 people attending. I went to a church where their kid's Sunday school program needed a separate room for each age group. There were burgeoning soup kitchens and psychotherapy centres, cafes turning people away because they are so popular.
Yet, in so many of the places I sensed a distinction between what happens in Sunday worship and what happens during the week. New Zealanders on the whole have solved that problem for us, they have for the most part given up on Sunday worship. However, for New Zealanders there is a strong sense of spirit. Over and again I talk to people at parties, some even here in the church, and we talk about spirit; about meaning, about love, about connections. Spirit is alive and well in secular Auckland. There is just a lessening need for religion and ritual.
I have come back with a strong sense that what the church needs to do in this country is have a two pronged approach; good quality and consistent liturgy and ritual, and opportunities for meaningful and spirited connection with people beyond liturgy and ritual. If all our eggs go into the Sunday worship basket, we will end up with an aging omelette. If we don't make our Sunday worship more consistent with postmodern ideas, we will end up with scrambled eggs. So the challenge is there, quite different to the challenge in the US, although I suspect a similar trend will occur there in time, possibly even in reaction to the extremism of George W Bush and his regime.
In Dutch Calvinist Grand Rapids, Michigan, I found two church communities living out an alternative path of faith. I met a former minister of one of them, a 90 year old man who, in the 1950's, was preaching a radical post-theistic message to a huge crowd of people many of whom had grown up within the tight confines of their Calvinist families and churches. Dr Littlefair had come out of the 'naturalist' Chicago Divinity school, and was still lively fun to talk with and discuss theology.
I arrived at Grand Rapids, near Michael Moore's hometown, with his book 'Stupid White Men' tucked under my arm. I wondered what to expect after he had savaged Michigan. I was pleasantly surprised to find communities of resistance to the Bush "shock and awe" policies. We have much in common with these communities.
I saw in New Jersey the most inclusive liturgy I have yet encountered. In this Episcopal church they have been openly marrying gay and lesbian couples for over a decade. We can learn much from them about the inclusive energy of a church as well as the liturgical reforms they have explored.
However, the church I found which matches our location and present community use policy most closely was St Marks in the Bowery in NYC. Despite visiting several times, there was never a priest in sight. I saw no prayer books nor heard any classical music playing. Yet this was a beautiful historic building. The site is taken over during the week by dance, poetry and theatre groups. They make the space their own and it is alive with spirited energy.
So there is much to learn from churches in the US, but also a major cultural difference. There is so much more I could tell you about from the trip. I will have to let the stories arise other weeks.
Now briefly a comment about the gospel text for today (Mark 6:14-29) which brings us back to Barry White and Lawton family weddings. This is a dramatic text which tells the story of the demise of a great and courageous prophet. It is also the story of an evil tyrant. This is soap opera, tragedy in an almost Shakespearian setting. This is the story of impossible love, dysfunctional families and insane passion. It is captured best in the opera 'Salome', where in most versions Salome will be found to be knee deep in muck, making passionate love to the severed head of John the Baptist. Salome falls in love with John, the one man who will not even look upon her beauty. She also dances insanely and seductively for her maniacal stepfather, Herod in order to get ahead (excuse the pun!) This is high drama. It doesn't tell us how to live, what to do or not to do. It is just a highly charged and earthy tale of romance and tragedy.
These stories need to be told. The insanity, the beauty, the passion, the deceit, the horror, the connections of our lives are the stories which the church needs to be telling. These are the stories which your families, who don't go to church, are living, hopefully without anyone losing their heads.
We've all been to weddings like the one I just enjoyed in NYC. If I can offer you anything out of the experience it is to urge you to greater romance in life. It will be experienced differently for each of us, it will always be tinged with the reality of unhappy endings, but we each have a story to tell. Stop looking for spirit in another realm. Oh, that the church would stop urging people to seek spirit in other worldliness. The spirit is right here, in the everyday, the romantic, the tragic, the real and beautiful moments of our lives.
So we must love while these moments are still called today