remind me: why am I at church?

Since the Choral Eucharist at St. John the Divine was moved from 10:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. last November, it has required commitment on my part to get to church. Before, I could sleep in and still go to church. Now I have to force myself to keep my rear from getting back in bed when I get up at 7:00 to feed Tasha. But I’m glad to be there once I get there, and I miss it when I’m not there.

But when I learn about the history of the church, I question why I am a part of an institution that has such a history of being disingenuous and sometimes flat-out corrupt.

My current reading includes Gathering Those Driven Away by Wendy Farley. She has filled me in on the truth about Athanasius, the mastermind behind the Nicene Creed. Turns out he was not a nice guy at all.

The intense focus on technical precision [of the language of the creed] arose because the positions were so close that they required sword-like language to parse theology ever finer, lest a common ground was accidentally discovered. Conflict requires an opponent. Where one does not exist, it must be invented. The very idea of an Arian “party” reflects the success of Athanasius in transforming an intellectual debate with a respected fellow Christian teacher into a struggle against a heretical school. Through skillful polemics, those who opposed him at Nicaea became a single heretical party.

Of course in this context the Protestants really weren’t that much better.

The construction of the Christian narrative of redemption through the doctrine of original sin and substitutionary atonement narrowly aligns divine presence and ecclesial power. Everything outside the institutional church is stripped of significance. This is no less true after the Reformation, which continued to affirm that the primary benefit of Christian belief was that it enabled us to avoid eternal torment. Protestant churches continued to be committed to these doctrines and to the singular power of orthodox belief, mediated by churches, to save us from perdition. Nature, other religions, and even other forms of religious practice within the church are either irrelevant or demonized. The attack on Arius, like those on Valentinus, Origen, and Porete, reflect a perennial hostility to forms of faithfulness less dependent on clergy to mediate salvation.

In a video course I am watching on Medieval England I learned that Thomas Becket, though later made a saint, was not that nice of a guy either. He was a social climber who became best friends with King Henry II until Henry made him Archbishop of Canterbury. At that point he decided he could do his own thing, which eventually caused him to have to flee into exile. Brought back from exile because the Kind needed him for a royal wedding, Becket chose to side with the Pope over the issue of Henry wanting to have his oldest son named king while he was still alive, and having the consecration done by the archbishop of York. Becket’s actions seemed to be motivated by politics and ego, and not by conviction. But, when he was murdered by some of Henry’s knights, as course instructor Jennifer Paxton says, “Overnight Becket went from first-class troublemaker to saint.”

Henry VIII, of course, never intended to start a new denomination, he just took control of The Church in England so he could do what he wished to do with his own divorces and marriages.

Our modern era and my own denomination are not much better. It took the irregular ordination of eleven women in 1974 to break that issue open in the Episcopal church in the United States, and official ordination of women was finally approved in 1976. (The year after I graduated from college!)

Across the Atlantic, the Church of England will vote on allowing woman bishops in July (yes, they’re just now getting around to that), but a last-minute amendment to the resolution by the House of Bishops would allow parishes which object to a woman bishop the power to choose one who shared their theological convictions. Supporters of the resolution say the amendment undermines the intent of the resolution.

So why am I here? Because there is something important to me about being present with others, hearing the Word and partaking of “the gifts of God for the people of God.” Despite the humanness, the politics, the need of those in power to hold on to power, Sunday morning worship helps reconnect me with who I am and my relationship to God. My week ahead needs that moment of kneeling with my brother and sister parishioners and receiving the Bread and Wine.

And getting back to Athanasius and Arius and the debate over the incarnation and the Trinity, Wendy has a new perspective.

Marcella Althaus-Reed claims the holiness of this underside: though authorities claim that God has “declared us, made us, irredeemably lost in the eyes of the church and Christian ethics, yet it is not we who are lost.” We are not only not lost, we are called to interpret the incarnation as a witness to the nonviolent and unlimited efficacy of divine love. This love is the self-manifesting beauty of nondual Divine Eros: from the infinite and mysterious depths of Divinity, beauty emerges. Nonduality expresses something of this mystery; love expresses its healing efficacy. The incarnation reveals and heals because it expresses the nonduality of love in the world. Lovers of the Divine in the past and the present, many of whom are despised by the institutional church, bear witness to this nonviolent love.

I like where she is going with this.

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