Sunday, March 31, 2013

Holy Saturday: Huddling as the Church Dies

On Holy Saturday not too long ago, I was in regional Australia hoping to participate in the Triduum, or at least Easter celebrations, in a local Anglican Church. My expectations for solemn niceties were not particularly high -  finding an Easter Vigil, in any form, was the hope.

The parish in question had two centres - beautiful historic buildings - in neighbouring towns, where services were normally held every Sunday, some hours apart. Let's call them St Peter's and St James'. It turned out that they did not in fact celebrate an Easter Vigil at either Church, but that wasn't the principal difficulty of their liturgical life that weekend.

There was a parish website for St Peter's and St James', but there was absolutely no information about services for Holy Week and Easter on it - other parts of the site suggested there had been no updates for close to a year. Ecclesiastical space junk on the internet is a fairly common phenomenon, and a common story often lies behind it: some parish member or cleric was once sufficiently digitally savvy to create a web site for their parish, but somehow unable to impart their skills or enthusiasm, and the site became redundant when they left.

In this particular case however a lack of digital talent or commitment wasn't the sole or only problem. I went to the actual sites and buildings, to find the service times. Each Church bore a clear attractive sign, a few years old admittedly, with the regular pattern of services (for each centre alone, and not for the other - the aforementioned web site is offered…). Neither had any signage or other information to indicate that there would be any additional services for Holy Week, or any changes to time or venue.

That Holy Saturday however there was an elderly lady doing flowers at St Peter's, who wasn't aware of any special arrangements but kindly found a pew sheet from the Maundy Thursday service for me, which had the other services of the Triduum. This revealed there was in fact no service on Easter Day at St James', but only a "combined service" at St Peter's, at the regular time there. So - there was no Sunday service on the highest day of the Church's year at a Church where the Eucharist is celebrated every other Sunday of the year. And no-one who wasn't already party to some other mysterious source of information was going to find out. It was deemed more important for the existing members - or at least some of them, a committed few privy to the changed arrangements - to "combine" than either to celebrate Easter visibly in the second community, or to welcome others.

The phenomenon of the "combined service" is typically a tragic symptom of misplaced effort. While its instigators imagine they are giving the good folk of the Church a shot in the arm, in truth this medicine is palliative care, the sort given only when you know it will hasten the patient's demise. It's all over when public worship is abandoned for some purpose related to the lives of the already-convinced and committed, few as they may now be. For this particular crew, the feast of the resurrection had become a matter of huddling behind closed doors for comfort - and in secret - rather than flinging them open on a day when many Australians do still wonder about faith and life, and even venture out in search of them in a Church.

Of course huddling behind closed doors is indeed part of the Paschal story. The liturgical car-crash here was a Holy Saturday moment, but scheduled for Easter Day. The tragedy at St James' speaks for itself - but to regard it with despair would also be to enter into the spirit of the wrong day. The Holy Saturday phenomenon is not, after all, irrelevant. We are too quick to breeze past the reality of silence and oblivion as we move from the unambiguous pain of the Cross to the redemption and renewal of Easter.

So too must the Church itself as an institution face its Holy Saturday reality. Australian Anglicanism as we have known it is dying in large part. Those who regard themselves as its physicians, even while they quietly (or not so quietly) bemoan the intransigence or conservatism of the laity, are often really smoothing the pillow with well-intentioned but half-baked programmatic moves based on a debased sense of "community". Church is about community, but gospel-centered and mission-shaped community, or else it is simply Rotary or Probus with candles; and those worthy organisations have some comparable problems.

That the structures of institutional Christianity are falling apart in many is not the fault solely of the good people at St Peter's and St James', or of clergy who have long been better trained at huddling than at hustling. We in the West generally face a collapse of the assumptions and institutions under which the Church has taken shelter for centuries. Huddling on Holy Saturday is a perfectly understandable thing to do. But to confuse the joy of the resurrection with the comfort still offered by our few fellows is no answer.

Neither, admittedly, is assiduous implementation of some alternative program based on better research about Church growth and death a clear answer, nor is updating the web site. Answers will only come when we have spent longer in the present and coming Holy Saturday of the Church; after which, we may yet find that even in the place our fears and despair are most focussed - in death itself, and the tomb - there and only there, we encounter good news we could not anticipate, and new life afterwards.

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