Given that St. Mary’s annual Retreat at Shrine Mont had just ended Sunday afternoon, the pews were a bit sparser than usual at this week’s five o’clock service. Father Andrew didn’t have the usual complement of people to turn to when, a few minutes before the bells rang, he realized the altar candles hadn’t been lit. Fortunately, he was able to turn to one congregant who knew what to do, and after a hasty consultation, she took care of the essential task.
Whether we’re “cradle Episcopalians” or St. Mary’s is the first church we’ve ever visited, we all look to our clergy for guidance. They’re the ones standing up in front of us, after all. The Episcopal Church in America contains its hierarchic nature in its name: We rely on the episcopate, the bishopric, to guide our church and our dioceses, and on our individual parish rectors and clergy members to accept that guidance.
We’re so busy, sometimes, leaning on and learning from our priests and deacons, that we forget they lean on and learn from us, too. We are one body; we are not separate from those who guide us. We are part of them, and they of us. Our wholeness is holy. It can be no other way. Our clergy have a role, and it is different from our role as congregants, but it is not more important—just different.
I was reminded of this “wholeness” when Father Andrew spoke to the Gospel message that the only unpardonable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
What does that mean, “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?”
I would never attempt to provide a definitive answer to that question, but the guidance I’ve received as a Christian allows me to share that it’s really a matter of separation. We blaspheme against the Holy Spirit when we attempt to separate ourselves from God, when we refuse to accept God’s whole and forgiving presence in our lives, we “blaspheme,” or sully, the part of the Trinity that is truly “the three in one, and one in three.”
If, instead, we open our hearts to the concept of the Holy Spirit, we may remember that many people have roles to play in any one person’s spiritual growth. Although a parish priest’s role is central and often very important, who is to say who lights the flame of your own spirit? It might once have been a special church-school teacher, and now is a Stephen Minister who holds space for your sorrow. In a couple of years, it might be a new seminarian with passionate ideas to share in homilies.
During the weekly announcements, Father Andrew asked us to acknowledge a new member of St. Mary’s, a man who had recently lost his wife “and realized that he would like to take part in a community of faith.” I didn’t want to embarrass him, but I had to turn around and smile in his direction. What a wonderful witness, to allow his new clergyperson to introduce him to us so directly. He is already part of our community’s whole. And I’ll wager he has things to share with Father Andrew.
But it was our rector’s recounting of the ‘80s Dance Party at Shrine Mont that truly brought home how vital the give-and-take between clergy and congregation is. “I wore a blue mullet that someone gave me,” said Father Andrew. “I still can’t believe that I remained standing for two hours, or that I’m standing today!” He laughed, and so did we. I thought: How great that someone gave Andrew Merrow something silly and festive to wear for a silly and festive event. How great that our priests and vestry members and grownups and children can dance and laugh and feel safe together one night, and wake up and pray and sing and worship together the next morning. That’s as good as it gets, and it’s what we all, clergy and congregants and the blessed Holy Spirit, would like for everyone.
One evening someone gives Father Andrew a mullet wig. The next day he gives someone the gifts of God, for the people of God. Through it all, the Holy Spirit dances.
- Who has encouraged you in your Christian walk?
- What part do you play in the life of our church?
- How do you receive from our church?