Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Back Pew

Anglicans love the back pew. I suppose an interesting social history might be written on the subject putting forward all sorts of reasons that the front pews remain empty while the back pews are always occupied. I have heard several reasons put forward over the years, the most interesting being the suggestion that occupation of the back pew dates back to the days of pew rents. The pews and boxes in the middle of the church were the “property” of those who paid for them, while benches along the walls, at the back and in the gallery were open to those who could not afford to pay the pew rent. I have no idea if this is true or not and I can’t even remember where I heard it. I once asked my English grandmother why no one ever sat in the front pew of a church. She told me that it was kept free just in case the Queen showed up. Again, I don’t know if there’s a kernel of truth in that somewhere, but as a child I certainly believed it. It does seem to be in concord with the concept that those of a certain socio-economic class and social status get the best seats in the house, while those less fortunate should be satisfied with what is left over. Fortunately, in the eschatological scheme of things, “the last shall be first.” It’s just too bad that the church has had such a hard time hearing its own Gospel. I have been in churches with side aisles pews where it was painfully obvious that a greater number of visible minorities occupied those seats.

Even if the Anglican attachment to the back pew had its origins in pew rents, I don’t think that there is anyone alive in the Canadian Church today that would remember pew rents. Thus it is unlikely that those who sit in the back pews today do so because of the historic influence of pew rents. It is more likely that those who warm the back pews of the church do so out of a desire to remain slightly anonymous, slightly at a safe distance, participating fully, but with caution. Even long-time churchgoers seem to like to sit as close to the back as possible. Perhaps it is akin to the student who sits at the very back of the classroom with collar up, sunglasses on and the peak of the ball-cap turned downward, exuding the attitude, “teach me if you dare.”

My father, who is a retired Hydro executive, once told me of some sort of industry meeting that he attended at which the late Archbishop of Toronto, Lewis Garnsworthy, was keynote speaker. Lewis Toronto is reported to have extended his index finger, gazed across the expanse of the room, and uttered in his own inimitable style, “Don’t think you people at the back intimidate me; I’m an Anglican bishop!”

Whatever the origins of the back pew phenomenon, the back pew continues to hold an allure for Anglicans. Even if we place a sign midway through the nave inviting people to sit ahead of the sign (as was the summer custom in my home church), the pleading will be ignored and at least one or two faithful will fly the Anglican flag high from the back pew.

At a recent clergy event in the Diocese of Toronto (at a church that shall remain anonymous to protect the guilty), along with my good friend Fr. Jason Prisley, I was looking for a place to sit. We jokingly said that we should try out the back pew and see what all the fuss was about. We headed to the back of the modern nave and Fr. Jason began to laugh, “Dan,” he exclaimed, “you have to get a picture of this! This is the classic Anglican back pew!” He was right. A quick glance revealed the startling find that although the building was only about ten years old, the back pew was well worn! The contrast with the pristine penultimate pew is quite amusing (see accompanying photo).

Lest we be too hard on those who keep the back pew warm, let us remember that they are not the only ones guilty of claiming a particular ownership over their ecclesiastical seating. Those in the chancel have their special places: the bishop’s throne, the rector’s stall, the choir pews. Is it any wonder that the laity wish to stake their claim? In one parish in which I was a student, I was told of an elderly man who had carved his initials into a certain pew as a boy and he sat in that same pew all his days. A clergy spouse I knew always sat next to a pillar no matter which church she was in. One could ponder the psychology of that piece of seating strategy for some time. We are all familiar with the stories of those who have been told, “You’re sitting in my pew.” Perhaps some readers will have been accused of this when visiting another church. I know of a bishop’s spouse who had this happen in a church in this diocese. Ouch.

So, to be fair, not all Anglicans have a need to sit at the back. There are some (few) who do enjoy sitting up front, and as a preacher, I do appreciate the opportunity to make visual contact with people in the congregation without the aid of opera glasses. It seems, though, that we do like to carve out our particular favourite spots in Church. We all have niches in ministry, and perhaps the little niches we carve out in the nave (and chancel) in some way reflect that. Maybe, when we get too concerned about where people are sitting in the church, we should for a moment consider the alternative: the empty pew. Perhaps we should simply be grateful that God’s Holy Spirit has drawn folk into the Church at all, no matter where they choose to sit.

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Canadian Churchman's Round-up, #1 - A Compendium of Thoughtful Anglican Blogs

The Anglican blogosphere seems to be dominated by a group of stridently conservative bloggers whose voices tend to be overpowering. As you will all know, your friendly neighbourhood Canadian Churchman eschews association with any particular “church party.” I am pleased to be in conversation with church-folk of all types and read blogs that are intelligent and fair. I am not interested in close-mindedness or in highly polemical blogs. I do read the latter, from time-to-time, as an exercise in understanding, but I will not promote or commend them. There are, however, some very excellent, broadly-minded, Anglican writers out there in internet-land. Your Canadian Churchman feels that it is worth highlighting their work, and as such, I hope to offer this “round-up” feature on a semi-regular basis to commend their work to readers of this blog, with the view to building a community of bloggers who speak from the centre. I would be happy to learn of new blogs that are worth sharing.

This past Sunday was Trinity Sunday, a Sunday that is reputedly feared by preachers, but several of the Churchman’s online friends have posted very thoughtful homilies. For example, The Vicar of Wakefield tackled the subject head on in a reflection on the Nicene Creed. In as sermon entitled “On Belief, Doubt, and the Nicene Creed,” he has written, “I think of the creed as the skeletal structure of our faith. We each have bones and frames that look more or less the same, but the way we flesh them out, the way we bring them to life, is different for each of us.” For the Vicar, the Creed is both inclusive and yet, in its brevity, permissive. To recite the Creed rather than asking parishioners to sign on to complicated confessional statements or subscribe to hundred page catechisms is a truly Anglican way of growing into our faith.

Over at Refractions, in a post entitled, “From Entitlements to Practices,” the Rev. Dr. Michael Thompson took his lead from our Lord’s Divine Commission offered at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel to make disciples through baptism in the name of the Trinity. He ponders the tension between discipleship and membership, reminding us that while membership is touted as something having privileges, for Christians “membership comes with a covenant, a purpose.” He goes on to articulate that purpose as expressed in the baptismal covenant.

Fr. Michael Marsh, at Interrupting the Silence, has written about “The Choreography of Love,” as a way of understanding the Trinity. Fr. Marsh stands in awe of the doctrine of the Trinity, and when speaking about the Trinity, much like speaking about love, he recognizes that words often fail us and lead us astray when we try to articulate what both the doctrine of the Trinity and what love mean to us. He helpfully offers up the language and analogy of relationship as a way into understanding the Triune life.

The Rev. Dr. Richard Leggett at Liturgy Pacific does not seem to have posted a Trinity homily, but has a fine homily for Pentecost entitled, “Would that All God’s People were Prophets,” in which he reflects on the vocation of a prophet: “For us the prophets do not foretell the future; they ‘forth tell’ God’s word to God’s people in particular times and particular places.” Given the “epic fail” of a recent rapture-predicting American preacher, his words serve as a solid reminder as to what a prophet is called to do and of our shared vocation to prophecy as inheritors of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost.

Fr. Tay Moss, long-time blogger and everyone’s favourite Ninja Priest, has posted some intriguing thoughts of “the Church-as-folding” after reflecting on a piece of origami. He brilliantly suggests an approach that can take us beyond what he delightfully dubs, “the confetti of postmodernism.”

The Rev. Maggie Dawn’s Pentecost reflection considers the word “inspiration” and views it as a gift to western culture, art and literature, descended from that first Pentecost. She also offers some thoughts on what that means to her as an author.

Rudolf Bultmann famously asserted that the three-tiered universal is an impossible article of faith in the age of the wireless. This is why the Ascension can be such a difficult subject to preach on. In a homily entitled, “Where is he Going?”Dr. Andrew McGowan, over at Andrew’s Version, offers some cogent and helpful thoughts on what the Ascension means, both in terms of the absence and abiding presence of Jesus, with the assistance of a classic text from St. Theresa of Avila.

On another note completely, Laurel Massé at Voice of the Swan has written thoughtfully in her post, “The City that Never Sleeps,” about ministry in the city and has shared a friend’s wonderful prayer for the life and work that goes on in New York City.

This should give you just a sampling of some of the many thoughtful homilies and reflections that Anglicans are posting these days. The Canadian Churchman hopes that you will visit these sites regularly, make comments on them, and commend them to others. Look for further installments of “The Canadian Churchman’s Round-up” in the not-too-distant future.

Fr. Dan

Sunday, June 19, 2011

God Endures Unchanging On - A Reflection for the 160th Anniversary of Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford

One hundred and sixty years is something to celebrate; but let us never forget who it is that we proclaim in our shared life, and in whose ministry we rejoice today. Let us give thanks and praise to Christ our God.

Often, I take a moment to study the faces of the past rectors of Trinity Church, so wonderfully displayed in the Upper Room (our Narthex). I feel deeply humbled to follow in the footsteps of such faithful clerics. Many of these are remembered fondly by our current generation, but as my gaze wanders back across our 160 years of history, I soon realize that many of my predecessors are but names and faces, and a few of them just names. The contours of their ministry are no longer within the landscape of our gaze. They served, and they served faithfully, and their faithfulness is now known only to God. I wonder what challenges they faced in their ministries. I wonder what joys they knew and what tragedies they ministered through. Perhaps it does not matter; what matters is that their faithfulness has served to bring us to this day.

More important than the faithfulness of any priest, though, is the faithfulness of God’s people who make up the local church. I can now look upon another wonderful display of photos and clippings, prepared especially for this celebration, and see faces that have lived and faithfully served in this community. Some of them I know while others are fondly remembered by our senior parishioners. There are many faces that do not grace the display and are remembered only to God. How humbling it is for us to know that we are but one generation in a long line of faithful Christians in this place who have served the living God. Consider for a moment how the faithfulness of our mothers and fathers has served to bring us to this day.

More important than the faithfulness of priests or people, though, is the faithfulness of God in Christ. What makes the church more than just a society of people and clergy is the love that binds us together in Christ. What make us more than a family is the faithfulness of the one who gave us life, redeems that life, and empowers us to live into the divine likeness. The most important thing, and may we never lose sight of this truth, is the faithfulness of the God. The faithfulness of God is what has brought us to this point and what will move us forward. In another hundred years when our successors take a long gaze backward and wonder who we were and ponder our faithfulness, be it ever so fragile, they will be sure of one thing, that we served, and that they serve a faithful God who shall never leave nor forsake.

The words of a favourite hymn comes to mind:

“…Frail as summer’s flower we flourish, blows the wind and it is gone, but while mortals rise and perish, God endures unchanging on.”

So let us “praise the high eternal one” for his unending and unchanging faithfulness, for his faithfulness shown in and through our mothers and fathers in this parish, for our frail faithfulness, and for his faithfulness yet to be expressed in generations yet to be.

A happy 160th anniversary to you all.

Fr. Dan Graves