A few days ago, I was leading a conference where I shared the story of the Epiphany Awakening gathering in the Diocese of Chicago. People loved the description of the festival Eucharist, especially of the performed readings, the beautiful music, and the popping champagne corks.
As I related the moment on Saturday when Bishop Lee issued blanket permission slips to pursue creative change, however, members of the group gasped. One woman could barely hold back tears as she said, “I wish that our bishop would trust us that much. We can’t do anything that is new or risky. For him, church is about following the rules.”
Trusting one another is an essential aspect of spiritual awakening. Granting permission in advance is an act of respect and trust that God’s spirit moves throughout the whole of our community, and that creativity and imagination may, can, and will break through in any parish. Fear-filled organizations operate by control, insisting that tested techniques and established rules are the only pathways of the spirit and the guardians of God’s good order. Permission slips are unimaginable where trust is absent.
Rules are good things. As Episcopalians, we value rules and understand their importance in governance and in shaping communal worship and prayer. We might think of monastic rules, such as the Benedictine Rule or the daily office, as life-giving guides. Rules are, for many, the essence of a faithful life. Conforming to such good rules equals piety or devotion.
But rules can also be problematic. Sometimes congregants use rules as an excuse to avoid taking risks, resist change, or refuse to pursue deeper dimensions of faith. It is easy to hide behind rules. Sometimes leaders use rules can become a means of control to manipulate others to fulfill personal agendas, punishing those who challenge the status quo. In churches, people sometimes act as if God wrote the rules, fearing that the slightest variance will result in some sort of wrath—divine or ecclesial—brought down on the community. In all these situations, rules replace trust: a failure to trust God, the wisdom of God’s people, or the creative processes of change in living communities. In these ways, rules inhibit the moving of God’s spirit in the church and world.
Permission-granting trust is a very biblical thing, and is the heart of a church awakened to being God’s presence in the world. In the Gospels, Jesus awakened his followers to God’s mission of compassion and spiritual transformation when he sent the Twelve into Galilee’s villages and towns. When Jesus sent the disciples on that first mission, he did not give them a list of rules. Instead, he instructed them in some practices, and gave the disciples “power and authority” to enact the good news themselves. He gave them permission to heal, teach, and preach. There were no rules and many risks. Jesus trusted his friends to do the work of God’s reign.
The Great Awakening for which we long begins with the sort of radical trust that grants permission go beyond the rules and to do the works of the Kingdom. We can fully expect that not everything we do will succeed, but we can be sure that we will have embarked on an adventure of faith into the world. And we will come to discover, as the disciples did, that being sent to the do the Spirit’s work is much more rewarding than staying at home hoping religious rules will save us.
–Diana Butler Bass
Chabraja Fellow, Seabury Western Theological Seminary
Author, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, available now in hardback and e-book formats.