A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from my good friend and former pastor, Frank Senn. He began by asking if I remember Let’s Talk. Frank must have been grinning at that point, realizing that I have very fond memories of my association with this forum for living theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod. I also remember well our many conversations riding together to and from Editorial Council meetings in which we solved most of the problems of the world, if the world had only listened.
Frank quickly segued to the topic of the forthcoming issue, “Different Ways of Doing and Being the Church.” He then asked if I would write a brief update report on a “House Church” my wife and I began (in partnership with a friend) late in 2007 (I made an initial report about six months after we began this journey.)1
I long ago learned that when Frank makes a request/suggestion it is wise to say yes. As he probably knew at the time, I have most likely benefited more from this stock-taking exercise than will the readers.
The past two years and some months have taken us on a few twists and turns as well as new starts as we continue to discern what it means for us to be ecclesia in this time and this place. The “us” in this case is Jeannine, myself, and whoever sojourns with us on this journey. We don’t see ourselves as a vanguard for the “Church of the Future.” We are doing what we believe we have been called to do. Ecclesia is manifested in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. One Lord, one faith, and one baptism fits all, but one configuration of ecclesia does not.2
The “time” is constantly changing. The “place” is almost as mutable as the time, even if we stay put. Part of the place is defined by those with whom we share it; and we have learned that while there are a few constants in the world of the house church, there is a good deal of ebb and flow in the human landscape. Ultimately the time and place are constantly changing for us all, but the more institutional expressions of ecclesia have some built in organizational stability. While a more intensely relational community carries greater intimacy, it is far less stable. Thus, we must consciously — indeed intentionally — be in a constant state of discernment.
One Lord, one faith, and one baptism fits all, but one configuration of ecclesia does not.
In the article in the Pentecost 2008 issue of Let’s Talk I gave a brief narrative of the origins of the Community of St. Francis, Chicago (which is now a community of the Franciscans of Reconciliation in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion).3 While narrative will be present in some of the following paragraphs, it is neither the form nor purpose of this essay. Rather, this is an ethnography that will hopefully convey something about a way of doing and being Church with which most readers have little direct contact. This is not our story. It is an explanation of what makes us tick. A quick way to present an overview of what we are about is to replicate (in bold print) augmented portions of the “About Us” page from our web site with a few elaborations (in regular typeface) when needed. I will spare the reader additional verbiage when the words in bold need no elaboration.
We are a family of women and men who choose to live an ordered life in the tradition of St. Francis and St. Clare. Membership is open to Christians who are married or single, gay or straight, lay or clergy. Our common bond is formed by a commitment to service to others in the name of the living Christ, an expression of our faith through the Catholic tradition of the Early Church, and a simplicity of life style in the midst of a world in the thrall of materialistic consumerism. The only requirements are adherence to the Rule of the Community and both the ability and willingness to contribute effort to our ministries.
Family of Choice
A Family: We take the community as family quite seriously. As survivors of wildly dysfunctional families of origin, Jeannine and I talked for over a decade about the “family of choice” we had gained through close and intense relations with people who seemed to be following a spiritual path similar to ours. Though we are now in a Franciscan community, we owe a great deal to the Brethren of the Common Life, founded in the 14th century in the Netherlands.4 They organized themselves into households, or families of voluntary association. Among the members in the first two centuries of the Brethren were Thomas à Kempis and Desiderius Erasmus. Martin Luther received his early education from the Brethren of the Common Life in Magdeburg. The influence of the Brethren of the Common Life on the ecclesial culture of the Archdiocese of Utrecht had more than a little to do with the secession from Papal authority that began the Old Catholic Tradition in Europe. I had long been interested in this fascinating group and the concept of a religious household, and shortly after Jeannine and I met I shared my enthusiasm for the possibilities of an adaptation of this to Christian life in modern American life. She already had the idea before we met. Now she had some names and terminology to attach to the idea.
Familial bonds, forged by our common commitment to proclaiming and living the Gospel . . . are strong.
Little by little we encountered individuals who were not finding their path in more institutional expressions of ecclesia and were drawn to the possibilities of an intentional Christian community in the Franciscan tradition. We now have six members of the community (those who are professed and those who are on route to profession). The familial bonds, forged by our common commitment to proclaiming and living the Gospel to the best of our ability, are strong and are reinforced by frequent contact, common meals together when possible, a shared discipline of the daily office, and mutual accountability for maintaining our ministries.
The Catholic Tradition of the Early Church
Simply put, this approach to intentional community works best in an expression of ecclesia in which the orders of ministry (laity, diaconal, presbyteral, and Episcopal) are in collegial conversation. This is an essential characteristic of the Old Catholic Churches in Europe and is clearly present in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion in the United States. There is no hint of a monarchical episcopate. Our model is the first three centuries of ecclesial cultures within the Roman Empire and the first thousand years of ecclesial cultures outside of the Empire.5
We are an Oratory where all are welcome to hear the Gospel preached in the Franciscan style without equivocation or compromise, to receive the sacraments, and to offer up prayers of intercession, thanksgiving and praise.
When we initially launched the House Church our model was a miniature version of a parish. Both structurally and pragmatically, that was a bad idea. Structurally, those who are looking for a traditional parish expression of ecclesia (and my guess is that most people are) are not going to be well served by a small community where the “Church Council” is a committee of the whole, and where the ministerial staff consists of all who are gathered in the intentional community. That is to say that it is community of ministry, and we take that very seriously. Pragmatically we have neither the resources nor the energy to grow a parish. What we do have are the resources and energy to gather like-minded people into a committed Christian relationship of worship, service and study.
When we gather for Word and Sacrament, it is as an Oratory and not a parish.
Thus when we gather for Word and Sacrament, it is as an Oratory and not a parish. The members of the community welcome all who wish to share in our worship, whether it is only once, once in a while, or regularly.
I should also add, with a note of gratitude, that when either Jeannine or I deliver the homily Blessed Martin of Wittenberg is mentioned almost as frequently as Blessed Francis of Assisi.
We are a cluster of individual ministries to the neighborhood in which we are located and a collective ministry of Continuing Christian Education for the Ecumenical Catholic Communion and the Church beyond.
The professed members and those who are on their way to profession are all involved in one or more ministries to the poor or others in need. These activities range from preparing and serving meals at shelters for the homeless (as well as the more important ministry of providing human interaction) to volunteering at local hospitals (particularly in providing service to those who are experiencing great stress) to providing literacy instruction.
In addition, the entire community is involved in an educational ministry to both individuals and congregations in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion and beyond through the St. Francis Virtual House of Studies. We help design individual courses of study for both laity and clergy, and we work with congregations to design modules or entire year programs for Adult Forums. We welcome inquiries from outside the ECC (and Jeannine and I would say particularly from ELCA congregations). In April 2010 we will e-publish our first issue of The Progressive Catholic Review. Of course we got the idea from Let’s Talk.6
We are not cloistered. We live in the world but strive to not be of it.
We affirm our unity with all Franciscans in the rule of life, our unity with all Catholic Christians in subscription to the historic creeds, our unity with all Christians in the proclamation of the Gospel, and the unity with all creation in living the Canticle of St. Francis.
These concentric “unities” are very important to us. We have intercommunion relations with the Franciscans of Christ the King in Michigan and Kentucky, and are building bonds in the Chicago area with both the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans and the Roman Catholic Friars Minor. During the time that we were using a miniature version of the parish model we had an association with the wonderfully welcoming and generous Immanuel Lutheran Church, Chicago, and through them with St. Elias Arabic Christian Church and the ecumenical Community of Christ the Reconciler. Now that we are back in the living room, the organizational ties are gone but the bonds of affection remain. We also have built good relationships with an ECUSA parish and are seeking others as well. Within the orbit of our regular conversations are a variety of Protestants. We have been and will continue to be involved in interfaith dialogue. As Franciscans, we sing the Seraphic Father’s Canticle7 with great regularity and try to live in concert with its precepts.
We affirm our unity in Christ. Therefore we place no denominational restrictions concerning those among the baptized who may receive the sacraments.
We affirm our unity in God and therefore we welcome all to our fellowship.
We are evangelical because we proclaim and seek to live the Gospel. We are not evangelistic, meaning that we are not recruiters. If you wish to explore the Franciscan way, we will be delighted to talk with you. If you are not a Christian and wish to explore this faith further, we will be delighted to talk with you. If that happens, the Holy Spirit has recruited you far more effectively than we could.
Therefore, please know that if you worship with us there is no agenda beyond praising God, proclaiming the Gospel, celebrating the Sacrament of the Altar, and enjoying fellowship together.
A Brief Elaboration on the Culture of the Community
We have frequent discussions in the community through which we try to understand the attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs that have led us to this expression of ecclesia. I will attempt to summarize that here, with the caveat that a culture is more something we live in than something that can be adequately and abstractly expressed.
The Church has never done well trying to reconfigure the world, and often loses itself in doing so.
We do not deny the enormous social and cultural reconfiguration of the past two centuries. Indeed, speaking for a moment personally, most of my publications explore the nuances of industrialization, urbanization, community disintegration, decline in cohesion, and all of the other phenomena associated with post-modernity. However, as a Christian community — whether the Community of St. Francis or the Church writ large — there is little we can do about these trends. Encyclicals won’t erase them. Doctrines won’t destroy them. Ecclesial institutions will not intimidate them. The world to which we are called to minister is the world to which we are called to minister. The Church has never done well trying to reconfigure the world, and often loses itself in doing so. The Church does very well when it comes to terms with its own nature and ministers to the world rather than attempting to run it.
Those of us who have embraced this expression of ecclesia have done so in large part based on our belief that the institutional church is too often enmeshed in a complex set of organizational arrangements, political relationships, and doctrines that have been shaped by history; but the organizational aspects, the politics and the doctrine are not constitutive of the Church. One is the historically necessary housing of the Church in this world. One is the historical reality of the Church in this world. One is the way in which the Church has historically set up boundaries in this world. I neither dismiss nor denigrate these necessary props when I say that none of them are constitutive of the Church. Nevertheless Christians have often viewed these historically conditioned appendages of the Church as the Church. They are easier to understand than the essence of the Church but none are the right places to look for the Church. When we look in the right places to find the Church, we run the risk of being radicalized, because we run the risk of truly becoming the Church and not simply that institutional artifact called the Church. We run the risk of being something scandalous to the larger society.
Those of us in the Community of St. Francis find that we can be so caught up in the superfluous aspects of church that we need to disengage in order to see ecclesia more clearly. Many of our fellow members of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion do very well within the institutional setting. In short, what is about to follow is not a preachment so much as it is an admission of our own flawed natures and what we are doing to try and cope with that.
For us ecclesia is the relationship between God and those who have been led by the Holy Spirit to say yes to God. In the Church we are brought by God’s gracious love into relationship with each other — through Christ and as the body of Christ — for the purpose of proclaiming the Word of God, sharing in the sacraments, and serving a broken and suffering world. We are called from that world. after formation and initiation we are sent back into that world as new beings in Christ to proclaim the Good News and the New Creation.
In the World, But Not Of It
We are in the world, but not of it, and we must take that very seriously. When we don’t take it seriously there is a great deal of confusion and tension both within the Church and between the church and the world. The Church exists at the intersection of history and eternity, and we will never find it by looking at either realm to the exclusion of the other. We will never grasp what it is to be the Church unless we understand the constant tension in that intersection. Some of us need the support of an intentional community to negotiate that tricky path.
The Church exists at the intersection of history and eternity.
The terrain created by that tension, therefore, will differ from time to time and place to place. The principles (in large part what we really mean when we say tradition) are the same throughout time and space, but how those principles are expressed in issues is mutable. Just as we have to find the Church in both the realm this world AND the realm of God’s Kingdom, and just as we have to find the Church in both the realm of time, including the here and now, AND the realm of eternity, so we also must find the Church expressed in both the realm of immutable principles AND the realm of specific issues which have emerged in the here and now.
Our life together in this community is an attempt to walk that tightrope with an understanding of the complexity, ambiguity and contradictions in the world in which we are called to minister while being nourished, instructed and comforted by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. At the beginning of the day and at the end, and at all points in between, we draw upon and hope to manifest our faith in the Triune God. When we fail there is the consolation of the community, there is the sacrament of reconciliation, and there is constantly renewing nourishment of the Eucharist.
Revisiting a Few Final Observations
We have learned some important lessons along the way but we have many, many more to learn. We also have some nagging problems to resolve (e.g., how to maintain the intense level of intentional community necessary to support each other in our individual ministries yet not seem like a clique to visitors). Nevertheless, I am struck by how my general observations made in this journal two years ago still describe the experience and hope of the Community of St. Francis today:
“We learn from the Great Tradition of the Church over centuries and across ecclesial traditions. In our study and meditation, the wisdom of the Patristic Doctors of the Church stand shoulder to shoulder with contemporary insights. From the early Doctors we get our foundational theology. From contemporary theologians we get encouragement to make the ancient tradition live on in spaces and communities that are in our time considered innovative, but in the history of the church are quite ancient indeed.8
“We look for the broadest possible definition and experience of the church catholic, and think less in terms of denomination and more in terms of the extent to which a given community of faith manifests the love of God in Christ Jesus, and the extent to which the ministry that goes forth from that community proclaims the Gospel in word and action. We use this standard for assessing ourselves.
“We have come to believe that an intentional community needs to be involved in the celebration of Word and Sacrament as often as possible, and that this celebration is the best method of formation to go forth in the name of Christ. We also believe that the intentionality of the community — including several common meals throughout the week, frequent conversations and social gatherings, and mutual accountability and support as we go about developing our ministries to the world beyond us — is also a method of formation. To the old dictum that the way we worship shapes the way we believe we would add a corollary: the way we relate to one another within the Body of Christ shapes the way we relate to those to whom our community ministers.
Programmatic ministry may be called for from time to time, but relational ministry is always in order.
“We have come to believe that the Gospel calls us to be servants, to discern the needs of those we encounter in conversation with them and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to be open to radical challenges to our preconceptions as we continue to study the Word, be nourished by the Sacraments, and experience enrichment from fellowship with those to whom God sends us to minister, even — or especially — in serendipitous encounters.
“While we do make plans, we realize that they are always Plan B. Plan A is always in God’s province, and we trust that God’s plan will be revealed to us in often surprising ways. Programmatic ministry may be called for from time to time, but relational ministry is always in order.
“As a corollary to the above, we have come to believe that programmatic plans for ministry can potentially lead to a reliance on our own abilities and insights. Being relational means that we are prepared to encounter Christ in those to whom we are called to minister, as we listen for the voice of God in the most unexpected places.”
We can hardly wait to see what tomorrow brings.
My fellow Editorial Council members were intrigued by this strange turn in the lives of two seemingly normal and sane Lutherans and were kind enough to invite me to write a farewell article describing the launching of this new chapter of our life together.
- I will more often use the word “ecclesia” than the word “church.” The latter is almost universally used as the English translation of the Greek εκκλεσια, a people called apart. “Church,” however, quite often connotes an institution with all of the organizational apparatus thereto pertaining. Ecclesia connotes a relationship with God and each other through Jesus Christ. It is that more relational and less institutional experience that so appealed to Jeannine and me at the outset. Having said that, we realize that some will strongly prefer a more institutional housing, and we readily acknowledge that such expressions of ecclesia, in a great variety of styles and structures, have their value. We also acknowledge that institutional expressions of ecclesia do have significant relational aspects and that intentional relational communities must have some institutional aspects.
The purpose of essay is to present a perspective and not to provide a Chamber of Commerce piece for the Community of St. Francis, the Franciscans of Reconciliation, or the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. For readers who want to learn more about this expression of the Old/Independent Catholic ethos, please consult the following websites:
The Old/Independent Catholic denominations are little known, and vary widely between jurisdictions. The literature is sparse, but the following are helpful: C.B. Moss, The Old Catholic Movement: Its Origins and History (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1948; rev. editions 1964 & 1977; reprinted by Apocryphile Press, 2005); John P. Plummer and John R. Mabry, Who are the Independent Catholics? An Introduction to the Independent and Old Catholic Churches (Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2006); Robert W. Caruso, The Old Catholic Church: Understanding the Origin, Essence, and Theology of a Church that is Unknown and Misunderstood by Many in North America (Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2009).
- See Ross Fuller, The Brotherhood of the Common Life and Its Influence (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995) and J. Michael Raley, The Devotio Moderna and Freedom of Association: A Case Study in the Medieval Theory of Rights (Chicago: University of Chicago Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of History, 2007). For their influence on the Old Catholic Tradition, see John Mason Neale, A History of the So-Called Jansenist Church of Holland; With a Sketch of Its Earlier Annals, and Some Account of the Brothers of the Common Life (Oxford: J. Henry and J. Parker, 1858; reprinted by Apocryphile Press, 2005).
- Our perspective on the Early Church is informed by a variety of recent studies, particularly Francis A. Sullivan, From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), John D. Zizioulas, Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church In the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop in the First Three Centuries (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), and Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How it Died (New York: HarperOne, 2008).
- For more information, go to:
- See http://thenazareneway.com/st_francis_brother_sun.htm and hymn 527 in the Lutheran Book of Worship (or hymn 835 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship).
- The contemporary theologians who have particular relevance for us are: Carl E. Braaten, particularly Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenicsm (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998); Robert Jenson, particularly Systematic Theology: The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Systematic Theology: The Works of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Hans Küng, particularly as viewed through his own reassessments in My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003) and Disputed Truth: Memoirs II (New York: Continuum, 2008)]; Frank C. Senn, particularly The People’s Work: A Social History of the Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2006); Richard P. McBrien, particularly The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (New York: HarperOne, 2008). Those who know these works will recognize the eclecticism of method and message. We do not try to harmonize or synthesize. We learn from them.