The Logo of The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta - Purple Crest with Bishop's Mitre

Blessings for Advent

Dec 1, 2020

“….the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”
Ephesians 1:23

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Last week I had a lengthy conversation with one of our colleagues who wanted to discuss the question of how, during lockdown and distancing, we could effectively provide pastoral care especially to those who have lost a loved one and are grieving in isolation. We talked about the use of telephone, video messaging and zoom. We realized, however, that the lack of face to face contact and physical presence left open the question of how priesthood can still provide real consolation and empathetic support. At the end of it we examined the meaning of ‘presence’ as central to our role as priests and pastors and came up with some new and perhaps different ways of defining that role under present conditions. Two words which apply to ordained ministry ‘ parson’ and ‘vicar’ became ‘coat-hangers’ for some of our thinking. ‘Parson’ means ‘person’ and has been used to describe the incarnational principle of presence amongst God’s people.

‘Vicar,’ although, strictly speaking, referring to a bishop’s deputy, can also be defined as representing an ‘on behalf of’ ministry – where our very presence in a congregation has the quality of vicariously sharing the ministry of Christ himself. In these days of ‘virtual’ worship and congregational life the meaning of ‘ vicarious’ takes on added significance.

Recently our Bishop has used the phrase ‘ the buildings are closed – but the church is open.’ It occurs to me that Robert is providing a
basis for deeper reflection on the meaning of ‘church.’ We have often made reference to the church being its people rather than its buildings and institutions.

Now we are faced with an existential reality in which that view of the Body of Christ is presented front and center.

Perhaps our present circumstance portends a future character for ‘church’ that is less and less about the structures (literally) of an institution and more and more about the ‘kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world ‘ – a kingdom into which we are invited as ‘ you who are blessed by my Father.’ (Matt. 25 ). Jesus describes the character of that kingdom as having to do with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. ‘Righteousness’ is defined in terms of showing compassion and mercy to the least of these ‘who are members of my family.’

At our recent Diocesan Council, two things struck me very forcibly. One was that for the foreseeable future (next year) our budget will continue to support the institution we know and love. This provides a basis for thinking about ‘church’ as we always have. The other was contained in the excellent report on Parish Vitality which displayed statistics about our Diocese which were hopeful and encouraging along with others that showed the wider church in a much less positive light. There was a view into the future of ‘church’ that, while granting temporary respite for some of us, showed a coming state of institutional insecurity on a grand scale. The factors that seem to contribute to our own brighter future appear to reflect a willingness to change institutionally and, more importantly, a readiness to ‘turn outward’ toward the world and environment around us. Could this be a sign that under our present constraints we are rediscovering the truth behind Jesus’s words in Matthew 25? I hope so.

For those of us who are ordained the future seems to call for a re-examination of the meaning of ‘presence’ – of ‘parson’ and ‘vicar.’ And this re-examination in the context of a less institutional form of church as present conditions are already showing us.

Much prayer, reflection, and reaching deeper into our understanding of vocation and ministry are clearly called for.

I join you in this endeavor.

Blessings for Advent – a season of renewed preparation for both the living Presence of Jesus and His second coming in ‘power and great glory’ – the culmination of all things according to God’s purpose.

From The Rev. Canon John Bolton

Canon Chaplain for Clergy
(404) 402-7599