Fifteen years ordained and still serving in the parish. Still switching on the coffee at dawn Sunday mornings, still putting out the chairs for midweek Bible study, still riding with the youth group on ski trips. Still visiting at the hospital, still living with difficult people on the Vestry, still looking up the right page for the Collect of the Day, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
But is there still fire in my belly? Am I still hooked on the Word? Have I gotten deeper or holier? Or have I started to mark time, shunning controversy and fleeing confrontation?
This reflection takes the temperature of one who aspires to the description “Evangelical,” yet serves within a denomination where the word carries mixed associations. I have worked entirely within the Episcopal Church, within a traditional set-up of parochial ministry.
The key question is this: What do I still believe? For surely, theology determines ministry. If one’s convictions change, everything changes. If one’s convictions hold, the ministry, though always under stress and strain, will endure.
The first fact is conversion, in 1973, through the ministry of FOCUS (Fellowship of Christians in Universities and Schools). Within three months I was transported (not as to New South Wales but as to Narnia) to St. John’s College, Nottingham, an Evangelical seminary of the Church of England.
During two happy, growing years at St. John’s, I was married to my chief supporter and love, Mary, and we have had three sons. The training at St. John’s, in bright contrast to the American scene I had fled, was biblical (unlike anything I had seen or heard of in the Church I knew), serious, and most important at the time, pastoral. These English Evangelicals took a newly converted, frankly confused American, and loved him. They listened to him and quieted him. But they did not quiet the “one thing needful.” That one thing, zeal for Christ, they tended and fanned.
Then came a rough landing, deacon’s year in my sponsoring diocese back home. From Evangelical and charismatic Anglicanism to latitudinarian and psychologizing Episcopalianism. The Church in which I had grown up seemed to have an allergy to passionately felt Christianity.
Thus Mary and I felt rescued when we were invited to join the staff of Grace Church, New York City, by FitzSimons Allison, who was then Rector there and who himself had been a lonely voice in the Episcopal seminaries.
Six years in New York involved in an Evangelical ministry we can never forget. Six years of pastoral evangelism that witnessed lives changed and the church built up. And I was changed. The heat in the kitchen proved hot indeed, and at one point I almost burned out. Yet I was taught an empathy of depression and fearfulness, of bondage and despairing. A new ministry, from pain to pain, emerged.
Then a brick wall came down: the crisis of clergy deployment in the Episcopal Church. The surface problem was, and is, too many clergy for a shrinking number of parishes. The deeper problem is a cottage industry of consultants, deployment officers, and computer systems that overwhelms the former givens of call, prayer, and the Holy Spirit. The root problem is an erosion of confidence in God to renew the Church.
The result for us was no way out, on an ocean of “process.” Eventually a call did come, to rebuild an ancient parish in Westchester County, just outside New York. Here was a church that walked with Jacob’s limp, while being ironically encircled with the emerald fields of a worldly paradise.
Then followed six and a half more years of pastoral evangelism. The end result? A vital church family, beamed down by the effect of God’s Word as a sort of fifth column in that land of cool exteriors and quiet despair.
Then a second phase of hand-wringing: the “big job” never came. On occasion when it beckoned, the calls eventually went to those of different theology and intention.
Now a new chapter, the chapter of the present, rectorship in South Carolina, where the Church seems almost too strong institutionally for its own spiritual good. The foundations are deep, but it is hard to know whether the quicklime is grace or law. This is ministry in Christendom.
Is there still an animating grace to it? Do I still believe as I did “when first I saw the Lord”?
The governing principle behind this reflection on fifteen years of ministry is that ideas make the man. Persevering in ministry depends on theology. If I lose my faith, then the spring for parish work comes unwound. Either I will find a new spring, or I will stop. I have been burned out and I know despair. But there are things that remain.
First of all, Jesus of Nazareth remains the most absorbing, appealing, and merciful figure in the history of the world. From Harvard years, when the lovingkindness of the man leapt out from Scripture at otherwise desultory church services, to conversion and ministry right through to this moment: Jesus of Nazareth is the person from whom I cannot get away, from whose spell, once cast, it seems impossible to escape. “He came not to destroy men but to save them.” This holds up as the central truth of life.
Secondly, original sin, for all its dark associations, is surely the “one empirically verifiable Christian doctrine.” Call it by any other name, original sin is accurate description for our universal human contrariness and psycho-genetic inwardness. The Anglican Church’s Thirty-Nine Articles get it right: “Original sin . . . is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man . . . whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness . . . . And that infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated” (Article IX). Fifteen years of parish ministry have made this parson no less Pauline, no less Augustinian, no less a believer in the common prayer of every person for a Savior, than he has ever been.
Thirdly, the accounts in the Gospels of Jesus’ death and resurrection carry as much the precious air of remembered events as they ever have. If these two events, or either one of them, did not happen, in something like the form in which they are reported, then I want to know. Would I have the courage, if they were not true, to withdraw my allegiance and “look for another”?
But every time I return to the old stories in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they positively live with remembered truth. They bear the stamp of reminiscence. Jesus suffered a criminal’s sentence, his body rose from death, and he was seen by many.
Fourthly, the atonement, as model or interpretation for what happened on the cross, holds for its profundity. It holds for its “one, full, perfect, and sufficient” success in accomplishing that which I try unsuccessfully to accomplish every day of my life, which is the conquest of guilt. We are just simply so human, as Harry Stack Sullivan used to say, and we live our lives beneath the Damocles sword of accusation. Our instinct is to ward off judgment: judgment from parents, judgment from children, judgment from peers, the judgment of the world. How telling, then, and persuasive to hear that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
What I need is cleansing, and the being forgiven. Every day I wake up, I need the being forgiven.
Moreover, the atonement has to be substitutionary, to use the classic language, or I fail to see how it can ensure the being forgiven. We need God’s substituting Himself into our frail, contingent world of judged living. We require a substitute, the deepest form of empathy, the “I’ll go in your place” quality of advocacy. The metaphor of God’s substitution is the only one of the familiar theories of atonement that provides for the full failed weight of human aspiration.
Moreover, substitutionary atonement has to be imputed. Imputation means the regarding as righteous of one who is not intrinsically righteous at all. It covers over the conflicted ambivalent character of human personality with a seamless robe, and gives us authentic security in the encounter with God.
Imputation is described tersely and truly by an English historian of the Reformation, Patrick Collinson: “[It is] a transaction somewhat like a marriage, in which Christ the bridegroom takes to himself an impoverished and wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His . . . . Therefore, the justified Christian man, in himself and of his own nature a sinner but not seen as a sinner by God, brings forth those good works which consist in the love of God and neighbor, not slavishly to win any reward but gladly, that service which is perfect freedom.” Imputation as an experienced principle is poignantly needful for a striving world.
This fourth personal conviction, of atonement, is summed up in the experience of grace. Grace is imputed in full on the basis of and as a result of the substitutionary atonement of Christ crucified for my original sin and that of the whole world. This is the exact theological heart of the matter.
The weight I place on the substitutionary atonement in my ministry and personal experience of life is full and has not shifted one inch.
There are two further articles of faith that remain intensely, personally important to this ministry fifteen years out. One is the practical dynamic of grace in “love and work” (zu Lieben und zu Arbeiten, Freud’s terse summary of what makes for a human life), which is today: Motivation in love and work springs from prior love. Pastorally and in daily living, people do not love, in any heartfelt way, unless and until they have first been loved. “We love because He first loved us.”
Grace, the prior love, the “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” part, is the ground floor for all persisting love and achievement.
A final article of faith that has persisted in its radicality and essential unreconstructedness is less an article of faith than an attitude. I refer to the Protestant character of my faith. I hope to finish out my ministry as an explicit Protestant, even so within the Catholic Church, which is the historically continuous orthodox society of Christian believers.
By Protestant I mean a version of Christianity that recognizes no curtain or veil between God and man save my sin and his perfect goodness. By Protestant I mean a version of Christianity that focuses utterly on the unmediated need of us and the unmediated response of God. By Protestant I mean an impatience with anything that is secondary to this, anything that gets in the way of our overwhelming hunger for grace and his overriding desire to feed us.
Fifteen years out: six cardinal points of faith, one man’s sketch of Christian believing. I offer thanks for a retention of confidence in “the things that remain.”
Paul Zahl is Rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.