Rod Dreher has been creating quite a helpful and productive stir with his arguments in favor of the “Benedict Option” as a way for the church to think about its mission in a world where Christianity is thrust to the despised cultural margins. I am not sure where I stand on all of the details—some seem yet to be worked out—but he is surely highlighting the fact that in America things are changing rapidly and that Christians need to realize that. Much of what he says resonates with the notion of church as exile community, with which I have deep sympathy. Yet part of me wonders if we need a new (or perhaps “new old”) option at all.
Last Sunday was my silver wedding anniversary. On Saturday, my wife was asked by a friend how we intended to mark the occasion. “Well, it is on a Sunday so I guess we will be in church in the morning and the evening for the regular services. Then in the afternoon we are planning to visit one of the housebound older ladies in the congregation. We will probably spend an hour reading the Bible and singing hymns with her.”
And so we did. Standard worship service in the morning, then a pastoral visit, where a few of us gathered with an elderly Christian sister in her home. I read her a Psalm, a friend prayed, and we sang some hymns before closing with the doxology. Finally, back to church for the evening service. That was our Silver Wedding Anniversary. Because, of course, the personal significance of the day was as nothing compared to the significance of it being the Lord’s Day and thus one to be devoted to worship of God and fellowship with other Christians. The incidentals of my life, rather like the incidentals of my culture, are just that—incidentals—and of no real significance compared to the substance and practice of the Faith.
As I drove back from visiting the elderly congregant, I thought about how all of the recent changes in wider American society will affect my ministry. Yes, they might make it financially harder and they are already making it socially less acceptable – but they will not really change it at any deep level. Regardless of SCOTUS or the 2016 election, as long as I live I will still be baptizing the children of congregants, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. The elders will care for the spiritual needs of the congregants. The diaconal fund will continue to help local people—churched and unchurched—in times of hardship, regardless of who they are. In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ and to the everlasting city, and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth.
None of these things will change, even if they do become financially and perhaps legally harder. The world around may legitimate whatever sleaze, self-indulgence and self-deception it may choose. It may decide that black is white, that up is down, and that north is south, for all I care. The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides. The tomb is still empty. And my ministry will continue to be made up of the same elements as that of my of spiritual forefathers: Word, sacraments, prayer.
Because we live in a time of memorable names and terms, I wondered about whether to call this “The Calvary Option,” after the priest in the film Calvary who, knowing that a congregant is going to try to kill him within a week, just carries on faithfully fulfilling his pastoral call as usual. Despised and mocked by all around him, he plods towards death, faithfully doing that to which he has been called. But the Calvary Option is surely too grand a name for just doing my job. So I suggest we call it simply ‘the traditional pastoral work in an ordinary congregation option.’ Inelegantly phrased, I know, but it does seem to capture the essence of the matter rather nicely.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.