At a Lenten program this week the comment was made that about every 500 years we human beings have a need to churn everything up, especially in matters of faith, theology, religion, church, or whatever. It was Bishop Mark Dyer who originally compared this activity to a theological garage sale, getting rid of the stuff we no longer want or that isn't serving a useful purpose, so that we can make space for renewal and new growth.
It's been about 500 years since the historical period we call The Reformation. Mention the word reformation and we start thinking of Martin Luther, indulgences, documents nailed to church doors and general mayhem in ecclesiastical circles. One group is collecting items for a giant yard sale and the other group is defending the attic door, declaring that all its contents are sacred and must be kept until death do us part. And there may even be a third group, which I often eye wistfully, who just want to create a bonfire of the whole business and start over. We could all stand around the blaze, holding hands and singing nostalgic songs of how life used to be. But eventually the warmth would die out and we'd have to figure out what to do with the ashes and, even more importantly, what to put in their place.
So, all in all, I guess the garage sale isn't a bad idea. And as long as we're going to do some serious housecleaning, it may be a good time to think about why all this stuff was so important to us in the first place. The elephant with the clock in its stomach is a no-brainer—we only kept it because Aunt Martha gave it to us and now she's gone to her reward and we don't have to bring it out every time she comes to visit. Kind of like the bishop's chair at one parish I served. It was not exactly a thing of beauty, far from comfortable to sit in, and it took three or four brawny people to lug it from the back of the church to the front when the Bishop was coming. Eventually, it was decided to just leave it in the back, taking up significant space in the narthex, and use a decent-looking but much more comfortable and portable chair on visitation day. A good garage sale decision, as far as it went, except the old chair still hung around, oozing ugliness all over the narthex.
We Episcopalians are famous for these kinds of decisions. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is a great example. We were afraid of losing people if we did away completely with the 1928 liturgies, so we kept them somewhat intact, but added a bunch of contemporary ones because, theologically and linguistically, they were more in tune with the times. And what we ended up with was a tool so schizophrenic and user unfriendly that many, if not most, parishes these days don't even use it because it's too intimidating for both Episcopalians and people who seek out the Episcopal Church from other backgrounds. And we lost people anyway.
Decisions about what to keep and what to put out on the curb are always difficult. My fear about what's happening right now in the Church is that in order to keep the attic from being divested of its ancient treasures, we're willing to put people out in the yard because there isn’t room for them and they're expendable.