“ Give grace to your servants, O Lord … teach our people to reply on your strength and to accept responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society …” –– Book of Common Prayer
Today we hear much talk in the church, and often in the wider culture, about different expressions of ministry: mission-minded; tribal; purpose-driven; liturgically renewed; post-denominational; even post-confessional. All these—and more, of course—derive from a point of view that starts with the sort of mission that God intends for the Church. The slogan “The Church does not have a mission, rather God’s mission has a church” sums up the current vibe, and I believe that we in The Episcopal Church are enriched by this clarifying principle. Yet there is another way to understand the purpose and practice of ministry by the Church: We can begin by orienting ourselves to the public aspects of ministry, seeking the peace and welfare of the city (polis) in all that we do.
Two familiar hymns and a public prayer said most every Sunday in The Episcopal Church can help us develop a more robust public ministry.
In Frank Mason North’s social gospel classic, Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life, we sing: “In haunts of wretchedness and need,/on shadowed thresholds dark with fears/from paths that hide the lures of greed,/we catch the vision of thy tears.” And then we dare end the hymn with a bold claim: “Till all the world shall learn thy love,/and follow where thy feet have trod/till glorious from thy heaven above,/shall come the city of our God.” With a less reformist, perhaps more humble plea, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s ecumenical standard, God of Grace and God of Glory,asks only that God will “grant us wisdom, grant us courage” in and for our public expressions of Christian living.
Along with the church’s song, our prayer following Communion bids God to “send us into the world in peace” with “strength and courage.” Our true home as the body of Christ seems to be in public—in places of need, acting with wisdom and courage in a world watching how we follow the one we call Lord, always inviting a blessed peace which the world cannot give. Public ministry then is more than mere “performance” and greater than the sum of our institutional programs or budget assets or attendance records. Public ministry is the week-by-week expression of the Holy Spirit’s imaginative grace personally made real in a specific place, in real time.
The real time of my reflections is the present (with some recall over eighteen years of pastoral ministry in one setting). The specific place is Trinity Episcopal Church, an urban congregation located across the street from the Ohio Statehouse from the time it first met in a building. The personal aspect is the common ministry of some 400 brothers and sisters in Christ who imagine, serve, give, pray, forgive, and learn together for the public expression of Christ’s love in Columbus and beyond.
Being on Capitol Square allows Trinity Church to explore diverse styles of public ministry. To me there seem to be three responses to the nearby presence of Ohio’s governor and legislators and roughly 80,000 downtown neighbors walking by the church throughout the week.
First, we can simply keep our doors open to the world. Of the more than thirty houses of worship in the downtown Columbus, only the Roman Catholic cathedral and Trinity Episcopal have the church doors open through business hours Monday to Friday. (And it is instructive to note that Trinity’s glass doors show this most clearly to the passerby.) To fulfill Isaiah’s claim that God desires our places of worship to be “for all peoples,” Trinity gathers both homeless and unemployed people resting during the day and seeking warmth in the winter and cool refreshment in summer’s heat (thanks to a climate controlled church restoration in 2006). Trinity also welcomes nearby office workers and the visitors to the city, all of whom know that this is a place of refuge, restoration, and renewal provided just for them in a busy city.
Following the economic crash of 2008-2009, the State of Ohio eliminated thousands of jobs and hundreds of programs in order to control a hemorrhaging statewide budget deficit. Weeks following the passage of the repair budget, I was approached by a high-ranking State official who told me “this church saved my life.” She went on: “Every day for weeks during the worst of the cuts, I came inside Trinity to pray … to be still … to sometimes even cry. This church saved me, and I am grateful.”
While such comfort is at the heart of Christian community, so too are a couple of other purposes that help shape the commitments and capacities of a self-governing people: Being a place of public celebration, remembrance, and lament; and being a place of hospitality for groups for conscientious protest and for those advocating for the most ignored or forgotten in our midst.
In Scripture, the church is called again and again to do one thing: Remember the poor. Our public ministry seeks to do this by hosting, convening, organizing, and insuring voices engaged in timely concerns of public policy and Christian social witness. Sunday sermons along with weekday assemblies add to the texture of open, respectful civic discourse, and the people of God at Trinity on Capitol Square are abundantly hopeful in raising our humble voices in the public square.
“Send us now into the world,” we beg of God after receiving the life of Jesus our living Lord. And, by God’s grace, it is into the world, to the public square, and to the “shadowed thresholds dark with fear” that our attention for mission is drawn. Therefore, while we think anew about clearer missional theologies inside the church, let us resist the temptation to think that our work is solely internal. Public ministry calls us now. The world is watching us respond to, or resist, that clarion call. As a people gifted with wisdom and courage by the same Spirit that calls us into fellowship and mission, may we enter the public life of our city filled with delight all our days.
Three Responses of Public Ministry
We open our doors to all daily.
We are a place of public celebration, remembrance, and lament.
We provide hospitality for advocates for the forgotten and for those working against injustice in our midst.
“Give grace to your servants, O Lord … teach our people to reply on your strength and to accept responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society …” –– Book of Common Prayer