"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, August 9, 2021

Michael Plekon on the Church and Community

I recently drew your attention to Michael Plekon's new book, Community as Church, Church as Community. In keeping with longstanding custom on here, where I have interviewed him in the past about other books, I recently sent him some questions about the book, and here are his thoughts. 

AD: Tell us about your background, especially recent changes

MP: The biggest change is that in late August 2017 I retired almost 40 years to the day I began at The City University of New York, Baruch College. I had begun this new book then, but it mostly was completed and revised in the last three years. I was graced with a number of friends and colleagues—yourself included--who were willing to read a draft and offer criticism. I believe the book is much better for this. 

I also have asked for retired status in the church. Living half the year in the desert in San Diego county has added almost another “life” to what we had before. It shows in Jeanne’s painting, now both East Coast and Desert works (www.jeanneplekon.com).

As for retirement, I still am an active scholar. I gave the Florovsky Lecture for the Orthodox Theological Society (OTSA) in America last November, presented a paper at the recent biennial conference of the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS), hopefully to soon be published. And I have been writing book reviews, at least a dozen a year, for journals such as The Wheel, The Journal of the Orthodox Christian Studies, Cistercian Studies Q, among others. I have been doing two different weekly ZOOM talks with discussion since the start of the lockdown. I am not bored.

AD: What led you from your last book, The World as Sacrament (which we discussed in this interview) to this new one? 

MP: Easy. The request to present at a conference at Loyola-Marymount’s Ecumenical Institute a few years back, then the collection of essays by laity and clergy I edited, The Church Has Left the Building, as well as several other talks, all led to the project of this new book. I place a lot of trust in the personal experience that shaped me and then leads me by the nose. 

I have since 1983 been a “worker priest,” that is a non-stipendiary priest at several Northeast parishes, Lutheran and Orthodox. I think the large parish at which I began serving and its parish culture and “world” now strike me as a time and world gone by. In almost 40 years I have seen so much change in the life of the parish—and that is chronicled in the book, also supported by a lot of research from Pew, and various institutes that study congregational life, as well as researcher like Nancy Ammerman, Nick Denysenko, Nancy Gallagher, and commentators like Andrew Root, Jason Byassee, Same wells, to mention a few. Also, the parish I last served had seminarian interns. So, following the lives of these young people was an important source of inspiration.

AD: Every author, I imagine likes to think the timing, the moment, for his book is just perfect, but yours really does seem that way, focused as it is on community, whose loss we have all suffered in the pandemic. How much did Covid change the shape of the book you thought you were going to write, and in what ways? 

MP: I have said, almost ad nauseam, that blaming everything on the pandemic is a forgetting of the state of things before the Covid appeared. Parishes were already shrinking, declining. We have been aware of the religious “nones” and “dones” for over a decade. All of us have written about the disasters passing as responses of the institutional church—to the sexual abuse situation, to so many “culture war” issues such as the status and rights of LGBTQ+ people, of people of color and immigrants, to Asians and Muslims. What was sick about the last few years was the legitimizing of open, explicit hatred and vilification by the country’s chief executive and a major political party. “Conservative values” cannot be used as an excuse for targeting, reviling, marginalizing so many. All this said, getting to the core of parish existence, to what is the heart of congregations, namely koinonia, community, is timely. That is essentially what the book’s about, an intersection of ecclesiology and sociology of religion, something Peter Berger encouraged me to do years ago.

AD: You mention how often "religion" is conceived of individualistically, and then the "communal core" of Christianity "eclipsed or forgotten" (p.3). What lies behind that--some of the factors leading to its diminishment into a private hobby?

MP: There are numerous sources of the eclipse of community, something that’s been studied and written about by Robert Putnam, the late Robert Bellah, Arlie Hochschild, and so many others. It almost has become an industry in social science. I doubt we have become significantly more individualist in the past decade or two. In North America, there has been a historical nostalgia about freedom, about rugged independence, with the cowboy riding off into the sunset, the notion that I am the master of my own destiny, that no one, either in church or government or the academy or science, can tell me what to do. This is myth. 

Likewise the notion that somehow various strains of Protestantism were hyper-individualist. When I hear Catholic or Orthodox blaming sola scriptura, the primacy of the Bible, or the loss of clerical hierarchy as the cause of individualism, I cringe. Some religious folk just listen to too much fake theology, inaccurate tales. And it’s not just Newsmax, OAN, and Fox News that manufacture their own news and facts. 

Everyone who’s ever belonged to a parish, whether as a child or an adult, knows how communal church is. I delight in writing about the liturgies, the prayer of making pyrohy, Easter breads, nut rolls, the second “communion” of the coffee hour and church suppers and post-funeral repasts. In the book I try to show that community is more than our warm feelings of friendship (as well as frustration and irritation) with each other in parishes. Baptism means incorporation into a people, the people of God. Eucharist requires communal sharing of bread and cup, concelebration by all the community, not just those ordained. And the weekday service of the neighborhood around is also a communal work of love.

AD: You show your debts early to Afanasiev, to whom my own work is also heavily indebted. Tell us a bit about his importance, especially for your work. 

MP: I have long thought Afanasiev’s work was wrongly overlooked and, in some cases, rejected. Anastacia Wooden’s recent dissertation and soon, I hope, book will show just how much Afansiev’s vision has been distorted by his critics, and how truly “back-to-the-sources” his work is. And it is not just Afanasiev as some “voice crying in the desert,” since it is a consensus of church historians and theologians that the church of the first several centuries was less constrained by law and clerical stratification that later on. Afanasiev emphasized what we find in the NT, namely that the church and the “local church” of the diocese and most especially the parish is intensely communal. He says, in the last chapter of The Church of the Holy Spirit, that the authentic power in the life of the people of God is that of love, not canon or clerical authority.

AD: One of the many valuable things about your work is how seriously you take the economic reasons for changing patterns of parish life. Tell us a bit more about their importance. In addition, I surmise from your wide and generously ecumenical survey of every Christian tradition that economic changes and factors do not care whether you're old-calendarist Greek Orthodox, gay-affirming Episcopalian, Latin-Mass-loving Roman Catholic, or anything else? In other words, nobody is immune to these changes?

MP: All the changes occurring to parishes are ecumenical, universal. It makes no difference whether East or West, nor the particular church tradition. Mostly this stems from the changes taking place or long ago having happened in the society, in politics and the economy and culture. Multi-generational families were the backbones of parishes. 

Now, mobility is the norm. Children grow up, go off to university, to marriage, family and careers and do not return home. Yes, of course here and there one finds exceptions, either due to ethic/language group or geographic location. But this intensified mobility is but one of the numerous variables at play in change in our lives. We no longer depend on a horse or wagon or our feet to get to church. Thus, many small towns, rural as well as urban parishes have become redundant. In Brooklyn NY, from a corner one could see perhaps half a dozen Lutheran church buildings, originally planted due to language/ethnic diversity. Now Mideast and Asian groups have replaced the Scandinavian and German communities. 

On a corner in Northeast Pennsylvania, the “coal region” from which my father’s family came, one could see a dozen church spires, half of them Eastern “onion domes” or cupolas, each established by an immigrant community from a different local in what is now Ukraine, the Slovak Republic or Poland. Then there is the transformation of the industrial revolution that drew so many to North America. In countless towns, the factories, mills and mines are long since closed, the industries totally changed or relocated. The cathedral-like parish church buildings remain, often down to 20 or 30 or fewer seniors. From sources like Pew Research, The Church Times, The Christian Century, US Congregational Life Survey, National Congregations Survey, Faith & Leadership, Alban Institute at Duke Divinity, Religion News Service, among others, I collected many examples, mini-case studies of congregations in transition. They represented most denominations here in the US and Canada. They tell of decline, shrinkage death…but also replanting, reinvention, repurposing of property--in short, resurrection.

AD: Your argument (p.34) that "A closer look at who’s gone, no longer in the pews, and why is a reminder that the decline of religion is no simple rejection of doctrine or ritual, and what is more, is not restricted to categories of age, education, political preference, or region" really complicates, if not destroys, simplistic nostrums that the way to hold, or attract, people is to offer, say, only "contemporary" liturgy or "traditional" teaching, "conservative" morality or "liberal" activism?  

MP: I listened to Kaya Oakes, David Gushee, Jon Pavlovitz, Andrew Root and others on why people are religious “nones” and “dones,” as well as the voices of those who departed communities of faith themselves. No church body can escape what they say drove people away—indifference to pain and need in the neighborhood, lack of compassion for the “other,” whether persons of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ+ folk, those struggling with emotional and physical challenges. The churches have, often enough, been their own worse enemies. A friend called their operating system “survival theology,” a desperate, and sometimes ruthless struggle to keep the heat and the roof on, at all costs. Or a retreat into an imagine past, or an escape into ritual or rules.

The most effective assessment of the sad state of institutional religion is to hold up the New Testament to the mix of introversion and obsessive thinking that passes for parish life. The riveting memoirs of Barbara Brown Taylor, Richard Holloway and Barbara Melosh, among others, force us to see the ugly humanity of congregations from pastors’ views. But what presents as unwelcoming, inhospitable, rigid clinging to the past need not be so. There are plenty of examples of parish communities taking the hand of consultants, pastors and each other to find a way to keep living forward, to keep living the Gospel rather than trying to merely stay open.

AD: Further complicating things, your section on location (pp.47ff) seems to suggest that merely because a city or region is growing does not mean that church growth automatically follows in those areas. What else has to happen for communities to experience new life? 

MP: Even in neighborhoods where unemployment, addiction, poverty, poor schools are the landscape, one often can find vibrant, life-giving congregations. This has historically been true for Anglican, Methodist, Catholic and other “inner mission” or urban mission movements. It used to be assumed that congregations that grew in the suburbs of the 1950s and 60s would simply continue that direction going forward. Now, formerly large, affluent suburban parishes are having to merge, to reinvent themselves, repurpose their buildings as the generations of parish youth moved away and more recent cohorts feel no pressure to join or even baptize their children. The “toolbox” of church is not in question. Baptism, eucharist, the scriptures, prayer, preaching and teaching and service. If there is something crucial, essential for communities to experience new life where they are, it is the Sprit’s prompting and their saying “yes.”

AD: As you move into your discussion about communities enjoying resurrection, but first having been "repurposed, reinvented, replanted," I'm wondering: was there one that stood out to you as the most unexpected or unusual reconfiguration that you least expected?

Several stand out, but one more than the rest. I will have an article in The Christian Century for September 8, 2021 about the story of Fr. Paisios, now Alexis Altschul, his late wife Thelma, St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox parish they founded, and Reconcilation Services (RS)--the amazing network of outreach ministries and service providers they gathered downstairs on Troost Street in Kansas City, MO. It made me think of the multiplication of the few loaves and fishes to feed thousand, this vision of a parish living out the Gospel. 

A former intern and colleague and friend, Fr. Justin Mathews is director of RS. A pay-what-you-can café is part of RS, Thelma’s Kitchen, remembering Presbytera Thelma’s feeding people out her backdoor. Employment counseling, therapeutic sessions, senior and well-baby clinics, are among the services offered. Even though the parish has now distanced itself from RS under a new rector, the reality is that RS has been born as a new kind of local church, a parish in which love of the neighbor dominates, much in the example of St. Mother Maria Skobtsova of Paris.

AD: I'm very glad you work in even a brief mention of "pastoral losses" (p.142-46) and the difficulties clergy face amidst so much uncertainty. I'm wondering if you know how well, if at all, such things are taught in seminaries? Are we training people to deal with the grief of loss of place, familiar location and routine, etc? And, in a related way, are Christians training ourselves to be less attached to buildings so that if we have to let them go, we can do so with more ease and less of a sense of loss? 

MP: I had to say things about the ordained ministry and the process of formation for this work in the book. But I was aware and explicitly warned that I could not do it justice—that will be for the next book. 

That said, despite institutional lethargy, uncertainly and fear, theological schools are beginning to experiment—while they too shrink, even close and realign with each other. In the UK half of all ordinands in training no longer go live at a theological school/seminary but do their training on site, in a parish, with a pastor-mentor. Coursework for the most part is remote learning, with summer sessions for encounter with fellow seminarians. 

Luther Seminary in St. Paul has adopted this model for a two-year M.Div. Others will appear. Bishop Andrew Doyle argues that the ministries we have—bishop, presbyter, deacon—need to be adapted to how we actually live and behave as church in our time. This means the formation process must change as well. Anyone who has dealt with the administrative apparatus of any church body, even now, knows just how resistant to adaptation and change these staffers and their culture are. But the ability of UMC pastor Dave Barnhart to develop a network of house churches, St. Junia’s parish, in the Birmingham AL area is a sign of hope and the possibility of change. 

AD: In ch.6 you write "I have changed my mind about small churches." Tell us what led to that change, and how you see small churches today. I'm assuming (given earlier rightly critical references) that by small churches, you are not advocating the kind of self-selecting faux-Benedict option communities certain reactionary and decadent bloggers advocate?

MP: Coming round to embrace small parishes for me has absolutely nothing to do with the Benedict XVI or Dreher/pseudo-St Benedict ideas of culling out the membership, waving goodbye and good riddance to the less than fervent church folk. Rather my view is one of realism: congregations for the most part will not be the sprawling post WWII, 1950s congregations bursting at the seams. The smaller, household size parishes will not be the “elect” the “select,” but those who can listen to the prompting of the Spirit and with courage find new ways of living out the Gospel. Also, “small is good” has nothing to do with the decidedly sectarian impulse one can now track among the Eastern Orthodox, some Anglicans and Catholics and others. Purging dissenting, perhaps too open, liberal people is not churchly, not godly.

AD: After so much change discussed in such fascinating detail, you quote Eugene Peterson's charming and hope-filled phrase at the very end of your book: "God...will continue to 'move into the neighborhood'.” That rather seems to me to be the pattern of the entire history of Christianity, yes? Knowing this wider history, it seems, is crucial for not succumbing either to despair or to wide-eyed romanticism about some magical solution for a better future. Churches of all traditions have risen and fallen--Augustine's Hippo in North Africa is no longer a major episcopal centre as it was in the fourth century, yet there are millions of Christians in other parts of Africa. Is this the pattern you see continuing as the century unfolds?

MP: History makes fools of us. Hippo is not the ecclesial centre it was in Augustine’s time. Diarmaid Macculloch teases, in his fine Christianity, the first 3000 Years, that Baghdad once was an ecclesial and theological centre perhaps superior to Alexandria or Jerusalem. Not so much now. There is something at once terrifying and exhilarating in seeing how much changed in one’s own brief life. I recall that, seeing some scenes of the HBO series This I Know Is True, in very small part filmed at my old parish. The emeritus rector was already there in the early 1980s in which the drama is set. I was also serving my first parish just a few miles away. But in the expanse of those year, how much has changed for both parishes, and for him and for me!

We really are fools if we think the church falls and rises with ourselves. I offer no recipes for parish resurrection in the book. I distrust church consultants generally. 

However, listening to those who found the energy to reinvent their parishes, to share their buildings with the surrounding neighborhood, thereby replanting and connecting to neighbors—this is the new life the Risen One constantly hold out to us. I have heard, a deanery meetings and the like, that one ought not drag Jesus or the Gospel into discussion. The presumption is that the bishop or the canons are more constitutive of the church and ministry. Seriously? Ever holy woman or man who sought to breath again the Spirit and live the Gospel knows better. We should listen more carefully to Mother Maria Skobtsova, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Nicholas Afanasiev, Alexander Schmemann, Sam Wells, Barbara Brown Taylor, among others.

 AD: Having finished the book, what are you at work on now? 

MP: As I already mentioned, I believe I have to look at ministry, and in particular, the ministry of the ordained. I sense that there is a vigorous rediscovery of the priesthood of all the baptized now, even if that language were not used. Maybe discipleship, or like Bishop William Barber often says, standing up for God’s justice. But there is way more institutional encrustation with the ordained, many more models in need of reform, renewal, a lot of baggage that has more to do with social status, culture and yes, politics. Cyril Hovorun’s books are essential for tracking all the political and cultural use and abuse of church. I would also like to contribute some of my own pastoral experience while I still am able to write about it.

Many thanks for having this exchange and I hope readers will find the book worthwhile.

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