Friday, May 14, 2004
When we were in divinity school, a good friend and I came up with our Top Ten Pet Peeves about seminary. I wish I knew where the full list had gone — we wrote it up sitting on the porch drinking Miller Genuine Draft one muggy summer day — but I do remember the pet peeve that annoyed me most: Sociopastoralism, the compulsion to transform every social interaction into a display of "ministerial presence" and invasive concern.
My favorite instance of sociopastoralism came in the aftermath of a "candle of joy and concern" I lit one Friday at the Unitarian Universalist student worship service. My grandfather had just died, and being a good UU I decided to share the news with my community. After the service, one of my classmates — a woman my mother's age — came up to "comfort" me, wrapping me in an interminable hug. At first, I thought, how kind. (Being a minister-in-training myself, I always gave people the benefit of the doubt.) And then, as the hug continued, I thought I'd try a little pat-n-release. No luck. The hug continued. So I tried the squeeze-n-release. Still stuck. It slowly dawned on me that this hug wasn't about me: It was about her, being "ministerial." I had to verbally thank her, while patting and squeezing, to bring the unwanted hug to an end.
That's how I learned not to participate in "joys and concerns" unless I wanted to be part of the drama of publicized compassion, a tight little circle of earnest care-givers and care-seekers that does not happen to encompass all the real needs for compassion in a congregation. How can this be? Many people are like me: They want the people they know and trust to join them in celebration or sorrow, and they really want other people to maintain a respectful but kind distance — not aloofness or unconcern, but some acknowledgment that going to church together doesn't transform us all into intimates. The church helps us expand the circle of those we can genuinely care for, but I'm sure many people are like me in not seeing a worship service as a soul-baring cozy-fest with 100 or more best friends.
Which brings me to Matthew Gatheringwater's insightful essay, "Red Rover Religion" (May 7), which begins:
As we entered the chapel, it became clear that we were expected to link hands with the people in front of and behind us. Someone was singing near the front of the line and others began to join in the song but I didn't know the words or the tune. The line of people slowly spiraled into a double circle of chairs facing a central altar. As they stopped singing and sat down, I thought, "This congregation has literally just curled up around itself, facing inward."
Ah, comfy church! For more — much more — on what's wrong with this style of liberal worship, see David Bumbaugh's essay, "God, Worship, and the Tyranny of Intimacy" in the Journal of Liberal Religion. In a nutshell: Our artificial forms of intimacy actively repel newcomers, seekers, and strangers. They are the opposite of welcoming.
Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 14 May 2004 at 5:11 PM