By Ed Watson
In the past month, several people have responded to and developed upon my piece What’s preventing a new Oxford Movement? — most recently Hannah Matis’s brilliant post on the need to see the principles of the Oxford Movement in terms of practical justice work, as well as theology and liturgy. I want to offer a follow-up suggesting two concrete steps that could help us move in the direction these posts have suggested. And even if the suggestions don’t seem viable, I hope that they might spur the kind of thinking that can help turn our longing for reverent relationships and sacramental justice into reality.
The first suggestion is a form of ministry. One of the most profound experiences I had while working in Denver was stepping into the Network Coffee House for the first time. The Network seeks to be the living room of Christ — and as the video on its website shows, it is nothing more or less than a space where members of the city’s homeless population can grab a cup of coffee, sit down, and enjoy the company of others.
It is hard to overstate the sense of holiness that suffuses the Network. Because it doesn’t offer any direct services, it avoids creating the implicit hierarchy that can so easily characterize nonprofit organizations, within which recipients of those services can appear subordinated to the people providing them. And because its focus is on redemptive relationships, those who at first wish to “volunteer” find that they become members of a community. In virtue of all this, it serves to transform anyone who spends any significant time there — to the point where one can see the face of Jesus in everyone, as well as in the many pictures of Christ on the wall.
Several groups practice this ministry of hospitality and welcome, focused on building relationships, and it is one that could be replicated across the United State, Canada, and Britain (for a British variation, see the beautiful work done by Camerados across the country). A coffeehouse can be run on an extremely small operating budget, and can be a fantastic way to repurpose dilapidated buildings. It can serve both rural and urban areas. It can even serve as the foundation for a church: the top floor of the Network’s building also houses St. James, a Presbyterian mission church.
Coffeehouses can open up the space for homeless and impoverished individuals to share their deep insights into the nature of faith. They must be developed in conversation with homeless and impoverished communities, of course, and I believe that they are likely more welcoming when they exist as their own entities (rather than as the subordinate ministry of a larger church). In all this, they can manifest the core principles of Anglican sacramentality, enabling us to form beloved and just communities grounded in encounter with the risen Lord. That is to say, they can reveal to us what it means to live together in communion.
Inter-church Bible studies
The second suggestion is a type of Bible study designed to foster relationships between different churches, akin to the small-group model used by many evangelical churches (and even the early Methodists). The first step is to reach out to four or so other churches, Episcopal or otherwise, to see if they want to take part. The second is to organize groups of six to eight people, with at least two people from each church.
In terms of study, this is the method I have used in the past: the group spends five minutes in silence reading a passage or passages from Scripture (the daily lectionary works quite well). Next, the group goes round in some sort of order, with each member saying what struck them about the reading(s), and without interruption of discussion. It then goes round a second time in the same order, with each member directly responding to something someone else has said. Everyone listens for common themes in the responses, and once each person has responded, they attempt to explore these themes together to discern how God is speaking to each person through Scripture that day. If people listen carefully to the ways in which the readings speak to other hearts, and avoid trying to enforce uniformity of response, the discussions that result can be of profound spiritual depth.
I have used this method in several settings, and it can be an effective means of developing community on the basis of a shared exploration of Scripture. It can also be a way of building connections with other churches, breaking down the insularity encouraged by the walls of our buildings. In terms of my initial post, then, it can be used to create the space within which to build reverential relationships — the kind of relationships that enable us to share in the love of Christ with others.
All in all: we know that we want to build Christ-filled relationships, and we know that our faith calls us to try to build just communities with those suffering from oppression. But it can be hard to figure out how to go about doing these things. The suggestions above may or may not be viable in different settings. But if they are unfeasible, I hope that reflecting on their unfeasibility helps with formulating other possibilities. In either case, many long to see an enlivened Church at work in the world — it is always worth thinking about how best to translate this longing into concrete practice.
Ed Watson is studying for a master of arts in religion at Yale Divinity School, with a concentration in systematic theology. He was a member of St. Hilda’s House for three years, spent a year as missioner-in-residence at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, and hopes to one day return home to Britain. He also writes on theology, philosophy, and politics at Ed’s Eye View.