One distinguishing characteristic of our church today in the Western world is that we are a grieving church. We live in a certain sadness, somewhere between a death and a new Pentecost, more than a little confused by resurrected life that we’ve not seen before, longing for what used to be, grieving.
What are we grieving? What have we lost?
Essentially we are grieving four things: i) A certain lost innocence, a golden age, a lost virginity; ii) a lost unity, a painful division within the church, an emotional apartheid; iii) a lost child, our child that has become adolescent, post-religious culture, and iv) a lost wholeness among the people, the grief of our people.
We are grieving a lost innocence. More superficially, we feel this as we experience the recent scandals within the church, sexual misconduct by some priests and bishops, financial impropriety and abuse of power by some church leaders, and other such things which have all but shattered the image of the church as the unsullied bride of Christ that does no wrong and has done no wrong.
Recent studies in church history have helped intensify this as they show that the church’s long history of grace is colored through all those years by a long history of sin.
But, painful as this is, it is not what is cutting deepest here. Less visible, less expressed, but more wounding, is the sense of having lost a deep security, the sense that we had the high moral ground, that we were the cognitive majority (so many millions of us can’t be wrong!), that we were having an affair with real existent virtues, and that our ecclesial structures, moral codes, and cherished ways of doing things, our cherished rights and wrongs, truly mediated grace.
We had faith in the tradition. Today what is in doubt is the goodness of that tradition. An innocence, a virginity, has been lost. This does not come without grief. We are grieving a painful division within the church and society. I doubt that there has been any time since the Reformation that the Roman Catholic Church has been so painfully divided emotionally.
In some places we, in fact, have two emotional communities, so divided are we by different theologies, ideologies, and spiritualities. We live in emotional apartheid. Different ideological communities are living apart. Such is our church today.
Division within the church is not new. Christ held true on his promise that he would bring fire to the earth. The difference today is that the division is not between the sincere and the insincere, the good and the bad, the committed and the non-committed. Today, too often, the sincere are divided from the sincere, the good from the good, the committed from the committed.
When good people can no longer be in community together, not even to mention respectful dialogue with each other, there are only two options: anger or sadness—and anger is just another form of sadness. We are a grieving church.
We are grieving a lost child. What is at issue here can best be expressed in an image: Western culture is to us, the church, much like an adolescent child is to its parents. We gave it birth, helped raise it, and now, with a fierceness and an anger that do not seem justifiable, it is asserting its independence from us, accusing us of being bad parents, and claiming it can find life only by moving away from us—and all this without acknowledging its debt to us.
Like parents too we fear for its life even as we envy its youth, power and daring, and resent its independence. Like parents, we feel a sadness. The child has left home, rejecting many cherished values in that exit. It is slipping away from us, daily becoming more post-Christian. To not admit a certain sadness about this is to be in denial.
Finally, we are grieving the grief of our people. Western society is, in large measure, despondent and suffering from every kind of brokenness. There is anger and frustration among women; depression and alienation among men. Brokenness, not wholeness, is the rule.
More and more it is the exception for someone to not come from a broken home, a broken marriage, a series of broken relationships and a background of sexual abuse. We are a society of the wounded and we bring this to our churches and this colors all of church life. We are a grieving church.
But that’s the death part. There’s another side, a resurrected Christ is already moving about and making appearances. We need to cry our tears, otherwise our hearts will harden, but we also need to gather in upper rooms and pray together until new tongues of fire put grief far behind.