Congregation: Stories and Structures by James F. Hopewell
At the time of his death in 1984, James F. Hopewell was Professor of Religion and the Church and Director of the Rollins Center for Church Ministries at the Candler School of theology, Emory University. Published by Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1987. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter12: Wiltshire’s World Story
The most analyzed congregation in America today is a church in New England that agreed in 1981 to submit itself to the scrutiny of a score of investigators who sought to understand how their different methods might work together when trained on the same object. Ethnographers, sociologists, psychologists, theologians, case study writers, and organization and management consultants observed the congregation and searched through church documents and transcripts of member interviews. The analysts later compared their findings in several conferences and finally recorded them in a book.1 Because a consciously multidisciplinary approach to comprehending the life of a congregation had never before been attempted, the book, Building Effective Ministry, represented an important advance in the study of the local church. The difficult project was more successful, however, in analyzing the problems of Wiltshire Church than in suggesting how the church might address them. Chief among the findings was the consuming degree to which Wiltshire Church cultivated its private life and the self-centered values of its affluent neighborhood. But neither the social analysts nor the organization and management consultants provided much help to Wiltshire’s leaders or to similar churches that want to change such a situation.
Whatever external investigators and consultants may accomplish in a congregation, its specific future still depends overwhelmingly upon its reaction to the information it gains about itself. Finally, it matters more what a congregation tells itself than what it is told. Deft analysis or intervention can, at best, resource the attempt of the local church to understand or change itself. Transformation requires a different order of knowing than that which outsiders provide.
The self-knowledge a congregation requires to study and alter itself is predominantly narrative in its form. Stories ranging from gossip to gospel compose the substance of what members say to each other about their household identity and task. Interpersonal communication occurs by symbol and is conveyed largely in story. Though preachers, analysts, and consultants may sometimes wish it otherwise, there is no connective tissue among members that directly transmits meaning except the symbolic interaction of the members themselves. Members can individually hear the words of a sermon or analytical presentation, but their corporate response depends upon the signals they subsequently trade with each other.
Taking up where the book on Wiltshire Church left off, this chapter suggests ways by which the congregation itself might, comprehending its own story, better understand its nature, circumstances, and mission. We shall start with a synopsis of the story Wiltshire Church tells itself and then show how an awareness of the narrative might help the church achieve deeper reflective and performative significance.
This account assumes the accuracy of the case study that begins the book about Wiltshire.2 After a fictive introduction, the case study divides the plot into eight periods. The same form is employed in the synopsis that follows, and each period is identified by the title given to it in the case study.
1. Company town -- company church
Members of the Adams family, who owned the major industry in the town of Wiltshire, had built without assistance from the townspeople both the first and the present church building, the latter a replica of a beautiful Anglican church in England but made from the same sandstone used to construct the Adams factory. The family had continued to control and maintain the church in a manner resembling the factory’s oversight of the community. The patriarch would annually cover any deficit in operating the church. For decades the church had languished, a congregation of elderly people served by pastors who were themselves "tired old men, ready for retirement." In 1970 the last Adams patriarch, who had long been the church board chairman, and three other trustees died, causing great consternation among parishioners.
2. Sid Carlson appointed to Wiltshire
The Methodist bishop thereafter negotiated with Sid Carlson, a pastor known for his unusual managerial and preaching effectiveness, about the Wiltshire appointment. Before accepting the post, Sid, disguised as a corporate representative seeking a new business site, "checked out" Wiltshire. Officials welcomed Sid in disguise. He closely examined both the civic and religious institutions in town. In accepting the appointment, Sid entered a listless church that was losing members, while its surrounding community was rapidly growing. To consolidate the congregation he quickly: (a) collapsed the two ill-attended Sunday worship services into one, (b) removed 221 inactive persons from the church rolls, and (c) reduced the administrative board from 55 to 15 members. Because he found them incompetent, Sid fired both the veteran church secretary and the choir director. An angry choir met to consider petitioning the bishop to remove Sid, but Sid, uninvited, attended their meeting and challenged their authority. The choir backed down, as did the 55-member administrative board, which voted itself out of existence. Sid used executive force, not standard Methodist procedures, to make these changes. With moral indignation he disclosed that members contributed an average of only 25 cents each to the church each week and that they sent their children to church school in a building that violated seventeen fire code regulations. To address both failings Sid led the congregation into major debt that simultaneously required a more substantial contribution to retire it and permitted the renovation of the church school building and parsonage.
3. Growth in Wiltshire Church
The tactics worked. Over a hundred new members, drawn from the community’s transient, upwardly mobile, middle-class executives, joined the church each year. Sid deliberately adapted the activities of the church to meet the conscious needs of a congregation composed of relatively young parents attracted to Wiltshire by its seclusion and good schools. "They really buy a school, not a home." Church school and youth work therefore became strong program features. Sid developed an uplifting worship service that included excellent music, and he used the pulpit to address the personal and family problems that accompany executive life: skepticism about the Christian faith and disenchantment with the American Dream, broken homes, tensions at work, appliances that malfunction, traveling spouses, children who drink and use drugs. To befriend such wary, wistful people Sid rejected the ministerial stereotype. He dressed, cursed, behaved, and managed his work like a dynamic corporate executive. No longer impotent, the church under Sid’s leadership became an attractive and popular institution. "If you can’t join the country club, join Wiltshire Church," the saying went. Wiltshire Church developed the reputation of being "the best show in town."
4. Recent changes
In the latter part of the 1970s, however, the combination of a compliant congregation and a forceful leader began to unravel. A similar shift occurred in the town itself. Wiltshire residents who commuted in order to work for other businesses had recently wrested control of the town from citizens loyal to the old Adams Company. They blocked, for the first time, a plan of the Adams Company to expand its business. Similar challenges confronted Sid Carlson. Members once eager to follow his leadership lost their zest, and Sid, turning fifty, lost some of his as well. Anxious about the future he: (1) entered a D. Min. program, the exams for which he failed, (2) pressed for better retirement provisions, (3) considered quitting the ministry, and (4) went to see a psychiatrist. Members increasingly criticized three aspects of what seemed to them arrogant behavior of pastor and church: neither Sid nor the congregation adequately participated in Methodist conference functions; they gave scant evidence of traditional Christian piety; they did not, except in some personal ways, concern themselves with the poor.
5. Administrative board retreat
At a recent retreat the administrative board of Wiltshire Church spent its first hour exploring the identity of the church: its character, goals, and image. The lay leader drew up a summary, deprecatory statement: "I hear us saying we are a community of individuals who profess a belief in Christ, who have a limited or nominal belief in his teachings and the extension of his work, and who pose very limited responsibilities on becoming part of our group." Sid sat at the edge of the group and did not enter into its discussion.
Then the tenor of the meeting changed. Breaking his silence, Sid turned the discussion to a consideration of staffing needs, and the group spent the rest of the morning examining issues raised by the departures of the Sunday school superintendent, the minister of visitation, the assistant pastor, and the youth leader. After lunch, attention shifted to needs for extra Sunday school space and the inadequate insulation of the present education wing. Because there were not enough funds in the current budget to finance a new church school building, a vote on the construction advocated by Sid was postponed.
6. Pastoral housing proposal
During the last three years of the decade members had debated whether they should erect a new church school building, but another, more covert, building venture brought the church to open conflict. In early 1979, Sid had revealed that he was considering job offers elsewhere, and, to keep him at Wiltshire, several close friends in the congregation developed a plan to help Sid buy his own house. They contrived the proposal without the knowledge of the administrative board chairman, without approval of the bishop, and in opposition to conference regulations. The supporters viewed a private house as a way not only of retaining Sid but also of releasing him and his family from the constant attention of parishioners that the present parsonage adjoining the church encouraged. Sid liked the idea.
When presented to the administrative board in the fall of 1979, however, the proposal met a variety of objections. Some board members objected to the hidden negotiations, which were technically "out of order." Others doubted that the church members would submit to simultaneous campaigns for a church school building and for Sid’s house. Some were concerned that the plan tied the church to Sid indefinitely, others that Sid already made more money than any other minister in the district. Worry about the bishop’s reaction and uncertainty about precedents for relationships with future pastors further darkened the issue. The board tabled the proposal for further study. Sid became angry. "They don’t give a goddamn about me," he said, feeling unsupported by those whom he had served for ten years. In a later public meeting he vilified one of the objectors. Further conflict and complaints led the administrative board chairman to cancel all further official discussion of the housing proposal and to call a special meeting of the board, excluding Sid, to discuss objections to several aspects of Sid’s behavior.
7. Tensions increase
Feeling its own authority usurped, the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee objected to the meeting called by the administrative board chairman to discuss complaints against Sid. The meeting ended without decision, and shortly thereafter the church member abused by Sid resigned from the administrative board. Other members expressed their concerns about Sid’s belittling those who did not agree with him and his breaking of confidences. Sid began to raise questions about the church’s renowned music program. It was rumored that the organist and choir director would resign, thereby deepening the alienation of the choir from Sid.
8. Building proposal
It was widely recognized that the church school building was small and poorly constructed. Classes spilled over into Sid’s study and also across a busy street into rented quarters. The building itself could not be heated adequately and was ill-equipped for emergencies and handicapped people. Yet the members of the church were uncertain about their capacity to raise sufficient funds to build a new building. The present levels of attendance and giving seemed dependent upon the continuing presence of Sid Carlson, but the increasing discomfort with Sid and his own dissatisfaction with his lot suggested that he might leave. The administrative board continued to postpone a decision about construction, and, tired of the mounting difficulties of Wiltshire Church, the chairman of the board resigned his post.
The Setting of an Isolated Church
Because it follows a case study format, the Wiltshire story ends with the chairman’s resignation and the important issues of the story unresolved. But enough of the story has by then been told to sketch the church’s plot and to pose the major question the plot raises for Christian ministry: How might Wiltshire Church address its alienation from the life of the world that surrounds and sustains it? How might it -- entangled as it is in problems of self-preservation -- participate instead in the larger quest of humanity for redemptive community?
Others might identify another problem as the central one: ineffectiveness of leadership and administrative arrangements, for instance. If this were the key problem, the solution might be the removal of Sid Carlson. From another perspective, the problem might be identified as one of damaged relationships among members, the repair of which might be found in building up a fellowship that encourages greater love and less animosity. Such managerial and therapeutic approaches in Wiltshire’s case seem to me, however, to miss the depth of its trauma. The church was autistic. Probably to a greater degree than most other churches, Wiltshire conducted its affairs and generated its problems without reference to any larger church, society, or deity. It suffered, to be sure, from symptoms of ill will and maladministration, but these difficulties only exacerbated the more basic problem of Wiltshire’s blindness to the rest of the world.
Note the evidence of its isolation. Church members were residents of a community dedicated to separating itself from the business life of its inhabitants in the nearby city. Wiltshire was dubbed a "Shangri-La" and was characterized in a news article as having a "drawbridge mentality." Upwardly mobile executives retreated to Wiltshire each evening. The attraction of the town, said its mayor, was "the ability to live in a suburban community and yet have . . . your own island. You can not only get in between the ridges every night, you then go and get in between the birches and elms. You can really isolate yourself."
Although the executives, restored by their overnight respite in Wiltshire, would return each morning to the realities of the workday world, they left their church behind, among the trees. Wiltshire Church was part of the retreat, like the town’s country club. The church’s recent success in recruiting members was due in good measure to the pastor’s attention to private needs of those members. To further secure its seclusion, the congregation avoided links with either its denomination or its larger society. Sid Carlson provided the primary example. He was said to be "really turned off by Methodism," attending his annual conference only on its opening day and finding all Methodist structures burdensome. Nor did he cultivate the social dimension of his ministry. He said he had "minimal interest in impacting major social and economic problems in the community." Wiltshire Church sanctioned the independence of its pastor. It placed none of its members on denominational committees; it spent less than 4 percent of its budget on social outreach.
A similar isolation marked the beliefs of the congregation. At its retreat, the administrative board characterized the faith of Wiltshire Church by its distinction from the board’s understanding of Christian orthodoxy: "We are a community of individuals who profess a belief in Christ, who have a limited or nominal belief in his teachings and the extension of his work." Other references are made to the church’s agnosticism. When members of Wiltshire Church took the world view test described in chapter 6, the congregation made the highest empiric and lowest charismatic scores of any church yet tested. There was near the town of Wiltshire an eminently successful charismatic church that drew its members from roughly the same population as the United Methodist Church, suggesting that it would have been possible for Wiltshire Church itself to take a different spiritual tack, but instead the congregation, in its sermons and education programs as well as its informal conversations, emphasized its distrust of both standard orthodox and adventurous charismatic forms of Christian belief.
Ministry in a church as alienated as Wiltshire usually takes one or another form of scolding. The scolding asserts standards of benevolence, piety, and denominational conformity, and then demonstrates how far short of the mark a church like Wiltshire falls. Sermons and other pronouncements take on the prophetic task of criticizing a negative performance. Since the accomplishment of Wiltshire in its congregating fails to measure up to ethical expectations, its culture is treated as an inferior undertaking to be nagged toward improvement.
Prophetic critique conducted through the medium of scolding has several drawbacks. Because its manner is antagonistic, there is the temptation not even to attempt such an approach to a group as politically and economically powerful as Wiltshire Church. Persons or groups with strong commitments to social action or evangelical faith often shun direct engagement with Wiltshire-like churches, dismissing them as lost to the cause, and instead issue more general pronouncements that avoid the nastiness of encounter with specific congregations whose values oppose their own. Words that chastise, moreover, have difficulty making their way into the idiom of the congregation under censure. Criticisms in such a setting are usually deflected or rationalized. Although straightforward, specific talk about the shortcomings of a congregation has its place, its power to transform a church in contemporary times is not very much in evidence. Wiltshire Church patently serves a class of capitalist society that reinforces the individualistic posture and management style of the church. The congregation is further captive to the privatistic values of the American suburb. Its sophisticated membership and financial independence still further diminish the chances that it will be willing to listen to scolding. Wiltshire therefore seems a poor prospect for any usual type of prophetic critique. Might prophecy take another form?
The argument of this book is that the culture of even a church as isolated as Wiltshire contains its own prophecy. Instead of judging Wiltshire’s story by external standards of merit, I would rather labor within the story to find its own dimensions of human value and transformation, its own linkages and twists. Like any other society, Wiltshire Church congregates itself by languages of association. Within those languages are the structure and images of all human imagination and their potential for both social cleavage and coherence. Rather than berate Wiltshire, I would seek to show how the story itself implicates Wiltshire Church in the life of the wider world.
One such implication resides in the church’s world view. Members of the congregation consider their own beliefs, if not nonexistent, at most pale versions of Christian orthodoxy. Their empiric outlook, however, is integral to the circle of world view interpretations laid out earlier in this book. Human groups do not withdraw from the business of determining the setting of their own story. Wiltshire’s faith is not, as it suspects, an infidelity to a Christian canon not its own, but a participation at a different point in a full round of interpretation. Each point in the compass of world view options involves, as earlier observed, its own oppositions and ancillary alliances. Far from being a withdrawal from faith, the highly empiric position of Wiltshire Church in fact represents a familiar way by which human society everywhere has attempted to wrest meaning from the chaos of life.
Were I a leader of Wiltshire Church, I would try to plumb the richness of what the church now interprets as rejection of Christian belief. I would point out that Wiltshire is dependent upon a worldwide imaginative struggle to gain an ironic distance upon traditional assertions about life and cosmos. I would attempt to show that what members identify as their doubt about Christian claims can also be viewed as reliance upon a genre of interpretation that has a reciprocal relationship with other, quite different genres of Christian belief. Wiltshire agnostics do not in fact remove themselves from the business of believing. In their reflection of certain interpretations they engage in a practiced and patterned negotiation familiar in the settings of many other human narratives.
The opportunities for taking Wiltshire’s world view seriously might arise in sermons, classes, or informal conversations. Whatever the occasion, the common intention would be to show that the congregation’s lack of orthodoxy is itself an arc of rich human interpretation that, rounded into a circle, enfolds all expressions of belief. If members were to begin to see in their own constructions the working of an entire world, what would be gained would be a sense of participation in a common human struggle for meaning.
The Character of the Isolated Member
"I look upon myself on Sunday mornings as addressing a congregation of wistful hearts," Sid Carlson reported. "I am basically addressing a secular, agnostic congregation of people who are drawn to the church because they find themselves with children and suddenly begin to sense that they want to give the kids some kind of background." What sort of background is unclear. Although most church families at Wiltshire had successfully climbed up the corporate structure of business, the view from the top hardly supplied an integrating vision. Sid spoke of members’ disillusion "with the American dream of the two-car garage and the house in the country -- divorce -- kids drinking and using pot -- job conflicts -- the plumbing leaking and your husband in San Francisco -- the family needs [are] monumental." Not only was the church isolated from any larger imaginative working of humanity, individual members and families likewise saw themselves as separated from any larger social struggle to gain shalom for the world.
Wiltshire Church aligned itself to provide solutions that would fit the bureaucratic individualism of its members. It altered its program to supply the managerial and therapeutic ethos that, Robert Bellah argues, pervades a culture that has lost its communal values.3 In Bellah’s view, American culture is dangerously individualistic. It informs persons that their worth depends upon what they as independent agents make of life. To function in a society so atomized requires that each person become an efficient party to contractual arrangements that constitute the fabric of any collectivity, from large corporations to nuclear families. Effective management is required to fulfill the utilitarian goals of the social unit: each member has private goods that are parlayed to greatest advantage by efficient administration. But witness the disillusionment of Wiltshire’s members. The free-standing individual also has needs that efficient management cannot fulfill. Thus an individualistic society requires a concomitant: a service intended to heal the emotional and physical suffering wrought in the individual’s private lot in competitive society. Bellah identifies the managerial and the therapeutic as the twin hallmarks of the ethos -- bureaucratic individualism -- that now affects American life.
Hence in responding to the personal needs of its members, Wiltshire Church concentrated upon providing efficient administration and elaborate therapy. Sid Carlson cleared out the awkward elements, such as the oversized administrative board, that impeded effective congregational operation. He reduced the church rolls to active members; he streamlined committees and bypassed reactionary participants. Most important of all, he took personal control of the operation. Sid was a person "who knew how to take charge of a situation in the best corporate sense," and he ran Wiltshire as a chief executive officer might be expected to do. At least during the earlier years, programs under Sid’s management met with surprising success. Sunday services, church school, youth fellowship, social occasions, and meetings functioned with businesslike efficiency. There were few complaints about Carlson’s autocratic style, because he organized the church to work like a finely tuned engine.
Nor did Wiltshire Church neglect the therapeutic needs of its members. The church was called the "sanctuary" for parishioners in pain. "It is the place that provides nurture and caring for those who must go out of the sanctuary and do battle in a fundamentally exciting and positive world." The pastor himself was gifted in helping people in personal crises, and the God that he preached was a deity tuned to help people: a loving Father, a compassionate Son, and an available and forgiving Holy Spirit. People experiencing loneliness, anxiety, and failure found in Wiltshire Church a haven in which they could be healed.
By its efficient operation and attentive care of its members, the congregation reinforced the surrounding privatized culture. Members could treat such a well-managed church as a sort of corporation in which they bore limited personal liability. Further, the well-run church augmented their sense of singular worth, because each person had contracted to support "the best show in town" much as -- with little else in common -- fans support a winning sports team. Even those disappointed about their own accomplishments had confidential recourse to the church, where the pastor was poised to help them cope.
In learning to hear its own story, a congregation beckons its members to share a corporate life that challenges their excessively private identities. Stories knit people into large wholes. Stories give people a collective character that repudiates individualism. The narrative of Wiltshire Church may recount, in the main, managerially and therapeutically tinged events, but their being bound into the form of a story witnesses a continuing communal drama that cannot be reduced to the atomized experiences of isolated members.
Wiltshire’s story therefore requires strong characterization to pit it against its members’ tendency to disintegrate corporate history into their private dramas. Unless vivid tropes and a memorable script present Wiltshire’s story, it cannot become good news to members now secluded in their separate egos. A myth must be found that illuminates Wiltshire’s story. The myth of Zeus on Olympus serves that purpose.4
Edith Hamilton summarizes the myth:
The Titans, often called the Elder Gods, were for untold ages supreme in the universe. They were of enormous size and of incredible strength.... The most important was Chronus, in Latin Saturn. He ruled over the other Titans until his son Zeus dethroned him and seized the power for himself....
The twelve great Olympians were supreme among the gods who succeeded to the Titans.... The entrance to [Mount Olympus] was a great gate of clouds kept by the Seasons. Within were the gods’ dwellings where they lived and slept and feasted on ambrosia and nectar and listened to Apollo’s lyre. It was an abode of perfect blessedness....
Zeus became the supreme ruler. He was Lord of the Sky, the Rain-god and the Cloud-gatherer, who wielded the awful thunderbolt. His power was greater than that of all the divinities together.... Nevertheless he was not omnipotent or omniscient, either. He could be opposed and deceived.5
There are significant correlations between the narrative of Wiltshire Church and the Zeus myth. I sort some out according to the analytical categories advanced in chapter 7.
Crisis and resolution
Life at Wiltshire Church under the Adams family and within the Adams Company was chronic and saturnine, captive and dull. Chronus kept all his offspring, save Zeus, in his belly. But Zeus by deception escaped the imprisonment and forced old father Chronus to vomit up his children. The overthrow of the Titans ensued. Four trustees died in 1970. Zeus threw out the old leadership and established himself as supreme ruler. So did Sid Carlson.
Zeus was an arbitrary and dictatorial ruler, using thunderbolts to punish those who dared oppose him. But not only did he punish the wrongdoer, he also advised the suppliant, giving counsel to seekers who came to his shrine. Carlson was a "one man show" at Wiltshire, a person of exceptional management gifts who ran the church and who got his way not only because of the acquiescence of corporation-minded members but also because he had a habit of "getting people," ridiculing them with his thunderbolts. But Carlson was also the pastor who provided therapy for souls who found their way to his shrine.
The mood, by Jove, was jovial. Remote Olympus was the land of the blessed. The gods lived in marvelous houses and enjoyed the best food and entertainment. Wiltshire, equally remote from the cares of mortals, provided comparable residences and entertained its members in "the best show in town." Members gained jovial solace: they were loved and accepted in the Olympian sanctuary.
The Olympian gods were ultimate but not spiritual powers. Spirituality is marked by aspiration to or inspiration by a power beyond oneself. But the Olympian gods, though immortal, partook of no such transcendence. They themselves were beyond control, beholden to none. Likewise, the members of Wiltshire were beautiful, successful people in whose veins seemed to run the ichor that would make them immortal. They were oriented not to the Other but toward personal ultimacy, either for themselves or their children. They expressed, through Sid, their disdain for anything larger than themselves -- social issues, church, or deity -- that would command their obedience and deny their private sense of immortality.
To characterize Wiltshire as Olympus is to resist the prevailing ethos of bureaucratic individualism that denies binding myth, indeed any binding force other than utilitarian contracts. The Zeus myth is not a pretty story, but its very aptness and ugliness might awaken its actors both to their plight and to their Christian promise: that Zeus, like Eros, intertwines with Christ who redeems the storied body.
The Plot of an Isolated God
The individualism of Wiltshire churchgoers and the isolation of their church from the larger society were not unrelated to the way they demarcated the presence of God in distinct events within the total life of the congregation. Two sorts of occurrences at Wiltshire seemed to its members to manifest the Holy: the sermon and the music program. Both transpired within what many observers would call "the sacred space" of Wiltshire Church’s sanctuary, and both represented instances in what the same observers might call "the sacred time" of Wiltshire’s ongoing history. But isolating God in these events diminishes both the nature of God and the significance of the total life of the corporate household. It suggests that God inhabits only packaged moments in history and that the bulk of life lived outside those moments is profane. I contend that the exclusive concentration of Wiltshire and many other churches upon sermon and sacrament and beauty to reveal the presence of God defeats their attempt to embody the fullness of Christ’s plot for the congregation.
There is no special area in a church building that can be justified as sacred space any more than there is authenticated sacred time within particular parish history. Wiltshire undertakes powerful ritual actions in its sermons and music that may seem unusually holy. But the perusal of the total plot does not support a distinction between sacred and profane events. The characteristics of so-called sacred time -- symbolic intensity, deep emotion, repetitive corporate behavior -- do not cluster only in special moments and places. All household life is caught up in the creation of the cosmos. No act escapes the tremendum of death. The entire story is sacred. Particular ritual behaviors distinguish the Sunday morning service from the rest of Wiltshire Church’s plot, but their performance marks more a mode of story’s unfolding, not the congregation’s only appointment for entry into God’s real presence.
The limitation of God’s presence to isolable sacred times in Wiltshire Church also restricts an understanding of what constitutes moral behavior. If God is linked only to its worship, a consequence is that a congregation’s other struggles to survive and find meaning are stripped of religious meaning. The obvious structural connection between its total life and the life of other human societies is then obscured because that connection does not merit divine designation.
Wiltshire could be challenged to face its isolation from the world by proclaiming all its space and time as in some sense holy. To discover that the entirety of the physical space and historical time it shares is of God might check its relentless habit of restricting meaning to hot spots in its worship and to crises in the lives of its individual members. Finding in its plot the negotiation of Christ and Eros in spaces heretofore considered inert and at times of its common life regarded as incidental or profane, Wiltshire Church could begin to appreciate its implication within the working of all social space and time. For Wiltshire is a participant, whether it acknowledges it or not, in a long and broad history that bears a similar erotic patterning to Wiltshire’s own. It is not merely the congregation’s Eucharist that follows the fourfold action of plot, in which elements are taken or unfolded, then blessed or linked, then broken in the act of thickening, and finally distributed in a twist that foretells the kingdom banquet. The entirety of Wiltshire’s story performs a larger liturgy equally disposed to divine presence.
Were the congregation of Wiltshire to discover this intertwined work of Christ and Eros throughout its corporate history, it might better comprehend its participation in the full pattern of human striving for worth and meaning. If the church could see within the peak moments of its worship not the point but the paradigm of its total life, and understand that its sermons, prayers, and music do not only meet personal needs but, more important, also symbolize the whole struggle of an embodied people, then the congregation might better grasp its solidarity with peoples throughout the world who labor to voice their own significance. It would be easy to demonstrate how Wiltshire, like Smithtown Church in the last chapter, used space and modal persons to enact its plot. But even the gritty recent political history of Wiltshire Church can be shown to participate in universal forms of symbolic behavior. In each of the eight periods demarcated by the case study, a single action of plot characterizes the period and another action is there repressed. The account of Wiltshire’s corporate life weaves its way through a texture of linkages, unfoldings, thickenings, and twists that constitute a way of identifying far-reaching strands of social behavior. To understand their mesh within one community provides coordinates by which to place the community within the world.
Plot actions within Wiltshire’s story of conflict and self-interest play out the following pattern:
1. Company town -- company church: The era of subordination to the Adams family was remembered primarily by its attention to linkages: the physical and economic associations of the church with the Adams Company, the replication in Wiltshire of a historic Anglican church structure, the adherence of the church to the lives and fortunes of the Adams lineage. Notably absent from the plot was any thickening, complicating reference to conditions and events that contradicted the bond of the church to power and prestige.
2. Sid Carlson appointed to Wiltshire: Here is a twist. Some old leaders died, others were turned out of office by the new pastor in an administrative transformation that paralleled simultaneous changes in program, worship, and pastoral style. Linkage to older patterns and persons suffered.
3. Growth in Wiltshire Church: An unfolding of Wiltshire’s plot followed Sid’s alterations. The congregation steadily grew. Its church school developed. The church became attractive to new executive families moving into Wiltshire, but service to their private needs further diminished the linkage of Wiltshire to Methodism, orthodox beliefs, and wider community concerns.
4. Recent changes: The plot thickened in the frustrations of the later 1970s: Sid, turning fifty, worried about his career and retirement; members became increasingly restless under his autocratic leadership. An earlier zest for church development disappeared. The possibility of twist resourced by decisive leadership and member enthusiasm diminished.
5. Administrative board retreat: The attempt of the board to link itself by exploring its identity was defeated by Sid’s refusal to participate and his shift of attention to matters of unfolding: appointments to staff vacancies and the modification of the education wing.
6. Pastoral housing proposal: Each of the final three periods in the case study shows the further thickening of Wiltshire’s story. The housing proposal surfaced the deepening tension between a group supporting Sid and those opposed to the scheme. The orderly unfolding of church process was repudiated in several ways: the group acted behind the backs of the administrative board and against Methodist conference regulations; and the group was aware that opposition to its scheme might well subvert the continuing leadership of Sid Carlson in guiding the church.
7. Tensions increase: The very title of this period suggests its thickening. Wiltshire’s administrative board and Pastor-Parish Relations Committee were at odds; Sid and a board member got into a fight; animosity grew between Sid and the choir director. The potential for any twist disappeared in Wiltshire’s administrative paralysis: a compromised pastor, an almost nonexistent staff, and church committees suspicious of each other.
8. Building proposal: In a final thickening, the proposal for a new education building was opposed because of doubts about the capacity of the church to finance the construction. And, in the final, tense action of the case study, the administrative board chairman resigned. Once again conflict-laden issues prevented the church’s unfolding. Decisions were postponed; Wiltshire Church expressed uncertainty about its direction and its power to achieve its goals.
More is at stake in Wiltshire’s recent history than an administrative crisis. The congregation might well diagnose the problems of these years in managerial terms, but in so doing, it would miss the opportunity to see in its thickenings and unfoldings the immediate narrative of Eros and Christ. The erotic labor of a body given Christ’s name is the local instantiation of the world struggle, with all its frustrations and potential: for disaster. For Wiltshire to seek its full story with that story’s resonances throughout the forms of human suffering and human imagination would open the congregation to its redemptive promise.
Story is the larger liturgy of the congregation. Its local outworking reflects the structures of human societies that struggle to exist throughout the world. By gathering into its local telling the manifestations of setting, character, and plot, and by linking its structure to that of other people’s stories, narrative overcomes the notion that we are atomic individuals justified by our private works. In faith we yield to a larger work that is God’s economy for the world.
1. Carl S. Dudley, ed., Building Effective Ministry.
2. Ibid., 3-20.
3. Robert N. Bellah, "Discerning Old and New Imperatives in Theological Education," Theological Education 19 (Autumn 1982): 7-29.
4. For a fuller exposition of the consonance between the Zeus myth and the Wiltshire story, see James F. Hopewell, "The Jovial Church: Narrative in Local Church Life," in Dudley, Building Effective Ministry, 68-83.
5. Edith Hamilton, Mythology, 24-27. Cf. Hesiod Theogony, VIII-XII.
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