Today I received a copy of the newly released second edition of Klara Tammany’s book, Living Water: Baptism as a Way of Life. First published in 2002, it had an unusual trim-size and layout that was cost-prohibitive to reprint so it went “out of print” despite numerous backorders. During my last years at Church Publishing, I advocated it be re-published as Klara agreed to update it. Approved for publication (again) in 2019 right before my retirement, it fell to two colleagues – Wendy Claire Barrie and then Milton Brasher-Cunningham – to see to its completion. I give thanks for their passing the baton toward publication. I had been asked to write the foreword, but alas the page count was tight, so it was not included. So I share it here:
My first memory of God involves a baptism. I was almost four years old, gathered with family around a font in what seemed like a private room adjacent to the church sanctuary of my childhood. Sunshine streamed through the stained-glass windows, dancing on the concrete baptismal font and red carpet. It was the occasion of my brother’s baptism and I knew that I was present for something important. I experienced warmth, community, the sacred — the important stuff of life that I could not yet articulate. I felt love. That visual and visceral memory has been etched into my being and has sustained me throughout my life.
The Episcopal Church has changed since that day of private baptism in which only family and close friends participated following the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. As a child I did not know what it meant to be a full member of the worshiping community and receive Holy Communion. Baptism was not central to Episcopalians at the time — at least not overtly. Being a Christian and going to church each Sunday was a given. Being formed in faith was not a common phrase; I needed to memorize the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and “My Bounden Duty” before I could be confirmed at age twelve, allowing me to receive communion (once a month). Four generations (the Lost, the Greatest, the Silent, and Baby Boomer) of a single family could fill a church and Sunday School classrooms; Sundays were days for worship and family, with local sports’ fields dormant and stores locked up tight.
The below is a response to an article recently posted on the “Covenant,” a project/blog of The Living Church. Many of us in The Episcopal Church acknowledge that this publication / organization is part of the conservative (ie: homophobic) branch of our denomination and articles are often cloaked in academia and theological discourse. Trigger warning (especially to my LBGTQ+ siblings): the article is written by a priest from a parish and school in Diocese of Dallas (Texas) that does not appear to be a welcoming place for all.
A parishioner shared this article with me, seeking my response as a person who has called Christian formation her vocation and profession for over 40 years in the Episcopal Church on the parish, diocesan, and church-wide level. In discerning my response, I felt it important to share with Fr. Jordan and “The Living Church” readership my thoughts in response.
My experience in the church and the academy is very different. Summarized in the Episcopal Church’s document Called to Teach and Learn, Christian formation (whom many still called Christian Education or Sunday School) is a catechetical process. We are “formed” by participation and practice of the Christian life of faith; a natural conforming and transforming process about which we (the Church) need to be intentional. We are “educated” by a process of critical reflection on participation in light of the gospel. We are “instructed” by processes by which knowledge and skills important to the Christian life of faith are acquired. In many ways our churches fail to embrace these three interrelated life-long processes, only focusing on the instruction piece for children as well as adults.
I’m not sure what was so great about the “older, better way” of passing along the faith – at least since my Baby Boomer days in Sunday School when the teacher was the “sage on the stage,” children were seen as empty vessels, and I had to memorize – not question – what well-meaning adults interpreted what God said. I believe we know what works better today. One example that comes immediately to mind is Godly Play, a method in which we engage the child in story, allowing their innate spirituality to wonder and embrace the mystery of God. Children truly “fall in love with God” in Godly Play. As a storyteller, I am not “forming” the children – God and God’s Story does that. As a child I was formed by God, surrounded by a community that loved me. How dare I assume to be the one forming (or needing to change) anyone.
I usually update my curriculum charts every year in April or May. This year I am late; I’ve come to realize that in my “retirement” I don’t have the energy (or heart) to focus on this project that I’ve done annually for at least twenty years now. And I must admit my frustration – every year on social media groups that focus on Christian formation the same questions are asked: what are you using for your [fill in the blank] with [fill in the blank with an age group]. It is followed by countless responses of “use this,” “we like this,” or “I have heard this is good.” That is NOT how to choose a curriculum for your church programs, no matter the age.
Just over a year ago, a group of lay formation leaders in the Episcopal Church left a three-day gathering that focused on what it means to be a lay professional in the Church and how such leaders are supported along the journey of faith. All with degrees in higher education (Master’s, DMins, and PhDs), we are employed by the Church on a variety of levels: local, diocesan, institutional, or church-wide in the areas of formation and ministry development. We shared stories of our calls to ministry; one thread that ran through each of our stories was that at one point we were encouraged or assumed to be interested in ordained ministry. Several of us had actually been in “the process” and discerned we were NOT called to ordained ministry. We had as many questions as we had stories.
When trying to solve a problem or bring a variety of opinions together to make a decision, The Episcopal Church typically creates a task force. We study, take surveys, hold focus groups, and collect data. Typically a great report comes out of the study that appears three to six years (coinciding of course with the convening of General Convention) after its formation. The difficulty with these reports is once they are published they are often shelved and forgotten. Implications and learnings are rarely implemented – at least down to the local level. So we are bound to repeat the same mistakes and after ten years or so create another task force.