Epiphany 2013 Reflection
Some time ago my old friend Sister Joan Chittister observed that change in the church, like all social change, is not an event. It is a process.
Once it has begun, the change has already happened. Only the process of adoption is left. It is the process of change itself that must be understood if ministers are to be the bridge between the Holy Spirit and the institution.
The fact is that once change has begun in a system, the options for dealing with it are limited and mutually exclusive. We can either simply ignore both the question and the questioners or we can ignore the present state of social shift and its effect on both the question and the questioners.
But neither is possible. Social consciousness is a social force. Major social questions do not go away and change, once begun, will come either peacefully or destructively. Ask the few people who went to the barricades in the French Revolution about the truth of that. Or the sisters who struggled through renewal in the course of Vatican II.
Or the 82 percent of Catholics who consider other practices of birth control, beyond natural family planning, moral. Despite what seemed to be ponderous institutional resistance in each instance, concern for institutional approbation floundered in the end under the tide of change.
It is possible to repress change temporarily — to slow change, to resist change, to deny change — but it is impossible to stop a change whose time has come. It is impossible to ignore change once it has begun to well up through the cracks in the cement of a society, however rigid the barriers to it…..
To suppress the question now can only delay its coming and, at the same time, increase its impact when it does. The question of women’s place in the church, let alone the issue of the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, for instance, has been ignored at the highest levels of the church despite the growing demand for attention among the faithful.
Nevertheless, the sense of inevitability has continued unabated in society at large and affected people’s attitudes toward the church — much in the same way the birth control issue did as well. As a result, both issues have already broken the boundaries of the institution.
Second, openness about emerging issues and good theoretical preparation must fill in the gap between institutional readiness to consider the questions and the resistance fatigue in the people. To deny the question will only, in the long run, reduce the credibility of the minister on other issues as well as on the question at hand.
Change comes in three phases. The numbers of innovators — early adherents of change — who have already left the church over these issues, for instance, have gone from trickle to stream. Second level change agents, early adaptors, comprise about 13.5 percent of a population.
The problem is that we are well beyond that already. Surveys tell us that third level change, the point at which another 34 percent of the population has begun to experience tension between belief and practice, is already here.
Acceptance of the idea of women priests by the majority, if the polls are correct, is then already in the popular psyche. The psychological impact of that kind of spiritual stress between scriptural values and institutional norms takes a toll on people’s sense of commitment.
It is a dangerous time for any institution; it is a time for bridge-builders who will admit the truth of the situation and keep the faith at the same time.
So friends, in this New Year, let’s celebrate Epiphany!
Middle English epiphanie, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin epiphania, from Late Greek, plural, probably alteration of Greek epiphaneia appearance, manifestation, from epiphainein to manifest, from epi- + phainein to show.
Our eyes are open, and the vision remains!