Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ashes on the streets

Last year at this time, we had a passionate discussion around the blogs about the practice of taking ashes to the streets. Elizabeth Kaeton today has a meditation on Ash Wednesday and mentions that the Diocese of Chicago is "taking it to the streets." As the Episcopal News Service describes it,
The diocesan-wide initiative, known as Ashes to Go, was conceived by the Rev. Emily Mellot, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Lombard in response to church members regrets about not being able to attend Ash Wednesday services at the church. Few had shown up at her daybreak Ash Wednesday service or the others at noon and early evening, citing work or other commitments. It struck her that the church ought to be taking the Ash Wednesday rite to where the people were at 7 a.m., the commuter rail stations. So last year she floated the idea before her parish's vestry, thinking it would be a project for another year. But the vestry was so taken with the notion "that we were at the Metra station with ashes, poster, handouts and volunteers nine days later."
Over on Episcopal Cafe, Sara Miles has an essay about the same effort in San Francisco.

So, is this contributing to "ashes as fashion accessory", or creative evangelical outreach?

I still think that on the whole, this is not a bad thing to do, as long as it's not an "or" but an "and". For practicing churchgoers, it's a no-brainer -- the discipline of practice means that you should go to church goday, so ashes-on-the-corner isn't really directed at you. (As Margaret says, "g'wan. Go to Church.") So my wife tonight will serve at the deeply reflective Ash Wednesday service (a necessary counter to the hilarity of last night's Zydeco Mass), and the only reason I'm not going is that I have to teach late and won't be home in time. (And since I only go for the music and to support BP, and don't get smudged, it's no big deal for me. If I were a practitioner, there would be options on campus or nearby for the thumbprint.)

The question then is, who is the Ashes-Al-Fresco really for? And I see two things accomplished by it.

First, it's a powerful outreach. To those fallen away, it is a call back to the signs and rhythms of the liturgy. To those who may be questioning, it is a step towards belonging. Basically, for people who are not going to church, and who aren't going to go in "cold", it's an invitation and a welcome. Maybe it will call them to want to learn more.

Second, it's a statement of faith in the public square. While I have a passionate sense that the state should not sanction religion (which is why that Easter Cross on Mt Soledad still bugs me), I have no problem with the free expression of religion. You Episcopalians are the nicest group of Christians that no one knows about, and too often hide yourselves in the walls of your churches. Why not make a statement of who you are where people can hear it?

Now, will there be people who accept ashes for the novelty or without the proper reverence? Will there be people who SHOULD be in church and use it as a shortcut? Yes, of course there will. That's unavoidable. But that's also the price you pay for reaching those who are ready to hear you-- and who wouldn't otherwise know who you are.

It comes down to gatekeeping. Do you throw the gates wide open, accepting the collateral of those who "don't get it" for the sake of those who do? Or, conversely, do you monitor the gates, keeping out the less serious but also losing some of the quiet ones who shy away? This is all tangled up with the same kinds of arguments that are made about open Communion, or the inclusion of LGBT people, or whether you can go to heaven if you don't do Jesus.

As you can tell, my choice is radical inclusiveness on all fronts. But it's your church.



Grandmère Mimi said...

I like "Ashes on the Streets". As you say IT, it's a powerful outreach, and it's a statement of faith. The ministers have no control over the attitudes of those who approach to receive ashes nor those who receive communion inside the church.

I also like the idea of taking the celebration of the Eucharist to the streets from time to time. Go where the people are. Mind, I'm not talking about handing out communion on the street out of context, but actual Eucharistic celebrations in public places like parks.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

If this were FB I would click on "like" on your two reasons. I have to balance that with my discomfort around this not being in community. It's not about 'gatekeeping' for me. It's about my concern/fear that, in doing this - outside a community of faith - we are contributing to the "rugged individualism" that breeds the "us" (rich) and "them" (poor) attitude which results in slashing federal funding for "them that ain't got but should pull themselves up by their boot staps".

It's my stuff. My issue to reconcile. I would never stop ANYONE from delivering ashes in the streets but I can't do it with authenticity and integrity. Yet.

JCF said...

As I said at EK's, I take the "Gamaliel" approach to Ashes-to-Go. If it's not of God, it'll go buh-bye. If it is... :-)

Erp said...

The Lutheran (ELCA) and Presbyterian ministers assigned to the local university ministry were out doing ashes in the plaza in front of the student union today. Not sure how successful they were as most serious people on campus probably attended the noontime service in the University church (seriously interdenominational from evangelicals to Catholics to Unitarians). Most students are dealing with the stress of the last week of the quarter.

JCF said...

Off-topic: prayers for Japan! They were just hit w/ an 8.8 Richter scale earthquake, WITH tsunami!!!!

Kyrie eleison!

JCF said...

ANYONE HERE on the Pacific Coast?!

Get to higher ground NOW! This tsunami is coming, and it's seriously dangerous!!!

IT said...

Fortunately, just a few high waves on the West Coast -- no big deal and no major damage. We got lucky. Poor Japan!

Grandmère Mimi said...

IT, I'm glad to hear the good news about California. Poor Japan, indeed!

IT said...

Reports now coming in that there actually was some damage particularly to boats and small harbors. And a man taking pictures was washed to sea in Del Norte county.