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.