Raising the Bar
What is the standard for membership in your church? Most Episcopalians would point to the red-white and blue "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" sign in front of the church or at the gateway of the town they serve as a witness that folks are welcome. I am not writing about welcoming, but about the standard for membership. There's a difference.
Many would take out their prayer book and open it up to the Baptismal Covenant, wherein we vow to God that we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. They may also turn to the rubrics, that make clear that ALL baptized are welcome to receive. Some churches even stretch this to include an open invitation to the altar for anyone who seeks a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ in community. But, again, that is about welcoming.
What about the standard for membership? Perhaps the canons, that define an Episcopalian as a confirmed communicant in good standing (a semantic definition) as one who has committed themselves to a life in Christ with an adult confirmation of their Baptismal Vows, who receives Communion on Sunday at least three times a year, who is present more often than not in fellowship and who contributes as a matter of record to the wellbeing of the church and its ministries.
We are getting close....
But what does it take for someone to be seen as a member in YOUR church? What must they do to be considered someone in community, as well as in communion, with the parish and its culture? That answer varies, and is one that each church determines for itself-to some extent. You might have to volunteer for a certain period of time, or participate in a ministry for a while...or be seen as a regular at worship to be "included." There could be any number of criteria...but we must be honest and acknowledge that there will be, indeed must be, some criteria for the Church to accept us as members if membership in the Church is to mean anything at all.
That is the great question that has been breaking us open to each other since the Church began. In the reading from Acts today, the controversy over the inclusion of Gentiles in the full fellowship of the Way of the Lord Jesus is cresting. Some followers of Jesus who were also Pharisees travel to Antioch and the surrounding communities in the wake of Paul and Barnabas' missions there and preach that if the Gentiles want to be members of the Church, then they must be circumcised. They must accept and embrace the Law and follow Moses' teaching to the letter.
The outcome of the conflict is resolved in this instance with a council of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem deciding that this subscription to the Law is not a requirement to follow Jesus. Rather, it is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit among the people (Gentile or Jew, slave or free) that is that hallmark of seeing people in community. It settles the question for a time...but please note that throughout the rest of the history of the Church, we have struggled with the tension between setting standards for membership while being welcoming of the stranger.
Our job in the Church today? To recognize that whatever standards we express to people seeking membership in the community of faith we embody must be ones that are about welcoming people to the high calling of service to God in the name of Jesus. If any standard would instead serve to bar people from full participation, as that demand for circumcision did long ago, then we must remember James and Peter and their statements before the assembly--that God has given the Way of the Christ to all Nations and that all are welcome to the simple disciplines that life in Baptism and Communion demand of us: to break the bread, say the prayers and keep the teachings. In that, we may just find a standard of membership that raises the bar just enough, so that people can recognize that there is a cost to discipleship and at the same time find it within themselves the resolve to embrace it. In that, the Church is built up and the apostle's teachings are affirmed.