Jesus came for the people who know how it feels when you say “sin.”

–Jude Simpson






In the November 16, 2014 issue of The Living Church, there is a fascinating piece by G. Jeffrey MacDonald profiling the “Church of the Woods,” a new and non-traditional, extramural initiative happening in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire — that part of the Episcopal Church, we’re told, serving “the second-least-religious of all U.S. states, behind neighboring Vermont.”

The general drift of the article seems to suggest that what is most fresh and new in the life of the Church of the Woods is not so much to be found in its somewhat unusual setting, en plein air, but in its theological and spiritual culture — all designed, say those participating, “not to convert anyone — just aiming to enrich their experience for the good of an ecologically imperiled world.”

In the article MacDonald turns for commentary on the Church of the Woods to the Rev. Day Smith Pritchartt, Executive Director of the Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church. Here’s what she says:

Nationwide, Episcopalians are rethinking evangelism… Evangelism is no longer about fixing a spiritual deficiency. It is instead about adding to what’s already good inside a person, who comes to embrace a new dimension of life… It used to be this proclamation of deficiency… Now it’s recognizing oneself as a child of God with a mission to bring the coming of God’s kingdom to earth.

I would just say that as I read and re-read these comments in the days before Advent, I found them more and more puzzling. Even astonishing. Makes you wonder, I would think, whether all this fuss about Incarnation and Atonement is really necessary to communicate the message, “We’re fine as we are, but it would be helpful to lend God a hand.” Manger and Cross seem a lot of trouble to get that word out and about.

This was all rolling around in the back of my mind this week as I was also checking in from time to time to read a rather long set of Facebook comments — folks, mostly clergy, questioning whether Advent should be understood as a penitential season. I chimed in at one point to remember St. Benedict’s comment, at the beginning of Chapter 49 of his Rule, that “the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.” This ought to be true for monks and Christians generally, I would think, though I’m not quite sure how a “continuous Lent” would play out in the Church of the Woods.

And that all reminded me of a little project I have as I update my “Rector’s Page” blog for my parish in advance of Advent Sunday every year. A number of years ago on the recommendation of a friend I began to take an interest in the work of the English poet and performance artist Jude Simpson. I found the wide range of her work sharp and engaging, and I’ve returned to it again and again, finding new perspectives and layers of meaning.

One poem in particular I’ve shared with my friends and congregation each Advent the last few years, and I’m glad to point a wider circle of Covenant friends to it here as well. Whether we’re in the “Church of the Woods” or the “Church around the Corner,” we’ll likely greet a curious visitor or two in the weeks ahead. Simpson’s Broken Open has something to say about “sufficiencies” and “deficiencies,” let’s say — and it still seems to me, despite the Rev. Smith Pritchartt’s comments, to be what we might best be talking about and praying about while we’re hanging the greens and setting up the crèche again this season.



The image above is “Woods” (2012) by Doug Wheller. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

The Rev. Bruce Robison is a retired priest of the Episcopal  Diocese of Pittsburgh continuing to serve part-time as vicar of All Saints Church in the Brighton Heights neighborhood and as diocesan chaplain to retired clergy and their families.

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3 Responses

  1. Craig Uffman

    Thanks for these comments, Bruce. Don’t know Pritchartt nor her Society. Is that an official TEC organ? Her comments seem to me to be self-contradictory. For the new focus she names – an acceptance of an identity as one called to a particular mission related to the Kingdom -is incoherent without the naming of the problem of our estrangement from God and each other. Therein lies the deficiency. Sin names the problem to which YHWH responds with the Covenant of grace. Our mission is not a new discovery, as her language seems to celebrate, but the ancient mission given Israel into which non-Jews are grafted through our fellowship with Jesus the Messiah. With you, I am disappointed by the construction of her comment. I hope it does not accurately reflect her view. Many thanks for introducing me to Jude And her wonderful poem. Outstanding.

  2. Charlie Clauss

    I took a beating for suggesting that the Brian McClarens of the world provide a service to a place like the Episcopal Church. He can talk about Jesus and get a hearing.

    So let me be clear that the theology behind this effort at Church of the Woods appears to be sub-Christian, but if people who normally would not hear about Jesus do hear, and get curious, and the *Holy* Spirit moves them, and they come to follow Jesus, then excellent.

    “There is something deficient, and we know exactly what that is,” Bishop Hirschfeld said. “There’s a tremendous amount of grieving, guilt, understanding of humanity’s fallenness and need for forgiveness, with amendment of life, when it comes to our relationship to God’s creation. … The Church of the Woods is a real, immediate opportunity and venue for dealing with these very immediate theological issues.”

    They won’t do this but we can: the message of a God who loves his Creation can be linked to a God who loves his people so much that he would come himself to redeem them (and thereby, the whole Creation). This is a great opportunity to build a bridge for some to cross over into the Kingdom.


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