Hey Abbot(t)! (by Larry Engel)
High pitched and nerve tingling, Costello’s classic cry for help has delighted audiences for decades. Costello was always in some type of trouble, and his cry brought his dear and loyal friend Abbott to his aid.
High pitched and nerve tingling, Christianity’s contemporary cry echoes that of Costello. In trouble and calling for help, Christian Churches are not sure which way to turn. Declining attendance, pastoral pickles, dogmatic declarations, shaky finances, and a stunning lack of well loved and well known denominational leaders all coalesce in a high pitched – nerve tingling “Hey Abbot!”
Except this Abbot is not a tried and true straight man but a tried and true ancient church leader who throughout the ages has brought the wisdom of the scriptures, steady spiritual leadership, and an eye to the “sensus fidelium,” the “sense of the faithful” that is a scriptural guide for churches facing deep paradigm shifts.
Hey Abbot! These words resonate deeply in all of us over 50, card carrying AARP members that still attend churches. What’s happening we wonder. Everywhere we turn in the church, from the narthex to the sanctuary, from the kitchen to the parking lot, there are changes and conflicts. Temple College’s 2008 Religious Identification Survey finds that the greatest growth is in non-belief! Add to that the recent publication of the “Lost Gospels” and the Dawkins-Harris–Hitchens-Dennett atheistic bestselling books and what’s a Christian to do? Multiple gospels and best-sellers that challenge the canonical gospels view and also doubt God’s existence? Well, bet our God has his doubts about them too! Or is it her doubts? Oh…. all these things to think about! Not to mention the Jesus Seminar or the homosexuality stuff! Hey Abbot!
Who’s on first? What’s on second? I don’t know is playing shortstop!
Both Abbot(t)’s carry wisdom for our post-modern church experiencing deep turbulence. One with humor, there’s nothing like a belly laugh to reduce stress and alter bodily functions like heart rate and blood pressure. Indeed, this Abbott’s wisdom is deeply therapeutic and enables us to get some healthy distance and perspective on life’s challenges. The ancient Church Abbot, a lay person chosen by the community, brings to us the sensus fidelium, that foundational teaching of the Christian community where the sense of the faithful or what the people accept, reject, or change serves as a corrective to theologians and church leaders. A deeply democratic teaching, the sense of the faithful is a welcome reminder for Christian leaders today of the movement of the Spirit in the deep turbulence of the 21st century.
Two short stories from a rural congregation out on the ridge in Southwest Wisconsin points to the wisdom of sensus fidelium as a guide to Christian living:
One Sunday morning, a man who had not been to church in quite a while returned to worship. Everyone knew of his struggle with alcohol but few spoke about it. When it was time for communion, two church basement ladies realized that there was only wine that was served. Immediately after the service, they pulled the pastor aside and shared their concerns. Hmmm, what shall we do about this? The very next Communion Sunday, the wine was replaced by grape juice. Serving both wine and grape juice in a small congregation where everyone was on a first name basis would bring it’s own tensions they thought. The decision was never voted on, taken to Church Council, discussed in public, it just happened. No one has ever said anything….. sensus fidelium, sense of the faithful. The ancient Abbess, the wise leaders of the early church, the church basement ladies, had responded. One of the ladies involved was the Council President’s wife. When queried, married some 35 years, simply smiled.
The second story comes from the night of June 15, 2008, when some 20 inches of rain flooded a small rural Wisconsin River village named Avoca. The residents evacuated as the waters rushed into the village. St. John’s Lutheran Church was flooded out, loosing furnaces, kitchens, and all kinds of water damage with estimates for repair at $80,000. Area churches joined in a flood relief drive raising all of the funds needed for repair and new furnaces were in before the first frost of September. The event was kicked off with a joint pie auction that raised the first $2500 and each church then added to the pie. The regional Church Basement ladies contributed over 100 homemade pies to the effort.The auctioneer quipped, “wow, all these pies, this is more fun than a sexuality discussion at church.” Sensus fidelium, sense of the faithful….
Who’s on first?
God’s people. Let’s trust them!
Larry Engel pastors Five Points Lutheran Church in Blue River, Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Marquette University and has worked as a professor, missionary, and farm labor organizer.