Service–or Serve-Us? (The Most Famous Thing Temple Never Said, Part 1)

The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members. (Archbishop William Temple, in The Most Famous Thing Temple Never Said)

Being the Temple Goddess (yes, really–I am the only female scholar who has done significant work concerning William Temple’s thought and ministry), and one of the few pre-retirement people who has really read across the whole of his substantial opus, I get several emails a month asking me to locate the exact work and page number from which this popular Facebook meme is drawn.

Sorry to disappoint–Temple never said this.  What he said was much more nuanced, complex, and generous (so typical of his work).  Please don’t tell me that long ago, your Rector said this in a sermon, and it must be true, because it motivated you to offer yourself for ordained ministry.  It can be a great motivator, and I’m very pleased for you, but Temple didn’t say it.  I’ll tell you what he did say in a subsequent essay, but right now, there’s something else on my mind.

Right now, what is on my mind is the way churches I’ve visited–whether looking for my own ‘spiritual home’ (a term I’ve come to dislike) or during my time as an observer-participant researcher–treat those who appear for the first time and have the temerity to leave a ‘pew card’ or sign the guest book and leave contact details.  If you are a ‘local’, it is an invitation to have someone visit you unannouced within 48 hours of the end of the service, with a loaf of homemade bread (which in my case, must go in the bin because of food allergies), and tell you all the wonderful ways you can serve God through participation in this congregation.  This seems to be the gold standard of newcomer/welcoming ministry.

And it should stop.  NOW.  And every church that puts on its Facebook wall this meme should be deeply embarrassed to have both the quote and this form of ‘newcomer ministry’ in the same place.

Because the Temple mis-quote is about Service.  The newcomer ministry is about Serve-Us.

Most of what you get in this–and in the September ‘ministry fairs’ that mark the new program year in many churches I’ve attended–are all about how to get more involved in the internal workings of the congregation.  Teach Sunday School!  Become an Acolyte!  Help with Flower Arranging!  Take a place on the Coffee Hour Rota!  And if you are very specially chosen, you might be allowed into the Inner Sanctum of the Altar Guild. If you’ve been in the congregation for a while, you might be asked to stand for election to the Vestry (or whatever your denomination calls the governing body of the congregation), or as one of the Wardens. If a third of these ‘opportunities to serve God’ are directed outside of the church building or beyond the members of the congregation, it is an exceedingly ‘outward looking’ community.

Not a bit of this is service in the way Temple might have meant it, had he actually said what everyone thinks he did. It is housekeeping, relevant only to the inner workings of the congregation.  To be fair, I agree that these things are necessary to support any real service–worship strengthens people for God’s work in the world, Christians of all ages need spaces to dig into the questions of their tradition, and some fellowship and time for discussion with other members of the church is a good thing.  But it is still Serve-Us:  unless it really benefits those who are not members of the congregation (or larger church structures), it is not what is implied in the Great Mis-Quote.  It is what one vicar I interviewed referred to as the ‘holy huddle of parish life’.

And if a Past-Christian such as myself comes to your church (for whatever reason), you need to understand something:  we do not equate serving God with serving on church committees–or even that service to those outside the church must be overseen and orchestrated by the church to be covered by the sacred canopy.  Nor do we think the only way to make monetary contributions to God’s work in the world is to channel it through the church.

Congregations–and larger church structures, such as dioceses–need to become lighter, stronger, and more flexible.  I’ve said a bit about that on another blog almost two years ago, but I still believe it’s true. Once that happens, we can make the move from Serve-Us back to Service.


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