By Harry T. Cook
In urging the congregation of which I was pastor for 22 years (1987-2009) to accept change and move on into the 20th century before it was too late, I would reiterate from time to time Mother Church’s famous Seven Last Words: “We have always done it this way.”
My parishioners loved me, by and large, and would smile benignly at my admonitions but mostly wanted to keep on doing what they had always done, presumably to get what they’d always got. They did not consider the law of diminishing returns.
A temple to just that kind of unthinking has recently closed its doors forever, its religion driven out of business by increasing costs and flagging patronage by people mostly in their 70s and 80s.
I speak of “Gino,” an Italian restaurant on Lexington Avenue near 61st Street in Manhattan. Gino opened in 1945 and closed forever Memorial Day weekend, 65 years and a half million plates of lasagna later.
The restaurant’s menu appeared on a single piece of paper overlaid with a plastic cover, the writing on the paper being that of Gino himself inked out circa VJ Day. The décor did not change one whit over the years. Nobody bothered to notice it, just as nobody ever looked at the menu. They knew it by heart.
It is said that people who had dined there at least once a week for more than half a century returned again and again to Gino because they were comforted by its dependable if unimaginative cuisine. Meanwhile, the rent for the space was going sky-high, and how much could the restaurant charge for the same old tired pasta marinara? Finis, Gino. Requiescat in pace.
Likewise aging and unimaginative religious communities that do not move on in time and style are on their way to joining Gino and its superannuated lasagna in the “closed” column.
It is unclear to me after all these years why it is that non-Roman Catholics who are under no afterlife-threatening mandate toddle off to church on Sunday mornings, albeit in decreasing numbers.
Unless “church” is a magnificent architectural space in which a top-notch professional organist plays Bach, a choir chants in polyphonic perfection and an intellectually engaging homilist holds forth, what’s the point — that is, beyond the ecclesiastical lasagna?
I remember many years ago when I was more or less obligated to attend a high school production of “Oklahoma,” which turned out to be pretty much what you’d expect. I left when I could no longer take it, observing that I would never get back the $5 admission fee or what seemed just after one chorus of the second act an interminable span of time. The following Saturday night I went to a Metropolitan Opera Co. production of “La Bohème.” You can imagine the difference.
On Sunday morning at most churches, the quality of the music is more like Central High’s “Oklahoma” than the Met’s “Bohème,” and about as inspiring as the pasta was at Gino.
The sermon or homily that might otherwise be a dash of some new seasoning in the Bolognese comes off like a pale and noncommittal Alfredo sauce. The ritual is repetitive, predictable and often stumbled through as well as being irrelevant to almost anything else going on in the world.
An exasperated parishioner once crabbed to me, “Why the hell do we have to be relevant?” My answer was, “You don’t have to be relevant, and you don’t have to matter, either. You have a choice.”*
The wonder is that people often make the choice not to matter. The answer must be that a religious gathering of the bland by the bland and for the bland is the only community in which some people feel comfortable.
In my last couple of years as an active parish minister, I offered my congregation a vision for the future in which they could learn to “do church” in a 21st century way, inasmuch as we were already well along into its first decade.
The parish would draw on its local strengths: a strong mandate for effective social action, a tradition of pretty decent classical music and a growing appetite for intellectual exploration and inquiry.
Except for the traditional holidays of Christmas, Easter and other state occasions, parishioners would suffer putting away the trappings of medieval ritual and begin to look at “church” as a venue in which to engage themselves and the wider community in serious inquiry into matters philosophical, matters of piety, of politics and of social and economic justice.
My vision turned out to be my own and pretty much no one else’s, though I began to do a few things differently than I had previous done them and inaugurated a couple of significant changes. However, I was running out of time as retirement approached. Copies of the vision statement I meant to become part of my legacy were filed away. The thing was never taken seriously.
It makes me think of Gino and its 65-year-old lasagna. Great things . . . in their day.
* * * * *
Any religious community seeking to bring relevance to its ministry might, considering the apocalyptic events off the Louisiana coast, take some time and mental energy to ponder what will befall global societies when, as is quite expertly predicted, oil will become scarce and scarcer and therefore dear and dearer.
How will people, who are accustomed to popping down the road to buy their relatively inexpensive groceries, be prepared to respond sanely rather than react angrily when prices will have gone sky-high due to the cost of transporting food from wholesale to retail outlets? Or when deliveries show up sporadically or not at all? Or yet when the “popping” will have to be done on foot or bicycle?
Human-generated climate change and its predictable effects are other pressing issues with which the nation’s political class cannot seem to come to grips. Perhaps in the more or less apolitical venues of organized — or even unorganized — religion thought might be given to what society will have to do to maintain the peace when Earth decides it is time to punish us for our wanton profligacy.
Consider further the bleak fact of the matter that state and local governments are rapidly losing their ability to provide the services they need to provide apart from raising taxes — which prospect is considered political heresy by Republicans and political suicide by Democrats. When China calls in our loans, something will have to give. Will communities organized around progressive religion have equipped themselves to offer public counseling on responsible citizenship, or will that issue be ceded to the Tea Party know-nothings with predictable results?
The United States may be on the brink of an economic collapse. If and when that occurs, every community will need a cadre of people in it who will have figured out how the population can live with far less than that to which it had become accustomed — especially if Social Security comes unraveled — without descending into jungle warfare over a tank of gas or a loaf of bread.
All of this constitutes an invitation to churches, synagogues, temples and mosques to acquire the kind of relevance that could give the religious term “salvation” a whole new meaning.