Stephanie Spellers, the Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation and Creation Care in The Episcopal Church, has released a new book, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community.
How The Book Came Into Being
A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic and shortly after the world watched as George Floyd was killed, Spellers was overwhelmed with the need to write a book addressing the church in this time of double pandemic: a novel virus plus reckoning with systemic racism. I am grateful she listened to this urge and asked for what she needed to quickly bring this book to fruition. This resource is available for us when we need it–now–as we begin imagining how to re-form the church in late-pandemic days.
Spellers wrote this book in only seven weeks not just by determination, but also by asking her community to support her in this work. She asked for– and received– time away from work. She asked for– and received– grace from her partner and friends in order to spend more time writing and less time with them for this short season. She asked for– and received– a place away to think and write. She asked for– and received– intercessory prayers for her writing. She asked for– and received– important feedback on drafts. She asked for– and received– clarity, determination, and stamina to get this book to press.
This is what “ask and ye shall receive” looks like sometimes: When a call is put on your heart, and you are the one who has the skills, resources, and abilities to do it, it becomes your responsibility to ask for what you need to make it happen. Thank you for modeling this, Canon Spellers.
A Broad Audience
I have been asked by colleagues, “Is this book specifically for The Episcopal Church?” and “Is this book specifically for the US context?” I response with a resounding “no” to both questions.
For my colleagues in other denominations: Spellers writes from her own context which is specifically Episcopal. However, all US mainline denominations are similar in how our denominations have upheld empire values and how enculturation to societal norms has happened within our churches.
For my colleagues in Canada and perhaps elsewhere: This book can be a helpful resource to your congregations with some minor shifts in thinking. Canada is several decades ahead of the US in coming to terms with the evil done through the church to non-Whites. Canada also is ahead of the US in living into post-Christendom. Canada is still in the midst of these issues, which are addressed thoughtfully, honestly and ultimately hopefully in Speller’s book. Again, with just a small amount of translating for context, this book could be extremely useful in the Canadian context.
The Central Metaphor: The Woman With the Alabaster Jar
Spellers uses the story in the beginning of Mark 14 as a metaphor for where we are as a church. Jesus was at dinner with his friends. A woman interrupted their evening and brought a beautiful jar with incredibly expensive perfumed oil into the room. She broke the beautiful vessel, and the precious oil dripped over Jesus. A scandalous act of honor and love. The men were indignant. But Jesus replied, “Leave her alone…she has done a beautiful thing…” (Mark 14:6)
As the author prays with this story, the woman at the center of the story speaks to her, “You and your church, you think loving a thing means protecting and maintaining it exactly as it was handed to you. Someday you will understand what it means to love something enough to let it crack apart and just sit with the pieces, notice what needs to be removed for good, and then faithfully piece together what matters most to make something more whole, something more like what God intended all along.” (The Church Cracked Open, p 5-6)
Spellers reflects on this thought, “Decades of disruption and decline–culminating in the crises of pandemic, economic collapse, and racial reckoning– might be the shove we need to recenter away from empire and onto God and God’s dream.” (p 7) She continues later in the book with, “Wherever you start, I pray we all eventually arrive at a place of shared urgency and conviction. This is no time to tinker at the church’s edges or to put the cracked pieces back together as they were.” (p 36)
The Difficult Truth
I’ll be honest. The first few chapters of this book were difficult to get through. This is not because they are too scholarly or densely written. No, they are written simply and clearly and are easy to follow. They are difficult to read because the truth is difficult.
Chapter 1 explains how the ground has shifted. Mainline churches have been in serious decline since the 1960s, and this decline was escalating even before the pandemic. Spellers summarizes some concepts from Alan Roxburgh’s book, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World, in particular the idea of a “Euro-tribal church” which Spellers describes as churches where “it’s difficult to differentiate between what is holy and essential and what is actually racial, cultural and class preference. (p 13) She goes on to posit that the pandemic of COVID-19 cracked us open enough so that we could really see with new eyes the racism and oppression rampant within US society.
Atonement as Reparation
In Chapter 2, we get a bit of a breather as Spellers lays some theological foundations and reminders for us. She reminds us of our call to Beloved Community. She defines atonement as “an act of spiritual sacrifice or reparation undertaken by an individual or group, almost as a gift to the community as a whole.” (p 29) This is the first time I had heard of atonement as reparation, and it really shifted my thinking. God becoming human was an act of reparation for me/you/us all. Thus, when I and we engage in acts of reparations –large or small– we are imitating Christ. Spellers expands our understanding of the theological term kenosis by helping the reader see that in some sense, any time we have more than we need and we share, that is an act of kenosis–an act of emptying ourselves, again another way to imitate Christ.
Chapter 3 introduces us to self-centrism, “an orientation in relation to the world that assumes I am at the center and the world rotates around me (or my group, my nation, my race, my kind).” (p 37) Wow! This is the implicit message that I was raised with and that I have internalized. I have been able to live my life from this orientation so much of the time that I rarely, if ever, needed to question it. Spellers gently yet firmly stands by me and helps me interrogate this orientation which is not reality.
The rest of the chapter lays out how this orientation of self-centrism fuels colonialism, empire building, White supremacy, consumerism, misogyny and more. This chapter shares quotes from beloved old gentlemen from stories in my past like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Hart Benton which uncover a side never shared with me before. It reveals things that turn my stomach. And yet Spellers makes these revelations in a way that is much less about shame and blame and guilt, and more about truth-telling and grounding and cleansing. She stands beside the reader and proclaims. “We have to steel ourselves to peer into the heart of empire and into the ancient, White supremacist myths that formed and still shape America.” (p 52)
Chapter 4 looks specifically at how The Episcopal Church lived into this self-centrism and aligned itself with empire. This chapter rings true. And I am quite sure my colleagues in different denominations and in Canada can look at their own church’s connection with self-centrism and see how their own denominations followed a similar trajectory.
They Were Saints of God, and I Mean to Be One Two
Hallelujah, finally in Chapter 5 we begin to make a shift. As Spellers says, “The truth is almost enough to make you despair. Don’t.” (p 71)
We need to hear the truth about the sins and brokenness of our beloved church. We also need to hear the truth about people and moments where God’s dream breaks through. This chapter shares stories of John Jay II, Vida Scudder, Jonathan Daniels, and Paul Washington as places in our world where cracks of light broke in. Spellers clarifies that no one is all good or all bad, that none of the people listed (or any others) are full saints. But their stories can be models for us about turning away from self-centrism and moving towards re-orientation with God at the center.
A Pattern for Living
Chapters 6-8 introduce a gospel pattern of living as we learn and change and grow:
- Lose your life: Kenosis
- Gain real life: Solidarity
- Walk in love: Discipleship
We begin with Kenosis — giving away something of ourselves to make room for God. This type of giving away always begins within ourselves. If we are following a directive to give it up/set it down, that is not kenosis. We begin by giving away those things we put in the center instead of God: our clinging to “my rights,” expecting that things should come easily, seeing the world with our selves at the center.
Spellers introduces us to a system for kenosis using Tammerie Day’s four step process to conscientization and opens it in more detail in the free reflection and action guide: Attend to Reality, Let Ourselves Feel, Discover Alternatives, and Engage in Critical Analysis.
Stewardship of Privilege
In Chapter 7 we move into Solidarity. We move from protection of self to protection of all. I love Speller’s description, “Now I see. And because of what I see, I choose to live differently. I will go there, with you, for your sake and for my own.” (p 107) She teaches us how to hold and use our privilege. “Recognize the privilege, but don’t grab onto it or let it define you and control your reality. Get curious about it.” (p 113) On pages 114-115 this book includes a helpful chart about ways Jesus used his power, and how we can model those ways in our own lives.
The Way of Love
Chapter 8 connects the seven practices of the Way of Love from The Episcopal Church with everything that has been broken open in this book. Spellers encourages us to Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go and Rest as ways to open our cracks, ways to spill out our costly gifts, ways to re-form our lives and our churches.
This slim book is well worth its price and more. If you are a leader of a congregation, if you are a member of a congregation, if you have fallen away from the church because you have seen or felt its brokenness — this book is for you. Be courageous and bold as you read the first several chapters. Do not shrink away from the feelings which bubble up. Hold them gently and continue reading. Read the book. Read the guide. Reflect, and act. Our church has been broken open and we have the possibility to re-form with Christ at our center. Thank you, Canon Spellers for helping to light the way.