“…better revealing the marks of mission by becoming a learning church...”
– The Right Reverend Todd Townshend, Bishop’s Charge, 180th Synod of the Diocese of Huron
By Lawrene Denkers
What does a learning church look like?
Deep in a pandemic, at tiny St. Matthew’s, Florence, a learning church looks like faces in Zoom boxes, a group of parishioners meeting to study online.
One such group was the parish catechumenate. It started in the fall of 2020 and continued through Lent to Holy Week, covering the Gospels, Church history, the Apostles’ creed, the Lord’s prayer, the sacraments, and the rule of life. Participants renewed their baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil. It is a loving and kind group with a deep interest in education.
A learning church looks like a battle sometimes. A battle, that is, with disparate technology and rural wi-fi. However, the strife is over; that battle (nearly) won. Some recent internet upgrades have helped.
There is also, though, a battle with perceptions.
Take the season of Lent. Fasting is about giving something up for a few weeks, right?
When another study group, the St. Matthew’s Christian Foundations group, decided on a community fast for Lent, the members wondered what to “give up”. There were a few places to turn for ideas and inspiration.
First there was Isaiah 58:5-6 with its strong recommendation of forgoing sackcloth and ashes for losing the chains of injustice.
Sounds hard. Sackcloth seems perfect, for instance, for roomy pandemic outfits, and chains of injustice are heavy.
But we are rich in resources to help with hard things. To begin, there are these familiar words in the Book of Alternative Services (BAS):
“I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.”
This is where another resource, our clergy, came in. The Reverend Dr. Lisa Wang invited us to think about how, this year, we would approach the traditional Lenten disciplines mentioned in the BAS.
We would reflect each week upon what it means for us to act with concern for others and for God’s creation.
This reflection took place communally by Zoom after the Monday Bible study. The entire parish (The Parish of the Transfiguration) was invited, making it bigger and better than it started!
We would work to change both our actions and attitudes so that we can better follow God’s will.
We decided those actions and attitudes would focus on two commodities: chocolate and cotton. Each week we read and discussed a short article to inform ourselves about the ethical concerns regarding chocolate and cotton so that we could make those changes.
We would pray, read, and meditate on scripture daily using the prayer sessions at pray-as-you-go.org. In order to abide in the vine and bear fruit (John 15:5) through our Lenten disciplines, we committed to spending time with God daily and nourishing our souls with God’s word.
We would purchase only chocolate that is fairtrade and/or sustainably grown. We would purchase only cotton, if new, that is fairtrade and/or sustainably grown.
We not only made these purchases, but we shared with each other where and how to do so. Lists were made of local retailers, of ideas for upcycling, of links and how-tos.
During Lent we would continue in the making and distributing of quilts to our shelters and treatment centres and hearts to our hospitals’ ICUs.
Dozens more quilts were sewn, and dozens more pairs of hearts were knitted just during Lent.
For this we turn to the participants themselves. We asked at both the final Zoom community fast discussion, and at the final Zoom catechism class for direct input.
What we learned from the community fast, in the words of the fasters:
What we learned in Catechesis, in the words of the catechumens:
Participants said they would be more aware when shopping for any kind of consumer product. One told the group she started washing all her freezer Ziploc bags, and couldn’t believe how many she uses in a meal. Two indicated they already do this, and at least one is seriously thinking about taking up the practice.
The quilting group has plans now to re-use even more fabrics and repurpose even more clothing than they already do. (They already upcycle jeans, sweaters, and police uniforms.)
In the end, as a group, we found we were looking forward to the end of Lent, and not because we were doing without something that we would get back. We are not going to go back to unethically produced chocolate and cotton. (Or microplastics or harmful chemicals…)
We were looking forward to the end, because that was when we would examine how what we learned and did would shape our future actions so that we stay on this path.
We were looking forward to the end, because it is just the beginning.
And that’s a little of what a learning church looks here. What does it look like in your parish?
Lawrene Denkers is a parishioner of St. Matthew's, Florence.