Thursday, November 01, 2012

Change and the Passive Voice

Over at the Daily Episcopalian we have another one of those vague paeans to Dealing With Change that get on my nerves so. The problem that I always see in talk about Change is exemplified by the title of the piece: "Change Happens". Well, in church change usually doesn't just "happen". There is far too much talk of change in the passive voice, when most of the time what we come upon is people changing things. Sure, some processes produce change over time whether we do anything about them or not, but those who make changes need to accept responsibility for doing so and not talk about what they've done as if it were inexorable and uncaused.

Societal and church changes do not flow over us like lava from the earth or waves from the sea. Progress (or ruin, if you don't like it) in the church and the world is not something that happens; it's what we do. It is not inarguable and irresistible; it is what we will to do. To take two examples from the article: there is no way in which the sexual revolution was not brought about by people deciding to do things differently, under a whole range of influences. It isn't something that just happened; it's something we did. Copulating indiscriminately and aborting the results, divorcing our spouses one after the other: they didn't just happen, but were things people decided to do, and did. Likewise, we changed the liturgy, we retranslated the bible, we decided to look differently at stewardship and activism.

Or to be more pointed about it: people in positions of power changed things. Talk about Change in the liturgy is particularly questionable in the mouths of clerics, given that the words are worked out by church committees and then voted on by General Convention, and then adopted or ignored or altered again by the priest in charge. The liturgy didn't just change; indeed, unless services were interrupted by power outages or meteorite strikes or gunfire from passing cars, there is no sense in which the liturgy was not changed by those who direct it. But we keep getting people in power who talk as if they had nothing to do with it.

We are more subtle than they were in Eden: Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent, but we can lay the blame on the universe, on time itself. Nobody decided to erase God the Father from the liturgy; it just changed. Nobody decided we should invite the unbaptized to take communion; it just changed. And we can lay the blame on a world we have disavowed any responsibility for making, and to whom we enslave ourselves because, after all, change is irresistible.

It is time for us to repent of vague talk about Change, which is all too often intended as an anesthetic to deaden the cries of complaint over the rector's latest fancy. Yes, some people resist any change, but others hate any stability. Humans, in their contradictory nature, need both stability and novelty. We need to address both on their merits, and not shrug off the responsibility for choosing either.

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