Part 2: Here Come the Nones – There Go the Nuns?

A church altar with a stunning large art piece behind it. The art is in three long banners, together they are forming a large tree with green leaves in front of a blue sky. There are animals and water flowing all around the roots.
“Tree of Life” by John Steczynski. Photo by Chris Pollari.

Part One of this essay, Here Come the Nones, There Go the Nuns?, dealt with the now widely celebrated emergence of a relatively new and widespread kind of religious orientation in our time, with those, especially in younger generations, who have more or less abandoned traditional institutional religion in favor of what is often called “spirituality.” In Part Two, I now turn to this question: There go the Nuns?

You can read this part, even if you haven’t yet read the first part, although I hope that you will check out that previous discussion whenever you can. Here I begin with some general observations about the Nuns.

First, so as not to disappoint any women religious who may be reading this, I must confess at the outset that, for the purposes of this essay, I’m thinking of “the Nuns” not as the sisters who are members of religious orders, but, figuratively, of institutional Christianity in general.

On the other hand, I’ve been in enough street demonstrations over the years and I know enough stories about the lives of women religious around the world – such as the communities of nuns that have been at the frontlines of public ecojustice protests for the land and the poor of the land in the Philippines – to stand in awe of many of the professed nuns of our time and their discipleship. I am particularly indebted to the eminent ecoliberationist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, who happens to be a nun.

But here I’m interested in all those who still participate in the life of the institutional Church – people like me, from all stations of life – as I contrast us with the aforementioned post-ecclesial Nones. We Nuns may not be – and I think we’re not – what has sometimes been called “the establishment,” but often we look that way.

Second, a general observation about the institutional Church in the U.S. today: not everything that glistens is gold. Just because you’re a mega-congregation with many thousands of members worshiping most Sundays doesn’t mean that you’re a faithful, vital congregation. You could be the latter, but it could also be the case that the little church around the corner is where it’s really at.

Let me tell you about the little church around my own corner. I assume that most, if not all, of my readers could tell similar stories, and I encourage you to keep celebrating your own story, as I celebrate mine. I hasten to note, by way of introduction, that while it’s true that “Small is Beautiful,” the title of one of my favorite books, large congregations can be beautiful, too, and many are. Here I’m offering just one example, which happens to be well-known to me.

University Lutheran Church, Cambridge, MA – in addition to its commonplace foibles and failures – is many good things in many fragile but wonderful moments, but chiefly, I daresay, in its essence: it does the Liturgy and it does it well. Sunday after Sunday, it self-consciously and enthusiastically acts out the inspired liturgical moments of Gathering, Hearing, Offering, Communing, and Sending, the classic ritual actions of the Holy Catholic Church. Call it all a sacred dinner party. The people arrive expectantly, reclaim their story, confess their faith, offer prayers, eat together, and then depart in joy and peace. In addition to everything else, these particular worshippers are a reconciling in Christ congregation. They also house a homeless shelter in their building. And they worship in a sacred space that accents the beauty of holiness seasonally, with sometimes extraordinary ecclesial art.

That’s it. And that’s a story that inspires me every time every time I think about it. Of course that congregation, like just about all others, does other holy stuff, too, however conventional that stuff might appear to be, such as pastoral visits in the hospital or members participating in interfaith, prophetic witnessing in its urban world. In a certain sense, no big deal. But I daresay that for most of its members, if not all, surely for me, it’s all a very big deal.

Dear Nones, you’ve left what you’ve considered to be your old stuffy Church behind. I can relate to that. But welcome now, as if you were beginning all over again, to the Church of the Living Christ, alive and well and inspiring, not just in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but all over the place. Maybe just around the corner from where you live. In a word: welcome to this reborn community of the Nuns. Seek and you will find.