By Ruth Jellicoe Sheeran
Why Gather?: The Hope and Promise of the Church
By Martha Tatarnic
Publisher: Church Publishing, 2022
The pandemic brought us remote learning, remote working, remote meetings, remote parties. Now that we can gather again, why should we make the effort when we can continue to worship remotely from the comfort of our homes? The short answer to this question is, of course, community.
The isolation of the pandemic pared down our lives to the fundamentals and forced us to question what is truly essential. In her recent book, Why Gather?: The Hope and Promise of the Church, Canon Martha Tatarnic, author of The Living Diet (2019), explores these questions in relation to the church. She examines the meaning of our faith communities in this (we hope) post-pandemic world and brings a new understanding of what the church offers and what we give in return.
Tatarnic introduces “ultrarealism,” a concept used in long-distance running which involves “seeing, accepting, and embracing the actual circumstances in which you find yourself … responding to the moment in front of you rather than the moment you worry might be coming or which circumstances you wished were different.” She applies this technique to a wide- ranging discussion of the church and from different angles examines what the church is in the moment—not what we wish it still were or what we wish it could be. She quotes a colleague who said, “I’m tired of being given yet another hypothetical vision of what the church should become.”
Sometimes it seems that a living, breathing community is a mixed blessing. We often think that all would be well if only some of those annoying members would leave. The hymns would be uplifting if not for that person who sings loudly off-key. Meetings would be productive if not for that know-it-all who believes that his idea should prevail. But the person who sings joyfully off-key does all the dishes after the parish tea, and the dependable know-it-all shows up early on Sunday morning to shovel the snow. From the ultrarealistic perspective, Tatarnic writes, we realize that in fact this is who we are; it is these very people—rough edges and all—who make up our beloved communities. Jesus walks with us as we are now; he is not waiting for the new and improved version. “The body of Christ is the real, complicated, messy communities of people who have found themselves gathered together and who have been met by the surprising power of God’s love … Our lives are bound up in one another, whether we like it or not. God has very clearly chosen … to speak in and through our difference and our connectedness.”
Tatarnic speaks to us in a very personal fashion on a variety of topics, and she reveals both her challenges and her successes. She introduces us to her family and friends whose stories illustrate her arguments: her young son with his searching questions; the Muslim woman who wishes to understand Christianity; the couple whose love deepens through the anguish of terminal illness. She examines the experiences of members who have suffered from the actions of the church—from the LGBTQ2+ members devastated by the decisions of General Synod to the Indigenous people who remain faithful despite a long history of abuse. And because the book is so open and honest, we are moved to reflect on own lives and think deeply about our own faith journey.
There is much to ponder in this insightful work, and the message will resonate regardless of the reader’s circumstances. Tatarnic is the priest in a large inner-city parish in St. Catharines, Ont. She mentions community outreach, study groups, mid-week services, youth activities and faithful parishioners who lead programs. But this is only one reality of our church. There is a wide diversity of communities, from large vibrant congregations in urban centres to tiny churches in rural areas struggling for survival. (In some parishes in the diocese of Quebec we rejoice when a congregation doubles in size to ten at the Easter service.) But with a positive ultrarealistic mindset we can celebrate who we all are right now—messy, complicated, and loving faith communities that joyfully gather. Tatarnic closes by saying, “We keep gathering in witness to the point of connection that is true for all of us … that we are stuck with each other, and we can choose one another, and the God of grace and love is even now drawing near in us. We keep gathering because this witness to connection and truth is a life-giving offering for the brokenness of our world.” The pandemic has been destructive and at times brought out the worst in us, but it has also, paradoxically, given us a renewed appreciation of our shared humanity.
Ruth Jellicoe Sheeran is the retired Chief Librarian of the John Bassett Memorial Library at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Que. She has been active in the Church at all levels and currently serves as the Rural Dean of the St Francis Deanery in the Diocese of Quebec.