Saturday, December 11, 2004

Shakers and movers

I just finished watching a Ken Burns documentary on the Shakers. I probably should be embarrassed about spending my Saturday night that way, but what the heck. Ken Burns -- who did the 11-episode about the Civil War in 1990 -- could make a good documentary about the history of Gruyere cheese, and all I knew about Shakers was (a) they're a religious movement, and (b) they're best known for their chairs. When you think about it, that's not much knowledge.

So now I know a little more. Here are the high points:
* As you probably could have guessed, "Shakers" is a nickname. The name of their religious movement is The United Church of Believers. They're a faction of Quakers and were called "Shaking Quakers" and then just "Shakers" because their worship included shaking dance moves.
* They were founded in the mid-18th century by Ann Lee (called Mother Ann Lee), a visionary. Their governing principles are of neatness, order, simplicity and industry. The reason that their chairs are so highly prized today -- as were, in their day, their seeds, architecture, home and farm innovations, and their woven cloth -- is because they held a belief that any single thing you did was to be done simply and without ornamentation but as close to perfection as possible, no matter how long it took.
* They also took a vow of celibacy, which left them more time and (according to the hypothesis of one commentator) more drive with which to build, farm and work.
* I don't know about that, but the celibacy is at least partly to blame for the fact that the Shakers are -- quite literally -- dying out. At its height in the 1800's there were 6,000 Shakers. Today there are 10.

So here was the part that made me want to blog about this. All the Shaker women they talked to looked to be in their 70s or 80s. When they were talking about the future of the movement, one of them said something like, "I am certain that the Shaker movement will come back again. This is God's work. How could anything that's God's work go away? Nothing any human being could ever do would make it go away."

This had a familiar ring to it. These are just the sorts of things that people at my old parish used to say, and they made me nuts then. I think it's part of the reason I decided to do a blog in the first place, because I wanted other Orthodox to know yes, sometimes churches die. (In the case of my old church, for those just tuning in, the priest left -- both the church and the priesthood -- and on any given Sunday, there are only 3-7 people to attend reader's services, if they are held. All feast days are neglected, the choir is non-existent, and there hasn't been a divine liturgy done there since July.) Yes, there is no certain contract with God that the church you grew up in will be there until you die, just because you want it to be.

The Orthodox Church universal has survived for roughly two millennia. If it can survive the fall of the Byzantine Empire and oppression by Romans, heretics, Turks, Mongols, Crusaders, Communists and anyone else with a sharp stick, it can survive just about anything.

But individual parish churches are not always so endowed with long-sightedness. I won't go again into the problems that sunk mine, but I will say that the attitude of a central group that this particular church was a birthright, an entitlement, is one of the things that ruined its ability to be the active, living organism that churches must be. It doesn't have to do with God not being good or provident or merciful. But when He can no longer be what we know Him to be -- vital, alive, creative, ever-changing and ever the same -- what is there left for Him to be?

I think the problem for the Shakers is that the vessel that they gave Him to inhabit was too small. God forbid that the same should turn out to be true about us.


Blogger Grace said...

I'm doing the unprofessional thing and commenting on my own blog again.

Thinking about this entry later, I felt like I gave the poor Shakers short shrift at the end. It's not for me to know why this sect didn't make it (assuming, of course, that they don't). A large part of their problem could've simply been financial. With the advent of industrialization, their fine craftsmanship simply wasn't as much in demand. Of course, the Amish and Quakers suffered from the same thing and they've managed to survive.

December 12, 2004 at 6:22 PM  

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