Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles that will consider the meaning and implications of the Memorial Church’s new mission statement.
By Lucy A. Forster-Smith
During the 2014-15 academic year, the Memorial Church staff and seminarians took up the task of crafting a mission statement for the church. Centered on the ironies and tensions incumbent in the life of a University Church, our mission is articulated in terms that clarify, challenge, and call us to consider the rich inheritance we are privileged to hold — and to step forward into a future that is bold in our service to the University.
Some of the tensions we find ourselves navigating are:
- The church’s role as a spiritual community offering balm and calm in a driven, high profile University;
- Our call to address the issues of our time with prophetic ferment and also offer pastoral care to our students who carry deep and often overwhelming personal burdens;
- The unique role of a church in the midst of a University, a church whose mission priority focus is students yet also welcomes and serves a diversity of participants from within and outside of Harvard.
With these issues and others in mind we state our mission as follows:
The Memorial Church Mission
The Memorial Church of Harvard University is a space of grace in the center of the Yard, rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ. Affectionately known as “MemChurch,” we pursue partnerships within and beyond Harvard, empowering community members to serve the world as well-informed, compassionate, moral citizens. Through worship and ministry outreach, MemChurch aims to promote justice and mercy by confronting life’s challenges, differences, and our own imperfections with courage, empathy, and an ethic of love. By doing so, the Memorial Church seeks to educate minds, expand hearts, and enrich lives.
In this first in a series of reflections on our mission statement, I would like to focus on the first sentence: “The Memorial Church of Harvard University is a space of grace in the center of the Yard, rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ.” I have always been convinced that a person or community needs to know its history in order to know where they are going. The declaration that Memorial Church extends grace by being rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ hearkens back to the aspirations of the early founders of Harvard. To provide an educated clergy for the new world launched Harvard’s mission in the 17th Century. Today, this University is a highly diverse place — religiously and otherwise. Some might wonder about a 21st Century University Church boldly claiming its mission as rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ. Doesn’t this language turn off those who might be toe in the water exploring faith in general and worry that this declaration will silence their quest or load down their puzzling with absolutes?
I carry two roles in my appointment here at Harvard. I am the University Chaplain and in that role I work with the Board of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life toward the cultivation of a religiously, spiritually, and ethically literate global citizen student. In concert with the Harvard College mission, the power of transformational education includes a depth of reflection and lively investigation of one’s inherited religious, spiritual or ethical life. This is a highly inclusive, radically hospitable process.
I am also the Senior Minister in the Memorial Church. As an ordained Christian minister, in this role I work as a theologian, pastor, public religious leader, and public Christian. Part of the call as Senior Minister is to lead and support a religious community that is rooted in the very good news of Jesus Christ. Though this may appear as a straightforward endeavor, it leads to many intersections into the deep questions and pressing issues of our time. It leads directly into the ironies and tensions our staff encountered as we began the work of articulating the mission of the church.
In some ways the question of how to be a radically inclusive community and how to be a church rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ — on a secular campus — is in itself, an irony. Indeed, the most recent Crimson survey of the Class of 2019 reported that the majority of Harvard freshman (60%) consider themselves not at all or not very religious and only 35% identify as Christian. But I am convinced that this is precisely the question that animates the current work of the Memorial Church. And it is also the work of chaplaincy on campus to awaken and engage the pressing issues of our time and to respond with the wisdom and insight of enduring and emerging religious, spiritual, and ethical perspectives and traditions. This is our common work — across faiths, beliefs, and religions. Rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ, we are a space of grace in the center of the Yard and we welcome all who come through our doors.