This week a handful of us had a lively conversation about Dorothy Sayers’ “Why Work?” essay. Written in 1942, the essay tackles head-on Sayers’ concerns about her society’s consumption patterns and what they say about our perception of the value of work.
The early part of the essay considers the economic consequences of unrestrained capitalism – its easy, throw-away social attitudes toward products, its aggravated and victimized attitude toward employers, its lethargy and fatigue in jobs for which we are ill-suited. Her comments about wasteful consumer lifestyles are alone a rich subject for conversation.
She goes on, though, to address the real meaning of work from a Christian perspective: its value, its defining role in our lives, and our holy obligation to do our work with excellence. As she so pithily points out, shareholders of a brewery should not only comment on financial returns and the investment of capital, and not even only on the working conditions and labor rights, but ultimately they should stand up and loudly demand, “What goes into the beer?”
And the Church’s advice to the carpenter should be something more than behave yourself, stop drinking so much, come to church, and write your check, but should be more along the lines of urging him to “make good tables.”
You see, Sayers is convinced that the Church has failed miserably at teaching that the secular vocations we invest ourselves in six days a week are sacred vocations. “Holy orders” are not for priests only. We are all “ordained” to do the work of God in the world, and insofar as we pay our professionals to “do fulltime Christian ministry” and believe that that leaves the rest of us obligated only to support them and “volunteer” our occasional effort to Church activities, the Church is immeasurably weakened. We are all in “fulltime Christian ministry,” every one of us on the front lines of the Church. In allowing the “second-class” status of the non-ordained to exist, we let ourselves off the hook.
“She [the Church] has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.”
When we do talk about being a Christian in the world, conversation usually revolves around honesty and integrity in the workplace or around the possibilities and practices of evangelism, but the sheer notion that the work itself – unless, of course, it is intrinsically life-crushing or destructive to self or others – is a holy occupation, an act of worship, and divine service is beyond the pale. The imago dei – the image of God – in us means that we are created to work, and, indeed, that we will continue to work in the eschaton.
My own parish had a priest once who actually believed this. He said something to the effect that, “the minute you’re ordained, you are no longer in ministry; it is the parishioners who are in ministry, and the priest’s job is merely to build them up, strengthen them, feed them so they’re empowered to do the work God has given them to do in the world.” This man was a rarity.
In our discussion, one man offered this observation. He works with groups around the city, meeting with dozens of men and encouraging them in Christ. He once asked them, “Have you ever heard a sermon about work?” Not one of them – all members of strong churches in town – had ever heard anything from the pulpit besides a throw-away comment (like, “do your work as unto the Lord”). For all too many churches, the only spiritual “value” of your work is the salary it allows you to make and thus the tithe checks you are allowed to write. Your giving sanctifies your working.
Sayers protests: “The official Church wastes time and energy, and moreover, commits sacrilege, in demanding that secular workers should neglect their proper vocation in order to do Christian work – by which She means ecclesiastical work. The only Christian work is good work well done. Let the Church see to it that the workers are Christian people and do their work well, as to God: then all the work will be Christian work, whether it is church embroidery, or sewage farming.”
Many have concerns about the health and vitality of the Church in America, and the sources of its woes are multiple and complex. But surely this is one of the greatest of our failings: the elevation of a clerical status that has relegated the people in the pews to second-class Christians whose Monday-Friday routines are less than holy service to the One True God.