In her book “The Great Emergence,” Phyllis Tickle mentions as one of the great turning points in the history of the Church the leadership of Gregory the Great. March 12th is his feast day, and in the liturgy, we catch three glimpses of his contributions.
The first comes form the Old Testament reading in Chronicles when we hear of musicians being set aside for the worship in Israel. Gregory was known for his reformation of the Western Church’s liturgy.
Second, in the gospel reading, we hear the lesson on servant leadership from Mark. Gregory served the Church as a leader and left it in much better shape than when he took over as a leader.
Third, we Episcopalians hear reference in the collect of his sending missionaries to England. Of course, these missionaries found the Church already present thanks to the work of the Celtic Christians, but we honor Gregory for re-connecting the Celtic Church to the wider community.
I am writing about the second of these, Gregory’s reforms. The Apostolic era had long faded, and one of its greatest victories, becoming the official religion of Rome, had played itself out in corruption and decay. Gregory set out with vigor to recapture the Church’s initial Apostolic zeal and holiness. His methods did not move the Church backward but forward, and this is one of Tickle’s major points.
In order to do this, Gregory reached out to the margins of Christianity to the emerging monastic movements and brought them into the center of the Church’s life. In doing this, he set the tone and character of the Church for the next 500 years. He made major improvements in the education of clergy. He reformed the hierarchy while standardizing the liturgy, and recapturing the missionary zeal of the early Church. He is rightfully called “the Great,” and he established the See of Rome as the dominant force in the Western Church.
Tickle goes on to suggest in her work that we are at precisely one of those emerging moments in the history of Christianity when the Church must be transformed into a renewed community. If she is right, and I believe she is, let us pray that God will raise up other servant leaders to guide us through this new transformation. What better day to pray this than on the day we remember one leader who did.