The Church as a tent: A dynamic image for the Church


By Patrick Schmadeke
Evangelization in the world

In my last column I included several images of the Church. In particular, I honed in on an image of the Church emphasized at Vatican II: the people of


God. This image suggests that the Church’s identity is communal.

In this column I want to highlight another image, that of the tent. In the synod process to date, we have had diocesan, regional, national, global and continental syntheses. The global synthesis, published last October, bore the title, “Enlarge the space of your tent.” This draws on Isaiah 54:2-3, which says, “Enlarge the space of your tent, spread out your tent cloths unsparingly; lengthen your ropes and make firm your pegs. For you shall spread abroad to the right and left; your descendants shall dispossess the nations and shall people the deserted cities.”


This summons to enlarge the space of the tent is energizing. The Document for the Continental Stage of the Synod (DCS) went on to unpack this image of the tent. The DCS describes three elements of the tent’s structure: the cloth, ropes and pegs. I’d like to offer brief commentary on this image in relation to our diocesan theme of welcoming and belonging for the coming year.

First is the cloth, which protects the community from the elements and “delineates a space of life and conviviality.” It is to be spread out to make space in the tent and to welcome those who feel called to enter it. God’s instruction is to spread out this cloth unsparingly.

When we think about radically expanding the tent, it may raise both hopes and questions. Our hope for growth in the Church is tied to our hope that people experience the dignity of their divine childhood. Expansion, however, does not happen by accident. We cannot live out God’s vision in a passive posture. If we align ourselves with God’s vision, we may have to prepare ourselves for changes that we cannot foresee.

It is also becoming more common to hear that in addition to spreading out the tent cloth to make room, those already inside the tent need to move closer together. Our context is one of polarization. Moving farther apart puts stress on the integrity of our communities. Where “othering,” vilifying and demonizing occur, space for “life and conviviality” is crowded out.

The second element of the tent is the ropes, which “must balance the tension needed to keep the tent from drooping.” Notice that the tension is needed. A community without tension is not a community. To avoid all tension would require isolation, a walling out of all else. Even then, this would merely be ignoring the tension that exists, not an absence of the tension.

Every parish and school community in our diocese has tension. Some tension is healthy, such as the tension that emerges when expanding and sharing responsibilities for ministries that may have previously been the domain of a select few. Other tension is unhealthy, such as sparring over which pew “belongs” to whom. We need to lean deeper into the healthy tension that constructs community and let go of the tension that destructs community.

The third element of the tent is the pegs, which “anchor the structure to the ground and ensure its solidity, but remain capable of moving when the tent must be pitched elsewhere.” This dual role of the pegs is critical. The Church is not a timeless, unmoving fortress. It has not always been the way it is today and in the future it will continue to evolve.

An urge to return to the past — to a more perfect, permanent Church —  is misguided. What is permanent is God’s love. What is evolving is the signs of the times. We are summoned to co-create a synthesis: to bring God’s love into an ever-changing world. For example, the facticity of young people leaving the Church means that we must adapt. The pegs enable the tent to move. Perhaps it’s time to take the Church to them and invite them to co-fashion the Church in light of how God is moving among them.

The image of the tent is a dynamic, responsive image of the Church. It is the kind of image of the Church we need right now.

(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)

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