Tag Archives: Episcopal

Bishop Spong, the Fundamentalist

Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.
Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.

In our last post, we looked at how fundamentalism is actually a modernist phenomenon, and not its opposite.  As I have continued to read through Billy Abraham’s excellent The Logic of Renewal, he makes these relationships even more explicit.  It’s not only that fundamentalism is representative of modernity, but that the most thorough-going modernists can also be fundamentalists.  Case in point is Bishop John Shelby Spong, the infamous Episcopal bishop (now retired) known for questioning virtually every distinctive Christian belief and yet – somehow – remaining a bishop.  Abraham explains:

“Converted within the boundaries of modern fundamentalism, he has never really recovered from the thinness of its doctrines or the narrowness of its structures. The marks of the former Fundamentalism in his preaching and teaching are obvious.  There is the same sense of alienation from tradition, the same angry self-assurance, the same hunger for intellectual and scholarly recognition, the same boundless evangelistic energy for the cause, the same pretentious self-importance, the same note of apocalyptic urgency, and the same faith in simple, sure-fire arguments that will shoot down the opposition in flames.”

Having spent many years among conservative fundamentalists, I find it pretty easy to recognize that streak among progressive fundies as well.  As Abraham so aptly names, the same tone, methodology, and simplistic world-view is found in the left-wing fundamentalism of Spong as it is in the right-wing fundamentalism of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Fundamentalism, in other words, is not a matter of the left or the right.  It’s a quintessentially modern habit, found in any faith or faith leader co-opted by its norms and modes of discourse.

Where do you see fundamentalism – right and left-wing – in the church today?

 

Source: William Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 40.

Searching for Substance: Rachel Held Evans’ Decades-Old Prescription for Reaching Millennials

Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.
Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.

Everything old is new again.  It’s painful to watch a well-worn thesis go viral 30 years late and with someone else’s name attached.  Many folks have been talking about this self-aggrandizing piece by famous I-used-to-be-evangelical-but-now-I’m-enlightened blogger Rachel Held Evans (henceforth RHE).  Aside from seeing it all over Facebook and Twitter, I have unchurched friends sending me messages about it, I see some of my denominational supervisors writing about it, and I overhear colleagues talk about it at meetings. Thus it’s hard to argue that RHE is certainly an impressive trend in the progressive Christian blogosphere.  The problem is, her prescription for bringing millennials back to the church is at least 30 years old.  Robert Webber made this case just a couple of years after I was born.  The idea for which Evans is being lauded is literally as old as the millennials she intends to draw back.

RHE’s re-warmed argument runs as such:

“In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”

If young people don’t “simply want a better a better show,” don’t tell that to the fastest-growing megachurch in my state.  I may find the show aesthetically offensive, the methods manipulative, and the content lacking, but that doesn’t mean many churches have not found this prescription “successful.”  If it is now cliché to the sophisticated palate of RHE, it is only because this formula has been useful in many places and for many years.  Time will tell if young adults are now growing wise to the marketing.  In my own small town, the churches that are attracting millennials the fastest are still following the above formula that Evans finds passé.

That doesn’t mean she’s totally wrong, though.  What attracted RHE to sacramental Christianity includes many of the reasons I love and practice it:

“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”

The problem is that Evans’ solution is in danger of underwriting “the form of godliness without the power.” (2 Tim. 3:5) I would certainly agree that the aesthetics of Holy Communion or Ash Wednesday are far more powerful than a coffee bar or strobe lights.  But if these wonderful practices are divorced from their doctrinal content, they are little more than nice rituals and not a means of grace.

Which brings us to RHE’s solution: The Episcopal Church.  To be blunt, if the Episcopalians were drawing in millennials the way RHE’s analysis suggests they should be, then statistically TEC would not be dying out faster than Blockbuster. Evans does suggest one need not be a part of a denomination that is historically sacramental, but this is only to double down on the problem: going through the motions of ritual without the ecclesiology or doctrinal commitments which underlie them creates just another hip activity to do on Sunday.

Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.
Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.

Holy Communion serves as an example of why form and content must be in harmony. To name just three potential problems related to the Eucharist: absent (1) a sacramental theology capable of claiming that what happens at the table is something more than a snack, or (2) a Christology capable of handling the theological freight of the Great Thanksgiving, or  (3) a soteriology that recognizes the need to repent for sins of omission and sins of commission, this highest point of Christian worship becomes dead ritual, an aesthetic experience that pleases but does not transform.*

I don’t pretend to know what millennials want (even though I am one) because I don’t believe I can read a few polls, talk to my friends, and thereby understand everyone in my generation.  That said, I am quite sure that we should not design churches to fit the fancies of the same people who have made The Real World a successful franchise and the Kardashians famous.  Thus the appeal of the ancient forms of worship not designed by me or for me, an appeal which I gladly confess.

But the ancient forms demand substance to match the style.  I don’t know what millennials want, but what (read: Who) millennials need is the God revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds and liturgies of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  Mainline churches like TEC and my own United Methodist Church reflect that apostolic teaching and practice on paper, but on the ground our pastors and other leaders too often compromise core Trinitarian and Christological confessions which frame Christian life and practice.  (The story of two “bishops,” Sprague and Spong, is enough evidence to suffice here.)  When this happens, we are trying to plant heirloom roses in poisoned soil.

As much as anyone else, I want millennials (indeed, all people) to know fellowship with the Three-One God and life in the Body of Christ.   With the ancient church and the Reformers, I believe the sacraments are among the most wonderful gifts of God.  This remains the case whether a critical mass of millennials find them “relevant” or not.  Of course, catechesis (teaching) about Christian worship in general and the sacraments in particular is necessary to help any new Christians connect with liturgical practice, as with anything not immediately self-evident.

But let’s not forget that form needs power; Webber, who originated Evans’ thesis, was very aware of the necessity to maintain the Christian story.  The practices of Christian liturgy without the doctrinal and ethical content which undergird them are little more than mansions built on sand.  Ritual without substance won’t do anyone – millennial or otherwise – any good at all.

P.S. The impressive growth of the ACNA – not all of which can be attributed to schism and sheep stealing, but at least in part to church planting and doctrinal fidelity – serves as a useful foil to TEC’s statistics and an example of what happens when the ancient and apostolic form meets the content for which it was intended.

*This assumes, of course, a heart transformed by the love of God and a life of prayer, service, mercy, and justice. Doctrine and ethics, faith and practice, go together – they do not compete with each other.

Incarnation Roundtable (#ICYMI)

cpost

Some young Christian thinkers have an interesting project going over at Conciliar Post.  They are hosting regular “Roundtable” posts on major points of Christian doctrine or church practice, featuring voices from a wide swath of Christian traditions.  It’s refreshing to see such effort put into substantive engagement with doctrine and church teaching.  Clickbait and fluff are the stock-in-trade of the blogosophere, and Jacob Prahlow and the team over at CP should be commended for offering something so against the grain.

I was honored to be asked to contribute a Wesleyan voice to the latest Roundtable discussion which focused, appropriately enough given the time of year, on the Incarnation.  You can read my  Wesleyan/Methodist offering, as well as Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican perspectives, here.

Postmodern Allergies and the Rebuilding of the Church

rr reno book

I am working my way through R.R. Reno’s brilliant work  In the Ruins of the Church.  Given the shenanigans in my own tribe at present, this is a helpful read.  It is his own attempt to understand and analyze the crises facing the Anglican Communion, and the broader Mainline, at the turn of the 21st century.  Part of the book includes a brilliant reading of the challenges facing the Church in the transition from a modern to postmodern worldview. An important piece of this story is how the humanistic focus of modernity has stayed with us, but is haunted by the fears of the postmodern conscience.  Thus,

“…we worry about about ideology and wring our hands over the inevitable cultural limitations that undermine our quest for knowledge. The bogeyman of patriarchy is everywhere; everything depends upon one’s perspective. In all this, the effect is not Emersonian ambition or Lockean confidence in reason. Pronouns are changed, symbols are manipulated, critiques are undertaken, but almost always in the spirit of a new conformity that fears imprisonment without cherishing freedom, flees from error without pursuing truth.”

To be sure, Christians have some reason to rejoice in the fall of modernity’s influence.  I’ve heard N.T. Wright suggest on multiple occasions, “The job of postmodernity is to preach the doctrine of the fall to arrogant modernity.”  In this, we can surely join hands with the postmodern project.  We ought not, however, swallow the postmodern critique whole-hog:

“Postmodern humanism may not be Promethean, but it most certainly is not Christian. In order to understand this new humanism, we need to examine its defensive posture. Two features are very much in evidence: a fear of authority and fight from truth.”

We see this played out in society as well as the Church, where the only sin is judgment and the only virtue is laissez-faire tolerance.  Any claim to moral authority or  truth is soon met by the most popular logical fallacy of the internet age, Reductio ad Hitlerum.   The modern love of freedom and truth has degenerated into the postmodern definition of freedom as the ability to live absent anyone else’s definitions of truth and without interference from any outside authorities.  For all the ink spilled in the pages of literary journals and the proud triumphalism of deconstructionist academics, it is essentially a fearful worldview which claims, at its root, that all truth claims must be rejected as acts of violence.

The Church is at the epicenter of these concerns.  “As the most powerful force shaping Western culture,” writes Reno, “Christianity becomes the very essence of the authority against which we must protect ourselves.”  In current Church controversies, from the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church, to the status of gay marriage in the UMC, and even reaching to basic doctrinal claims like the Trinity, we see the authority of the Church constantly undermined (even by its most senior clergy, at times).  While concerns may vary, based on the particulars of a given issue,

“…the basic logic is always the same. The authority of tradition must be overthrown, the sacred bonds of loyalty to what has been passed on must be broken, so that we can be released from the oppressive burdens of present power.”

Reno suggests that all of this leads up to a strategy of “distancing” designed to keep us as individuals insulated from the moral and spiritual demands of the Christian community.  We are tempted to separate from, rebel against, or otherwise marginalize the authority of the Church – a temptation as real in the pagan world as it is among the baptized.

In this context, Reno’s prescription is decidedly counter-cultural.  Calling on the witness of Israel’s prophets living after the devastations wrought by foreign armies and internal disputes, he suggests that Christians learn to suffer “the ruins of the Church,” dwelling amidst the rubble, embracing the discipline of affection for her overturned stones.  Distancing is easy, after all; it is the current we are all swimming in.  But God’s Church cannot be rebuilt in the postmodern world unless we learn to love what has been received, though that will be a struggle.  In such a context, Reno argues, we are called to dwell in the ruins, to live with the devastation, before we can begin re-establishing the walls.

Postmodernity has much to offer the Body of Christ in the 21st century, but, like all philosophies, it is a useful servant but a tyrannical master.  An allergy (Reno’s term) to truth and authority cannot serve as the cornerstone for a community built upon “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)  Followers of Jesus, the Word made flesh, cannot help but run into conflict with a worldview based on the fear of truth and authority when we worship one who claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life,”  and who has been given “all authority on earth and heaven.” (John 14:6; Matthew 28:18.)

We can, however, recognize the ruins of the Church for what they are, and learn to love them.  We can lean into the conflict, contradiction, and chaos, instead of distancing ourselves from it.  After all, is that not what Jesus did with the ruined world we had wrought? He did not distance himself from us, from the ruins of creation, but came among us, embracing the devastation, and bringing the Kingdom.  And while the Church is not the Kingdom, she is the Bride of the King, and her well-being matters.

As God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has borne with the mockery we have made of both creation and the Church, perhaps we can learn a similar patience with one another, built upon the recovery of a hope in the God who loves even those who seek to make a ruin of His will.  In recovering that hope in God, we might also recover a love for the devastation that surrounds us, and thus begin to rebuild – with Divine assistance, of course – Christ’s Church.

[Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002), 36-37.]

The Funniest Thing I’ve Read Lately

Bishop Jones has described Methodism as “The Extreme Center,” but but I’m not sure this is what he meant:

 

The Methodists are sort of the in-between church – not as formal as Episcopalians, yet not as rollicking as Baptists.  “Methodists are frustrated Baptists who’d like to be Episcopalians,” said Lucy Mattie Trigg.  That is: they’d like to whoop and holler, but they are  not deaf to the clarion call of upward mobility.

-From Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies’ Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral

 

Don’t make fun of me, this was read to me by my mother, who (as an ex-cemeterian) was given this as a gift.  Hysterical.  It hits a little close to home, too.  At my seminary, there were a good number of Methodists who ended up Episcopalian (and a good number of Episcopalians who could out-Rome all but the most ardent Catholics).

On another note, I really enjoyed Annual Conference this week.  Bishop Palmer is an astounding preacher.