Patheis Ekklesian

My thoughts on and longings for the Church the Una Sancta

A dying Church? or is it Christendom or Christianity? (Part 1)

The Anglobaptist brought to my attention the Sojourners blog series “Letter’s to a dying Church”(I  haven’t read all of them but I’ve read a few).  At Tripp’s blog, I’ve said that I agree with those that are saying (some of them in their “letters”, that it’s not the church that is dying but Christendom or Christianity.  I’ve made these distinctions here before.  There’s a key difference between these three entities and phenomena.  but I do see in what I’ve read and in the Sojourner chosen title for this series a tendency to conflate these three, and use in the very least Church and Christianity as synonymous and  thus conflate the Christian religion with the Body of Christ.

I want to focus on this confusion of related but distinct entities, because the title of this series and some of the responses show an inability for a clear path of thinking regarding our predicament.   Thus, as I see it the title of  this series and many of the letters only deepen our confusion and our hopelessness.

But in the spirit of Sojourners letters, I will  take a personal rather than theoretical or philosophical theological approach.   I will in a very American way talk about my experience of these three entities and phenomena, as I have encountered them in the local congregation of my upbringing, Kingsburg Covenant Church in the Central Valley of California, and in the my denomination of my birth, baptism, confirmation, and ordination, The Evangelical Covenant Church.

The place where I remember my nurture in the Faith was a largely Swedish congregation with roots in the Lutheran Pietist Tradition, Kingsburg Covenant Church.  But it isn’t where my story began.  It began in the suburbs of Chicago, At Winnetka Covenant Church, There I was Baptised into the Body of Christ. There community and family deliberately and through sacrament handed me over to another reality: a reality  in which they shared, Christ and the Church.    Before  I was able to take in who I was in relation to family, or nation, or any other human association I was delivered from the tyranny of all those identities, and could hold them or leave them in light of being in Christ.  This is of course a very adult and post seminary and theologians summary of what was implicit in the matrix of my early years.  On some level it was a very simple weekly or more often event.  On a regular basis I was entrusted to those with whom I had no familial connection, who didn’t live in the same neighborhood as my family, many of whom I saw only in this place, but experientially it was clear I was theirs, and my parents left me with them in this place called the nursery.  I don’t remember anything about my time at Winnetka Covenant church. Yet,  Baptism changed me, transferred me to a parallel and other actuality in which my parents were also embraced and nurtured, in that place we were all children… children of God.

Winnetka Covenant church and Kingsburg Covenant church provided me this sense of Church as Mother, the matrix in which we all lived together as Christ’s, as God’s children, fellow heirs with Christ.  I learned this in the nursery.  It was at Kingsburg Covenant Church that I first became aware of my nurture in the faith through two members of the Body of Christ, a married couple who in my nursery days were always working in the nursery, showing us toddlers the love of the Church and of Christ.

For a time in the small town of Kingsburg (my mother’s home town) church, family (my grandparents and 2nd cousins and other distant relatives all went to church together) and community seemed like a unified whole.  My best friend and I saw each other in church, we went to preschool and then kindergarten together, I knew others in town went to other congregations, and that some thought less of some of those other groups, but mostly it seemed to me that all of us were Christian, the reality of the Church, my matrix bled out from those gathered on a Sunday and encompassed my sense of the entire city of Kingsburg.  Here is the realm of Christianity and Christendom in my early childhood experience.   As a child it was largely irrelevant whether or not those other Christians experienced, Christ and the nurture of the church and love of Christ as I did.  I most likely assumed they did if the it ever crossed my mind to wonder? I don’t think it did.

However, my awareness of Christianity and Christendom as distinct from Church as Mother and nurturer of my faith and of my self in God and Christ, came in conflict and a jolt to awareness that not all had my experience of God, Christ, Church and our civic community.  This awareness came about the same age at 5 or six, it came in school, Sunday School, and at the end of my Kindergarten year, so I was almost six.

In Sunday school there were a few teachers who insisted that the children had to say the prayer of faith (my recollection it was the minority of teachers) to become Christians and be saved.  I had experienced the love of Christ in his Church and through that nurture had faith in God and Christ, to the extent a 5 or 6 year old could. The insistence on “the prayer” was just pure nonsense.  I don’t know if this is a supposition based on later life experience or something I experienced then, but I have a sense that for those teachers my refusal was a cause for concern born out of fear not love.  From these well meaning Sunday school teachers, I encountered  a form of Christianity separate from the church as Mother and the Sacraments.  We had to come to God by this isolated expression of faith.  This notion was coercive. Not as coercive as some other contexts, but it was assumed that those of us children who had not said the prayer lacked something.  The saying of the magic words disconnected from relationship or sacrament would make all the difference.  Having felt the embrace of God through the love of the church through having passed through the waters of Baptism this Christianity had little appeal to me.  They wanted me to meet God, but couldn’t see that I was living in the womb of God, the Church.

I encountered Christendom  when I asked a friend from Kindergarten to come to Vacation Bible School.  My friend didn’t know anything about church, or the Bible.  he understood vacation and school (and they seemed like contradictory concepts to him), but Bible and going to church even Jesus Christ were unknown to hi., It was that moment that I discovered a world outside of Christendom: the Chrsitian familial and civic connections that had up and until that point made up my understanding of the city of Kingsburg.   In part 2 I will talk about this discovery of Christendom in the negative, and of a Christendom on its way to it’s death, at least in California in the 1970’s.

The Great Emergence and the problem of periodization

Ed. note: I’ve edited this from a blog post on my personal blog back in 2009.  I’m in the process of reposting here some posts that fit with the themes and projects related to what I’m doing here at Priestly Goth.  I recently re-read The Great Emergence.  My opinion of the work hasn’t changed.

When I first picked up Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, I already had a bias against the work due to my historiographical training which had instilled a respect and healthy skepticism of periodization in the discipline of history: I see periodization as both necessary but problematic. Dividing up history into periods hides as least as much as it reveals. (We’ll get back to this in a moment.) But also I am sceptical about all this talk about “emergence” specifically that this particular period is particularly significant in terms of emergence. Now to be clear this scepticism is from perhaps the opposite side of what one would expect. I am not denying that things have changed, nor do I think that some static immovable notion of Christianity and church needs preservation.  Rather my skepticism stems from being a product of what was being called post-modern and what seems to be especially with Tickle being called the Great Emergence.

As one who is a product of whatever we want to and will call this shift, I am uncertain that focusing almost exclusively on change or “emergence” is the best way for Christians to keep their bearings. On some level my scepticism is that apart from rapid technological change, what we are talking about doesn’t simply happen at discrete moments or even discrete extended moments and then stop, something Tickle admits throughout her work, though all while insisting on the new . But if we leave aside problematic periodization and the desire to compartmentalize time one simply has flux of a continual emergence. Things morph slowly or quickly from one thing to another, one can choose to attempt to stabilize this flux long enough to make generalizations over extend periods of time but then one is also simultaneously needing to admit that at the beginning of period x one still has the traits of the preceding period y to a large degree and only modified slightly and by the time one can talk about period x having a full blown and distinguishable traits from period y, one is already finding traits that are to come in the period Z. And so forth and so on ad infinitum. (again something Tickle does admit, but to admit this deconstructs her framework).

My difficulty with The Great Emergence,  is that Tickle doesn’t offer this periodization as a useful construct for understanding developments in (Western) Christianity but in some sense posits that this periodization as a real happening within the flow of time and human culture, or at least what we now Call “Western” culture,  that is an empirical description of the nature of time and pan-cultural process.  I can accept it as a useful construct, that gives us a mythology with which to understand our situation,though I may prefer other mythologies, but it doesn’t pass muster as an actual description of the way things are, nor could such a brief overview of vast historical periods do so.

One of the things that is enjoyable in reading Tickle as well as listening to hear speak is the poetry of her thought. She uses the image (that she borrowed) of that emergence every 500 years is when the Church has a “rummage sale”: things get shaken up, excess is redistributed and one feels lighter. While the image of rummage sale seems apt for our time especially for those who are attaching themselves to Emergent or the emergent church. Some things thought long gone are dug up and polished off and used again and things once thought essential are tossed out, and its pretty much up to the individual or particular group exactly what is tossed and what is polished up and used again.

The Reformation (Or “Great Reformation” according to Tickle) is perhaps aptly described, though it seems to be a very Protestant characterization of what happened. I have difficulty seeing Roman Catholics or the Orthodox using such characterization to understand themselves in this period. However, I think it is an apt description what the reformers  themselves(Luther, Zwingli, Calvin etc.) were doing: digging around in the attic with a good bit of jettisoning of what was thought to be of little importance by the reformers.

Yet if we look at her two preceding periods this metaphor and the notion of emergence is more problematic. The Great Schism is a bit more complex and difficult to truly make a clear before and after. The differences between East and West in Christianity preceded even Constantine, the roots for the final split ran deep. And many would claim that language and not any real change or even actual difference between “East” and “West” contributed to the schism. Greeks stopped knowing Latin, Latins stopped knowing Greek.  There were certainly differences but those differences weren’t new, what was new was a breakdown in communication. This is at least one theory of what happened. We know the anathema’s were thrown about, but exactly why they happened at that time beyond noting the personalities involved is uncertain. It did create a new situation one we still live with, and which Tickles analysis of emergence is based on being on the Western side of the schism (we should not forget that if we sought to do this examination from the Christian “Greek” Eastern perspective the the Reformation would be a local European phenomenon, not a pan-ecclesial or even pan-Christian phenomenon).

The Schism with what are now called the Oriental Orthodox Churches, is also difficult to account in the terms of emergence that Tickle is using. Again one possible interpretation of this schism is that it was mostly a misunderstanding stemming in part from culture but again also from language. Those who rejected Chalcedon weren’t keen towards Greek philosophical language and thus did not appreciate the use of the technical use of philosophy for defining dogma.  Also, in terms of religious rite, ecclesial organization, and the use of a type of iconography etc. the Oriental Orthodox are more a variation on a theme than clearly distinct from either Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholicism.  So, it is unclear how much was actually being rethought and whether or not a “rummage sale” is an apt metaphor.

Then we come to the Christ event, but can we as Christians merely list that event as a simple point in a emergent pattern of history? Sure it was the right time so there was something about the time that allowed for God to act or precipitated God acting or however one wants to say this, but surely the Christ event and its tumult has less to do with patterns in history and more to do with that something beyond the merely historical took place, and that the renewal of the entire cosmos and the meaning and end of history entered the cosmos and history. Surely the Christ event cannot either be the beginning point of a particular historical pattern nor simply part of the pattern but inaugurates something beyond our historiographic propensity to periodization.

As can be seen my bias towards a certain understanding of periodization leads me to a certain deconstructive read of Tickles mythology of Great Emergence.  It’s a good story, and in that sense it is also good history, but it isn’t the only story that could be told.  

Oh wait, I’m not alone(sort of), others are talking about the Church

I’m working up some reflections on David Fitch‘s End of Evangelicalism.  I have some questions about why one would continue with a particular identity like evangelical, when ones theology is so clearly drawn from such an ecumenical place as David Fitch seems to be coming from.  Also, I feel that what the book addresses cuts across any particular Christian identity.

But for the moment only a wetting of the appetite, because I’ve been reading others who are exploring this thing we call the church, or the ecclesia, the Body of Christ.  This extended reflection and quest I’ve labeled Ecclesial Longings should at least acknowledge these other bits of ecclesial reflection (possibly with with a bit of comment from me, most of the links here I’ve left comments on the posts themselves.)

We’ll start with some of the articles that responded to the whole controversy Donald Miller sparked by admitting he doesn’t go to church that often.

Justin Harvey‘s Peregrinatio In Defense of Donald Miller.  Like the author I’m not terribly concerned about infrequent church attendance. I appreciate that the author saw that the discussion required asking “what is the church?”.  I appreciated the basis, but in my comment pushed back at what I was seeing as a reduction and pointed to the more robust picture we find in the metaphor of church as Body, and in the mixed metaphor in Ephesians.

Relevant Magazine interview’s Donald Miller about the controversy: My thought is Donald and Relevant seem to be putting gathering together and community on one side and relationship with God and following Jesus on the other.  There’s the affirmation of the importance of gathering and community but say the real thing is having a relationship with God and following Jesus.  This parsing of the problem seems to me to lack reflection on church as Body of Christ.  My reading of the metaphor of body is to say that having a relationship with Jesus is in being connected with all others who also follow Jesus (granted there’s the question of how this is lived out locally etc., so I understand that not going to a particular “church” isn’t the same as being out of fellowship with the Body).  As I see it, this whole controversy (Both Donald Miller’s remarks and those of his critics) shows that we don’t have a clue what we’re talking about and thus why such an extended inquiry and quest, as found here, is needed.

Christopher Smith at the Slow church Blog on Patheos begins to get at this at the end of his blog post in responce to the controversy.  God gathers a people, a good place to start.

And so we leave the church attendance fiasco.

Then over at [D]mergent (don’t ask) John O’keefe posted Moving out of Ecclesiology, into Koinology .  Read it and my comment. If you, reader, want let me know what you think of it and my response.  In summary, if I followed O’Keefe I’d rename this thread and quest “Longing for Koinonia”, or “Koinonia Longings”, something like that.  I don’t think koinonia and ecclesia need to be pitted against each other. Wait there seems to be a pattern emerging: our analysis tends toward pitting thesis against antithesis. I want synthesis.  Why are we stuck in an Hegelian nightmare! 

Then over at Hope in Time, Anthony Bartlett’s Nonviolent Bible Interpretation III: Church, as you can see from the title its part of a series on hermeneutics.  I don’t know where to begin. I’m sympathetic to Girardian take on things, but I’m not one to take Girard and Mimetic Theory as gospel (as my dad used to say.)  So, that isn’t going to be my exclusive hermeneutic lens. Also, I’ll admit I think anti-Constantinianism, that is so fashionable among protestants of just about any stripe, is bunk.  Also, if you think you understand what Constantine did, and what it means for the church I think you don’t understand it.  So, I’m having difficulty seeing beyond the anti-Constantine bias in order to really evaluate the essay.  I know I’m reacting to it, and not really responding.

Lastly over at the Sub-Deans Stall the Irrelavance of Relavance. The Revd Canon Robert Hendrickson comes closest to my own sentiments about church.  But I get lost in his various uses of church, and church still then seems a little to much about what we do. However, I agree pretty much completely with what he writes, but I ask what is it that forms such a group of people?  Is church then a goal, something that is in process being built? by whom?, by human beings, or by God?  Ephesians looms large in my thinking you may have noticed, that may or may not be a good thing.

So that is what I have.  This is what thanks largely to Tripp Hudgins I’m engaging with at the moment around the nature of the ecclesia, the Body of Christ.

Have you come across other reflections on the church?  Leave a link and your thoughts on the piece if you have.

 

“Going to Church” and the Church as Body of Christ.

I mentioned in my reflection on intimacy and public worship that I had some more ecclesiological thoughts in response to Donald Miller.  Instead of putting Donald Miller’s ecclesiology to the question,  I will simply explore how we are talking about church attendance and how we may approach that from asking questions of what sort of thing we are as the Body of Christ, the Church.

My corner of the interwebs tells me there is much anxiety and frustration about church attendance.  My sense of all this is that we want to make church many things: intimate encounter with God, community, cultural expression, an environment for learning, etc. In many ways church is all those things and more.  However, one can find those things elsewhere.  They don’t give compelling reason for why there should be church, and even less compelling reason to attend church.  These reasons for going to church or being part of a church are all good things, but not sufficient reason to bother with church.

The Apostle Paul uses the language of body to talk about the ecclesia.  This language is both political, that is in the sense of body politic, and biological, as in what makes up a biological organism.  Elsewhere Paul also uses the language of a temple, a structure that is both built and organically grows (ya, he mixes metaphors to get at what the ecclesia is).

Then we have our english term “church” , which translates the greek word ecclesia.  Our usage “church” varies. Church can, in its broadest sense, be any religious institution.  More specifically and more commonly “church” means any institutionalised group of Christians, a local congregation and/or a denomination of Christians.

 If I’m remembering correctly the etymology, is the germanic Kierke which was derived from the greek Kyrie (Lord), that which belongs to the Lord (God, Christ).

As the Church we are the people of God, an ecclesia, a gathered people, called and gathered together by God.

What I’d like to suggest is that to be the Church, and to do what the Church does, ie worship, is formative.  We are formed, built and grow into what we are.  This takes all sorts of rites, rituals, and activities.  These have various forms corporate, bodily, personal.  Yet, none of those things exhaust who we are and who we are being formed into.  This is formative and it is collective.  Church and worship are about being a body, stones built into a living temple. Through baptism, faith, Eucharist we are becoming, and are, a holy nation of priests, together.

It’s possible that we can be tempted to reduce church to only one aspect of our usage, such as  if we were to assume church is only a building based on  english usage that elides the architectural structure of our being gathered and who we are as the people of God, because the building and the group carry the same name.  However, the problem isn’t that the place of our gathering bears the name of who we are as the body of Christ, nor is the problem that it comes to be attached to the activity of gathering.  The problem is separating ourselves from what we are through seeing church as a building or an activity that exists or goes on without us.

I want to suggest that our participation is key in becoming what we are, but this formation doesn’t occur because of our action only.  Our actions are what agree with what God is doing.

We get baptised, we eat bread and wine, we are anointed, hands are laid upon us, and these things form us into a particular type of “being”, but they do so because of what God is doing in and through these rituals rites, actions, words, music, and eating.

We can neither be solely focused on God, nor solely focused on what we do.  Nor is this about my personal individual experience, unless by personal one posits the presence of others, and God as the ultimate other, as part of the makeup of the person.

What I have said here, simply scratches the surface of what church and worship are and do.  We are and are becoming what God forms us into. We are what God gathers us to, we become the people of God , the Body of Christ, the Ecclesia, the Lord’s.  We are the church and so we go to church, and we attend church as the church.  And language fails us, and language helps us  know who we are becoming, a living temple.

Velvet Elvis and the Mystery of the Church

In my current research I’m reading Rob Bell. I began with Velvet Elvis. When Rob Bell published Velvet Elvis and was talking about repainting Christianity I was quite literally painting: writing icons.  He was questioning what he had received. He was “repainting”  his understanding of the Christian tradition. I was seeking to receive a tradition that wasn’t mine and to paint it true.    There is something compelling about the answers that Rob Bells comes in his re-visioning of Evangelical Christianity (the tradition he had received), and they reveal so much.

Bell has a brief discussion of the Church in Velvet Elvis. Bell describes church in two very different ways.

One is very human, a collection of individuals, an institution run by those humans and which reflects the attitudes and activities of those human beings.  As such this institution, these groups of people, exist to live out the ideals of the Gospel.  Rob Bell says this of this church or these churches  “…is like a double-edged sword.when it’s good… it’s like nothing on earth.  A group of people committed to selflessly serving and loving the world around them? great but when it ‘s bad all that potential gets turned the other way.”

Then Bell also says this  about the Church: “She’s indestructible. When she dies in one part of the world, she explodes in another. She’s global, She’s universal. She’s everywhere. And while she’s fragile, she’s going to endure…. Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against her. That’s strong language… She will continue to roll across the ages, serving and giving and connecting people with God and each other.  And people will abuse her and manipulate her and try to control her , but they’ll pass on, and she will keep going.”

The connection between these two very different, even contradictory, claims isn’t accounted for.  The first claim certainly seems to be an accurate description of my experience of congregational or parish life, and even of much of the history of Christianity.  The second describes something (or is it someone?) that  transcends the frailty of Christian, individuals, groups, and leadership.

I have some questions though.  By saying that the church is a group of people committed to selflessly serve and love the world around them, seems to make the reality of the church dependent upon the works (and yes I intend the baggage of that word to be heard) of the people that make up the church.  The Evangelical mind wants to call both realities church.  And on some level they are.  However, in the first meaning of church, church is dependent upon the accomplishment of a goal (which contradicts, a description of the church Rob Bell that of  a journey not a destination).  The second though Rob Bell doesn’t come out and say it is dependent upon the work of God, not human beings.  Rob Bell recognizes  that the church transcends a body of believers:  it will survive the vicissitudes of history.  He recognizes this transcendence as part of his  repainting, a reworking of the tradition out of which he comes.  He of course in Velvet Elvis is attempting to creatively stay within that tradition, so the emphasis is on the church as a group of Christians who do certain things, mainly things consistent with Jesus’s teachings, but here at the end of this chapter and near the end of the book, he suggests that something else might be going on.

Not surprisingly I want more than Velvet Elvis’ brief flirtation with the mystery of the Church. I want to sit and listen to those who claim that something else is going on.  I don’t simply want to put a very human view of the church (the church is merely what its members make of it) alongside an assertion that  somehow the church is more than the collective effort of individual Christians, and say no more.

Jacques Maritain articulates this mystery as the difference between the personnel and the person of the Church (note the singularity, “person”).  I don’t know if I agree with Maritain, but it begins to articulate the longing I’m attempting to express here.  If church is just the people and not also something that transcends and binds us together and nurtures in us the mind of Christ, then I despair of this thing we call Christianity. However if the church is more than our collective action and activity and is being, (a being) that can be who we are beyond what we do,then there’s grace and then there is the loving call to be a saint.

 

Progress, Emergence, Christianity, and the Church

I’m on a search to find my place in our current landscape and to tell a certain story about how I believe I have found my self in this moment and place.    In doing so I’m finding that there are many ways to tell the story of our current “crisis”.  I feel though that in the wake of the skepticism in the late 20th century of the meta-narrative, we still are seeking that story to which we will all no matter where we are from will accept, retell and in turn interpret our particular narratives accordingly.

“Progress” as a singular self-evident moral movement into the future is one of those meta-narratives (described in President Obama’s SOTU as the wheel of progress.).  It seems to me that the mythology of progress as grand narrative is at the moment being reworked into the our understanding of “Emergence”, or the Great Emergence.  This continued invention of the meta-narrative that we all must give our allegiance just feels odd to me.

It’s not  that the story doesn’t make sense or even have persuasive power. I do think that things can change or even change for the better, and Phyllis Tickle  in her book The Great Emergence, does a grand job of briefly making sense of a large amount of historical territory.  Rather, it is the singularity of these narratives and the metaphysics of history that underlie them that troubles me because they disallow other ways of accounting for these phenomena, the expect us all to tell the same story in the end.

But in the end to talk about progress and to talk about meaning of change and movement through history whether in the particularities of particular technologies (Such as trains and vinyl records discussed in this blog post.) or in grand sweep of religion and human nature, one should only talk about progress in terms of aim or goal.  The the longer the arc we wish to trace it seems the more metaphysical and the more we leave out in such a trace.

And I’ll admit in this skepticism towards meta-narratives I’m inconsistent, since I do give myself over to the meta-narrative of Christianity, salvation history, Heiligegeschichte.  And to some extent in this blog I’m seeking to write my narrative along the lines of the meta-narrative of the Church (though I’m finding it difficult to find a singular all encompassing story, or up and until now, I’ve been unwilling to give myself over to one of the competing meta-narratives of the church) .

Movement, change, even innovation all happen.  But how we evaluate them and what story we tell about those changes depends on where you are coming from what you desire and the goal towards which you are moving.  How to interpret change movement and process through time aren’t self-evident

In a sense I think I’m saying that we shouldn’t seek a disinterested universal account of history or change through time, rather how we answer questions around progress and the meaning of our current “hinge-moment” (if it really is one?) is based upon our commitments, desires, and goals.  These will differ especially in a pluralist society.  Shoot these differ between me and a vast number of people who call themselves Christians.

 

Follower of Jesus or member of the Body of Christ?

I have begun work on a book, at the moment theological and philosophical reflections on ministry at the edges of denominational and institutional Christianity.  I’m not against denominational and institutional Christianity (I’m deliberately avoiding the word “church”, ecclesia).  The marginal path I have followed (in relationship to denomination and institutions) wasn’t calculated.  However, it also isn’t terribly surprising. In seminary I was quite open about my participation and identification with goth subculture.  This and my ecumenical marriage to an Episcopalian was seen by some institutional types in my denomination as two very large obstacles to my placement in congregations they oversaw.

I never had the chance to prove them wrong: a couple, goth and Christian, just after seminary approached my wife and I asking us to help them discern if intentional Christian community was something for them: we began to meet, share meals, offer hospitality and study of Scripture and monasticism.  To our surprise they asked us to found a community with them, The Community of the Holy Trinity.

A year later I was approached by an American Baptist, Tripp Hudgins, about participating in an ecumenical church plant, eventually named Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler.  Intrigued and interested I took the idea to Herb Freedholm, then Superintendent of the Central Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church (my denomination), and he sent me as the Covenant pastor of the church start, saying that I and the Covenant needed to be involved in this and that the details would be worked out along the way.  7 years later I was ordained to a call and ministry that had radically changed, after years of being a licensed but not ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church.

In participating in starting an intentional Christian community and an ecumenical church plant I was seeking to be more fully part of the church (I really don’t know whether or not to capitalize the word, lower and upper case so fraught with meaning).  My seminary training and personal study had lead me to deeply question the ecclesial nature of all forms of Protestantism.  My internship was half spent researching and writing a paper on apostolicity as a mark of the church, who has and who could claim apostolic continuity (or succession if you prefer).  Engaging monasticism creatively(June 2003 was the founding of the Community of the Holy Trinity, before the term New Monasticism was coined and applied to a form of intentional Christian community), and by starting ecumenical congregation were attempts to find or realize that apostolic continuity as someone already on the edge of Protestantism (I had already begun to write icons according to Eastern Orthodox canons/rules/tradition).  Through out this time the claims of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy to simply be the Church (capitalization seems appropriate here) have been unshakable and yet also claims which I’ve been unable to embrace.

There’s a hymn of my childhood that still moves me ” I have decided to follow Jesus … no turning back, no turning back.”  It’s a lonely hymn, though.  I have sought to follow Jesus to be a disciple, and that following has lead me to ask questions about the church and being a member of  the Body of Christ.  In this questioning and longing I’ve been lead to admit that simply following Jesus or being a “believer” is the beginning not the destination.  We are to be Christ, not individually but in some corporeal sense, in a form not a formless mass of all individuals who might claim to follow Jesus. This is a persistent conviction.  Doesn’t Jesus say something about this? Some who think they are following him will find that they have never known Jesus Christ.  But I’m also baptized, there is something to this sacramental act, it takes us beyond following and discipleship. isn’t that what the “Great commission” implies? 

Even with all these questions about the Body of Christ and if or how I’m a member of Christ, I still want to say that this ministry at the margins I have been doing for nearly 11 years, has been an ecclesial act.  How this could be so, and why I continue compelled down this path is part of what I think I want to explore in this book.

Keep a watch here, these are the things I’ll be wrestling with more as I attempt to refine a foci for the book, and work out what it will include.  Some of it may end up here first, though mostly what will appear here will be what is tangential to what I writing.

 

Privilege, Whiteness, Alienation, Renunciation, and Gospel

At the third session of the Symposium for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Urban Ministry, I responded to a presentation on Raymon and Henry Emerson Fosdick’s relationship to Rockerfeller, I spoke of renunciation (of privilege and whiteness) and  voluntary poverty (drawing on the Monastic Tradition) as an answer to the problem presented.  I spoke deliberately but also knew the potential for misunderstanding (I also knew I was using provocative language that could be misunderstood in a particular way).

The responses of the presenter and respondent in this session were challenging and i feel showed a misunderstanding that I partially expected to elicit .  The presenter (Amy Hall of Duke) responded by talking about white male self-flagellation, and the problem of a theology of suffering that must create or invent suffering for the privileged individual when there is little or no suffering.  She saw this as a harmful self-denial, and an unwillingness to face oneself.  And I agree.  But renunciation and voluntary poverty in my mind aren’t such things.  Renunciation and holy poverty are about clearing the spiritual landscape of  barriers to one’s authentic self.  Reggie L. Williams response honed in on my suggestion of renunciation of Whiteness.  If I understood him correctly the claim was that one could only renonce a choice one makes not properties given to one by an overarching system.  I found this a strange claim.  As i see it, renunciation concerns precisely those things that are dictated to one by an hegemonic and demonic system, that demands my allegiance as a mere fact of life.  If I’m turning my back on something that has to do with my own choices, I’d use the term repentance.  It’s true I can’t repent for being white only for what i do or have done as a white person, and I can personally repent from the sins of a racist system of which I share in as privileged by that system.

I’m not married to this idea of renunciation of privilege and whiteness per se.  But what I was trying to get at was that monasticism and stories of early monastics like St. Anthony, were often stories of privileged Christians turning away and giving up their privilege and power (wealth that in the ancient world was used also for the civic good) to become powerless in the terms of that privilege, power, wealth and  status given by the system.  I’d argue that St Anthony and many early monastics from privileged and wealthy families were, through choosing voluntary poverty and the ascetic life, renouncing the sort of influence that the Fosdick’s had through their whiteness and  maleness and ties to  wealth and privilege of  the Rockefellers.  Sure there is suffering in these stories and we could see them as self-inflicted, but the point was something larger:  freedom before and  in relationship to God, which leads to being able to be authentically for others.

Bonhoeffer was also briefly referenced, and I’m alluding to him above.  Such allusion is appropriate Bonhoeffer is a footnote to this story of Riverside Fosdick, Rockefeller, and Harlem. I mention this since Bonhoeffer is in the back of my thoughts around this, and was, at least in my mind, a footnote to our discussion.

I do understand the objection though.  And I do question the path I have chosen.  There are dangers to what I have said, and there are difficulties if this were taken systematically or as some form of one size fits all prescription.  What I’m talking about needs to be based in an address, conviction, and call from Christ and the Spirit

However, the responses seem to say that the authentic place of someone with privilege and who is white is the embrace of that privilege and status.  But what if privilege and the category of privilege is alienating?

I at least have experienced it in this way.  As I have attempted to understand the cultural situatedness of my attitudes and upbringing what i have found is that being white erases all particularities and histories.  the systemic structures of privilege and race and class both give me a privileged status but at the cost of particularity.  In part it seems to me that whites tend to assume others have ethnic foods or accents, or culturally bound theologies and not themselves not only because “white” is normative but because white like the other categories of a racist structure,  masks or erases difference and particularity of those within the privileged class.  To be white I must deny that being German or Swedish is anything more than kitsch and food choices at Christmas.  Granted the system does this more destructively and insidiously with the minority or underprivileged groups, but this doesn’t deny that even as a white person, I have a particularity that “white” can’t and isn’t intended to encompass.  In fact I’m to ignore particularity in identifying as white. the privilege I hold as one who is sorted into the category of “white” is dependent upon my not viewing myself as other than other white people.   From my observation of my family and others who are 3  or 4th generation European Americans, it is precisely being white that keeps us from connecting the injustices suffered by our immigrant parents, grandparents and great grandparents with what asian, hispanic and other immigrants suffer today.  White identity by definition it seems to me prevents solidarity with  people sorted into the other categories of this racist system.

This leads me to wonder about the authenticity of whiteness.  Why wouldn’t privileged persons in a system of privilege be called by the Gospel to renounce that privilege for their salvation, that is to encounter before God their true selves.  If the issue is loyalty (As Reggie Williams asserted in his response to Hall), and identity and loyalty are closely tied, it seems to me that identifying as white and seeking to use that identification to change the racist system, is an exercise that may cosmetically change things, but will also re-inscribe the system and its categories on the altered situation.

 I must also admit that while being european or more to the point Swedish and German (which by the way is not free of sins of colonialism etc. so I’m not attempting to escape complicity ) makes sense.  Choosing this identity doesn’t free me from ethnocentrism or even the risk of assuming that my Swedish, or German or European American ways are just the way things are.  So this isn’t an attempt to ignore the possible continuing collusion of a European identity with a white racist system and its injustices.  

The only true identity and the only loyalty that will free me to be my authentic self isn’t any human particularity, but is Christ.  If I renounce and turn aside from any identity for anything other than Christ and Christ’s body, the Church, my action is futile and the height of foolishness.  I thus wonder if Hall’s observation of some white males and their self-flagellation is that they were attempting to be good liberals, or good humans, in their renunciation, rather than seeking to turn to Christ, and the Church.

 

 

Georges Florovsky, Ecumenism, and Writing Icons.

I was introduced to the work of Georges Florovsky in seminary.  I was discussing Eastern Orthodoxy with my History professor Phil Anderson.  Something in what I said clued him into that I was missing something about Orthodoxy and its history.  He asked if I had read (knowing I hadn’t) Georges Florovsky.

I immediately found his collected works in the North Park library collection, and began to read.  I made use of a number of his essay’s in various papers.  Until the past month I hadn’t returned to Florovsky.  Zizioulas, Schmemann, and Kallistos Ware have been more consistent companions.

I recently acquired volume two of  Georges Florovsky Collected Works.  I’m rereading it and finding that Florovsky made a deep impact on my thinking.  Though, I don’t think I fully understood Florovsky’s presentation of Orthodoxy.  Florovsky’s Orthodoxy is generous and ecumenical.  This posture allowed me as a Protestant looking to connect with the deep tradition of the Church and of Christianity, to drink from the well or Eastern Orthodoxy.   It has kept me in continual dialogue with Orthodoxy and it may be a large part of why I eventually took up the writing of icons.

Reading Florovsky again some 13 years later, I’m seeing that both my interest in Orthodoxy and how I have engaged Orthodoxy fits with how other Lutherans (before the 20th century) also engaged Orthodoxy.  It is also interesting to see how Georges Florovsky’s ecumenical stance fits within a similar historical vane.  He engages ecumenically to offer up Orthodoxy as the fullness of the Faith.

Florovsky’s ecumenical stance encouraged me to continue on as a Protestant and to do so in dialogue with the Orthodox, and others as well.  What I hadn’t taken into account in reading Florovsky in seminary was that he also had the Orthodox stance of insisting on agreement in faith as the basis of unity.  Looking back on my work in an ecumenical intentional community and an ecumenical Church plant,  the stance I took as a prior and pastor has been to seek that agreement in faith.  Now I’ve also done it in a fairly Lutheran style; willing to make a distinction between what is essential and what is adiaphora, a distinction that at least according to Florovsky Orthodoxy doesn’t make.

As I took up writing icons (before the community or congregation were formed) I chose to do so as though I was Orthodox.  I wasn’t going to try to make the writing of icons cohere with my protestant theology.  Rather I was going to take up the practice in its fulness and spirituality and theology.  In writing icons I was going to be Orthodox.  Florovsky’s writings, though at the time weren’t prominent in my thinking, and his ecumenical stance paved the way for this posture.

Re-reading Florovsky on the other side of becoming an iconographer (and remaining Protestant) and after having engaged in an ecumenical experiment, I’m not sure what to make of all this.  One thing I have noticed is that on some level Florovsky and I have to some extent played out the history of the ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Orthodox, he recounts in some of the essays in volume 2 of his collected works.

I wonder where does all this leave me?  I write and pray before icons, the attempt to form an ecumenical congregation morphed into something else, a worshiping community and an ecumenical religious order (at this moment in the final stages of forming): these attitudes, postures and longings have lead me to strange places.   At the moment the witness of the Orthodox that the Faith isn’t something easily paired down to the essentials, it’s more holistic, both resonates with me now more than it did in seminary.  Yet, I remain outside of Orthodoxy.

I  created Ecclesial Longings as a place to explore my longings for church beyond the Protestant conceptions of it and examine what keeps me from entering either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism.  Full agreement of the Faith, makes sense.  But how is this achieved and what are the sources of all the failures in finding this agreement?  I’m no longer satisfied with the essential/adiaphora distinction in faith.  Florovsky has awakened and heightened a growing discomfort with Protestantism and my own place in the Christian landscape.

Ecumenism still seems like the only way forward. A way forward that is both generous and seeking full agreement in faith.