Monday, February 28, 2005

Error, Denial, and Wishful Thinking

I have found myself over the last few days with a whole series of questions that I have been asking myself. That is not entirely true, some of these questions have been forming for a while but only now are they reaching any communicable form.

It was not very long after the initial shock and pain of GC2003 started to wear off that I found myself noticing that on all sides of this ghastly debate there is an unwillingness to face facts and realities. Those on the left were saying gushing things like, "This is like women's ordination, it will be a storm in a teacup and then everything will settle down again." I believe this was wishful thinking on their part -- whistling in the dark. On the right were those who were saying, "In
no more than a year the Episcopal Church will have completely come apart," and this, too, was black but wishful thinking.

Since then there has been a steady flow of data, statements, spin, political actions, and so forth, and so forth, that have deep within them an inability to look the facts squarely in the face. Kevin Martin is one of the few people who has kept his head and tried to assess what is actually going on, and to comment on it; too many others are either burying their heads in the sand or refusing to allow their
presuppositions to be clouded by anything as uncomfortable as facts.

Two recent statements from the bureaucratic and sclerotic heart of the Episcopal Church are examples of this. One was the dismissal with a wave of a hand of the decline in the number of congregations and a slippage of over 30,000 members in 2003 as something that was to be expected. Goodness knows what sort of response the 2004 figures, which promise to be abysmal, will get. The other was the slight of hand that was being played with budget figures to make what was not as bad as had been expected sound downright rosy. Talk about creative accounting!

These are merely part of a pattern. From dioceses all around the country come all sorts of stories that are attempts to find a silver lining in the very dark clouds rather than accepting the reality of those clouds. Right now it is fascinating to see bishops desperately attempting to spin what the Primates said for all they are worth, extracting tiny gobbets from the whole text in the hope that they can
make it mean what they want it to mean -- several such offerings have come over my cyber-transom today.

At the other end of the spectrum we have good folks, especially pastors, who believe that by walking they can solve the problems. For a lot such an action has been like wandering off into a desert without so much as a full bottle of water to sustain them. If it were true that the problems would be solved by leaving, a lot of us would have gone a long time ago. But this is not the case -- instead, like the wake of the breakdown of a marriage, all this spawns a whole different set of problems. I
appreciate the sensitivities and convictions of those who have done this, but I respectfully suggest that they have in most cases weakened themselves and weakened those who remain to stand up against error.

My two disciplines of study have been theology and history, and when reading accounts of wars and international conflicts it is regularly observed that in these circumstances truth is often the first victim. This can easily be seen in the reporting of the Battle of Britain. Each side grossly inflated its total of enemy planes brought down in an effort to win the propaganda war. Churchill went to great lengths rejoicing over "The Few" of the RAF, when in reality this was not a
David and Goliath fight, but much more of a battle of equals -- and this in no way minimizes the gallantry of those men who defended England's skies that cruel summer and early autumn of 1940.

So in this conflict in North American Anglicanism, truth has fallen victim. If we are to find anything like an honorable way out of the mess that has been brought upon us, truth and honesty will need to be reasserted, and we will have to stare them in the face. With a clearer grasp of the facts we will be in a better position to realize what damage is being done, and what also might be done to resolve the

I suspect, however, that contenders on every side are not yet ready to come to terms with the truth yet. Like warriors on the Somme, the Light Brigade as it charged hopelessly up the valley, or wave after wave of charges Gettysburg, the Wilderness, or any other of those Civil War bloodbaths, the madness of conflict blinds those who can bring resolution to this tragedy. Wishful thinking seems to be winning the
day for the moment, and error is daily weakening this church.

I had hoped I would spend the last active years of my ministry building up a new congregation in an exciting demographic. Instead I have spent the last 18 months preventing the denomination from destroying what we have already achieved, while spending endless hours with others trying to put together a base from which we might move faithfully forward in the midst of error. In my darker moments, like those who watched in horror as men died from the mud and bullets at the Western Front, all I
am able to do is shake my head and say, "What a waste, what a waste."

It seems it will be a while before we come to our senses like the Progigal Son, and realize we are wallowing with the swine, and that pig food is hardly a satisfying diet. When we do, perhaps, we will be ready to rise and go to our Father, and all of us together before him to kneel and say, "We have sinned against heaven and before you." It is no longer a case of who started it, we are all locked in this together, and only together are we going to find a constructive way through it. If we refuse to accept our complicity then we will just continue to spiral downward into ever greater verbal and legal violence to one another.

Meanwhile, it would be a helpful exercise for someone to work hard to monitor the way in which error spawns denial and wishful thinking, because we are going to have to find the machinery to blow away this fog when eventually we are prepared to stop behaving like blinded baffoons and to prostate ourselves in fear and trembling before the living God.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The problem of hermeneutics

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me in the last
18 months, "Oh well, that's your interpretation of Scripture." This is
usually in defense of notions, beliefs, or behaviors that are
innovations within the church in the last 20-30 years.

Then the other day I was at a clergy meeting where the topic was the qualities we are looking for in our next bishop. One of my conservative colleagues said something about wanting our bishop to be someone who believes the bible. I know what he meant, someone who takes seriously the authority and content of Scripture, believing it contains all things necessary for salvation and a worthy Christian life. Yet given the confusion there is over biblical interpretation today, it is clear that we need to be a lot more precise about the appropriate parameters within which to understand the text.

I have in front of me Howard Marshall's enormous "New Testament Theology" that arrived in the mail this week. I have just scanned the first chapter, and like all writers Marshall begins with certain assumptions. He seems to accept doctrinal and theological clarity emerging from from the text as received from God and revealed by God. He also assumes that there is a consistency in words, meanings, content, etc. Within some generous parameters, this is the way that scholars have historically studied Scripture. Marshall working with these presuppositions then uses his own remarkable intellect and scholarly skills to build upon the foundations of the past, placing another line of scholarly bricks on a wall of knowledge that Christians have been building for hundreds of years, thereby shedding light and insight onto the text, perhaps helping us to see things that we have missed until now.

Marshall, like so many other scholars in the mainstream of learning, treats the text as a consistent whole, and takes with great seriousness all the work that has been done with the text since the sub-apostolic period. In the communion of saints, we now stand on their shoulders. Marshall comes to the text as one who handles it reverently, but is prepared to scrutinize it using every tool of learning available to him -- and we are the beneficiaries.

This has been the standard for generations, and it has yielded great fruit -- as well as stimulating tremendous conversations about the meaning of the Word. On the other hand, there are many who would critique Marshall's method and interpretation, increasing numbers of whom have been influenced by a far less historically-rooted way of looking at words, texts, and their meaning.

This is where the deconstructionist movement comes in, and it is a much more subjective way of handling language and ideas. Deconstructionism is representative of a whole different way of viewing words and ideas. Deconstructionism sprang from the fertile, yet troubled, mind of Jacques Derrida who began playing with words, language, ideas, and their meaning when he was working in Paris in the 50s and 60s.

It was Derrida's presupposition that we should be suspicious of words and their meaning, because they carry within them assumptions that we may not want to live with. Deconstruction, Stanley Grenz, suggests "involves the use of certain philosophical or philological assumptions to launch an assault on (what Derrida called) logocentrism." What he is attempting to do is to release us from what he considered to be the imperialisms that are contained in language conditioning us to think and respond in certain ways.

Words are, as a result of this treatment, set free from received strictures which have held them in check in the past, releasing us for "the free play of meaning." Thus, the text "always provides further connections, correlations, and contexts and hence always has the potential to yield further meanings" (Stanley Grenz: A Primer on Postmodernism, Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans, 1996, page 148).

Derrida wrote, "Deconstruction does not consist in passing from one concept to another, but in overturning and displacing a conceptual order, as well as the nonconceptial order with which the conceptual order is articulated." It was the received predicates that Derrida set out to overthrow, and the outcome of this is that the text will very likely be allowed to yield radical new meanings that we had not seen before. Older understandings on how to read texts are abandoned, and it is we who become the subject of what is written, thereby taking mastery over the text rather than allowing the text to tell us clearly us what it means.

Derrida's approach, alongside the changing mood of the times, has been widely applied in many fields, from literature to the law to theology. We are the ones who take control over what the text says, and are released to interpret it in a manner that is not snarled by the mindset of the author who originally put those words on the page. Thus we have moved from the limited variety of interpretations of a text that might be there in a more traditional handling of the words to as wide a range of interpretations as there are readers. This is the kind of approach that now colors hermeneutics and the manner that we understand Scripture.

Quite a fuss has been made in the press this week over the death of Hunter S. Thompson and his "gonzo journalism." It would seem that Thompson handles data and ideas with the same kind of subjectivity that has crept into literary criticism and biblical hermeneutics, putting ourselves at the center of the story, rather than allowing for the fundamental objectivities in the text and the story.

With philosophies and worldviews that are so diverse vying with one another, it is hardly surprising that we reach impasses. This contemporary way of handling information and knowledge is highly experiential and has carried the popular mind for the moment. We see it in the language of Frank Griswold following the issuance of the Primates' Communique when he spoke of the truth of our experience. When we think this way we are immediately making our own subjective circumstances the touchstone against which we measure things, and are then in a position to read texts in a way that does not do violence to our perceptions and presuppositions. We set ourselves up as masters the text, rather than allowing the text to master us.

Thus, by handling texts in a way that is shaped by my experience I am in a position to turn the received interpretation of any text, but particularly Scripture, on its head. This was one of the reasons why the Windsor Report referred to this approach to Scripture as being a way in which we allow the Bible to echo what we think and believe.

The revisionist will say to the hermeneutically orthodox, "Ah, well, you want to read the bible in that way. You bring with you presuppositions that make you harsh and judgmental." Maybe there is some truth in this, but for myself, if I could make Scripture to mean different things in so many places, then I would happily do so -- but I am cannot, any more than I am able to reinterpret the income tax code to relieve myself of this revenue burden.

I certainly bring presuppositions to the text, and at the heart of them is the belief that in various ways and in various times, culminating in the revelation of Jesus Christ, God has used human beings to provide us with the definitive words for faith and belief. My presupposition is that I should take those words seriously at their plainest and clearest meaning -- and that these words are inevitably going to put their finger on sins and failures in my life that will make me extremely uncomfortable.

I do not seek then to modify what the words are saying because they aren't allowing me to get away with whatever I want to get away with, but I seek to bring my life into line with what these words are saying, whether it be not to commit adultery or whether it be loving my neighbor as myself. These words prod and guide me as to how I spend my money, care for my family, engage in stewardship of the resources God has given us, and exercise my sexuality.

The question I have to answer is whether I am going to interpret these words within the tradition, believing that within them there is a consistency of meaning that passes from generation to generation. Or, am I going to bring my own take on what I want these words, phrase, and ideas to mean? The radical individualism of the current climate prefers the latter approach. I think it is clear where I stand.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Evangelical Sub-Culture

I have had a lot of off-listserv email this last week dealing with the issue of Evangelicalism, what it is and how it expresses itself. As one correspondent put it, it has been a fruitful thread of discussion, but some of the more interesting things were being said personally to me and not shared with the list. This is often the way it is... All sorts of insights, reactions, and ideas have come to light in these off-list contributions and they have stimulated me to think a little further.

One of the things that I have boiled down from these contributions is something that increasingly makes me squirm, and it is that the evangelical culture, in which as an Episcopalian I find myself mercifully on the fringe, is essentially a utilitarian one. I have always believed that evangelical theology has to do with truth, but I am
increasingly of the opinion that the evangelical sub-culture has a lot more to do with what works.

In the latest issue of Leadership journal, for instance, an excellent publication, there is a piece by an Alliance pastor saying how his congregation are moving back from a do-it-because-it-is-new mindset, to trying some of the treasures to be found in the historic Christian bag. I am delighted that there was standing room only in his church last Ash Wednesday when they started doing Lent for the very first time, but not far beneath the surface of the article was his encouragement to have
a shot at some of these ancient practices BECAUSE THEY WORK.

As I have always understood it, evangelical Christianity is primarily about what is true not what will fill the church building, or whatever else your goals and objectives might be. That is not to say I am opposed to filling the church building, but I am not prepared to do it if I find myself compromising the truth and my own integrity.

The evangelical culture has fallen in love with the zeitgeist, so that the latest pontifications by some brilliantly successful CEO or other carry more weight than the biblical injunctions of the Carpenter who evangelicals claim in their bumper stickers is their boss. There is nothing wrong in learning from business practices, I have been reading business books for years; but there is something wrong when we
inadequately test what these titans of industry are saying against the words of the Christ.

Evangelical Christianity is a journey on the pathway of truth with Jesus as our Lord, the Scriptures as our guide, standing on the shoulders of the saints of old, and working with both our intelligence and on our knees before the living God. What it seems to have become is a declaration that we know the truth far better than anyone else -- and "the truth" sounds and looks extraordinarily like what passes for
appropriate in the comfortable cul-de-sacs and avenues of suburbia.

This leads me on to the core of several very thoughtful responses along the lines of "I must now confess that the trajectory of the US evangelical movement has truly shaken me," and from another correspondent about an "increased discomfort with the American evangelical sub-culture." I suspect no collusion between these two
writers, I doubt whether they even know each other.

Although, as Loren Fox points out, evangelicalism is packaged in a variety of "flavors," when it comes down to it, individuals are saying that they did not really come to anything approaching an honesty of faith until they were able to disentangle themselves from this network. The irony is, as one person put it, that evangelicals are as much in thrall to modernism (that they rail against) as the liberal Protestants and their stranglehold on the "former mainline/now sideline

And there are the same kinds of dishonesty in all camps. It is fascinating watching the Episcopal News Service attempting to spin the present crisis by an incomplete reporting of the facts, while on the evangelical side of things there is a dark under-belly that few people dare talk about or show the light of day. Both, in a way, have reduced Christianity to their own system, their own kind of faith experience, with one denying that it is not working while the other is trying every
worldly way to make it does work (after a fashion)!

As Kevin Martin said last week in the online discussion, there is in classic Evangelicalism, the flavor that I know best is the Anglican variety, and that is big hearted. Perhaps I have had the good fortune to have this modelled to me by those who have been my guides and mentors down through the years. This evangelicalism is scrupulous about being true to the truth at all costs, it is rigorously honest, intellectually curious, and is always looking out for its blindspots with a view to
correcting things.

One of my correspondents quoted a German ecologist to me, and I think this might express a little of where I am coming from as a biblical person seeking to be a faithful witness in a changing world. Rudolph Bahro wrote, "When the new forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few poeple who are not afraid to be insecure."

All of the old Christian cultures are dying in the west, although I would suggest that because it is so obvious, only we Episcopalians are in a position where we are having to face up to this reality. But the evangelical culture is in trouble, as is the Roman Catholic, and just about every other variety -- although some of them have hidden from their inadequacies very successfully for the moment. I think a new
Christian culture is being born. Yes, I do feel mighty insecure, but I hope that what I am doing is playing a part in giving my still in utero granddaughter a church environment that will feed and nuture her, as well as speak volumes to a world that is struggling to make sense of itself.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Voices from Nigeria

We have been greatly blessed in the Diocese of Tennessee during the last few days by the presence of Archbishop Joseph Akinfenwa of Ibadan and Bishop Edmund Akanya of the missionary Diocese of Kebbi in Nigeria. The other afternoon they camed for tea at the Church of the Apostles, and met with 18-20 folks of our church who are either retired or have more flexible working hours, sharing something of themselves and their faith, and encouraging us to stand firm in the midst of the ECUSA crisis.

Bishop Edmund spoke movingly about reaching Muslims with the message of Christ, and, in effect, loving them into the Kingdom. It seems to me that we spend far too much time in our churches wrapped up in programs that scratch the backs of our members rather than orienting ourselves in a direction of selfless love for those who are beyond our walls. Whether Muslim or not, this is the way that we coax skeptical postmoderns to explore the possibilities of the Gospel.

Archbishop Joseph talked of the 1-1-3 program that the church in Nigeria is working with. I first heard of this ten years ago from Abp. Yong Chung Ping of Saba, but I was not aware that it had its origins in Nigeria. The Nigerian church have started applying this in the whole province. It is to encourage one believer to focus prayer, witness, love on one unbeliever so that in the course of three years they will become followers of Christ. This is very do-able, which is what makes the notion so fascinating.

We have our annual congregational meeting in a couple of weeks and I have determined that we will talk about each of these things the bishops brought to us as part of our life at the Church of the Apostles.

Meanwhile, in the midst of their speaking the two men encouraged us to stand firm for the truth in the midst of the error that has caused such pain and agony within ECUSA. Our folks were energized by that message.

Monday, February 07, 2005

What is an Evangelical?

During the last few days I have been pondering what it means to be an evangelical Christian. I suppose my reading of Diana Butler Bass's book was part of the trigger to these thoughts that came to a head on Saturday afternoon as I was making the best of the first decent weather day of the year by cleaning our cars! But there have been other triggers.

For example, I saw the results of a poll about who the leading evangelicals are perceived to be, and alongside Billy Graham's name were the usual cast of characters who are standard bearers of the Religious Right. Then yesterday there was review of a book about the Republican Party by Christine Whitman, that quite happily identified the religious component of the GOP as the Evangelicals. This reflects a perception in the media that there is almost a seamless connection between evangelical Christians and those on the political right. This then results in puzzlement when a Jim Wallace comes along claiming to be an evangelical, and also writing and speaking eloquently in contradiction to the political philosophies that prevail in popular evangelical circles.

It is not only in the USA that we are having trouble with what it means to be an evangelical. What I have noticed in the UK amongst Anglican Evangelicals is that they have now become such a large grouping in the church that it is impossible to contain them under one heading. There are now the Proclamation Trust Evangelicals, and the Reform Evangelicals, and the Charismatic Evangelicals, and then there are the likes of me who in UK are often described as Open Evangelicals.

Furthermore, we have a problem in that postmodernity is a post-everything period, and it seems important to ask the question whether evangelicalism in all its shapes and forms is too dependent on the modernist culture for the essence of its genius to carry over into the emerging era. If that is the case, then what are the fundamentals that HAVE to be translated into postmodern speak and philosophy, and what can be jettisoned?

The reason Diana Butler Bass got me thinking along these lines was that she made it clear that she has let go of her evangelical past in favor of an emerging intentional mainline-ism. The question I was turning around in my head was at what point does one cease to be an evangelical? What do you have to either let go of or pick up to begin falling into this category? There is something of this questioning in Brian McLaren, too.

I think in the culture there is this sense that evangelicalism is something for the naive and simplistic, and so reflective people grow out of it. I have had it said to me that like those who yearn for the magisterium of Rome, folks like me need the certainty of an "infallible" Scripture to provide a base and foundation for our believing. Maybe this is so, but that is too easy an attempt to dismiss the power of evangelical Christianity. Besides, having studied theology under rigorously academic evangelical teachers as well as some of the more skeptical liberals of the 1960s, I do not believe that I have avoided dealing head-on with some of the most significant issues of biblical authority and witness, neither do I continue in a mode that pushes them under the rug.

Indeed, it is my contention as I have watched the debate and manouverings of those on the theological left, that there is generally more discipline and rigore applied to study of the faith and the text by those who are in the evangelical and historical mainstream. In fact, what troubles me when I get into theological discussion with those with whom I disagree is how often they try to bypass the process by what might be descibed as wormhole arguing. When unable to deal with a solid statement which is then backed up by theological and textual argument their response is something like, "Oh, well that's your way of reading the text, there are other interpretations, you know."

Yes, I do know that, but the one I am then offered has been picked from the skies of the culture and has little to do with the essence of what is there on the page of Scripture or in the pattern of the church's continuing tradition. Deconstruction has dug itself so deeply into our being that we are prepared to accept vague feelings as if they are as legitimate as that which comes from the richness of Christian catholicity.

I confess that I have found myself in the last few years feeling more and more of an exile in the church as well as in the United States. A person who comes to this country as an immigrant is always going to have the exile's heart because he/she is never going to quite fit. However, I have found that in conservative circles, and among those claiming to be evangelical, I don't quite fit either, whether in or beyond the Episcopal Church.

The essence of being evangelical has nothing to do with politics, nor does it have anything to do with being part of some alliance or other that addresses the culture in a particular way. Neither does being an evangelical have much to do with churchmanship, although I am part of that dying breed of old-fashioned Protestant Episcopalians who eschew too much ceremonial and ritual, and are happy from time to time with the richness of Morning Prayer and Sermon rather than eucharistic-izing everything! I guess this reflects the fact that I come from the Anglican Evangelical stable originally.

I believe the essence of evangelicalism is to do with the authority that is given to Scripture within the continuum of the church's life. I believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments more than contain God's Word, but are truly "God's Word Written." They need to be read as God speaking to us down through the centuries, as well as individually to each of us today. We have to be extremely careful in the manner in which we interpret the Scriptures, because the deconstructionist impulse is eager to project onto the Bible our own foibles and presuppositions.

Evangelicals should be Christians who are thoroughly committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in every facet of their lives, and this Jesus who they serve is the One who is met in the pages of Scripture, not another who might be imagined up within this particular period of time and social context. We are people whose lives belong to the Father, through the sacrificial death of the Son upon the Cross, and who are then vivified through the resurrection power of his Holy Spirit -- the One who teaches us and leads us into the truth that is laid out in the pages of Scripture.

Evangelicals are people who are very much at home having been invited by Christ into the fellowship and community of the Trinity. They are also people of the Cross. Certainly they accept the rich variety of ways of understanding what happened on that first Good Friday, but what distinguishes them from many other Christians is that they are firm in their belief that Christ's death was substitutionary -- he died there for me to take away my sins and to enable me to live the resurrection Kingdom life.

It was from one of my old mentors, Max Warren, that I learned another distinctive of evangelical Christians, and that is that they have an assurance of faith. Yes, Christ died for me that I might live eternally, and I am sure that if I am his and he is mine then this is a bond for all eternity.

True evangelicals believe in a lot more than justification and assurance, they also believe that life is a process of sanctification -- being made holy, the reflecting this holiness in word and deed. This is a continuing process and requires our fullest cooperation with the God who gives us the Spirit of holiness, but also expects us to make decisions about thoughts, behavior, and attitudes. Where so much of what passes for evangelicalism is lacking is that it has become a justification machine with very little understanding of sanctification.

Evangelicals are also people of prayer, believing within the context of the rich varieties of prayer that God has given to us, but also that when we make intercession to the Father in heaven, the Father in heaven will lead us, guide us, protect us, bring us through the dark valley, and so forth.

Furthermore, evangelicals believe that Jesus Christ will return again with great power and glory to reign eternally. This is one the great doctrines of the church that has been hijacked by a particular group of evangelicals, who hold a 19th Century interpretation of Scripture that wants us to believe along the "Left Behind " lines. Scripture has a far richer doctrine of Christ's coming again than ever the premillennialists have figured out!

Evangelicals are at their heart missional. This is that believing Jesus Christ to be the only way, truth, and life, that we are obligated to share that message to all persons everywhere that they might respond to God's call on their lives. I would go further than saying that to evangelicals it is an obligation, I would say it is our greatest privilege. Mission is not just proclamation of the Good News, but taking Jesus Christ into every facet of a needy word that is broken and sin-sick, whether healing those in warzones or arguing the case for a just and humane society in the halls of Congress.

These are, I think, some of the high points of the evangelical faith, and are right in the heart of historic, catholic Christianity. Evangelicalism, as such, was an approach to being orthodox that worked in the industrialized, Enlightenment-shaped, modern world, the question is how we carry these truths over into the postmodern world.

I would add as an Anglican Evangelical that I place high value in the visible church, especially the ordering of the church that includes the episcopate, the presbyterate, the diaconate in the historic ordering. I do not believe that bishops are of the esse of the church, but they are of its bene esse -- although our circumstances today truly stretch my commitment to this doctrine! It is because I believe in the visible unity of the church that I have real problems with those evangelicals who are bailing out of ECUSA rather than working within it to bring about repentance and reform.

In addition, I am a sacramental person, believing that we enter the covenant family of faith through baptism, and then are fed in that faith at the Lord's Supper in the sharing of the bread and wine. I guess you would say that my theology of the eucharist is high church Calvinist, but there is are so many legitimate ways of understanding communion that it is hard to believe there is one perfect theology of the great eucharistic feast, the foreshadowing of the moment when we will share the Lamb's Wedding Banquest in heaven.

If all these are the essence of evangelical Christianity, then a lot that gets passed off as evangelical is little more than adiaphora, peripheral. Those of us who are evangelicals are obligated to work out how to rework this historic approach to being Christian within such a fluid and changing cultural setting.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Beginning a New Book

I spent most of today with Dr. Joy Riley, who has agreed to work with me on my next book, "What does it mean to be human?" Joy is a mother of three sons, wife of a physician in ob-gyn practice, and is herself an MD and a trained bioethicist. We spent about five hours just kicking ideas around and she was coming up with some pretty interesting stuff which demonstrates just how so many elements of our society are being either being reworked, or are being reworked because of the manner in which the culture is reshaping itself.

We were talking about In Vitro Fertilization, and she made an interesting point that I had no idea of. That is that not only is this very profitable work for doctors (who don't want it regulated in any way), but it also is a growth industry as a result of the sexual revolution that began in the Sixties. I wasn't sure what she meant until she explained that the hugest degree of infertility is as a result of blockage of the fallopian tubes in a woman. The overwhelming cause for this is the outcome of a sexually transmitted disease of some kind or another....

This book is going to be an narrative-driven, investigative piece that attempts to make the challenge to our humanity accessible to as large a swathe as the population as possible. We are going to need a lot of prayers.

Richard Kew

The Practicing Church

"The Practicing Congregation" by Diana Butler Bass (Hearndon, VA: The
Alban Institute, 2004) US$17.00.

Review by Richard Kew

I like it when people send me books. Last week, just as the Tennessee diocesan convention was getting underway, I received a copy of Diana Butler Bass's latest book, "The Practicing Congregation." It was sent to me by Richard Bass, publishing director of The Alban Institute, a subscriber to Toward2015, and the man who just happens to be husband of the author. I love it when a husband takes such pride in the achievements of his wife!

"The Practicing Congregation" has been my coming-down-from-convention reading this week. It is not long more, little more than a hundred pages, but it is thoughtful and provocative. Diana Butler Bass organizes her material well, and then presents it in an engaging manner. Her thesis has a strong intuitive flavor to it, and is something of a what if exercise. What if, she asks, the story of mainline Protestantism over the last two generations is not just a story of doom, gloom, division, and decline, but is the story of new wineskins for ministry in a different kind of world that is being born?

She rightly asserts early on in the book that there is a mindset that has turned into a mantra that mainline churches and denominations are in deep trouble, indeed that they might be in terminal decline. "Mainline churches rarerly make news unless the story involves sex, scandal, or corruption" (Page 11). Alas, both the old line denominations and the Roman Catholics have shown how brilliant we are at coming up with oodles of stories like this. However, Dr. Butler Bass has a good point, I think, and she wants us to look at the reality from a different angle -- and with it will come new insights.

An experiment with wineskins is going on in the mainline world, and in a way it parallels the emerging church movement among conservative evangelicals. She calls these new mainline congregations that are starting to emerge here and there practicing congregations. "Practicing congregations experience new vibrancy through a reappropriation of historic Christian practices, and a sustained communal engagement with Christian narrative" (Page 14).

These congregations are "responding to more recent changes in American religion, specifically new impulses in Protestant theology and new longings for faith-filled meaning-making in post-Christian culture" (Page 15). Here is one of the basic points about the practicing congregation -- it accepts as a starting point that we live and move and have our being in a post-Christian setting, and that there is no going back to the privileges of the quasi-establishment of the past.

Butler Bass reckons that this movement began somewhere around 1990 and it started to shift mainline fellowships out of the ruts in which they find themselves. There is something distinctly intentional about the way in which these congregations manage themselves -- going beyond the layers of model of church that prevailed in differing degrees for the first three centuries or so of Christian settlement on these shores. These congregations, among other things, are reaching back into the tradition in order to craft something fresh and pertinent. A fine historian, her potted analysis of what has happened over the past several centuries to the old line churches is alone worth the price of the book.

Also helpful is her explanation of what she calls DETRADITIONALIZATION that is occuring all around us and profoundly impacting the Christian community.

She quotes sociologist, Paul Heelas, "Detraditionalization involves a shift of authority: from 'without' to 'within.' It entails the decline of the belief in pre-given or natural orders of things. Individual subjects are themselves called upon to exercise authority in the face of the disorder and contingency which is thereby generated. 'Voice' is displaced from established sources, coming to rest in the self" (Page 28).

Detraditionalization is happening everywhere, and feeds into the struggles and tensions that afflict the whole world. Religions are feeling the pinch of this radical phase of disestablishment and "feel alarmed by the changes brought on by fragmented and detraditionalized culture" (Page 31).

Drawing on her own experience, Butler Bass opines that the conflict in a congregation to which she once belonged, and might be represenative of what is going on, was not so much between tradition and change, but "the confict was between rival versions of tradition" (Page 36). What is happening is that we are wrestling with how to handle traditions as we struggle to adapt to new cultural realities. Then she makes the most startling assertion, one which I have been chewing on for several days now but have not reached any firm conclusions: "By its very nature, tradition involves imagination, creativity, ferment, disorder, and conflict" (Page 37).

She is talking of more than the customary practices that come round year in, year out, in a congregation, but that chain of memory that links us to our past, challenging us to restore into the life of the church practices that have somehow been lost or overlooked, but now speak volumes to a world searching for a way ahead in the midst of an utterly different landscape. Tradition is there to elucidate the truth, and Christians have always "invented, recreated, and adapted traditions when old patterns no longer hold sway. Thus, fluid retraditioning is an expression of theological imagination, as biblical tradition is lived out in community, and is an ancient practice of faith that connects Christians to their ancestors" (Page 47).

Our task, therefore, is to retradition the community of faith in this world that has been radically detraditionalized. This requires creativity. This requires imagination and a reaching back into the past to engage with this chain of memory. When congregations are at crossroads, this is the place they should be looking for sustinence and grace -- and as we reacquire traditions and practices from the richness of our Christian past, we will find ourselves making future traditions out of the fluidity of our circumstances.

"Conflicts over traditions are probably not best seen as problems to be fixed. Rather, conflict -- that 'ongoing argument' -- is the very heart of Christian tradition, the stuff from which Christian faith is made -- and remade. And because the conflicts are so evident, the lively reality of almost all congregations, it is a sign of the creative and 'potentially invigorating' work of God's Spirit among us" (Page 55).

I guess when I hear the Spirit invoked in such contexts I start to get a little uncomfortable because I have always believed that it is essential to test the realities on the ground to see if they truly are of the Spirit. I have no doubt that Diana Butler Bass has rightly caught the flavor of some of the things that are going on in the churches today. I think she is correct not to write off the old line churches just because they find themselves in unenviable circumstances, and yes, I truly believe that God is reconfiguring his church for future mission -- which is one of the reasons why it is so agonizingly painful.

However, I sense in Butler Bass's writing a willingness to paint with the Spirit's brush all sorts of things that just perhaps may not be of the Spirit. I think she is right that in this emerging "dark age" congregations are going to be centers not unlike the monasteries of the former Dark Ages, settings which became the repositories of faith during the heaving transition from a Roman to a medieval world. And, yes, I do think it is the work of the Spirit that congregations are looking for ways in which community can be nurtured through "daily worship, confession, care, study, prophetic witness, and hospitality" (Page 58).

Yet it seems to me that the church always gets itself into trouble when it becomes lax in its grasp of the pillars of revealed truth that are at the very foundation of Christian believing. That is not to say that the hard-line evangelical or catholic ways of believing and doing things are necessarily right, but I do think they understand the necessity for appropriate clarity of faith.

In this book Butler Bass affirms that she has stepped back a little from her own evangelical past, something she considers a long episode between her United Methodist upbringing and her Episcopalian adulthood. I find understandable as one who is evangelical but always slightly out of step with evangelicalism, but what worries me is her seeming avoidance of parameters and boundaries within which it is appropriate for Christian communities to function. I like her talk of creativity, imagination, and her description of congregations of differing traditions and flavors that are moving forward, often after near-death experiences, and I share her doubts that only conservative churches move forward in faith, but there have to be sound limits and those limits have moral implications.

However, I guess it is my observation over 36 years of ordained ministry that while it might be possible to move a congregation forward in all sorts of interesting ways, a lasting work of God has a strong truth component that provides a clear boundary between what is legitimate and what might not be legitimate. Yes, something new is happening and the same cultural tide has spilled over both conservative churches and old line ones. Each is responding to this new reality and old lines of demarcation are being torn up, but I have this suspicion that just as the Charismatic Renewal went off the rails because it lacked theological definition in the USA, so might a new kind of "practicing" renewal in the old line churches of today if it is not firmly rooted and grounded in revelation.

Having said that, I have found Diana Butler Bass extremely helpful and would encourage you to read what she says. This is not a book that is going to give you fifteen ways to grow your church, but it is going to prod your intuitions, add savor to your imagination, and it will encourage you to perhaps think outside some of the parameters that have limited our perceptions to this point. I hope that Diana Butler Bass produces more stuff like this.