Friday, February 04, 2005

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.


kendall said...

Richard, so great to have you in the blogopsphere!

Are their good Anglican role models for Retraditionalization you could name?

Richard Kew said...

Kendall, I am still attempting to digest the book and see where it touches upon the reality as it is on the ground. I think that parishes like Christ Church, South Hamilton, MA, are probably good models, and I should imagine the work of St. Luke's Cathedral, Orlando, is too. In terms of names we can learn from I am not sure that any at this moment come to mind. One of the problems of the English Evangelical nexus is that it functions in such a different milieu to the USA.