Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Reclaiming of the Church

At the place where Frogmore Street meets Dundale Road in my home town of Tring in England, there once stood an elegant old Victorian building on several acres of land. It fell into disrepair and was finally purchased by my father's construction company during the 1960s. The Victorian structure would have required a lot of repairs, but it could have been made to look as good as new. However, it was eventually torn down and replaced with a quiet close of houses that we thought at the time looked oh, so, contemporary and chi-chi.

Whenever I am back in Tring I shudder when I pass that close of homes because those places that we thought looked such an improvement forty years ago now reveal in a stark manner just how ticky-tacky the new, modern, contemporary, 1960s actually were. The same thing was happening all over England at that time, as hideous monstrosities in concrete, steel, and glass took the place of buildings that had style and a human scale. Housing that was hailed as a great advance in the Sixties has become many of today's slums.

What was happening architecturally was also happening in the broadest reaches of the culture. Deconstructionism was on the march out of France, and the Beatles were proclaiming they were more famous than Jesus Christ. The 1960s were a cocky, self-confident, age, and those of us who belong to the generation that came of age in those heady times have carried with us many of these characteristics. It took me a long time to finally accept that although some good things happened in the 1960s, when all is said and done they were a time when irreparable damage was done in the western world.

This was the time when theology and church life went awry as well. The death of God theologians were hailed for the groundbreaking things they wanted us to believe. Tillich's views rode high, and in New Testament studies Rudolf Bultmann was king. This was the time when the bishops of the Episcopal Church refused to find James Pike guilty of the heresy that he clearly adhered to. I had lunch a few weeks ago with one of the few remaining bishops from that time, a gracious man, but his reasons for acting as he did seemed bizarre and thoroughly out of touch with biblical and catholic Christianity.

There was a termite quality to all that was happening in those days, gnawing away as it was as the heart and marrow of the faith in the mainline churches, until here we are now watching the shell of the structures we inherited coming apart -- helped along by the wrecking ball that the 1960s crew is still wielding. The instinct that many of us have had is to walk away from the damage that has been done and build our own ticky-tacky structures appropriate for the 21st Century, structures that surely have built into them our own contemporary strain of termites and death-watch beetle.

Yet it seems to me that destroying in order to replace the broken with something new is itself an inappropriate way of carrying on, wherever we can we should be seeking to repair and restore. I know that this is not possible everywhere, but in many places I think it is a lot more do-able than many might realize.

Actually, what is happening might turn out to be very good for us in the long-term.

Firstly, we are being forced to look beneath the surface at the real philosophical and theological issues that confront us. This is a time when there is no place for sloppy doctrine grounded more in pop psychology and a "feel good" entertainment mindset, whether with a conservative or a progressive flavor. This is a time when we are being asked to dig down deep into the resources that we have inherited from the centuries and begin rebuilding with materials that will last -- not cheap composites and ticky-tacky.

Secondly, while it will take a while, we are being freed from the tyranny of a centralized structure that thinks it knows best, and is prepared to squander millions trying to prove it. The denominational structures of ECUSA which we took so seriously as recently as a decade ago, have become little more than a costly irrelevance. As 815 Second Avenue, the Executive Council, and even the General Convention, become more and more of a bizarre postmodern circus, more and more folks are tending to ignore them -- and certainly cut off the spicket of money flowing in their direction.

Thirdly, we are seeing just how wrong have been many of our choices for leaders. The Episcopal Church has got the bishops it deserves because we have been thinking in terms of charm, good looks, Sixties-style management skills, when we have been out voting for these creatures. The places where progress is being made is were bishops focus their lives on Jesus Christ, preach the Gospel as revealed in Scripture faithfully, have thick skins and strong spines, and are prepared to begin making the sort of changes that are necessary if the church is to speak the age-old message into an even more hostile century than the last. Just as the Counter-Reformation swept away their corrupt 16th Century predecessors and remade the church, the same is true of our time.

Fourthly, the old diocesan structures that have been so disconcerting, are themselves in the midst of a shake-up. In August 2003 in most dioceses the implied trust that existed between the grassroots and the leadership dissolved. The laity are now voting with their feet and with their money. Dioceses like Newark are telling us that as many as 1/3 of their congregations are on the edge of becoming unviable -- what a great advertisement for their revisionist, 1960s-shaped theology and practice. If I were a bishop rather than the priest of a small, poor mission congregation, I would be having far more sleepless nights than I am getting. The old structures are finished, new horizontal networks are taking their place, whether the powers that be like it or not.

David Bailey was trying to explain to me the other day that times like ours when change is taking place on a giant scale are times of disequilibrium. Our desire in these times is to seek stability and equilibrium, but that, David assures me, is the wrong thing today. As soon as we restore a temporary balance we are missing the opportunities of being put out on the cusp by God to be creative for his Kingdom.

Last week, the Bishop of Northwest Texas told the faithful members of his largest congregation to vacate their buildings because they had reached the conclusion that they could no longer remain part of ECUSA. I don't know what the folks at St. Nicholas, Midland, are going to do, but after giving thought to friends who are members there my next thought was something like, "What a stupid man this bishop is. Instead of seeking to find a constructive way forward for both this congregation that has lost trust in a denomination that has turned its back on truth, and for his diocese, he has cut off his nose to spite his face. He sees the episcopate in terms of power not in terms of servanthood. He thinks like a captive of Christendom, not a prophet of the post-Christendom possibility."

It is this kind of self-destructive behavior that should encourage the faithful to hang in there, rebuild from the grassroots, and watch for a multiplication of assinine moves by those who have sold out to the spirit of the age.

I have said some pretty angry and brutal things about ECUSA in the last couple of years, but I am at the point where I am ready to reclaim the noble title "Episcopal." I am thankful to be an Anglican Christian, and I am grateful for the potential for mission that there is an an Anglican/Episcopal way of being a follower of the Lord Jesus. I also believe that as the 1960s termites do their worst they are preparing the ground for a new kind of Anglicanism to move forward in the future. Now is not the time to walk away but to re-engage, get the bug man in, and start re-ordering our household.

1 comment:

Eric Swensson said...

Thanks for the post. It is time to reorder, and more and more I am sure that it is God who is doing the reordering.

Perhaps we will have realignments of all sorts.

I was thinking this morning about what I am going to say at the microphone in 10 days when I address our appeal for a return to sanity around the sexuality issue (you know that ELCA was several years behing ECUSA on this but we caught up a few weeks ago). It seems that people think we can do anything we want.

Of course we can't. But what to say? And what to do? I was thinking about how a colleague of mine was always bugged because the altar at the parish he served was up against the wall. The bishop likes to do things there and I think he was a little embarassed. You know, everyone does it from the table now. So even though there really was not enough room, he had some workmen pull it out from the wall and he barely has room to maneuver but there it is, he got what he wanted.

Doesn't work, but he got what he wanted.

Let's pray that God gets what He wants in our upcoming remodel.