Sunday, June 15, 2008

This week in Neverland

I have spent the past week at two rather bracing events. One was the ELCA Upstate Synod Assembly. If there is anyone that Episcopalian dioceses could learn from, it is this Synod’s efforts of what a gathering of Church can mean for the faithful. I was impressed in how it went about electing a new bishop. It was done with such respect and grace that my breath was taken away. Granted, the Lutherans elect their bishops for a six-year term. A sitting bishop must then run again if s/he wishes to continue as bishop. In this case, Bishop Marie Jerge was re-elected. But it is a process that perhaps we Episcopalians could entertain in the future. It would mean that there would never be situations such has happened in the dioceses of San Joachin, Ft. Worth, Pittsburgh where “bully bishops” have besmirched the Church by trying to lead their churches out of the community of the faithful.

The theme for the Upstate Synod’s annual meeting was “We are called.” Throughout the three days of meeting we heard people from all over the synod and beyond about their understanding of call. They were pastors, and lay folk, young and old, who understood their baptism to be their ordination to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. I was especially thrilled with the young people: high-school and young adults (post-high school to 35) who spoke of their faith with a unique humility and situated in the reality of their lives. The hope that they communicated enriched my own faith.

The liturgy was truly “the work of the people.” And while I have always been proud of Episcopal liturgy, the Lutheran ethos of music enfolded the liturgies in four-part sound that filled up the whole convention center and wafted to heaven. An African-American United Methodist bishop preached a sermon that moved people to applause and cheers. I came away from this meeting of NY Christians renewed and enthused—what I believe that church-wide gatherings are supposed to do.

Friday and Saturday I spent at a workshop by the Rev. Dr. Diana Butler Bass. Dr. Bass spoke about her recent book Christianity for the Rest of Us. An Episcopal priest who teaches at Virginia Theological School in Alexandria, VA, Bass writes from a moderate position about the directions of the future of the Church. She is fundamentally a church historian who because of a Lilly Grant reached into mainline Protestant churches to see what congregations were growing and why. She earmarked Ten Signposts of Renewal in churches of thriving mainline congregations. She focused on the practice of faith rather than on belief or denominational tenets. She found that churches that practiced hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection and beauty with intentionality were congregations that were thriving. They were not caught up with the conservative-progressive dichotomy that is destroying many churches. They had a diversity of young and older congregants and they served their communities.

During her talks, Dr. Bass talked about the coming generation—not the Gen Xers, not even the Millennials. She talked about the sea change that is going on in the world—in science, commerce, communications. The same kind of sea change that was going on in which Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to discuss, or that Jesus addressed to the Jewish establishment and the Roman Empire. She says that in the light of this “New Reformation” we will see the gradual changes in denominationalism—not the end of denominationalism but broader boundaries given for those of us from the reformed traditions.

In the light of the move from Established churches to Emergent churches she says that the polarity of conservative and liberal will fall away. Doctrinal authority for the coming generations is not going to be about a single truth—but truth as it is encapsulated in culture.

A master story teller, Bass shared a story in which Phyllis Tickle was caught up in a Q & A session in a diocese in which there was much Conservative/Progressive dissention. Someone asked her if she believed in the Virgin Birth. Before she had a chance to even respond to the question, someone shouted, “that’s Spong’s question—he should be put out of the Church, he is a heretic”. Someone else jumped in at that point from an equally liberal position and the fight was on. She watched as a teen-age boy tried to ask a question. Finally when the boy asked his question, he said, “I don’t know what the adults are arguing about. I believe in the Virgin Birth. It is so beautiful; it is bound to be true, even if it didn’t happen that way.”

The movement from my modernist upbringing in which one truth was sought after to an era in which truth is something that is viewed from its context and truth is more likely to be multiple is a difficult jump to make. And yet it is the kind of understanding of faith that I have always tried to teach. But if anything can get us out of the push-pull dialectic that we have been in for the past 10 years, then perhaps centering on post-modernism may be the salvation of the Church.

Bass likened the next 100 years to a river out of its banks. We do not know what Church is going to be in the future. She says that denominations will doubtlessly change radically in the next 50 years but not go away totally. But it will be the practice of Christianity that will remain. So it is important that we practice what we say that we are. Younger people are critical of those who cannot be who they say they are and I must admit so am I.

We may not know what church is going to look like in the future. But I do think that we are going to know what the Church is going to be like in the future. It will be a community of people who take regard for others because of their love of Christ Jesus. We may not have bunches of denominations to confuse us. We may not have large buildings that are too big for us. But if we are faithful to the Gospel—to the promise of Jesus, we will be groups of people who practice reflection, share our faith with others, champion justice as a spiritual practice rather than a political stance, worship a God of love and welcome those who are different than ourselves because it teaches of the diversity of God’s creation.

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