Saturday, November 25, 2006

How Plural We Truly Are!

Blessed feast of James Otis Sargent Huntington, founder of the Order of the Holy Cross.


There’s been a good discussion going on the past few days over at Fr. Jake’s place. It’s related to – well, I’ll just let you look at it over there. It started with a statement from Bishop Jefferts Schori, and it’s gone on. Thinking Anglicans has also referenced the issue and the discussion here.

The topic moved to the numbers in the Episcopal Church. Discussion included the reasons for recent decline, and the experiences of several readers of healthy, active, and growing Episcopal congregations. It also included how effective we are or aren’t at evangelism, and what acts of evangelism might work for us.

That got me to thinking about my own experience of folks talking about their churches, and how they came to be members. In very few cases was it a matter of the theological tradition of a denomination. As a hospital chaplain, I hear so very often in the American scene that folks don't note the theological differences between denominations. Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist (of whatever variety), United Church of Christ (from the Congregationalist tradition), or Disciples of Christ (from early 19th century efforts at ecumenism - an interesting history indeed!), are all seen as pretty much alike. Folks tell me they joined a particular church because 1) it was convenient to their life and home; 2) they found the preaching moving; and 3) they found the community welcoming (usually, activities for families or children seem to fall under either category 1 or category 3). The theological distinctions above can be significant; but the worship is so similar most people don't care about the theological differences. By the same token, I've heard many Roman Catholics and Lutherans, and some few Orthodox comment on learning that I’m an Episcopal priest, "Well, Episcopal is almost like (Catholic or Lutheran or Orthodox as appropriate)."

Now, they do notice worship styles, and those familiar with sermon-oriented worship don't often settle in churches of table-oriented worship; but they don't base those differences on self-conscious reflection on theology. Those who move from table to word may feel moved by strong preaching that they had not experienced before. Those who move from word to table are often aesthetically moved by the music and poetry of the liturgy. But, again, it’s usually more emotional and less theological.

There are other factors, of course. In our multifaith society, a religiously mixed marriage is probably more common than a marriage between folks from the same faith tradition. Indeed, I often get the feeling we’ve defined more broadly what constitutes a religiously “mixed marriage.” Two generations ago a wedding involving an Episcopalian and a Southern Baptist would have been considered significantly “mixed.” These days, for good or ill, the fact that both were in some sense Christian would be enough. More common, at least in my experience of talking to newly married folks, only one person in the couple is religious, or neither is. Certainly, couples with significantly different religious backgrounds, meet, love, and marry with almost no thought about the differences. These issues continue to rest quiet until there are children. Even then, couples will often put off the concern until some specific age, whether for a rite of passage, or until teen years “to allow the children to decide for themselves.”

Now, this observation is entirely unscientific. At the same time, it comes from a “parish” which is as multifaith as American society. I attend to all hospital patients and all hospital staff as best I can, and so I encounter, I think, as broad a sample of American religious life as one might find anywhere (or, at least in a large city in the Midwest).

While there are many arguments about whether churches are growing or declining in numbers, and why, my own experience is that it isn’t a matter of theology, sound or otherwise. Rather, folks seeking a spiritual home find it where they are welcomed and loved. Much of the time they will think little of the theology, or of differences of theology between churches they see as similar. So, perhaps as we seek to offer folks a church home, perhaps we need to make sure we make it a church home.


Mmm said...

I've enjoyed persuing your blog and will come back....but for now let me comment here.

You know, you are absolutely right--about making it a church "home." Having been involved in/with many different types of Christian churches I can attest to the fact that people are quite forgiving on various shades of doctrine or expression if there is genuine caring and warmth in Christ's love but, rightfully, not so much room for adoption if differing on the essentials of the faith. For me that is where the rubber meets the road actually.

For example if I was still in London I would no doubt quickly join up with HTB, my home church (contemporary Anglican, yet Bible centred) even though I wouldn't necessarily call myself Anglican anymore. I would have no problem with it being Anglican but here I find I have far greater affinity (doctrine-wise) with the non-denominational church as it generally seems more orthodox Christian in its doctrine and inclusive of all who confess Classic Christian faith than much of the Episcopal church that, I'm sorry to say, seems less and less like a dynamic, life giving, church.

When I first got here I tried to go to Episcopal churches but all 4 in my town were less lke anything I had known in England. One had a Bible study--Ok, good start; but discussed if Jesus was really Lord or not! Hopeless! I found it more like a Unitarian 'church' than a Christ centred place of worship. (Why even bother having a church--why not make it a Sunday coffee club instead?) Another embraced (and embraces) peace and justice Socialist type movements over much of anything else, where again, Christ rarely seemed to be an integral necessary part of the believer's life, where He is a real person (the "Lord) to adore, let alone corporately worship or get to know..i.e. trying to follow the 1st commendment!

Then there was one church that seemed more Catholic than most Catholic (Vatican II) churches I've been too--more Tridentine Mass than anything else--lots of incense and Latin invocations. As there was no homily, no sermon, there was little to connect to but pomp and ceremony and tradition merely for tradition's sake in my mind. Maybe that works for some but didn't for me.

The closest I got to finding a church like my Anglican one in England was St. Luke's. I might have settled there but for that lack of "home" factor coming into prominence. People would show up, do their thing as it were, and then quiuckly leave. I liked the rector very much but there was no real sense of family. Rather than finding any inclusiveness with the larger Christian Church body there were general attitudes (evidenced by the bumper stickers), belittleing/mocking those not 'sophisticated/proud' like they thought themselves to be. So, of course there was plenty of mean spirited mocking of the Christian Right, fundamentalists or what have you, but oddly enough embracing much of the World's. PC message instead! (I can't help here of thinking of how the Bible says that if we claim we love God but hate our "brothers and sisters") (i.e. those other Christians in the church who claim Jesus as Lord) then we are liars as how can we love Him who we can't see if we hate those who we can..who are, after all, are meant to be spiritual 'family'?

Anyway, just to clarify, I continue to go to St. Luke's but only once a year or so for the late Christmas Eve 'mass' as few churches offer such services that late anymore, other than one local Catholic parish that I too sometimes attend, some doctrine aside. Really, I too go there more for "tradition" and memory's sake myself than anything else so not enough subtance to hold me there for the rest of the year. Although if I had to choose between these two parishes, I'd actually go to the Catholic church as at least they have held closer to the orthodox faith and gospel than the social PC whims embraced by much of the modern Episcopal church, I'm afraid.

Another thing I noticed in various churches, and some other traditional centres (except for the Catholic ones), there has often been a definite bias against the working or manifestations of the Holy Spirit as found in the Bible. Such things are peculiarly usually "forbidden," or seen with so much skepticism that one is left with a lot of work and outward effort but no room for allowing His Spirit to possibly direct.

After my wife became a strong Christian (before I married her) we came to enjoy many differnt churches, but consitently have found the most love and kindness and devotion to Christ in modern, fairlyy non denominational type churches of which we now attend. tehy have been, yes, more 'home' and invting to us. Yes, I miss some of the outer adornment and reverence of the Anglican liturgy, but reverence with no life changing substance gets old too. (A form of godliness but denying His precence and power is how I've often thought of it as since.)

So, I geuss that the good news is we've been blessed to find a myriad of strong, devoted, loving Christians through the years since, connected wiht oine another more in Spirit than by any particular ecclesiastical tradition. We have often had fellowship where maybe up to 5, 6, 8 or more churches are represented by the people present but that never has mattered as the particular church building they go to is really not the issue as much as us gathering in His name is what defines us church anyway.

Wherever people worship and honour Christ in Spirit and Truth is a place I can call least to some degree.

I hope this makes sense. I have to admit I'm rather tired and have been distracted a fair deal trying to type this reply. More later perhaps...


Marshall Scott said...

Duncan, thanks for your comments, here and below.

You know, I'm sorry that you didn't find a home in an Episcopal Church; but I'm glad you did find a home. I certainly consider all those "other" Christians members of the Body, with or without the liturgy. You might look at an earlier post on that topic: "Varieties of Gifts," on June 1. I think God has use for more of us in our variety than we expect.