Saturday, June 23, 2007

Ecumenism critqued

over here. I'm a fan of Kyle Potter; he's a divinity student, a terrific clear writer about some complex subjects, and incidentally, a devout Anglican. (All those guys who starts out as Southern Baptists make the best Anglicans.)

It's more than incidental for me, actually. I'm a cradle Episcopalian, who, after a very devout childhood and short periods as a Buddhist and a Quaker, grew up to be sort of a general-purpose evangelical who worshiped, and now serves, in independent churches., wait, Post-denominational churches. That's it.

My identity - my denominational identity - surges from foreground to background, from not-even-worth-mentioning to the primary fact of my identity, the first bullet point in my introduction. The last few years, it's come to the front again.

For one thing, it's a distinctive - it connects me to some people (Bob comes to mind) and sets me apart from others.

It sensitizes me to, and aligns me with, the victims of evangelicalism's tenacious anti-Catholic bullying.

I also suspect it's my primary qualification for my job.

Seriously, the Old Boss aside, hardly anyone in the congregation I serve has a sacramental background. The things I grew up believing and celebrating and doing are a part of what our church wants to give people - deep ritual, meaningful actions, a place to meet God beyond logic and sermonizing. The rhythm of the year; connections between this Lenten season and the one 5 years ago. Disciplines. Ancient poetry.

I haven't been to seminary; I never studied any of these things. I got them through immersion, through them being the only way I knew to be church.

And my background has plenty of holes. Growing up in my church, there was no moment of decision, of 'giving your life to Christ' - you were His already, obviously, baptised and raised under God's hand. Any decision - if one decided not to be confirmed, for example - would have been a refusal of the assumed order rather than a positive step. It was a little like the Columbia Record and Tape Club; it ran on negative consent.

The church I grew up in left lots of room for interpretation, so much so that famous Episcopal priests have published books debunking the virgin birth and the literal resurrection. Moral decisions were largely between you and God, but the directions for seeking God's guidance were pretty hazy. Also, if I had grown up 'born again' ("I've been born again my whole life!" as the character in "Saved!" says,)
I'd have a much better handle on the Bible, both as narrative and as compass.

Not to mention the class and gender baggage woven into the gigantic structure...the whole massive hierarchy (and its basis, apostolic succession) just seemed more of an impediment to God's work than a help. I couldn't sign on for that. And God was kind, and appears to have led me to a way to honor my 'calling' (I feel pretentious calling it that, but honestly, there's no other word) outside that structure.

And so I have made a commitment to an ecumenical, born-again community.

Nothing in my life has ever made me feel more Anglican. And more high church Anglican, at that.

I don't want to post a comment on Kyle's blog, cuz dude, they're all a bunch doctoral candidates and parish priests hanging out over there, and they'd eat me alive! Not in a mean way. They just know a lot of words that I didn't learn while getting my BA in theatre. I would be exposed.

But I will say this here (where I am constantly exposed) -

Kyle says that the differences between denominations are real, and to suggest that one is as good as another is disrespectful. Because we pick our denominational affiliations, at least in part, because we believe it to be
...the most faithful way, in this time and place, to respond to and embody the fact of God's reign in Christ?

And if you really think your church- say, the Baptist church - is the one that's 'the most faithful way', then to say
"I'm a Baptist, because that's what I think is right for me. I'm glad that you're a Methodist, because that's what God has called you to be. It doesn't really matter because we all love Jesus."

may be well-meaning and even kind, but it isn't truthful.

Here's where Kyle and I differ:

I think that I believe denominations were made for people, not for God.

People are limited. They're limited in their intellect and spiritual connectedness; they're limited by habit and taste and history.

God is enormous, majestic, passing understanding.

This may be the postmodernist in me -

I believe (and scripture and history support) that God reveals God's nature in many ways - scripture, creation, sacraments, supernatural happenings. Jesus was/is the most perfect revelation of God's character and nature.

Even people who knew Jesus in person, who walked with him 365 days a year for 3 years, did not get the fullness of God's revelation. They didn't even get the fullness of Christ. And he was right there. He ate with them, joked with them. They saw him rise from the dead.

Why, then, is it hard to imagine that Methodism might exist not because it's the best vehicle for revelation (and so everyone should get on board) but that it's the best vehicle for revelation to a certain type of people. Other people will be left cold by Methodism but love Roman Catholicism. Neither is 'the most faithful way' in God's eyes. Both are God-inspired but human-made, and so have truth and errors and beauty and hatefulness somewhere in there.

Does this make sense? It seems to me that God has done many things (Christ's incarnation, parables, Pentacost, to name three) to speak to people in a language they'll understand. Are denominations part of that?


Stacie said...

I had this ginormous post all written out, about what I thought of Kyle's post and why and how I agree with your opinion of denominations being built for man, by man. But I'll be honest and say my bottom-line opinion is that I am a happy attendee of a non-denominational church because ours has less rules for people to argue over.

I was born into a Catholic family then we started going to a Baptist church after my mom got divorced, excommunicated, and remarried to a Baptist when I was five (just old enough to have started learning the words to the songs during mass and recognizing the order of events. And just old enough to notice the rest of my family was still Catholic.) After about five years we started attending a very large, very wealthy Assembly of God church. Add in twelve years of Christian school and you get me.

I still feel a twinge of panic when I hear the phrases "altar call", "clap offering" or "heads bowed and eyes closed." The movie Saved made me laugh out loud but after it ended found me in tears because the ugly side of that movie actually existed at times in my life. I want my kids to grow up learning about God. Not all the rules that people made up about how to talk to God or how God wants you to dress before you come visit him or who God wants you to marry. I just want them to know God, for real, dammit. Without the ugly side effects.

See? Very low-brow and simplistic. To me, denominations = rules/exclusion = constant attempts at perfection followed by constant bouts of failure = more time spent worrying about rules and less time finding out about God.

Kyle said...

Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful contribution, Bets.

Believe it or not, I stand where I do because of essentially "post-denominational" sensibilities; I believe that "non-denominationalism" is a strong enough tradition in itself over the past couple of generations that the only thing that makes it different from denominational Christianity is the institutional supports.

I also insist that Christian denominations are symptomatic of a broken and splintered Church, and a scandal to the Gospel. I find myself in a place of wanting to affirm some of the important visions of the Faith that is preserved for the Church Catholic by some of these traditions, but at the same time long for those traditions themselves to be subsumed into the wider Church.

I want to say that in this way the existence of these denominations can be useful to God because of their gifts for the wider Church, but I am unwilling to say that a denomination being best expression of Christianity for a particular group is something that is useful to God. I think - stick with me.

It is illegitimate for a church to exist just to give me a "flavor" of Christianity that appeals to me. That doesn't constitute worship of the Trinitarian god; it's self-referential narcissism, and I might as well join a non-denominational megachurch (ahem). However, the way I could affirm that, is to say that the practices and local expressions of the Faith as they have been preserved by a particular national church (or even a denomination) could be of service to God's larger mission.

Does that make sense? I think it's sinful to theologically underwrite and therefore approve of the splintering of Christ's Church, but I am also unwilling to brush aside the existence of these traditions as existing only for the preferences or hardheartedness of people.

Anonymous said...

your old boss once helped me with a great quote on the categories we impose on church


there is a local church & the global church - everything else in between is just pipes

my 2 yrs in seminary progressively eroded the crazy boundaries we articulate as anglican or cath or charismatic