Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"Should I lead? Should I follow? Won't you say, 'Come with Me?' "

Coming back to this topic:

To what extent do you think this hunt for "leaders"--faces for the movement--a function of discomfort with the largely devolved power structure of low-church Protestantism? (Sorry, ducking, but you know what I mean.) You want to find the head of the Catholic Church or the Episcipal Church, you look it up and find them. It's my understanding that contemporary evangelical Christianity is simply not organized that way. Or do I have that wrong?

There is a lot of insight here, that I've considered myself as I move from a congregationally based polity to an episcopalian polity. And I've decided a great deal of this has to do with culture, and with what I've called here, before, "Christendom."

My reference for that term has come largely from Soren Kierkegaard's Attack Upon 'Christendom,' an "attack" most Americans misunderstand because we have no experience with a state church, as the Danish church was in the mid 19th century. In Europe church and state provided the culture into which individuals were born and in which they grew up. The same culture prevailed when the Puritans left England and established governments in the "New World." That culture finally started to fall under the twin pressures of the Enligthenment and the efforts of Thomas Jefferson, and no one rejoiced in it more loudly than the Baptists, who had been persecuted in England for their refusal to "pledge allegiance" to the Church of England, and so the state for which it stood, which prompted, understandably, no small amount of suspicion about them and other "non-conformists."

Now consider the situation today. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest gathering of Baptists in the world, claiming a membership of 16 million, split a few years ago over the issue of authority. Baptists were famously congregational in polity. Each church affiliated with the Convention sent "travelers" to a meeting of all the congregations, but that meeting was never permitted to speak for the congregations. The United Church of Christ, being a merger of the episcopalian Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Church, follows a similar practice at its biannual General Synod. In the UCC, General Synod speaks for: General Synod. The local church is, by the Constitution of the UCC, autonomous and can agree with Synod's resolutions, or reject them outright. Much the same practice held for the Southern Baptist Convention, until it was decided that it should not hold.

It was, in short, a question of leadership, a question of who speaks for the Southern Baptist Convention. This lead to a split in the Convention, with a number of churches in Texas reportedly leaving the SBC, and with the SBC trying twice to exert control over Baylor University in Waco, attempts that failed largely because Baylor's charter pre-dated the SBC by several decades. "Herding cats" was the non-Texan way of describing trying to get Baptists to follow a single leader, until some in the SBC decided a leader was precisely what most Baptists needed.

Why did this happen? I think one reason is cultural. As Christendom, a sort of cultural assumption in America that we are all Christian, that despite our differences we all go to church on Sunday morning, began to dissolve in the face of reality, the cultural underpinnings that held churches together began to dissolve, too. Now, there are several ironies here, all related to the basic ahistorical nature of American culture.

1) Church attendance was never very high in American history. I don't have the statistics readily at hand, but at the time of the American Revolution I think roughly 20% of the colonists attended a church regularly, and the number never really went up much beyond that. The cantankerous, non-church going father of "Spencer's Mountain" (by the same guy who wrote "The Waltons") was a typical, not a-typical, American.

2) World War II changed all that. Literally. Sociologists and church leaders agree that church attendance spiked after World War II, for a complex series of reasons. Baby boomers like your host grew up in that "boom," and took it for the norm. It wasn't; it was the aberration.

3) A third sign of the aberration of WWII: American flags in church. I used to have a photograph of the "historic chapel" of the church I last pastored. The chapel was built in the mid-19th century, a clapboard structure that was used for worship until the 1960's, when a large stone sanctuary was built to house the 300+ members who poured into the area as employees of oil companies came to Houston and settled on what was then the outskirts of town (and is now a densely urban area with no sign of the farms that were here as late as the 1960's). The picture showed the chapel adorned for Easter Sunday. Notably missing from the adornments is an American flag.

The sanctuary had one, however, and every Scout Sunday the service was opened with a pledge of allegiance to that flag, as it was brought in by a processional, much as the cross is processed in every Sunday morning in the Episcopal church I now attend. A German pastor visited my church, and asked about that flag. She was my age, and so grew up after Nazi Germany, but still the overt sign of nationalism in a house of worship made her very uncomfortable. And hers was a church supported by the German church tax. She and I saw that flag as a symbol of nationalism, but her host on her tour, a veteran of WWII, saw it as a memorial to those who had died in that war, and subsequent wars.

I don't think any American saw the flag as that kind of symbol before WWII.

Anecdotal evidence at best, of course, but I think it is true that, before Pearl Harbor, America was still a collection of states which looked upon Washington, D.C. as a necessary evil, and called upon it only when disaster overwhelmed the states (as when Herbert Hoover helped Louisiana recover from the flood of 1929). The assault on Hawaii, however, was an assault on the nation, and thereafter the disparate states had to think of themselves as one country. It was a question of leadership.

Since World War II we have thought of ourselves, more and more, as a federal nation first, a collection of states, second. But simultaneous with that, we thought of ourselves as largely white and Protestant Christian. And yet it has become clearer and clearer that, even as the political identity gains strength, the cultural identity diminishes. We are not largely "white," and we are not largely Christian; Protestant, or otherwise.

The assumption that we were all alike, in other words, held the Protestant churches together. Most congregation members by my childhood were hard pressed to identify the significant differences between Presbyterians and Methodists and Congregationalists, or the different flavors of Baptist. Lutherans and Episcopalians were distinctive if only for their basically liturgical worship, which most Protestants would have understood as "Catholic." Those denominations which once gave their communities identity lost that importance, especially as the denominations became less episcopal in structure (moving from Methodist to Presbyterian to Baptist). But what held those less structured denominations together was a common culture, a set of assumptions that everyone lived by.

Until they didn't, anymore.

Church is no longer reserved to Sunday morning at 11 a.m. Church is no longer held automatically on Sunday, even when Sunday is Christmas Day. Church services are no longer held in quasi-Gothic structures, with hardwood pews and music provided only by pipe organs, and pastors wearing robes and standing behind pulpits, and even every pastor preaching a variation on the doctrine of sin. People no longer even need go to church, or be a member of a church, to consider themselves Christian. Indeed, Sunday is no longer a sacrosanct day upon which all stores must be closed, all forms of entertainment forced to "rest" on "our" Sabbath (which was never on Saturday).

Without the culture acknowledging the leadership of the church in such matters, and without church being an important part of one's social life, even in small towns (where it helps, but hardly has the effect it once did), the church faces a serious question its own existence, its own leadership. And so the church finds itself in the situation Antonio Gramsci described:

"The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears."

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