Tuesday, April 24, 2007

And now for something completely different....

I am about to do a new thing; even now it springs forth! Can you not perceive it?

--The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus

The problem is, of course, we usually can; and we don't like what we perceive. So there's a push-back. The push-back makes a lot of noise, stirs up a lot of people (or seems to), and gets a lot of other people very worried.
This is, of course, the way the Reformation worked, or so we think. This is the way the explosion of Protestantism metastisized until there are "King James Bible" Churches (I kid you not) and so many flavors of Baptist and even Presbyterian, not to mention the varieties of Pentecostalism and the cross-denominational "fundamentalists," that the array becomes simply dizzying. I once served a church which had split, many decades before, over the decision to recarpet the worship space. The departing church members set up their own church not a half-mile from the "original" church. This is the way it used to work in Protestantism: you didn't like the way things were going, you left. Episcopal polities (those with bishops, I mean, not TEC specifically) were not immune from this. Think of the Lutheran church; and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church....you get the idea.

So that's the model: Protestant churches divide like amoebas, and so churches proliferate. Except when they don't.

From my personal experience, I know of a UCC church here in Texas which left the denomination many years ago, something fairly easy to do in that congregational polity. They saw themselves as the vanguard of a number of Texas churches who would surely follow, as the UCC is very "liberal" and Texas church goers are, for the most part, famously conservative. They weren't the only ones who saw themselves as that vanguard, either; many in the UCC feared they would destroy the fragile church in this state (the majority of UCC churches in Texas are here in Houston, and I think the number here tops out at 14). But despite the best efforts of that church itself (they sent pastors full of zeal for what they hoped would be a new denomination to rural Texas churches where they were sure their seed would find fertile soil), no UCC church followed them. Oh, there are two (or were two, last time I paid attention) UCC churches in Houston which weren't happy with the UCC endorsement of gay and lesbian pastors (the UCC did that a long time ago), but I don't know that they ever really left the denomination. The church which did leave, which hoped to be the flagship of many departing churches, was the largest UCC church in its city, and one of the oldest, practically a "grandfather" church to many in the state. No one, however, felt the urge for going, and so far as I know today, their drive to establish a new, counter-UCC denomination, has petered out.

Why? Because the people in Texas really were secretly liberal? No. The church I left exploded a few years later (one church member later told me) when they tried, in desperation for a pastor, to call a lesbian. I mean no disrespect to the candidate when I say "in desperation," but I knew that congregation would never accept a gay or lesbian pastor. And, sadly, they didn't, in the ugliest way possible. Neither, however, did they try to leave the UCC. Not that there weren't grumblings when I was their pastor. The church had been an "E&R" church before the UCC was created, and one very vocal member would tell me I should put "E&R" back on the sign, because that would restore it's fallen membership. The consensus in Texas is that no one knows what "UCC" means, and if you call it "United Church of Christ," they assume it's a distaff branch of the very conservative "Church of Christ," which has a much larger presence here. But except when it involved them personally, that church never cared that much about the gay/lesbian pastor issue. Two other churches in Houston threatened to leave the UCC over the gay/lesbian pastor issue. I know at least one of them eventually went the other way, and is not "Open and Affirming," meaning the officially welcome and invite the LGBT to their church. God's love is amazing indeed.

But the question before us is: why isn't there greater energy for a schism in TEC? Because I think the effort for division is truly petering out; the vision of a new denomination is already on the skids. Fr. Jake and the Mad Priest have had posts about this recently; I'm not going to do the research to back up my assertion (I assume most of you wouldn't read the footnotes anyway). I just have a strong sense the air is rapidly departing that balloon. Why would that be?

Not because people are more liberal than we think. I think, in fact, it's an identity issue, but the issue of identity is going another way from what we've come to expect, to anticipate.

There was a time when people identified strongly with their church, their denomination; indeed, the two were one and the same. Bill Moyers tells this story, which probably sounds like every church member we know (and yet, it's never us!):

One of my favorite stories is of the fellow who was about to jump off a bridge, when another fellow ran up to him crying, “Stop, stop, don’t do it.”

The man on the bridge looks down and asks, “Why not?”

“Well, there’s much to live for.”

“What for?”

“Well, your faith. Your religion.”


“Are you religious?”


“Me, too. Christian or Buddhist?”


“Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”


“Me, too. Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian?”


“Me, too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Savior?”

“Baptist Church of God.”

“Me, too. Are you Original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?”

“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”

“Me, too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1879, or Reform Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1917?”


Whereupon, the second fellow turned red in the face and yelled, “Die, you heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.

It's a great story because it's true, right? But I think it seems true, and it isn't really true any longer. It's true for the people who want to split TEC, just as it is for the people who still want to split the UCC. Those people, however, are distinctly in the minority; and that minority is shrinking in significance and power, not growing. The persistent question is: why? And the answer is: because denomination is no longer central to our identity. And because the issue of denomination was never about theology, and always about power; it was about who got to define the theology, and how they got to do it. Now, the Reformation is often cast in the guise of power, of the Catholic hierarchy rejecting the "heresy" of Martin Luther and threatening his life, all of which happened. But Lord Acton's famous maxim, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," was made in response to Pope Pius IX's promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility, and many of the issues of power and theology we grapple with today are not the age old questions of the medieval church, but problems raised by post-Enlightenment understandings of secular and ecclesial authority. (The promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility, by the way, led to a split in the Roman Catholic church; I have met a priest of the "Old Catholic" church, which continues, albeit under the perception of most laypeople, to this day). Let us make it a maxim, in fact: Schisms arise from disagreements over power, not theology. Theology, after all, we can argue about. Power is not asserted by argument; and there can't be any real question which we take more seriously. After all, if theology was our primary concern, we'd have all followed the example of the Desert Fathers centuries ago.

But today; does anybody really care what denomination you are? The church judicatories do; take it from a minister, no one takes denominational identity more seriously than those whose paycheck depends on that identity. But do the laypeople care that much? They used to; they certainly used to. But ask a layperson the primary differences between a Presbyterian and a Cumberlan Presbyterian, or between a Southern Baptist and an American Baptist, or even between a Methodist and a Lutheran; see if even members of those churches can give you more than a shrug and can explain their choice of church based on more than habit or preference for the pastor or the people who gather in that building.
Does this matter? Not really; I certainly don't think it does. I'm much more concerned with the pilgrim's journey than with the finer points of the doctrine which guides that journey. Do we still push each other off the bridge depending on whether our church found the truth in 1879 or 1917? Do we even know the difference anymore? We used to; but we don't now.

So efforts at schism, at destruction and reformation and re-creation, are failing. Denominational identity is not the issue it used to be. Denominational identity is simply not the part of our social makeup that it used to be. That's part of it; the other part is, the entire issue of homosexuality is out in public now, and no rain of fire has fallen from the heavens, no collapse in civic standards has occurred; no doom has befallen us. Too many families have gay or lesbian children, and they refuse to reject those children, they are relieved, in fact, to be able to openly embrace them. Combine those two, and the screeching about the ordination of Gene Robinson and the demands for "purity" and "tradition" simply fall on deaf ears. People are not seeking a spiritual guidance and companions on the pilgrimage based on the narrower points of their denomination's doctrine. They are not so concerned with whom they associate with, not on that subject. The subject itself has simply stopped being that central to them. It is a fine wedge issue; it can still be wielded as an instrument of power in some places, as it has been used in Nigeria against Davis Mac-Iyalla; as it is being wielded against Archbishop Williams and the Primates of the Anglican Communion. It is not getting traction with the laity of The Episcopal Church, however; and I seriously doubt it will. I think the worst is over, and in this post-Christendom age the rage that was meant to divide the Church, if not destroy it, is already running out. Homosexuality was, itself, once an issue of identity. Accusing a boy of being a "faggot" made a fine school-yard taunt when I was young, mostly because we didn't really know what it meant. Now we do; we all do, and my high school student daughter accepts her friends who identify as gay or bi-sexual with an interest only in their personalities, not their sexuality. That is the future, at least in America, and it is the future for denominations like The Episcopal Church. I'm sure my daughter will always identify herself with her friends and her family long before she identifies herself with her church; which means both she and her church will benefit. Some people want to continue the divisiveness and schism that permeated Protestantism for centuries. The rest of us, however, left that behind in the 19th century, or at the latest in the early 20th century. God is about to do a new thing; can you not perceive it?

And that new thing means God is in charge, not us. Some of us like that; some of us don't. Same as it ever was. It's still the same old story; not a fight for love and glory, but a struggle to acknowledge God is sovereign, to figure out just what that means. "The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife sown in the sod." Thanks be to God, who gives us strength for the struggle.

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