I was having dinner with a group of Episcopal Church leaders discussing “the emergent church” and a bold new proposal to ordain priests for the emergent church with minimal preparation, trusting they would pick up priesthood OJT. I said nothing, but it gave me pause to hear this idea, knowing we tried it in Nevada and other Total Ministry dioceses, sometimes with unfortunate results. In fact, only a couple of conventions ago, the church repealed Canon 9 to get away from that experiment. We are now in the midst of upgrading the training for all orders of ministry so it surprised me to hear that training for priesthood was at risk again. (I am not saying the training has to be conventional seminary education. We are expanding local training, but still requiring that training comes before ordination.)
The conversation then took an interesting turn, the turn that makes this subject blog worthy, because there was a young man at the table – a college student. The older leaders asked his view. He said relaxing the training for clergy was irrelevant. He saw no reason for the church to have ordained people anymore than there was any need for the church to have buildings. (It is an axiom of the emergent church movement that the church should not have buildings.) This led to the leaders asking how he would envision a service led by a lay person in a secular building. The young man did not think church services were such a good idea either. His vision is that the lay minister would hang out at a bar with people and if religion came up naturally in the conversation, then the minister would participate in that conversation.
I suddenly got a vision of the post-modern church: no sacred space; no clergy; untrained laity; no prayers; no hymns; no scripture. I wondered if the bar where religion might come up in the conversation naturally would have a Sunday School area for the children. I am entirely for extending the gospel message into all sorts of settings in all sorts of ways, but I was struck by the idea that so much of the faith that has saved my life might be erased as no longer relevant to people now.
I remembered when I was that college student’s age, I was not a Christian. I did not attend worship services either. But when driving through central Texas – which I did a lot back then – I would without fail stop at an old Lutheran church near a German village. It was always unlocked. I would just go in and look at the stained glass windows and cult objects I did not even understand, and I felt the holiness. What if they had sold that building and become emergent, meeting in a bar, talking about religion if it came up naturally?
I remember when I was his age, and I would go home to East Texas, I would visit Fr. Allen, a pious old Episcopal priest who never said anything to convert me, but who was a holy man and dressed the part so I could recognize him as a personal representative of something much larger and older than himself. What if St. James, Texarkana had decided they did not need any hierarchical professional clergy. Fr. Allen would not have been there for me, teaching me gospel without saying a word, sharing grace just by listening.
In his book, The Cross In Our Context, Douglass John Hall asks the question whether Christianity will survive the 21st Century, noting that some respectable voices question whether Christianity made it into the 21st Century. Christendom, the era when being Christian was a social and cultural norm, is certainly long dead in most places. It may have never reached us here in Nevada. But Christianity is another matter. Is there an authentic Christian voice crying in our wilderness? Is there a Christian word that can be spoken? Is there a Christian word that can be heard? “Does a tree falling in an uninhabited forest . . . ?”
Hall’s premise is that Christians engage the world. “Unlike other religions that draw their converts away from this world, a faith informed by this (Christian) tradition . . . constrains the community of discipleship to enter into its historical situation with a new kind of openness, attentiveness and compassion.” We must share our faith with the world “by word and deed.”
This raises the perpetually recurring issue for us, which Hall speaks of as text and context. We have a text – not just the Bible and the Prayer Book, but a whole tradition of belief and practice. We also have a context – the world around us. Internationally, that is post-colonialism, the fearful conflicts among religions in Africa and the Near East, the post Cold War ascendancy of the United States and China, and to a lesser degree Iran. Closer to home, it is the secular materialism of American culture, in which all religious affiliation is in decline but we are becoming more religiously and ethnically pluralistic, a society in which the new convention is to be “very spiritual but not religious.” Can we be true to our text and engage with this context at the same time?
There has always been a tension between our text and any human context. It may be better when it is explicit as it is today. I have found it harder to make the gospel heard by anyone in a setting where conventional Christianity is the social norm than here where faith is countercultural. It is better shouting faith into the secular void than into the conventional Christian void. The oddness of the words makes people curious if they do not already think they know what they mean. But how shall we go about it? How shall we make the faith understood in our society?
I don’t have answers to that. But I feel pretty sure we have to tell the truth. I cannot expect everyone to connect to God the way I do, but I cannot pretend that my way isn’t my way. Can we be true to our text and engage our context? I desperately hope so. If we are not true to our text, we will not be engaging our context honestly. If we do not engage our context, then we will be false to our text which requires jus this engagement. Jesus called us to be “in the world, but not of the world.” That has never been easy.