February 20th, 2010


First Steps toward Renewal of the Church

Years ago, I read a book called Three Popes and the Cardinal by Malachi Martin. One part of his work has stayed with me for many years. Fr. Martin wrote that American Society had always been undergirded by what he called The American Consensus that combined parts of both the Enlightenment and the Reformation. The two pillars of American society were thus Academia (followers of the Enlightenment) and the Protestant Church (followers of the Reformation). What happened during the Sixties -- or perhaps, I should say, what was revealed in the Sixties -- is that Academia no longer believed in the Enlightenment and the Protestant Church (as defined by its leading elements, what we refer to as the "mainline" denominations) no longer believed in the Reformation.

I think this is profoundly true. And it explains much of the polarization we see in America today. Academia has embraced various forms of irrationality (Existentialism in philosophy, Phenomenology in psychology, Neo-Marxism in political science, Critical Theory in sociology, Deconstructionism in literature, etc.) and allied itself with pop culture to maintain a view of America encapsulated in the term bobo: the Bohemian Bourgeois.

Meanwhile, the mainline Protestant denominations are all dying. They no longer believe in their own, official definitions (as they received them from the Reformation and subsequent Awakenings). What passion they have is for social tinkering -- much of it well-motivated and sincere, be it noted, but none of it specifically religious. You could replace them with community social centers for all they depend upon any encounter with God or commitment to revealed truth as their raison d'etre.

From the point of view of those interested in church renewal, this explains many of the movements within The United Methodist Church and similar bodies. There is a hard core of institutional liberals -- the religious versions of bobos. They want a big, successful church that depends upon the mass of members to fund the activities and positions of those whose ministry is more easily defined as political than religious. They tend to be threatened by renewal movements.

For the only living alternatives among American religious bodies today -- mainline Protestantism being moribund -- are either the Rompin-Stompin or the Hierarchical/Liturgical. On the one hand, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and independent congregations that partake of their theology are growing. On the other hand, Roman Catholicism, traditional Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy show signs of tremendous vitality. Both of these groups -- as different as they seem from each other -- take specifically religious motivations and ideas seriously. They may be conservative or they may be liberal in political terms, but they are not just politics in religious drag. These people are looking for God.

Consequently, renewal movements within the mainline Protestant denominations find themselves wanting to imitate one or the other. We've seen lots of UM pastors try to make their piece of the Church over into some form of Evangelical outpost. They face a lot of resistance from the institution, and from the religious bobos who run the institution; nevertheless, this remains a popular path to take. At the same time, there are those who would like to see us go more in the other direction: toward liturgical worship, canonical hours, "bells and smells" and all that. These folks have not faced the resistance that the evangelical types have, but perhaps that is because they haven't been taken as seriously within the mainline power structure.

Be that as it may, I think that mainline Protestantism has lost its way, probably permanently. If you want to see the UMC or any other such denomination renewed, you are going to have to go in either a more Rompin-Stompin or a more Hierarchical/Liturgical direction. Could we go in both directions at the same time? There are some signs of this rapprochement between the evangelical and the liturgical that I see from time to time that give me hope. Perhaps in time a whole new model will be developed for Churches such as The UMC, in which serious religious passion and a real commitment to revealed truth will be incarnated in a style which could be described as Rompin Liturgical.

That would be worth sticking around to see, wouldn't it?

Further reflections on church renewal

So, what would a Rompin Liturgical renewal movement embrace? Combining the best of both evangelicalism and liturgicality, I would come up with the following characteristics.

Experience and Sacrament must both be affirmed. Yes, ya gotta be saved. And that can't be scripted. The Spirit is free to awaken at his will and as the individual soul allows the light to come into her dark places. We are to call people to repentance and to an ongoing encounter with the living God. At the same time, we should not try to construct our entire experience of God out of the material in our own souls. That limits God, confines him to the chaotic furnishings of our inner machinery. Rather, we have to balance our freeform encounter with God with the regular encounters with God which he has promised us. The sacraments -- baptism, eucharist -- and the other rites -- such as confirmation and orders -- are given to us as promised encounters with God. They shape us as we need to be shaped.

We must take both the Bible and Tradition (history) seriously. The Bible is not just a beautiful book. While it is not all the same sort of thing, all of it is (in different ways) authoritative. There are facts it affirms which we should take as serious data. There are values it affirms which we should take as serious models. There are stories it offers which define us as surely as the stories our families tell define our families. On the other hand, you can't just take the Bible and a blank sheet of paper and re-create the Church of Jesus Christ. There is an organic unity to the Christian Church, a common history. You can't pick and choose which theologians you will learn from. You can't just begin at the Great Awakening, or the Reformation, or the Council of Trent, or (fill in the date). All of the Church's history must be embraced and wrestled with. The Vincentian canon (semper, ubique, et ab omnibus) must be taken seriously.

We must be accountable both for the doctrine we teach and the life/administration we practice. "Freedom of the pulpit" is not the freedom to just make it up as you go along. And there are expectations about doing the job that must be faced -- for laypersons, for clergy, for denominational leaders. Any renewal movement which is not as willing to be held accountable as to hold others accountable will lead nowhere.