The New Church Chapter #3
By Chapter 3 we should have a good idea what the problems are. The established church and all its institutions are in crisis. The ship is sinking. The strange part is that what we mostly do is run around trying to save it! Getting lighter or leaner doesn't help on its own. Pumping the bilges doesn't really keep the flood at bay. I hate to say it folks, but it is time to test the water. We need to make plans before the clock runs out.. We are not alone, of course, all kinds of non-profits and service organizations are sinking too. We also have a cloud of congregations. We all must think creatively. Maybe we need to make a different boat out of the old one.
So...what will help us do this? At this point it might make sense to survey the ship. What is its fundamental function? What are its fundamental parts? I am concerned primarily with the liberal church but this applies to others as well. In order to get our bearings it makes sense to look to models that have been used in the past. Naturally (at least if you know me and my own tendencies), this made me think of that great transcendentalist theologian of the church, Frederick Henry Hedge.
You see, many years ago (in the late 19th Century) Hedge preached a sermon called "The Broad Church". In it he discussed the sources and forces that could make his inclusive tradition even more so, while also keeping it grounded enough to be something other than a discussion society or social clique. Like others before him, he organized his thoughts around the image of a compass.
The goal at this point isn't for us all to find the same point on this compass. Instead it is to find our own place between the points. As you read the descriptions you will see that your congregation may travel farther "north" than some. Others may have found a strong place in the "east." This is a good thing. To Hedge the goal was to get situated, be ready to travel, and to be open to seeing and experiencing the perspective of others in their own places. This he called the "Broad" or (small-"c") "catholic" church. A church that knows what it is but is also adaptable and welcoming.
Now, he chose his points based on his own New England biases. That is to say, he labeled things "North," South," "East," and "West" pretty much based on the worldview and understanding of his culture and his friends. Don't get bogged down in that. What is important is that he is trying to situate each broad (wide, open, non-creedal) church somewhere between these four elements, each balancing out (and in conversation with) the others.
Hedge began with the east. For him this pole stood for the unchanging and eternal parts of the community. This is the pole of core belief. It is the story by which we tell our own stories. "The east is the region of steadfastness, of perpetuity...Every church must have its conservative side, its point of resistance, its fixed fact." Even churches like our own need something like this to hold it together. Without the eastern pole, we are adrift.
There are churches (liberal and conservative) who try to hide it and who (at least among the liberals) even deny it. Yet the east is there for us all. What it is varies of course. In the case of my own congregation we take the teachings of the heroes and stories of the Bible very seriously, even if we do not always agree in interpretation. There is our covenant as well "In the Love of truth and the Spirit of Jesus, we unite for the Worship of God and Service to All." Also, though it may seem strange to some, the idea of a non-creedal tradition is itself a central belief.. We explore our faith together, with the understanding that we will disagree.
For another congregation the eastern pole may be different. It may provide a greater or lesser pull. However, it is there and gives us a foundation on which to build.
It also gives us something to struggle with and against.. "Christianity," Hedge writes "though bound to a given idea and to certain immutable truths is not, for the rest, a fixture, but a movement and a growth." What keeps our faith vibrant and growing (here we are talking about spiritual growth, not numerical growth) is that opposite pole. The west calls to us as well. Back in Hedge's time the image was an obvious one. There the "wilderness" started right outside Boston's western suburbs and stretched all the way to California. For the people of the area and era, it stood for almost unlimited potential.
That said, it is hard to get up for the western hike sometimes. When we think of this pole there is both excitement and fear. It calls us to creativity in both our personal and corporate lives. The west is uncomfortable. Still, we need to do go there, don't we? Henry David Thoreau wrote (in "Walking") "Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free." Hedge asks us to consider what we are holding on to that we don't need to take with us in our new explorations. In church language, how many times have we used the phrase "we have always done it this way" as our sole excuse for not changing?
What holds us back more than anything else is that fear of failure. A journey into the wilderness inevitably leads to numerous misadventures. When we are finally safe and sound we love to look back at them, impressed by our own perseverance. However, at the time they are just painful. They challenge our sense of self. We are embarrassed. This is one of those places where an attitude adjustment is in order. We need to get over ourselves. We have to explore and experiment. We must prepare ourselves for mistakes and wrong turns confident that our final location will make it worthwhile, even if we don't ultimately know where that is.
Thoreau reminds us that "We go eastward to realize history and study the words of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race, we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure." OK... So what does that leave us? The north is the next on our list and for Hedge represents ideals and mystical connection. Quite simply, for most folks (my hero Larry Wilmore being a notable exception) the northern arrow points "up". This is the direction we think of when we think of the transcendent, the Divine, God, or the Great Whatever.
This is what makes congregations unique. We are into the big question and the big connection. An internal urge--small or large--toward exploring this dimension of our lives is what drew us to find a church. We know we won't ever have all the answers. Yet we travel north in fits and starts. Our communities of faith are frequently the gates and doors that we take to go that way. Frequently it is where we find the best companions and the clearest road. Hedge reminds us that "mysticism is a very important element in religion--a feeling after God... It is that by which religion lays hold of the invisible and enters into fuller, that is, more conscious and intimate, communion with the spiritual and heavenly world."
Finally, there is the south. Here is the home of ritual. Hedge says, "A church requires a ritual, requires symbols and sacraments,--something outward as the exponent and medium of ecclesiastical life." North and south work together to help us connect to each other and the Divine.
In a church like mine, it may at first seem like we don't have many symbols and sacraments. However, it just means that what rituals we do have grow in importance. Our worship services--while comparatively simple--are filled with elements we expect to sustain us. The cross behind the pulpit reminds us that not everything is about us. Sermons, hymns, special music, contributions for our kids and monthly communion help us, through steady and meaningful repetition, to look north to God.
Do you see what these points have in common? They are all religious. They are all spiritual. They aren't about programs, budgets, or membership initiatives. They are about the deep and the eternal. They are about the thing that no other organization does as well as houses of worship. If we are to build the new church out of the old, it makes sense to start by situating ourselves in the seas of spirituality. What better thing to use than a compass, helping us to narrow our thoughts down to the basics?
Other institutions and projects may grow out of our foundational work. They certainly should! Still, we need to remember that they are secondary. Buildings are nice to have, Sunday school is, too. It is great to have money and staff. It is lovely to bring them all together on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. Yet without these four points what we do is nothing but a show; a chance for warm and transitory feels.
So, where is your ship? How do you situate yourself? How do you situate you community? Where you land will say a lot about the direction to take. Then we can ask ourselves if we need to move or--just as likely, possibly even more--we can ask what new church we need to build in the same spot.
We should also remember that finding the location of others will help us form coalitions, squadrons and fleets to do the work of church together. As denominations break down and seminaries alter their course, each church has to find its way, but we do not go alone. Hedge concludes his sermon by saying "Let each church labor in its place and kind to develop and assert this catholicity, and the boundary lines which divide the sects shall be washed clean out in the gracious life that shall flood them all, and fuse them all into one prevailing kingdom of God, whose unshut gates shall exclude none that desire to enter, and where east and west and north and south shall meet in peace and join in praise."
That is in for Chapter 3! If you made it to the end, I congratulate you. As you know this is part of a series. I am not sure what comes next. If you have any thoughts or stories to share about the new church being built at your spot of spiritual life, please share!
Here is Chapter 1
Here is Chapter 2
Here is Chapter 4
All Hedge Quotes are from his sermon, "the Broad Church".
Leave a Reply.
This is my old weblog of many years. I will probably post here from time to time is there is a subject that does not fit WWG. However WWG is the more active page at this point.