Donald Richmond: “In too much fullness is some want…” –Sir John Suckling in Chapters into Verse Over the past number of years I have repeatedly heard Roman Catholics emphasize the “fullness of [Roman] faith.” Within the grossly misguided context of evangelizing other Christians, this emphasis asserts that Roman fullness has something a bit more to […]
KB Categories Archives: Commentary
I’ve just returned from a brief business trip overseas that took me to Paris. It is a city that I have grown to love over the past 30 years and that I have visited, often for long periods of time, almost every year during those three decades. While there, I often have the opportunity to write and reflect. This year, those reflections were more focused as an old friend at the Sorbonne asked me to meet with his post-graduate seminar group to talk about the state of the American church and its politics in light of the recent election, a subject that has been extensively reported upon by European news outlets. Thankfully, I had some materials near at hand, so a great deal of preparation was not involved. As usually happens, however, sometimes the lecturer learns more than the student in the process of teaching.
France, while culturally Roman Catholic, is a secular state. Churches and, indeed, church institutions receive few special privileges apart from a certain measure of tax exemption. France is considered to be one of the most irreligious of all countries. According to a survey undertaken in 2010, a full 40% of the French population answered that “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force,” with only 27% stating that they believe there is a God. The other 27% believe that there is “some sort of life force or spirit.” The remaining 6% “do not know.” On any given weekend less than 5% of the country’s Roman Catholics will attend church. Protestants (mainly Reformed evangelicals) make up less than 2% of the population, just behind the 3% who are adherents of Islam. As an example of the secular nature of French society, getting married in France is a wholly civil function which takes place at a municipal office, while a subsequent religious service (or none) is wholly the decision of the couple and the tenants of their faith community. Since 2013, the same rules apply to same-sex marriage.
It is clearly a different landscape than that of the United States, which most French reporting portrays as “obsessed with religion.”
All this was on my mind as I prepared to meet with the seminar group. Although my French is less fluent than I could desire, the small group of twenty-somethings around the table were patient and understanding. I presented the latest figures from Pew Research on the state of the Church in the U.S., referencing the decline of mainline denominations, the apparent support of evangelicals for the current administration, and a range of other topics. Afterwards, a lively discussion ensued. There were, as always, a number of questions about the availability of teaching positions in the U.S., as there are fewer and fewer posts available in France. I then, sadly, had to inform them of the difficulties being encountered by American universities and seminaries.
As we were preparing to end the session, I took the opportunity to pose my own question to the seminar group. I asked, “What is the greatest challenge you are facing?” Now, after the previous discussion, I was expecting the participants to talk about tuition, teaching posts, etc. After a bit of silence, however, a young man in the group spoke up and said this:
“Dr. Arnold, we are facing the death of historic Christianity in Western Europe. It is clear that this decline has spread to the United States and the Western Hemisphere at large. Like a pandemic, the decline morphs and changes as it spreads and then returns to its place of origin. The evangelicals in the United States are ‘ahistorical,’ dependent not on a reasoned or historic faith but on marketing models largely derived from totalitarian propaganda systems which value only experience. You cannot answer their claims, because the claims have no basis in either history or reason. This kind of evangelicalism is also in Latin America and has spread, returning to Europe in a virulent form. They will only allow the ‘history’ that bolsters not a reasoned or compelling argument, but only a marketing statement. It is the religious equivalent of ‘Make America Great Again.’ The worst part of this is that like all marketing and propaganda, it only lasts for a generation. At the end, we will be left with nothing that speaks of an historic, reasonable Christian faith. We are afraid, Dr. Arnold, that we might be the last generation to know this faith, talking only to each other.”
I carried that young man’s reflection with me through the remainder of my time in Paris and the flight home.
Earlier in the week, a thought had struck me, which I shared with a friend. Through the kindness of a colleague, I had stayed in a condo carved out of a portion of a seventeenth century Musketeer barracks in the midst of three churches and a religious-based hospital with a chapel and a carillon. In that condo, I constantly heard the bells ringing out from the churches and the hospital chapel. It struck me that for hundreds of years, people, ordinary people, would have known what the various bells meant– the call to Church, the Angelus, the Words of Institution, the end of church, etc. Today, however, although the bells still ring, now no one knows what they signify (except for a few antiquarians like me and a limited number of the faithful). It is sort of like us– we say words to the world around us, but society no longer knows what the words signify. We know the words (and argue about them) but the world at large has no idea. We’ve become the bells– sounding lovely and sacred, but devoid of meaning to a society at large which has abandoned faith– as we keep speaking only to each other.
“…Go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
Politics had ripped apart the Church. The disputes had grown so rancorous that both sides were willing to resort to violence.
The world had become one of fabulous wealth for the one percent and a descent into poverty for everyone else.
Now that the Church had joined itself to political power, it felt free to strike out against dissenters with an almost fanatical ruthlessness.
Meanwhile, the Middle East was coming to pieces, with a resurgent Islam driving Christians from areas where they had lived for generations. It had become so dire that other global powers were now prepared to send troops to the trouble spots.
As large farming conglomerates bought up family farms, rural areas descended into poverty, and small churches, beloved by generations of believers, fell into ruins and dotted the landscape.
A young man of 22 years of age used to seek out these small ruined churches as he hiked through the countryside. He was a deep disappointment to his parents. They had given him everything. He on the other had, had done very little. He was not interested in his father’s business enterprise and rejected the offer of a job. He had considered joining the military, but backed out at the last moment. He had become enthusiastic about social work, but after his parents found out that he had taken money out of the business to finance what he was doing, they considered filing charges against him and had decided instead to throw him out of the house. Today, as he visited a small ruined chapel, famous for the bits of art that remained, including an Byzantine styled painted cross, he heard a voice speak to him three times, “Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
The young man was Franceso di Pietro di Bernardone, known to us as Francis of Assisi, and the year was 1204.
Biographers of Francis always recount this as a turning point in his life and almost immediately move from what Francis heard in that small ruined chapel to his wider universal mission to rebuild the Church. In doing this, however, they miss a salient point : “What did Francis actually do after hearing the voice?” We know what he didn’t do. He did not pick up a rock and throw it in anger and frustration at the pitiful state of the church. No, he started picking up stones and laying them one atop the other. He began to rebuild the Church of San Damiano. The greater work, arose out of the simple singular work of rebuilding the Church where he was– right then, right there.
Today, in the United States we are in a state in which politics has ripped apart the Church. A minority of voters elected a thrice married, lying, schoolyard bully who knows little, if anything, of the Christian faith, and evangelicals were a large part of the equation. Say what you will, the public perception of evangelical support for Trump is real and is being continually bolstered by the members of his so-called Faith Advisory Council and the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. If Trump succeeds, evangelicals will own it. If Trump fails, evangelicals will own it. If Trump is impeached, evangelicals will own it, and they will own it for years to come, not only further alienating younger people, but the majority of the country who voted against him.
As the perception of evangelicals being joined at the hip with Trump becomes firmly set in the minds of most Americans, the other manifestation of “Church” is that of historic denominations, whose steeples and towers are simply part of the American landscape, and those denominations, almost without exception, are in real trouble, if not failing altogether.
I have watched my own old denomination, The Episcopal Church, become something that is almost unrecognizable as a Christian entity over the course of just thirty years. Perhaps it began with the illegal ordination of women in 1974, being done without the consent of the General Synod. (I am not speaking here of the theological issue of women’s ordination, only of how it came to be accomplished). Or maybe it was the election of the first openly Gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003 in defiance of the views of the wider Anglican Communion and the Lambeth consultative process. My guess, however, is that it is something far deeper. If I had to speculate, I would say that it was a smug self-satisfaction within both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in America that given money, endowments, property, pensions and positions, these churches simply could not fail, no matter the cultural issues that might arise from time to time. Worse than that, good men and women allowed it to happen until they too realized that they had passed the tipping point and that what had been lost, could no longer be recovered. The very heart of the church was gone.
If it were only a matter of the Episcopal Church it would be a tragedy, but the same story may be told of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and, indeed, the Presbyterian Church, USA. The United Methodist Church as well has passed its tipping point and is beginning its descent into the maelstrom. We will watch the UMC as sexuality issues tear it apart. We will watch as American Methodists fight for budget control over against the rising tide of conservative African and Asian Methodists. We will watch as clergy retire with fewer and fewer clergy available to take their place. We will watch as smaller churches close and seminaries merge hoping for survival. Yet, in the end, as aging congregations fade from the scene and all the attempts to reach “young people” come to naught, we will be left with only memories of what once was, is no more, and will never return from the obscurity and shadows into which a once great denomination will fade.
Of course, there are those associations and denominations slightly less known to the public at large. Some readers will be aware of the difficulties experienced by the Calvary Chapel Association and the Calvary Chapel Global Network. While both claim descent from the Christian youth movement of the late 1960s, each group has morphed into faith communities far removed from their origin. Regardless of issues concerning polity, structure, finance, pastoral accountability and all the rest, each group now occupies the borderland between mainstream evangelicalism and fundamentalism and have grown increasingly reactionary with the passing of years, along with many other similar independent churches. Through these last number of years, a singular pastoral and didactic style, pioneered by Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, has been codified into particular “distinctives” with little appreciation of the historic Church, scholarship or, indeed, an appreciation of other traditions, moving it further into an identity which, in truth, is more closely aligned with the fundamentalism of the1920s. As the current leadership ages and disappears from the scene and particular pastoral scandals come to light, the long term viability of both groups is uncertain, especially as the number of adherents continues to diminish and as a portion of the leadership is openly identified with the far right of American politics.
Then there are those groups, once identified with mainline denominations, that are separate from the larger denominations either through history or in protest. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod exemplify this for Lutherans. Both were born of immigrant populations, both are neo-confessional and both are wholly at odds with other Christian bodies who do not subscribe, not only to an inerrant Bible, but with the additional provision that the Bible is only rightly interpreted in the light of the Lutheran Confessions. Their isolation may be witnessed with regard to even praying with those outside of their denomination, for the LCMS bars its clergy from “worshiping” with other Christians. As a result of this, a LCMS pastor in Connecticut was asked to apologize by the president of the denomination (and did so) for participating in a prayer vigil for the 26 children and adults killed at the Newtown elementary school. Another LCMS pastor in New York was suspended for praying at a similar vigil in 2001, 12 days after the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in which 2,996 people were killed and over 6,000 were injured.
The casual observer, looking for what it means to be a Christian, just having the most simple and basic idea that Christians love one another and pray together, especially in times of tragedy, might well wonder what sort of insanity they are witnessing. Meanwhile, we parse another Greek verb and argue over the right interpretation of 16th century documents that have no claim to inerrancy or divine inspiration.
Separation, lack of charity, building of fences and mutual suspicion have become endemic in American Christianity. Liberal churches drive out conservatives and conservatives regroup and build the walls higher, pushing out supposed liberals in their midst. Even the definition of “liberal” and “conservative” differs as you slide along the scale from left to right and back again, with people constantly pushing to the extremes. Mix this with politics, liberal or conservative, and it becomes a deadly brew, alienating large segments of an unchurched population. All the while, churches, both liberal and conservative, are aging and dying at an unprecedented rate. If you believe that you or your church is immune, you are sadly mistaken. Whether newer Church bodies such as the Anglican Church in North America (formed in protest to the policies of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Canada) will learn the lessons of the past remains to be seen.
Of course, this is only to speak of Protestant America.
The Roman Catholic Church is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It is the largest Christian body in the United States. Yet even here the story is similar. Losing over 12 million adherents in the course of a decade, the only real growth being experienced is through immigration. This growth, however, comes with a caveat: The vast majority of second generation immigrants do not remain in the church. Priests are in short supply and are aging to such an extent that a crisis looms on the horizon. The religious orders which once staffed Roman Catholic educational institutions across the nation are dying and, within our lifetime, many will be only a memory. The innate tribalism of American Roman Catholicism mitigates against meaningful evangelism and growth and, therefore, most converts come through marriage, not conviction of conscience. In an attempt to slightly “expand the tent” of the church, Benedict XVI, established an extra-territorial diocese for the Anglican Ordinariate, allowing a place for married Anglican clergy and, it was hoped, their congregations, to join the Roman Catholic Church. It was to have a distinctive Anglican liturgy. The purpose was to bring the riches of the Anglican patrimony back to Rome. In the main, however, those attracted were ritualists who, in many cases, preferred the Latin Mass. Currently, the Ordinariate is more interested in celibate clergy… and another opportunity for outreach is lost.
Finally, there is the Orthodox Church with its rich and ancient tradition. In the late 1970s , it appeared as though evangelicals looking for a home, might find it in Orthodoxy. Peter Gillquist, once of Campus Crusade, had established house churches, mainly in the Chicago area, eventually forming a group called the Evangelical Orthodox Church. They were steeped in church history and considered Orthodoxy their natural destination. In 1987 Gillquist led 17 churches with a combined membership of about 2,000 members into the Antiochian Orthodox Church as a distinct body named the Antiochian Evangelical Mission with a vision of attracting other evangelicals to come along. Once within the hierarchical confines of the church, however, continued outreach flagged and by 1995, the group was absorbed into the standard diocesan framework. All this is to say, Orthodoxy may be an option for some, but it will not be an Orthodoxy tailored to evangelicals, Anglicans or Reformed. It will be Orthodoxy with its own hierarchy, culture, politics and traditions– and it will not change to suit you. Even here there is a shortage of priests and almost a quarter of these clergy are uncertain about the future of Orthodoxy in this country. Moreover, the Orthodox churches in America (some 20 National bodies and 6 Oriental bodies) struggle with ethnicity and, it must be said, are very much bound by national cultures in their orientation.
So, here we are in the second decade of the twenty-first century looking at a landscape of uncertainty, dying churches, split denominations, and politicized Christian movements. We look for the Church and, like Francis, we are confronted with broken walls, smashed windows and scattered stones, with a single cross remaining, reminding us of what once was. But do we hear the voice?
Like Francis, I believe we have to set aside the idea of a “great life work” and, instead, deal with the stones that are lying on the ground in front of us. I’m not asking you to change the world. I’m asking you to pick up one stone, walk with it over to the broken wall and set it in place. Then, walk back, find one more stone, walk it over to the wall and set that one in place… and keep doing it, one stone at a time. This is not about hiring an architect, commissioning a feasibility study, organizing a fund raising campaign, getting three bids from construction companies and then deciding if it’s a good idea. The stones are lying at your feet. Pick one up…
“…Go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
Many have been hurt by the church. I understand that, because I’ve been hurt as well. Pick up the first stone. Go to church. Find one that fits you as well as one can and go. If the pastor ignores you, seek him out and introduce yourself. If you can’t find a church in the first instance, start one. Find one other person who feels like yourself, make a time to meet at Starbucks on Sundays. Bring your Bible, or prayer book, or devotional and talk together. Share your needs and pray together. Maybe even find one or two more. It may not be St. Paul’s Cathedral with a choir, but for you, right now, it’s church. Then, together, find a body of believers that all of you can join. Pick up the first stone.
Church, however, is not just about what we receive, it’s also about what we give. Pick up the second stone. Find a place to give of yourself. God has given you gifts to share. You have the ability to give a cup of water to someone who is thirsty. When you find a church, ask what you can do. You might have half an hour to go visit someone in a nursing home and bring some comfort. There might be a church, that’s not even yours, but that has a ministry to the homeless that has need of volunteers. There are opportunities all around us to share the love of Christ in practical ways. Pick up the second stone.
“…Go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
If it is going to happen, we have to do it ourselves. We can’t simply wait for someone else to provide us with the “perfect church”… the “perfect opportunity” for service. With God’s help and God’s grace, it has to happen here and now starting with each one of us. If we cannot stand the hate speech of some, we have to speak of Christ’s love. If the separation of Christians is something we find scandalous, we must reach across the divide. It can be done. It must be done. God give us grace and strength to pick up that first stone, not to throw in anger or frustration, but to build.