Can a church be “one church,” for example, when people in congregations fight so intensely about what kind of music is appropriate in worship, and divide themselves into subgroups for “contemporary” and “traditional” services?
Can a denomination that’s predominantly white — far more so than the nation as a whole is — be a catholic and universal church, a “church everywhere and always,” as pastor Kevin Park put it?
At the end of Christendom in the Western world, “Why is there a church at all” — what’s the vision for the future of what an apostolic church looks like? asked professor Darrell Guder.
The new project is called Re-Forming Ministry. It’s being created to pursue pastoral excellence; it’s funded with a nearly $2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment; and it’s being organized by Barry Ensign-George in the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Part of that work involves bringing together a “core cluster” of 21 people — pastors, professors and representatives of governing bodies — who will meet periodically over the next five years for what’s being described as “sustained, intensive theological reflection.”
They will talk about ecclesiology — “who, what, why, where is the church,” according to a Web site describing the program — and will address such things as the meaning of church membership in a consumerist culture, the gifts and qualities needed in church leadership, and the ways in which the church should proclaim the gospel.
The first of those gatherings included three presentations on the implications of being one holy catholic and apostolic church. Here’s some of what they had to say.
Charles Wiley, associate for theology, PC(USA) , presented four main theses — one each for the words one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
For “one,” he talked of this reality: that there are questions about whether PC(USA) can still be considered either mainline or a denomination.
“I am not pessimistic,” Wiley said. “I have great hope for the Presbyterian church.” But “one of the reasons we’re here is because we think something is wrong,” he told the group. “Better public relations will not take us to the right place. Speaking the truth in love just might.”
Wiley said he didn’t grow up in the Presbyterian Church. When he became a Presbyterian, he was struck by how often people spoke glowingly of the denomination’s role in U.S. history. But while Eugene Carson Blake, the Presbyterian stated clerk in the 1950s might have had President Eisenhower’s ear back then (Blake appeared the cover of both Newsweek and Time magazines), the stated clerk today is anything but “a Protestant pontiff who’s a member of the shadow cabinet,” Wiley said. “He’s just ‘with us’ now.”
Wiley said he heard one pastor explain it like this in a sermon: “Nobody of influence is really listening” to the PC(USA) anymore. Some people still think that because “we are not bankrupt and we are not penniless” — because “we are loaded,” Wiley put it plainly — that the PC(USA) still has significant influence.
But wealth does not necessarily translate to authority and prestige, Wiley said. And in a market-driven culture, the Presbyterian church needs to define for itself an identity that’s “really church” and really significant, he said — and isn’t based just on a weak, voluntary association, making it just one choice among many, one denomination in the crowd. As a sign of how ecumenical even Presbyterians are about this, Wiley said that many Presbyterians “jump for joy” when their adult children go to church, any church, whether it’s Presbyterian or not. Even for many Presbyterians in the pews, the notion of denominationalism isn’t too strong.
In response to a question of what a denomination would look like that’s “more church,” Wiley said he’s not sure — but he favors “no more niche marketing,” or presenting the idea “that Presbyterianism is sort of for smart white folks.” And he said Presbyterians should be less willing to say “blessings on them” when people leave to find more satisfaction with the Baptists or the United Church of Christ.
For “holy,” Wiley contended that while most Presbyterians would say their experience in congregations is life-giving, their experience with governing bodies is generally life-draining. Many pastors see governing bodies as an imposition in their busy lives. And there can be a tendency for Presbyterians to be inward-looking — to try to fix the institutional church rather than to focus on worshiping God and serving the world, Wiley said.
For “catholic,” Wiley made the argument that homosexuality isn’t the most divisive issue in the PC(USA). He thinks it’s the worship wars — the stratification of congregations by worship style and often by generation. What does it mean to be catholic — universal and comprehensive — when Christians find it difficult to settle side-by-side and worship together, Wiley asked?
As for “apostolic,” Wiley spoke of concerns he has about whether Presbyterians have a shared understanding for what they mean when they speak about Jesus. “The greatest challenge to our mission is that we lack a cohesive and compelling account for salvation in Jesus Christ,” he stated as his thesis.
“If we don’t have a gospel to proclaim, we’d better close up shop,” Wiley said. Some are critical of conservatives for being too certain, but “there is a danger of being not certain enough.”
Darrell Guder, Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology at Princeton Seminary, spoke of the implications for mainline Protestantism of the end of Christendom, when the mainline denominations can no longer consider themselves to be the standard, the institutions of authority, but have been pushed to the margins by the increasingly secular and pluralistic nature of American culture.
That huge shift raises unsettling questions, Guder said, of what the theology of the church should be, and how that theology has been shaped by the holding a privileged position in the past.
The character of the New Testament church is missionary — Christians are called to be Christ’s witnesses, Guder said. But “what does it mean to be Christ’s letter to the world?”
Christendom has often not emphasized mission, he argued. But the early church was apostolic, sent, from the very outset. When the Bible in the second chapter of 1 Peter speaks of being “aliens and exiles,” the Western church has often not understood that, he said, but “our sister churches around the world read it with great clarity.” And now, increasingly on the margins, established American churches are beginning to understand it too.
Around the world, the idea of universality can be seen as deeply encouraging, Guder said. When it comes to Christianity, “every culture is a vessel, no culture is normative.” There is enormous catholic diversity, he said, meaning that in every culture Jesus Christ can be confessed and worshiped.
And Guder presented a new possibility for thought: reading the phrase from the creed backwards, sort of flipping it on its head, as apostolic, catholic, holy and one. Think of apostolic as implying action, “the community called to be sent” out in the name of Jesus Christ, Guder said, and “the sent-outness is the fundamental definition of the church.”
Keven Park, pastor of Bethany church, Bloomfield, N.J., said his views of “one holy catholic and apostolic” are shaped in part by his own experience — he’s recently ordained, an immigrant first to Canada, then more recently to the United States. He’s anything but a classic Presbyterian insider.
And Park spoke from the context of the theology of the cross — a sense of a Christian community that’s not a rigid hierarchy, but is grounded in a shared life of Jesus Christ.
The idea of one church, a unified church, implies that the community gathers in those who’ve been invalidated and ignored, and that those in power are willing to listen to voices from the margins, Park said. And a unified church would welcome ethnic diversity — while the PC(USA) remains predominantly white.
The idea of a holy church is “not about the church being the moral guardians, being self-absorbed” or being consumed with following the letter of the law regarding polity, Park said. But holiness can be seen as serving the poor and the needy, speaking out for justice, and being self-critical about what gets in the way of that work.
Catholicity, the “church everywhere and always,” represents to him the radical, inclusive hospitality of Jesus Christ, who was willing to spend time with sinners and tax collectors.
And apostolicity is not a matter of stature, but of obedience to the living Christ, of continuing dependence, standing in a great cloud of witnesses, Park said.
The Re-Forming Ministry Web site is located at www.pcusa.org/theologyandworship/whatwedo/reformingministry.