My family and I worship at the first post-Reformation church established in Edinburgh, Scotland. Begun on the site of what was a Franciscan monastery, the church, Greyfriars Kirk, chose to keep the name Greyfriars to connect this Reformation church with its ancient and catholic faith. This decision serves as one small sign that the Reformation best understood itself, not as a complete break with the medieval Catholic faith, but as a restoration and reformation movement of the ancient catholic faith and the faith of the early Christian communities. The new Pope, Francis I, has also taken his name from the founder of the Greyfriars, St. Francis himself. The way Pope Francis is conducting the early activities of his pontificate might offer a few lessons to Reformed Presbyterian Christians in our own ongoing quest for reform and renewal in the life of the church. These lessons also have their roots in early Reformation commitments to the life of faith.
Apparently at the papal announcement in March, when all the papal vestments and regalia were being placed around Pope Francis’ shoulders, he stopped the process and informed those in his presence that the ‘carnival’ was over. Minutes later he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s wearing only the simple white papal cassock. I have also read reports that he does not wear the red papal shoes, but prefers his plain black shoes, that he took the bus to work as archbishop in Buenos Aires, and he cooked his own meals in his simple apartment. Historically, Presbyterian Christians have fostered a commitment to simplicity in worship, liturgy, liturgical dress, and Christian living in the world. Part of our distinct identity as Reformed Christians has been an opposition to lavish spending and conspicuous consumption and personal pretense.1 Do we need to wear our own personal stoles and colourful vestments? What theological or ethical reason (other than personal statement) do we have to do so? Moving beyond liturgical quibbles, Reformed Christians seem to conform just as easily as any other members of our culture to the consumerist pursuits of our larger society (less so in worship, but certainly in most other aspects of life). Rather than accepting the premise that we are consumers in all facets of life, might our religious convictions give us the courage and faith to struggle with the poverty of our affluence? Myself included, we mainstream, mainline, upper-middle-class Presbyterians embrace our affluence all too easily. Perhaps Pope Francis has something to teach us.
In her recent theology of the church, Mary McClintock Fulkerson makes the startling discovery that the “more highly educated and progressive-sounding US whites are, the less likely they are to be in racially mixed churches or neighborhoods.”2 Pope Francis has called on the Roman Catholic Church to be a church of the poor and for the poor. While Reformed churches have historically been middle-class churches, current demographic trends have led us to become less racially mixed, less socio-economically mixed, even as we continue to make beautifully-worded pronouncements on diversity.3 There is a great disconnect between our spoken commitments to diversity and existing reality. Might we also learn from Francis how to be a church for the poor, but also the church of the poor, a church of the middle class, working class, underclass, and yes, the upper class, who find their identity in Jesus Christ, in common life and worship together, and in the beauty, simplicity, humility, and catholicity of his body in the world.
Chris Currie is an ordained minister in the PC(USA) living in Scotland with his wife Stephanie and three children while he pursues a Ph.D. in Theology at the University of Edinburgh, School of Divinity. While in Edinburgh he serves the larger church as a chaplain to the local prison.
1. John H. Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition: A Way of Being the Christian Community (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), 81, 220.
2. Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 16.
3. At the Society for the Study of Theology Conference in York, UK (2012), University of Virginia professor of religious studies, Valerie Cooper, noted that the most articulate statements on diversity and multiculturalism come from the least racially and socio-economic mixed churches.