I have been re-reading a book by Alister McGrath on the history of Protestantism. McGrath’s “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea” has given me some insight into the current situation in which the PC(USA) finds itself. The closing chapter has been particularly relevant. Here’s an example:
“Protestantism stated its identity in terms of a method rather than an outcome… . The Protestant principle of grounding matters of doctrine and ethics in the Bible and subjecting these to constant review immediately generated controversy.”
Using an analogy of biological mutation, McGrath attempts to predict what the movement might look like during this time of unprecedented change. He lists three trends, one of which is “a continuing shift away from a controlling institutional centralism.” He lifts up two understandings of Protestant identity. One is that of the traditionalists, “who hold that the essence of Protestantism can only be preserved by ‘freezing’ defining moments in the past.” The other “locates its identity in its constant self-examination in light of the Bible and its willingness to correct itself.”
There is an inherent tension between these two perspectives, a tension that is pulled taunt to the point of breaking as we indeed do shift away from controlling institutional centralism. The discussion about the number and role of synods, the examination of the structure of OGA and PMA and whether the twain shall meet, the overtures regarding the General Assembly processes and so much more is happening as we debate and discern and, yes, argue over what to preserve and what to change. We have made numerous turns and there is not consensus as to whether or not they are the right ones. What follows is ambiguity as to what, when, where, how or if to change. Constant review generates controversy still.
Given the seeming chaos, the uncontrollable nature of this season, we worry that the sky is falling, the church (the one we know and love) is dying, our sphere of power and influence is shrinking and the defining moments of our past are fading from memory forever. In fear we seize all the control we can muster: manage the message, limit access to information, rearrange the deck chairs even as the ship is filling with water.
But when we do this, we are the ones forgetting. We have forgotten our Protestant identity. McGrath writes, “The relentless energy and creativity of one generation gives rise to a new movement; a later generation, anxious because the original dynamism and energy of the movement appears to be dissipating, tries to preserve it by petrification — that is, by freezing the original vision…petrification leads to the conservation of only a structure, not a life-giving vision itself. However perfectly preserved in the entomologist’s specimen room, the butterfly is still dead.”
Our Reformed identity has at is heart this cycle of birth, maturing, aging and death that leads to renewal, that leads to resurrection. Nonetheless, there is profound loss and pain involved. I’ve seen the sepia colored photos of the men’s Sunday school class 75 strong. I’ve packed up and put in the church archives the retreat mementos from the now disbanded women’s circle. I miss that time when Sunday mornings and even Wednesday evenings were free of soccer games and swim meets. I lament the inability of many congregations to support a full-time pastor. I wonder what ministry will look like for those in my children’s generation who are called to serve.
But I don’t want to be afraid. I don’t want to be petrified. I don’t want to be among the frozen chosen. I want to be part of God’s life-giving vision and mission even though it inevitably means going through death to get there.
I think parts of our beloved church are under hospice care. Recognizing that and naming it is crucial because our time to say what needs to be said, to gather together the family at the bedside, to ease the pain of the suffering in tangible ways, is limited. If we deny the reality of this impending death we miss the opportunity to support each other, to hear the wisdom of the soon to be departed, and to receive a blessing.
We need to be the Protestants we are: proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus Christ, holding firm to the authority of Scripture, confident that – through the power of the Holy Spirit – God will reveal a new thing, not petrified, but very much alive and life-giving.
Grace and peace,