CHICAGO – It came to pass that author Diana Butler Bass, a scholar of the history of religion, was speaking to more than 660 Presbyterians at the NEXT Church national gathering on March 17 on the same evening that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) made a significant decision about marriage equality.
Bass was speaking about awakening – about whether western Christianity is in the midst of a Fourth Great Awakening, about what’s not working in American churches, about what might come next. “The orange people – it’s like a trapezoid of despair,” she said, referring to a graphic she displayed, with statistics demonstrating the declines that mainline and other churches are experiencing reflected in orange.
“That’s not where I want to park tonight” – stuck in the trapezoid of despair, Bass told the Presbyterians. She wanted to take them “on the journey of the Christianity after religion, the journey of Iona, the journey of something new. What can come among us and grow in our midst?”
That night, as Bass spoke, the Presbytery of the Palisades, located in New Jersey, became the 86th of the PC(USA)’s 171 presbyteries to vote in favor of an amendment to the PC(USA)’s constitution to define Christian marriage as a commitment between “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” That vote pushed the measure over the top: the amendment had passed.
Bass graciously made space during her presentation for a spontaneous celebration of marriage equality among the NEXT Church attendees when that news broke on Twitter and Facebook. And then she deftly turned back to her subject: With changes like that, what’s next, for the PC(USA) and other denominations, and for people increasingly uncomfortable with the orbit of organized religion?
Among her points:
- People who harken back to the good old days – the “perfect past world” – sometimes scapegoat those they see standing in the way of a return to that. Among those groups: African Americans and people of color; women; immigrants; gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people.
- Transformation is a process – part of which is loss, grief, closing down. Bass uses these terms: letting go, letting be, letting something new come.
- Denominations talk endlessly about the crisis – about how many people are leaving the church – but often that’s where it ends. “What I have yet to see is a denomination that says ‘We have failed,’ ” Bass said. “I see denominations saying ‘We might fail. We are on the verge of failing. What can we do to keep from failing?’ But I have not seen the other,” an admission that “we have failed to meaningfully communicate” what a life of faith means in the world in which we live.
- This issue is much bigger than the church. “The stage of the Fourth Great Awakening is the world – it’s not just about us,” Bass said. Signs of change are evident everywhere – in politics, economics, culture, the environment. “Right now the planet is going through a shift in consciousness,” she said. “The stage of the Fourth Great Awakening is every corner of the planet.”
- The resistance to progress “comes out in different ways, violent ways and political ways. It’s not about liberal and conservative. It’s about having the ability to walk through toward the future. It’s about creating a world of hope and joy, being part of that.”
- What’s ahead for a denomination like the PC(USA), or Bass’s own Episcopal church? “Are we going to be a pilgrim church?” Bass asked. “Or we just be one more overbuilt denomination that has to sell off a lot of real estate? Those are the possibilities for us. History is ours to make. And as Christians, we make that history with God, in the power of the Holy Spirit and the vision and the friendship and the love of Jesus.”