Friday, August 21, 2009
I have been reading Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence, a tour de force on the signs of change in the world and the Church. It is a fascinati look at the events over the past 500 years. I am especially drawn by her evaluation of the events that happened at the beginning era she calls the Great Reformation because I have been experiencing my own Reformation over the past two years as I pastor a small Lutheran congregation.
There is a temptation to think that the Church is a bulwark of stability. As a student of history, I know that it isn’t. There has never been a time when the Church has not been about change. I believe that is the message of Christ. But there are times when the Church moves or changes more rapidly than others and I do believe that we are in the midst of one such era now.
As I was becoming more involved in the Roman Catholic Church in my twenties, the Church was just responding to the edicts of Vatican II. Vatican II called religious orders and scholars to return to their roots, to look for direction in the past. I know that my order was returning to look at the writings of our foundress and the reasons that some of the customary had developed. The past was more accessible by the mid 20th century. History had become a science in the 19th century and people studied it as they did biology.
Angela Merici, a 16th century illiterate woman formed a group of women to help the young women of her day to combat the wanton culture of Brescia, Italy. She formed not an Order of nuns; she developed a companionship of women. Many of the convents of her era had become hiding places for women who did not fit in to the society. Religious orders had become repositories for the disabled, the disoriented and the unlovely. Angela formed a group that would not be cloistered but who would be available to the young women that were often being forced into prostitution or similar lives. Because the convents had become unable to be about the mission that women of faith needed, Angela created something out of the ordinary. The Angelines or the Company of St. Ursula did not fit into the nice “churchly patterns” and were not initially under the authority of the Church. Gradually it came under the umbrella of the papacy and finally about 70 years later, the Company was enclosed by communal agreement and became one of the major Orders of women religious in the Church. Angela told her followers “to change when change is needed.” It allowed the Order to make the necessary changes that allowed them to meet the needs of their times. And it is through those words, that I am seeing both the Episcopalians (TEC) and the Lutherans (ELCA) as they have opened doors to LGBT folk this summer. They have gone out of the ordinary to make something right.
The passage of TEC’s statement that moratorium on the election of partnered bishops is over and the direction to the liturgical gurus to plan something for same-sex relationship and the ELCA’s passing of a whole new image of human sexuality have been statements that the Church is changing when there is need. Will it cost these churches? Of course! Both denominations will lose members who cannot change, who cannot see that not only are they embracing new theologies, but that they are in a new era. TEC may be regarded as second-class citizens in world-wide Anglicanism. But it has stood for something other than the colonial expression of England in the world. The ELCA are taking their place with the Church of Sweden and others who have already made this step.
Church can so easily become an addiction for many. Church, more than the other institutions in life, often moves or changes slowly. So slow that some are often led to believe that it does not change. There are theologies of God that says God is immutable and unchanging, too. Some want things not to change because there is a false sense of security built-in if things do not change. Addiction to certainty is a fatal disease for the Church.
It is interesting that returning to our roots is what allows the Church to be creative. And it is the cleaning off the accretions of 500 years of reformation allows a renewal that may take the Church out of way that Anglicanism or Lutheranism has been traditionally described.
When I was working in a Spanish-speaking church, it was difficult to figure out what was uniquely Anglican about the Episcopal Church. Now that I am working in a Lutheran setting, I find it difficult to say what is uniquely Lutheran about our faith. Yes, there are ways of doing things that mirror our cultural ties, but there is nothing that is uniquely Lutheran or Episcopalian about the love of Jesus. So perhaps what we will see in the next generations is less centrality in the voice of Luther and less flaunting of the ways of Canterbury and more discussion on who Christ is.