Not a Dinner Party

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Thoughts, Musings and Opinions about Theology, Politics, and Life in Seminary.

Church

Today is the Lord’s Day (unless you are a Seventh Day Adventist, Jewish or Muslim), so I thought I would postpone my “Christian and Conservative Idealization of the 1950s in View of ‘Madmen'” post and write about why church is so difficult, and why committing to a church is so difficult.

As you might be aware, I am a woman; as you might also be aware, I trend left, politically speaking (OK, “trend left” is a bit of an understatement). As well, I am an evangelical, and tend to be orthodox in my theology, meaning I still think it’s important to adhere to the Creeds–Nicene and Apostles’, mainly. You would not think, at first, that these three pieces of information–gender, politics, orthodoxy–would necessarily make the question of church difficult. And it doesn’t always: plenty of women attend churches that are “complementarian” or belong to denominations that do not ordain women–in fact, many women are very vocal defenders of these policies, especially those associated with the SBC, the conservative wing of the Catholic Church, the PCA, Mars Hill or CBMW; plenty of liberals keep their mouths shut and attend conservative churches, or don’t see politics as a priority outside of the voting booth; some evangelicals are perfectly fine attending less-than-orthodox churches because they value belonging to a neighborhood perish or prioritize high church liturgy or the centrality of the weekly Eucharist over teaching or belief statements.

For me, though, as well as for some kindred spirits in my life, these factors significantly complicate decisions about where to attend church. Here is how it usually goes: I look for a church in which Jesus Christ is central, and in which the gospel is preached. In the United States and Canada, unfortunately, this weeds out a lot of churches. Then I move to secondary considerations, regarding worship: theologically meaningful worship (hymns are a plus!); in-depth, intelligent, theologically sound preaching; regular (hopefully weekly) Eucharist/communion; reverence for and centrality of the Word of God; some use of liturgy or orders of worship; and efforts to include beauty and sensory experiences into worship.

Worship is foundational, to me, and I believe that it should not be about what “feels good” to us but what is honoring to God; at the same time, we have to be able to enter into it in an authentic manner. I think that several things help me/us to do this: liturgy, because within set forms and prayers we are released from our perpetual self-consciousness; conscious openness to the Holy Spirit; engaging different parts of our selves–I am drawn into worship through words, while others might be drawn in through incense, icons, or music; the Eucharist, because it was instituted by Christ, has been present since the Church’s inception, and unites us with Communion of Saints, past and present; and preaching rooted in Scripture.

At this point I often encounter my first problem: most evangelical, “theologically orthodox” churches consist of a whitewashed church or warehouse, a few worship songs (with loud guitars and drums), extemporaneous prayer (“Lord, I just want…”) and a sermon by a charismatic preacher in jeans (with a powerpoint!). There is nothing wrong with this, in terms of the gospel still being preached, and people praising God, but I feel a longing for something deeper and more substantive, that is connected with the rich history of the Church universal. I often feel that this leaves me with two options (I am aware of non-denominational and emergent churches trying to create church from the best of all traditions, but I think this “picking and choosing” can be a bit dangerous), as I do believe in the necessity of denominational structures: Anglican or Presbyterian. This, subsequently, gives rise to new problems, specifically the conservative vs. mainline issue.

Right now, this issue is thought of as a code for “the gay thing”, which is tragic, because I think that this caricatures the very real and very complex questions at hand, and focuses the entire conversation around the fate of a particular group. Many of the mainline churches have, for various reasons, adopted a kind of gospel of niceness and inclusivity. For the gospel to be nice and inclusive, though, this involves a lot of watering-down of belief, and for me, this has always “begged the question” (wrong use of phrase, I know): what’s the point? If Jesus didn’t really die for us and was not raised as the first fruit of what is to come, we are basically finding artificial ways to give meaning to our lives, which to me is a waste of time: why not be honest and join a humanist community center or something? There are ways to create meaning in life without pretending it is based upon something that you have watered down so much that there is nothing to actually believe in. My point is, in aiming to become a socially acceptable, influential civil institution, the mainline churches mostly focus on doing good work in society (not a bad thing at all) while being vaguely spiritual and trying not to offend anyone by claiming exclusivity of doctrine or belief system (or anything else).

There are exceptions, of course–West Side Presbyterian, Christ Church of Hamilton-Wenham, Church of the Advent, University Presbyterian, to name a few, and these churches make a strong argument for continuing as witnesses in their denominations. This is a good thing, but these churches are tough to find.

So, because I get frustrated with not being able to at least start on the same page with the basics, i.e. who Jesus was, I move to the more theologically conservative forms of these two denominations, and here we run into the other two problems.

1. Did I mention that I am a woman? Well, I am also a woman getting an MDiv (Masters in Divinity), hoping to go into some form of “professional” ministry (professional=I want a job someday). So, while a lot of people who may feel that women should be in ministry can continue to belong to churches or denominations that as yet do not support this can stay within them and work to change them from within, which is certainly laudable, I don’t really have that luxury, having felt called to serve as a minister of the church. This rules out, then, the PCA, and because the PCUSA is so all over the place, theologically speaking, and not particularly innovative or particularly liturgical, this basically rules out the Presbyterian Church.

The natural choice for me, then, is the Anglican Church–but which Anglican church? As anyone who has eyes or ears (to read the newspaper or listen to the news) is probably aware, the Anglican Communion is splintering further and more contentiously every time you turn around. The Episcopal Church, which is the main Anglican body in the United States, is still very diverse, theologically. However, in any area where I would be living or working, this is not the case (the Northwest or the Northeast). In particular, the Diocese of Massachusetts was really depressing, because it was the rare person I met who believed in what I consider to be the basics of the faith. Also, these people primarily attended the Church of the Advent, which I had several problems with in other areas, or Christ Church, Hamilton, which is now splitting. A good friend of mine is pursuing ordination in this Diocese, and he has told me, “As long as I am not told to stop preaching the gospel, I’ll stay”. But for me, I feel that there has to be more than being allowed to preach the gospel–it has to be encouraged and it has to be central.

Turning, then, to the Common Cause Partners in the United States and Canada, who are working to form a new province, new issues arise. Two of these are foremost for me: many of these bodies initially left the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women, and, if they did not, many continued to refuse to ordain women, like those in Texas and Virginia. Bob Duncan, the bishop/leader of the coalition is intensely supportive of women in ministry, as is my former Rector, Father Jurgen Liias, of Christ Church. However, it is unclear whether, in the new province, women will be marginalized, and to what extent. On a final note, many of these churches are significantly lower, in terms of worship, than I am now comfortable with. Although I continue to be Reformed, theologically speaking, I have also come to value an approach to worship that engages the traditional prayers of the church as well as visual and sensory approaches to worship that are often lost in the evangelical Anglican churches. It will, I think, be rare to find a theologically orthodox, egalitarian, high church-leaning fellowship, which saddens me. Christ Church, Hamilton is certainly an exception, but will soon look a lot different in its two new incarnations.

2. As anyone who knows me at all knows, I am passionate about politics and social justice. Politics is often a bad word, especially among people trying to break the hold of conservatives on the evangelical church, because we want to make it clear that we are not replacing one ideology with another, but trying, instead to broaden the conversation, so I am hesitant to even bring it up, except to say that I value a church where there is no political litmus test, one way or the other, and one that is not politically homogeneous, one way or the other. Unfortunately, churches can all to easily be caricatured because they all too easily fit the caricature: theologically liberal churches are politically liberal, and theologically conservative churches are politically conservative, and I hate it.

I hate that if I want to make a choice rooted in boldness regarding the gospel I often spend all my time defending my politics, and I hate that in churches where I am politically comfortable, I am made to feel like an idiot for believing orthodox Christianity. Why is this? Contrary to a lot of the conventional wisdom, I do not think that this is because theology clearly determines politics. There are arguments to be made on both sides, on all the issues. You could just as easily defend socialism as free-market capitalism from a biblical perspective (although I obviously think that it’s hard to defend free-market capitalism, biblically speaking).

These theological and political demarcations are an obvious product of the culture wars of the last century, and need not continue to exist in the concrete, inflexible manner in which they do now. One reason that I believe this is that these connections are predominately true of white Christians. In the African American Church and the immigrant churches of the U.S., traditional, conservative, orthodox theology is often found alongside intensely liberal political activism. Frankly, most white congregations have not been forced to examine these issues at the same level, because they have not been politically or economically marginalized by society; they have not had to fight for basic rights, which often manifests in “liberal” views and action. However, because these demarcations have taken root in the mainline denominations and in their evangelical counterparts, choosing a church is often political. Thus, in the Anglican world, much of the theologically conservative movement has been funded by politically conservative groups with broad-based agendas, such as the Institute for Religion and Democracy. This was demonstrated–all too painfully for me–in an article by Jim Naughton.

FINALLY, what of social justice and orthodoxy? The news here is not good, for several reasons. First, the culture wars and their political ramifications  have meant that to talk about social justice means you are liberal, which means you are not really a Christian (in the eyes of many). Second, many evangelical and fundamentalist churches take the view that evangelism and sharing the gospel are the first priority, and social justice is optional, which, in my view, is totally antithetical to the incarnational gospel of Jesus.

As a post-script: to return once more to the homosexuality question that these debates are entirely boiled down to–I have a very hard time with evangelical churches defining themselves around this issue. Can we not be better at defining ourselves around the exclusivity and centrality of Jesus? Around the true gospel? I would suggest that this is where we should take our stand; the biblical gospel is already an unpopular, uncomfortable stand, but it is one that is rooted in love rather than in hateful rhetoric that does us no good in the world. I am not saying that churches should abandon their values, whatever they are, but that the gospel itself is where we should take our stand.

To recap–here is what I wish I could find in one church, but cannot:

  1. The Gospel, as it has been articulated in the Creeds of the Church
  2. liturgy/sensory worship/sacramental worship
  3. affirmation and empowerment of women (not in an abstract sense, but as elders and potentially in the pulpit)
  4. political diversity and independence
  5. intelligent preaching
  6. reverence for Scripture and the Word of God
  7. tangible and active work for justice
  8. local and neighborhood-based investment in communities
  9. sound and consistent theology
  10. engagement with culture rather than being defined by what it opposes
  11. accountability to a larger denominational structure and to the long history of the Church

Does anyone know of a church like this? I would love to attend!

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5 Responses

  1. liz says:

    1. sick post.

    2. I am with you! obviously. I think if you were here you’d be pumped about the continuing CC, but it doesn’t solve your denominational problems.

    3. What about the Mennonites?? Maybe there’s more there to be investigated. Lots of them in Canada, also.

    4. Maybe there’s lots more people like us out there in the Episc. scene, and they need to be found & pumped up. Organizing, no? the whole thing, though, makes me want to stay in bed. let me know what you come up with.

  2. lucas damoff says:

    George and i already talked about starting a new political party in the States. Maybe you and i could start a new denomination. (And i am most definitely kidding, by the way, the last thing we need is a new way of getting it horribly wrong.)

    In all seriousness though, i always enjoy how much wisdom and thought go in to theses posts of yours. I expect to reread this a few time and ruminate over some of the issues. I like especially your disapproval of the centrality of the homosexuality issue. Such Christ centered clear thinking is well needed by the church. (And that affirmation to you entering leadership is coming from a quasi-complimentarian.)

    love,
    luke

  3. Jake says:

    I like this a lot. It is very well written, and hits the nail on the head. Its very hard to be theologically conservative(ish) and politically liberal.

    What about the Covenant Church? Quest in Seattle (aside from the worship) seems to fit your description somewhat, though it is low church.

  4. Paul Weisz says:

    Nice entry Anna.
    Over the years I have been employed in the Church, parachurch, Seattle public schools and as an entreprenuer. I have wrestled with many of the issues you have raised (though not always through the same lense) and have experienced much frustration in my life (i.e. now) in search of the perfect church. My conclusion: It’s not there. Many come close (West Side Pres., Antioch, UPC..)to name a few, but none will ever reach the ideal you have described and I myself at times have longed for. The main reason for this is as follows: Denominations (created by man as as forms of government or to set themselves apart theologically) as well as “non-denominational churches” attract most often like minded individuals. These bodies of believers see themselves as and often expect that withing their 4 walls they are the body of Christ. (Head, hands, feet, etc.) The reality however is that in any “church” it has attacted a body of like minded individuals who are not truly representative of the body of Christ universal which is what I believe to be the body of Christ referred to throughout most of scripture. We often confuse the church with the Church. Though I have experienced the power and presence of Christ in a variety of ways and settings some of my most uplifting and, if I might suggest (revealed glimpses of the future) have occurred when in worship at national conferences with YFC or YS. It was in those times of worship with workers from a wide range of denominations and social views that I believe most revealed the “body of Christ”.
    On a final note I will share that if we are approaching Sundays or Churches with a what am I going to get out of it attitude it may be the wrong approach. (personal experience speaking here) The desire to be fed is not in and of itself wrong and if one is struggling one should seek ways in which to grow in ones faith however Sunday mornings need not necessarily be that time. Satan loves it when we spend Sundays and often the rest of the week criticizing the pastor, the message, worship styles, lack of effective outreach…rather than focusing our hearts on worship of the living God. Our discontent with the status quo isn’t wrong but how we let it steer our passions and energies sometimes needs to be evaluated. The good news needs to be radically life changing rather than watered down so-so life enhancing news. Regardless of where we choose to worship we must keep in the forefront of our minds that we are called to be light and salt in a world that has lost its way.

    • annaandgeorge says:

      Hey guys!! Great thoughts and thanks for reading and engaging these thoughts. I would say that the most valid critique of my post is one that reminds me that going to church is not dependent upon finding everything I like; that is as self-centered as it gets, and I am, in theory, totally opposed to this. I guess I will say that I do have several criteria, though:
      1. the true gospel is preached
      2. i can get a job 🙂 (i.e. I and/or other women could be ordained as elders and/or pastors)
      3. the eucharist is regularly administered and valued
      4. there is some effort at missions and service
      5. there are larger accountability structures for pastors and church leadership

      On a final note, Paul–you make a great observation about experiencing the Church (capital “C”) in larger settings with a diversity of backgrounds; I have especially felt this way in China, with ELIC and at Regent, which is such a theological melting pot. I love this kind of foretaste as well, but I know that belonging to a local church is important, and where the incarnational Gospel is expressed. Thanks again, everyone; great stuff to think about. Tune in for my next post “Why I am not a Catholic”–I am expecting to offend some people, but not too badly.

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