Earlier this year R. Matthew Stevens began a conversation with his essay, “It Ain’t Easy Being Liberal” which reflected on his own United Church of Canada. This second article “Perspectives” carries the discussion further and invites the response of people who self-identify as liberal church folk (eagerly or reluctantly).
Having just recently retired from active ministry, for the first time in my career I’ve suddenly found time for genuine reflection. Yes I know, ministers are supposed to be regularly engaged in ample periods of deep reflection. But, unless you count the time spent driving between the more routine elements of the average pastoral agenda, true reflection winds-up relegated to a much neglected indulgence.
In these intervening few months much of my reflection has centred on what might be regarded as the rather uncertain future for the theologically liberal Christian church. I’ve written a couple of articles on the topic, with specific reference to the comprehensive review process that my own United Church of Canada is conducting. In a sense it’s been gratifying (even if concerning) to learn from the responses received that many others, from a wide spectrum of theologically progressive denominations around the globe, are struggling with essentially the same set of circumstances.
One response in particular offered a perspective I hadn’t really considered in my reflections. It came over a series of emails from a gentleman who happens to be both a colleague and friend, and who despite being long retired has continued as a respected member of the same presbytery. Indeed, in a strange way we share some significant life-events. For instance, Douglas will shortly celebrate 70 years since his first student-preaching; an event which occurred roughly a month after I was born. He graduated from seminary and was ordained to ministry, at roughly the same period I was struggling with the academic demands of grade one.
One of Douglas’ installments recalled a concert he’d attended with a friend in Montréal, that featured the legendary Afro-American contralto, the late Marion Anderson. His friend, a medical doctor, was profoundly inspired by the concert, and effusively observed that Ms. Anderson’s singing derived from being solely centred upon her faith in Christ. Conversely, although Douglas had grown-up in and still regularly attended a liberal oriented Canadian church, he nonetheless perceived his church experience as being more one of an intellectual/cultural dimension.
Is it possible that in our latitudinarian concern to present a theologically balanced and academically accurate interpretation of the Gospels, we’ve unintentionally lost our centering on Christ? Are we so preoccupied with de-anthropomorphising God and presenting an affirming vision of God, that we’ve completely eliminated the sense of the numinous as well? As my friend Douglas states: “I was trying to identify some of the aspects of today’s worship experience, as I have for some time have felt a void in my own life, and perhaps in society as a whole. After reflecting on our discussion about the modern liberal church, I came to the conclusion that it was in the absence of the ‘Holy’ that I experienced that void.”
That is potentially a rather massive and damning indictment against liberal theology, and can’t be summarily dismissed without due consideration. Those of us who by both inclination and education place ourselves within the more progressive theological orientation, may find it abhorrent to even speculate as to how scholarship could potentially result in the loss of the “Holy”. Likely most of us would freely admit to de-ritualizing and eliminating the more incredulously superstitious elements of religion, but certainly not with any intentional diminishing of God’s ineffable presence.
The movement toward a more liberal perspective has been around for most of the twentieth century, and during this time the church prospered and experienced tremendous growth. Compelled by the spirit of the “Social Gospel”, both clergy and laity perceived the inherent call to action in Christ’s teachings as the source of empowerment to tackle many of society’s inequalities and injustices. This was the era of “putting faith into action”, thus all advocacy and direct service efforts were motivated by the primacy of this prevailing sense of mission.
Moving into the twenty-first century, the sense of social justice still appears to find resonance, but it’s accompanied by a nearly frantic exodus from the mainline liberal churches. Despite the commitment of ever-dwindling congregations to maintain their level of mission, there seems to be little impetuous encouraging younger members of the community to join with them. Attendance at many worship services is now characterized by the virtual exclusivity of white-hair – both in the pews and behind the pulpit. What happened to all those children who once filled the Sunday School?
Could it be that in our earnest commitment to social justice, we’ve forgotten that it’s supposed to be a mission outpouring from our faith? Have liberal churches devolved into purveyors of social services through our chequebooks, rather than the initiators of radical social reform through faith in action. Do we no longer recall Christ’s teaching: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.1” That’s Jesus’ invitation to get personally and directly involved, not for us to simply hire professional service-providers to go in our place!
If, as my friend Douglas suggests, we’ve lost the sense of the Holy in our liberal church worship, surely then it follows by logical extension that the empowerment of the Holy Spirit only features peripherally in our community outreach and mission as well. Proceeding on that assumption, might not the absence of the numinous Holy Spirit in our outreach efforts explain why there’s been such an extremely limited response? Could this be the hidden message that the children we supposedly “raised-up in the church”, have been trying to tell us in their adulthood? In get trying to “get God out of the box” have we also inadvertently and surreptitious succeeded in getting God right out of the whole church?
I don’t pretend to have answers to these quandaries – indeed perhaps it’s enough for the time-being for each of us to just honestly and sincerely wrestle with the questions. It may also be that whatever answers are ultimately developed will be so unique and specific to individual circumstances, that only the most broad and overarching of thesis can be inferred. But, all of that notwithstanding, a general discussion of these points is germane at this juncture in the history of the liberal church in North America, and it is to that exchange that I’d now sincerely invite others.
1 Gospel According To Matthew 25:31-46 (New International Version)