Thanks to Ben Myers over at Faith & Theology Blog for posting this. It’s from Australia, but is applicable to the mainline denominations throughout the English Speaking world. The frustrating thing is, I think most folks in our culture live with a view of Christianity formed by a fundamentalism-not fundamentalism polarity.
What I mean by that is something exhibited by Richard Dawkins’ defense of Pat Robertson as a “true Christian.” The campaign of the new atheism depends largely on the widespread belief that all religious folks are fundamentalist and all religions dangerous by nature. I would say that many Christians have tacitly accepted this narrative as well, and, if they are not fundamentalists express their faith largely as “we’re not that.” It’s just this sort of attitude, coupled with a natural desire to preserve institutions and the natural resistance of structures to change that have wrought much of the decline within mainline denominations. (That, and the fact, as Peter Berger has pointed out, the mainline “won” culturally speaking and the values that defined the mainline protestant churches have pretty much been universalized in our culture while being detached from their roots. For many folk, there’s no reason to go to church only to have what one already thinks affirmed.)
The lowest common denomination: a lament
by Scott Stephens (Scott is a pastor and theological educator in the Uniting Church in Australia, one of the country’s largest mainline denominations. In this piece, Scott discusses the Church’s founding confessional document, the Basis of Union. A shorter version of this piece was published in the denominational magazine, Journey.)
Over thirty years ago, the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) embarked on what could have been a remarkable journey, but it deviated from its original course with devastating consequences. It is now a shell of its former self, like so much Liberal Protestantism throughout the West, having gone whoring after the strange gods of impotent theology, liturgical gimmickry, inert bureaucracy and social respectability.
The past decade in particular has seen the UCA relinquish any prophetic vocation it might once have had — along with a considerable portion of its ecclesial and evangelistic vitality — and instead assume the inoffensive role of the religious division of a non-government provider of community and health services.
And so, in an extraordinary apostasy from its original calling, the UCA has decided to represent the ‘middle way’, the path of least resistance, a facile alternative to fundamentalism, evangelicalism and pentecostalism. In short, it has become the lowest common denomination. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine that, if God sees fit to grant it another thirty years, all that will be left of the Uniting Church itself is the logo on hospitals and Blue Care letterhead — and that for purely historical reasons.
But perhaps most troubling is that the fledgling church was warned against this very apostasy by Davis McCaughey, inaugural President of the Uniting Church. In his incendiary address to the 1979 Assembly of the UCA, McCaughey expressed his fear that the Church would be hijacked by bureaucrats and pedants, and that its clergy would be reduced to careerists and panderers:
“We no longer seem to expect our ministers to spend hours (literally hours) every week, thinking, reading, praying: so that when the hungry sheep look up they may be fed…. And I am not wholly convinced that our Constitution, Regulations and Procedures are sufficiently and rigorously controlled by [our eschatological hope]. I am not persuaded that they are not in danger … of becoming ends in themselves.”
He warned just as passionately against the tendency he perceived to adopt a form of incestuous Church patriotism, which would obscure and ultimately destroy the Church’s vocation to carry on the mission of Christ:
“At all events the cry for a sense of identity in the Uniting Church cannot be answered by the offer of a new kind of Church patriotism. In an important sense, we in the Uniting Church in Australia have no identity, no distinctive marks — other than belonging with the people of God brought into being by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on their way to the consummation of all things in him.… We have embarked on a course in which we ask men and women to forget who they are, and chiefly to remember whose they are.”