By Eleanor Johnston - St Thomas' St Catharines
Published: September 2007
Related Topics: People, Scripture
"I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you" - Jesus (John 13).
"' You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." - Jesus (Matthew 22)
"Jay Bakker, [son of] the notorious televangelists, is a founding pastor of Revolution, 'a church for people who have given up on church... I felt God hated me... When you're raised in American conservative evangelical Christianity, it's all about right and wrong and dos and don'ts... It's very unhealthy.'" - Globe and Mail (July 30, 2007)
Baptised and raised in the Anglican Church, an 84-year old woman has moved, over her lifetime, to the Baptist Church, to the United, and finally to the Presbyterian. She considered leaving it as well, a decade ago, after the "establishment" members of the congregation hounded out the choir director and the minister who supported him. She felt both had been badly treated and wanted to find another church, but there weren't any others near her home. She continues to worship at the Presbyterian Church but asks over and over, "Why can't Christians love each other like we're supposed to?"
A middle-aged woman who speaks often of spiritual matters demurred when invited to attend church, saying, "People who go to church are too angry, especially the women."
A young Anglican priest (not of this diocese, but he, like the women mentioned above, is a real person) delivers eloquent, arrogant sermons warning of the Day of Judgment and insisting on a literal interpretation of the Bible. Congregation members feel a combination of fear, guilt and anger. He claims, "I have never preached on the God of love."
Those of us who are drawn to discussions of modern theology have learned it is a topic that can quickly lead conservatives to yell accusations of heresy. Those of us who love to develop new liturgies and find new words to express our faith have learned that many parishioners (frequently those who attend church only occasionally) are highly indignant at what they see as irreverent, unorthodox or merely silly. There is a lot of anger in our churches!
On a hopeful note, there is less than in the past. Some of the church leaders at the time of the founding of the Anglican tradition, including Bishops Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, were burned at the stake in Oxford for their "protests" against the traditions of the Church of Rome and for their new-fangled styles of worship. Relative to the conservatives opposed to the Reformation, today's traditionalists are restrained.
Nevertheless, Christian churches as a whole are seen by modern secular society as intolerant to the point of being unchristian. As John S. Spong explains in his most recent book, Jesus for the Non-Religious (and for the Religious, I would add), the essence of the Christian gospel is inclusive love and abundant life, despite the fact that in opposition to Jesus, Christian churches have been the last bastions of sexism, racism and homophobia in North American society. Another sad irony is that for taking a lead in articulating a theology of love, Spong has received several serious death threats and at times has needed a bodyguard to protect him from other "Christians." Cranmer would not be surprised but the 84-year-old Presbyterian lady would be horrified.
What causes the angry fear of change? A primary motivator of conservative hatred is the fear that there is no God left when contemporary theologians call the traditional image of God obsolete. This is why we must keep preaching on, talking about, and studying the God of love who is inclusive (accepting the Samaritan, the woman caught in adultery and the tax-collector), who is the ground of our being, who is met in Jesus and longs to be incarnate in each of us, who is found in every person we feed, heal, clothe and visit, and who is known to us as Parent, Child and Holy Spirit. We can let go of the ancient tribal God in the sky and rejoice in worshiping the God of justice for all people and, beyond our egocentric perspective, for all creatures and creation.
Yet still the Roman Catholic Pope and the conservative Protestant churches persist in imposing an exclusive view of God. What draws people to them? While not all Catholics accept the infallibility of the papacy (many dissenters remain in the Church, hoping for the restoration of the Second Vatican Council), conservative churches in general are chosen by people who need a simple familiarity in their lives, even at the price of receiving the dysfunctional message recognized by Bakker: "It's all about right and wrong and dos and don'ts... It's very unhealthy."
Years ago a Roman Catholic priest had to leave his teaching position and his Order (and was thereafter labeled "DisOrdered") because he had fallen in love with and chosen to marry a nun who was also, not surprisingly, rejected by her Order. It seems to me it was the Roman Catholic Church that, in shunning these two dedicated and devout religious, showed itself to be "DisOrdered."
Perhaps the Protestant churches that have been rejected this summer by the Pope as "not true churches" are feeling inherently unworthy as have the slaves, women and homosexuals denigrated by both RC and conservative Protestant churches in the recent past.
Many conservative churches have attempted to ban the Harry Potter series, ostensibly because children might learn to worship witches. I think that the real motivation is that J. K. Rowling effectively and movingly presents good triumphing through love. Millions of people who are "too busy" to attend church have the time to read these exhilarating books that, like the Narnia fantasies of C. S. Lewis published almost a century ago, celebrate love, loyalty and forgiveness.
Despite recent setbacks such as General Synod's decision against same-genre blessings and the Pope's dismissal of ecumenical overtures, Jesus' commandments remain. Those Christians who seek to move the Church from its current state of disorder to a focus on the love of Christ have to persist in articulating their ideas. Only when we collectively move beyond fear and reach a critical mass of lay and clerical consensus can we persuade the bishops that it is time to move away from the disorder of antiquated worship to the new order known in Jesus, the God of Love Incarnate.
The early Anglican leaders did succeed in modernizing their faith. Bishop Latimer's eloquent exhortation during his martyrdom in Oxford is encouraging here: "B e of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."