Sunday, 23 August 2009

Jumping Over a Hurdle

Gary L'Hommideau of ACNA is part of a small and moderate wave of self-criticism that the escapee Christian Conservatives are making of themselves. His features around the need:

for affirmation by those who have already rejected us. We can’t bear the thought that anyone might get the wrong idea about our good intentions.

This centres around the homophobia tag being pinned on these escapees from The Episcopal Church, as John Shelby Spong proclaims that The Episcopal Church (TEC) is on the right side of history and that this particular battle is over within TEC. L'Hommidieu agrees that the battle is over within TEC.

He tries to turn this around against the "inclusiveness dogma" in TEC by reference to sociology of religion, that they in ACNA welcome anyone who will reorientate themselves - but this involves a cost in terms of membership or belief, whereas TEC's inclusivity involves lower tension with surroundings and thus a lower cost of membership. This draws on the work of sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke. In other words, the sect offers a reason to join of distinctiveness, whereas the Church does not - it is too close to society.

Would it be so simple. There is clearly a problem with the concept of Church, but it is not quite as given here. The problem is that it would recruit, but in a traditionalist or still identifiable residual Christian culture for which it is suited. Everyone is born into it, and will join it, unless they are of a minority that goes to a sect. Unfortunately for the Church, the culture has shifted away from such 'natural' support, and this leads to a dilemma for the Church.

However, in the United States there never was a 'Church' and there always was a set of denominations. So joining TEC even as a Church is still to join an identity: Anglican, inclusive, sacramental. The fact that it is moderate is neither here nor there: it still does possess cultural distinction.

As for the sect, the error made in this article is that the additionally demanding and costly sect gives no way in. Who is it that gets to leap over the hurdle? If it is a small ethnic group, then such a sect will remain small and distinct (and it is this group that often becomes a denomination as it moderates its identity through wealth and assimilation; some groups fight hard to retain social separation, however). Sects that want to grow must attract, and the answer is to be found in these media churches. They offer no ecclesiastical barriers to participation and membership. They look secular, with very little in the way of ornamentation (often not even a cross), and men and women lead them, with the vital prop of a microphone, and behind them is the rock band for entertaining spirituality. People turn up in casual dress - everyone. Then the verbal content is the high barrier (yet still simplistic for easy consumption): the Jesus-salvation message is the hurdle, the repetition of "the Bible says" and plenty for the participants to sway to and lose themselves into. They will be saved, and they will be floating in the air when the tribulation comes - but of course only they believe such drivel.

That's not what ACNA is about. ACNA is as peculiar and culturally distinct as TEC. Indeed, in some cases, in its split between high Catholicism and Calvinism, it shuts itself off to the public by all sorts of internal theologies that are inaccessible to the unread. ACNA is for people who are already Anglicans, or come from the Calvinist side and related denominations. Basically ACNA is a continuing sect or multiple of sects. In terms of other people - new people - it is as random in recruitment as any other body. Someone might turn up and 'grow into it', but unless they stay to 'grow into it' it will look pretty strange stuff.

What TEC does is offer a means of spirituality whilst not losing your brain. There is a distinctive message, to grow into, but it is one treated gently and gives people plenty of time.

One reason the Unitarian Universalist Association has been able to grow over recent years is because it also offers people to keep their ways of thinking, but the denomination has also offered a badge of identity. It further has distinct sub-sections rooted in its own traditions, that are also American literary and religious traditions, so it has the transcendental and the rational, and thus has Western and Eastern, Religious Humanist and liberal Christian. Its risk is that it remains a wordy spirituality (despite its bottom-up creativity and the transcendental) and its openness to society that helps one come in easily lets one go out too. For families, the UUA offers a non-dogmatic religious education, which is quite a plus point.

In the UK and Europe the background is one where Church has become culturally dislodged, and anyway Church was always held at arms length for social class reasons. Thus as society shifts away from the thought forms of the Church, people stay away. It is not necessary to acquire an identity via attendance at churches for a majority and assimilating population. An open denomination like the Unitarians seems like something that is dislodged from a past generalist Christian culture, and it must offer space for an open spirituality and creativity to the very few interested. Its offer of non-dogmatic religious education competes with exactly the same happening in schools: the Unitarian Sunday School collapsed along with all other Sunday Schools. Its leisure and education provisions failed with those in other denominations. So Unitarianism is really for the interested, for those who want to create, and it is why chapels where existing groups fight to retain their own way of doing things will fail. They really do have to be radically open to change, as well as targeting those social groups who would be spiritual and creative and are ill-served by mainline churches.

In Europe (the UK is really just a distinct part of this) the Church will have a residual outreach, keeping its doctrines but going easy on them, unless of course internally Church decides to become more sectarian and close the door to that way in. The Archbishop of Canterbury seems intent on going in this direction. Producing 'Fresh Expressions' while hyping up the dogma will only work if it is more or less thorough, and it is presently half-hearted, and others are already doing it. No one is sure about 'Fresh Expressions' or has really thought it through as to what its various efforts at accessibility are for. Incidentally, the Nine O'Clock Sheffield service was thought through: a liberal-charismatic service that connected with the dance culture and brought in young people for celebration, community, engagement and discussion. That had quite a consistency to it and a specific appeal. 'Fresh Expressions' isn't a patch on this, and its post-Evangelical origins and its involvement by some liberals too seem internal to the top down organisation involved.

So the Church then will muddle on with its plant and equipment partly used, but denominations will fail because there are no distinct discussed-theological reasons for any of those now to exist. Maybe one merged entity might offer a 'low' alternative to Church. Curiously, if they could only organise themselves better and more purposively, the Unitarians as thoroughgoing liberals might have something disctinct and different to offer, with its rationality and romanticism, as will the Quakers, with their distinctive gathering style, but it remains a question as whether Unitarians can organise themselves and be that open-ended offering.


Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Brad Evans said...

The writer here (L'Hommedieu)seems to be saying that the tension is between the religious group and prestige culture.
If elites agree with you, if your kids go to the same schools as their kids do, read the same books, live in the same towns and neighborhoods, how much tension is there?
Yes, you may be a small group compared with the rest of the society, but unless you're a visible minority, no matter how tiny a minority you are, you're not really living in much tension with your society.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Not just prestige culture, but the general culture.

Church in traditionalist general religious culture works, but it doesn't when there is a slide elsewhere. Troeltsch developed a category of mysticism - freely organised, liberal, religious gathering, but this is not the Church in the present day either. It has slipped its moorings.