Monday, 1 May 2017

The Christian Family Tree Part 2

On April 11th, I wrote about The Christian Family Tree which has many branches and Jesus Christ as the root.  I am again attaching a copy of the diagram that does a very good job of illustrating this.  I want to credit the source, Rev. Nathan L. Bostian, 2014. 

I have been asked to write additional thoughts following up from my original post.  On reflection on want to consider where they church is going in this first part of the 21st Century.   This may be a case of a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread.  However, I have thought of myself as something of a fool being born on April Fool's Day, so here goes.

I believe that the church, and probably all of society, is in an a between time.  The world seems to have no firm foundation. The mainline religions such as Anglicanism seem to be dying or at least if not dying then going through a reordering of how it will be the church.  Many main-line congregations in Canada are closing and parishioners are getting older and not being replaced in sufficient numbers to sustain   congregations that have existed for many years.  One of my congregations, a small rural church, celebrated its 150th anniversary some years ago and closed a few years later.  There have been many parishes or congregations that have closed in our Diocese in recent years.  This is due to changes in Canadian culture due to many factors including population shifts from rural to urban centres, secularism, the age of enlightenment, and much more.  There has been speculation that the survival of the church, at least as we know it, is in doubt.

I do not believe that the survival of the church is in doubt.  However, the form of the church is.  I don’t believe anyone can predict with certainty what the church will look like.  There have been many books written about this by many people who are wiser than I and possibly by a few people who are not.  Harvey Cox, one who is definitely wiser than I, has delved into this.  You may remember him from his book, The Secular City, which was something of a sensation in the 1960s. His most recent book, The Future of Faith, came to mind when I was considering this question.  It was published in 2009 and I read it around that time.  Cox proposes that Christian history can be divided in three periods or perhaps ages.  The first is the Age of Faith; I might suggest calling it the Age of Experience.  This was a relatively short period which included the first century Christians beginning with Jesus and his immediate disciples.  As Cox states, “To be a Christian meant to live in the Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he began” (5).
The second period is the Age of Belief.  This age began a few generations after Christ and lasted about 1500 years (I would contend more like 1900).  This period saw the institutionalization of the church.  It can also be called the Age of Doctrine.  We are still experiencing the death, as the death-throes of this age with modernity and post-modernity takes a firm hold of the culture. Cox notes, “It was already comatose when the European Union chiselled the epitaph on its tombstone in 2005 by declining to mention the word “Christian” in its constitution” (7).

The third period proposed by Cox is the Age of the Spirit.  This is the age that we have begun to experience.  Cox identifies three characteristics of spirit or spirituality.  First, it is a form of protest against formal, organized religion.  Second it is an attempt to express the awe and wonder of creation.  Third, it recognizes the porous boundaries between the different branches of the Christian Family Tree and I might add other religions.  Cox sees this movement as looking forward rather than back to the past.

I agree with Cox that we seem to be entering an age of the Spirit.  The image that came to me when I was considering this is Holy Saturday; that time between Jesus’ death and resurrection.  We are in an in-between time when the Age of Doctrine is dying and the Age of the Spirit is being born.  Both death and birth can involve pains and uncertainty.  I think many Christians are experiencing both the death pains and the birth pains of the religions we are part of.

The challenge of the Age of the Spirit is just that―pain and uncertainty.  We can’t say that we weren’t given a heads up, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).   The Spirit is not generally embraced by organized religion.  I sometimes refer to the Third Person of God as the Rodney Dangerfield of the Trinity; it don’t get no respect.  This is because it is unpredictable; it does blow where is chooses and we cannot control it as much as we would desperately want to.  Jesus did tell us what to expect but we didn’t truly believe him, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (John 14:16-17).  The church and the world still does not seem to be ready to receive it two thousand years later.

To live in uncertain times in indeed challenging and these times are very uncertain given the state of the church and the state of the world.  We live in the Shadow of Trumpism of which Donald trump is more a symptom than a cause.  I propose that Anglicans need to add to the Three Pillars of scripture, tradition and reason.  We need to add a fourth; discernment.  We need to learn how to better discern where the Spirt is leading us and to discern how we can best embrace it within our current way of being church.  This is by no means easy; but whoever told you being a Christian is easy.  Actually, Jesus did say my yoke is easy and my burden is light so I guess that, easy or not, it is a challenge that is definitely worth it. 

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