The two earlier posts detailing the states of The Church of England (CoE) and the ELCA (Lutheran denomination) got me thinking about choices all church groups must make. Here is a quick recap of the two articles.
The CoE is on a downward spiral because it is losing the allegiance of an ever increasing number of British citizens. The Archbishop of Canterbury outlines the probable reasons for this, and predicts that unless reversed, the CoE will cease to be a national church. Its future, unless it can change course, is obscurity.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ELCA, is described by one of its members, the opinion columnist and long time religion columnist of a Michigan newspaper. His comments follow a very similar path as he outlines his denomination’s history since its 1988 merger as a new Lutheran body. He does not give as much analysis as to specific problems, but rather is more general. He also attributes the same malaise and membership shrinkage to the rest of American mainline Protestantism.
So — what about the Catholics and Orthodox in America and Europe? In the USA, Catholic membership numbers have slightly risen. This probably can be attributed to the still larger Catholic family size, or “Baby evangelism”. USA Orthodox churches have a similar situation. They generally grow ethnically and through baby evangelism.
Europe is an entirely different situation. Active, practicing rather than cultural Catholics, have become truly rare. Membership statistics have no true relationship with practicing worshippers. Pope Benedict XVI has written on this exact situation in Europe.
American Catholicism has become a church with which Rome has an increasing problem. American Catholics have been in the forefront in challenging received and established Catholic doctrine and practice. In many ways, the problem is the American habit of giving the individual primary position in deciding what is right and true in matters religious.
American Orthodoxy, perhaps due to its ecclesiastical structure and ethnic roots, seems much less affected by individualism to date. Orthodoxy has always been very cautious and slow to either initiate or accept change in almost all matters. This is also true with American Orthodoxy.
Obscurity is a real possibility for American mainline Protestantism, the CoE, and European Catholicism. What about the rest of the Christian churches in America?
A real tendency among Evangelical, Charismatic, Pentacostal, Reformed and Independent Churches is the adoption of a Fortress mentality and practice. As most church groups are highly fragmented and non-fraternal, the fortress analogy takes hold. Since each group feels it has the purest understanding and/or practice of Christianity, a prospective member must adopt whatever is the received truth of a group in order to be welcomed into the group.
Being sure one is right is a tyranny. With the exception of God the Father, no one has absolute and total understanding of things Christian. Even the consensus among the Fathers of the Church, both ancient and current, is subject to increasing understanding and interpretation. No single church body or group has a corner of Christian truth.
Another example of the tyranny of being sure one is right is in natural law and science. Laws of nature such as those described by Newton were the received truth for centuries. Along comes Einstein and quantum mechanics shows Newton’s laws are special cases only. Tbey do not work in the quantum universe. Almost all of the truths we have in science have been changed or reversed many times. What is taught today will probably be wrong in 10 years.
The lengths to which churches will go to hold their truth fast can be remarkable. One example comes to mind. In the 1970s, a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor friend was related by blood to relatives who happened to belong to one of the smaller, more conservative yet, Lutheran bodies. Now the Missouri (LCMS) Synod Lutherans are considered by perhaps 85% of American Lutherans to be among the most conservative denominations.
At a holiday meal hosted by his relatives, he and his family were at the dining room table The hosts believed that since their two church bodies did not have an exact commonality of theology, common prayer would indicate that they agreed with the Missouri Synod. So, no common shared prayer was possible if one is to remain faithful to scripture as they interpreted it.
This is an example of Fortress mentality. Christian bodies have sought to implement their own understanding of how to live out their Christianity. Followers of Menno Simon such as Old Order Mennonites and Amish, for example, turn their backs on the larger culture, and stay with living practices and tools of the 16th century. In 21st century North Anerica, however, there is no uniformity among bishops of the various groups as to what may be permitted, and what must be shunned.
While not so distinctly different, many smaller church groups will shun their similar brethren who have a slightly different theology or practice. One example (many others are possible) is among the largest protestant grouping of adherents, the Baptists. There are more than 50 different Baptist churches, and most believe their particular understandings of Scripture are the only correct ones. In fairness, the largest Baptist denominations do consider most of the other large baptist groups as Christian brothers.
None of these observations are new. Others have explored them in greater detail and better insights. What I have not really seen are solutions or descriptions. What is the condition of those Christians who are willing to live out their faith in an outwardly facing stance, eschewing the Fortress mentality and obscurity? When you are in such a Christian group, you soon find out it is an unending state of nervousness. You will never have the certainty that what you believe and practice is the absolute. One’s personal relationship with Christ remains our firm foundation alone.
Pope Benedict XVI instituted a rarely practiced approach to this problem. He ordered his representatives to focus on the commonalities rather than the differences among other Christian groups.
The current rise of “orthodox and confessional” Anglicans is encouraging. We are also trying to practice the same approach.
July 14, 2011