The Baby and the Bathwater?

Essay by Rev. Roger Wolsey on 6 December 2018 8 Comments

Christmas is upon us. What is Christmas? How are progressive Christians to understand it? Can we even celebrate it at all?

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Question

 
How does a progressive Christian exist with no Christian community of support even from clergy who certainly do discuss modernized theology? It certainly is a lonely vigil. – David in Thunder Bay

Answer

 
Dear Dave,
 
It certainly is a lonely vigil and I don’t see it getting much better in the near or the distant future.

How I wish I could tell you that clergy and congregations around the world were firing the myths and fallacies of the Christian tradition in the crucible of integrity and using the refined elements – beauty, goodness, and truth – to create meaning-making communities with integrity at their core. Alas! It is not true.

Centers and networks for progressive Christians have emerged in several countries over the past twenty-some years, many of them at the invitation of the late Rev. James Rowe Adams. Jim bravely transformed his Washington Episcopal congregation, St. Mark’s, into the nation’s first truly “progressive” Christian community. Able to build on the congregational fault lines introduced to St. Mark’s by his predecessor, Jim preached a gospel grounded in contemporary, critical scholarship and created liturgies that placed contemporary scholarship on the lips of the laity and in within reach of skeptics and doubters. The promise inherent in the innovations being achieved at St. Mark’s was palpable and when Jim retired from St. Mark’s, he did so with the dream of a progressive Christian network made possible by the generous donation of a member of that congregation. Because of Jim’s vision and his patron’s belief in it, many of us now call ourselves “progressive Christians” even if we have yet to transform our communities with the tools he inspired us to take up.

Still, despite the hard work and vision Jim shared with networks around the world, David’s lament is not his alone. Everywhere, progressives who choose to participate in church communities find themselves having to reinterpret almost everything that is said, read, sung, or performed in the Sunday services they choose to attend. While they and other members of their congregation may have thought or read themselves outside the comfort zones of traditional Christian community, there is a torpor in the pews that refuses innovation. Instead of rallying their compatriots and jettisoning the archaic language found in the Sunday service, they feel bound by the overwhelming responsibility of good churchgoers to “be nice” and “not rock the boat”. And clergy are bound, too.

It takes an uprising to shake a church loose of the fetters that suppress contemporary scholarship. I should know. Despite much of what has taken place over the past twenty years at West Hill, the congregation I serve, being initiated by that congregation’s leadership, our denomination chose to create a disciplinary process to test the orthodoxy of my beliefs – a heresy trial by definition. Rather than enter into dialogue to see why we were doing what we had chosen to do, for three and a half years, our denomination and many of my colleagues, identified us as the other, worthy of being judged and deserving of expulsion. We were pressed into a review process that cost us in many ways, not the least of which was the vision we had of a truly progressive denomination, a vision we believed emerged out of the very essence of our theological inheritance.

I have no answer to your question, David. Although our denomination recently backed down from its imminent heresy trial, thereby acknowledging the validity of West Hill’s ministry, we are branded as outliers, threats to the integrity of the Christian story, never mind that the theology it teaches in its seminaries supports what we do. I would no longer look to the church for places of resonance where progressive Christians might gather.

Don’t expect support or approval from the church. Go outside it. Take with you what it is you have learned from your Christian heritage: that love is the supreme value and that it is damned hard to live up to the extravagance it demands. That truth is worth seeking even when it gives way to new and ever more difficult truths. That pointing to beauty is an act of defiance in the face of chaos and uncertainty. That offering hope is a useless endeavour if we don’t do something to bring about that which is hoped for. That we are all different but that inherently, we are still all the same. That we have much work to do and that it will be best accomplished when we put as many shoulders to it as we possibly can.

Know these things. And then bring together those who will help you bear the truth of them; with or without the church.
 

~ Rev. Gretta Vosper

 

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