10 June 2021

Denominational shorts

Young E. Stanley Jones. Source.

Two weeks ago in my post, "The church is like a ...", I was recalling Craig Dykstra's description of the evolution of denominations in the USA. His ideas came back to me this week as I happened upon these words from E. Stanley Jones (The Christ of Every Road: A Study in Pentecost, 1930):

As long as religion was denominational-centric God could not trust us with power. Had he [sic] done so, it would have run into a denominational megalomania. Nor could he trust us with power so long as religion was bound up with Westernism and its supremacies. He he done that, it would have run into religious imperialism. But if religion is Christ-centric, if to be a Christian is to be Christlike, to catch his mind and Spirit, then I think God can back that with power to the utmost.

Denominations are becoming less important in their traditional roles of franchising agencies to open and close churches, supply personnel and services, outsource international outreach and disaster relief, publish curriculum, and exercise quality control over the denomination's brand. 

Of course, to the extent that denominational organizations are seen as worthy, reliable sources of inspiration and support for local congregations, and not as coercive gatekeepers, they'll continue to have a role. But that role should be held to the standard that is implied by E. Stanley Jones's "but if": Does our denomination serve as a genuine community of shared memory and experience of what it means to grow into Christ-likeness?

I spent seventeen years of my life working in denominational structures. During those years, I saw how the old "denominational-centric" loyalties were weakening and political polarizations increasing. All this certainly made my life very interesting, entirely dependent as we were on our constituency's free-will gifts and a more or less consensus-based form of governance.

I also saw a more positive development -- a new, multi-generational movement of Quakers who freely cross lines to discuss urgent matters of faith and practice without fear of the old gatekeepers. It wasn't the first such movement among Friends; for example, the Young Friends and conscientious objectors' networks had similar influences in much of the 20th century.

Social media and blogs carry the current version of this movement across to wider circles of people -- including those who can't afford to subscribe to lots of Quaker and ecumenical periodicals or travel across countries and oceans to conferences, camps, and pilgrimages. Many of the Quaker blogs that have arisen over the last two decades are part of this movement. In the USA (perhaps beyond, as well), Martin Kelley has been in the forefront of promoting this increased virtual traffic among all flavors of Friends, including those who prioritize Christ-likeness over Quaker exceptionalism.

Over the last fifteen months, the pandemic has forced new patterns on most or all of us. Many local meetings and churches have had to confront situations of increased isolation for some faithful attenders, especially those who are not accustomed or inclined to participate electronically. At the same time, the Internet has allowed us also to become more widely accessible. Our Camas Friends Church has had visitors from scattered parts of the USA, and at least two from Russia. Some of our visitors at Camas Friends were unprogrammed Friends who had never attended a programmed, pastoral Quaker meeting. The online Russian-speaking meetings for worship over the past year, facilitated by Friends House Moscow, have included participants from many parts of Russia and at least six other countries. Our online memorial meeting for Misha Roshchin was, as far as we know, the very first Quaker memorial meeting conducted in the Russian language.

Related posts:

The unbearable lightness of being Quaker

Yearly meetings: myth and reality

FUM retreat: what did we accomplish?

My post "The church is like a ..." invited comments on my three proposed models of the church (incubator, laboratory, and observatory) and asked for other models and metaphors that you found helpful. On Facebook, several of you contributed. I've taken the liberty of boldfacing some of the key words: 

I probably think of the church (at least my own!) as part retreat center, part hospital, part trade school, part activist organization. Participants can be revitalized through the experience of self-transcendence and self-care (retreat). Wounds are addressed and care is given... often by the wounded!(hospital). Skills like love and listening and other “abilities” crucial to the Quaker way or “vocation” are learned through practice (school). Energy and resources are pooled and channeled toward needs in the community and world (activism). [Matt Boswell]

I love the earthiness of "trade school"! It stands in interesting contrast with Elton Trueblood's idea that every church should be a seminary. I sort of agree with Elton but "seminary" might sound a bit forbidding. Pope Francis has given new energy to the idea of church as hospital. Thanks for your ideas! [My reply to Matt]

I faced a similar challenge with "seminary" when I decided to attend and needed to explain it to my (largely unchurched) friends and family. Its Latin root is "seedbed" - a place to plant seeds and nurture what comes to life. It worked well then, and still does! [Greg Morgan, replying to Matt and me.]

I am quite happy with describing the church as a gathering of people who have felt themselves called out of the world into discipleship — people who have that called-out feeling in common. I don’t feel any need to make it sound like an imitation of science. It’s not, for me, as if science is the ultimate determiner of what all other things should be like. If a non-churchy group is puzzled by things like “called out of the world”, and “discipleship”, or puzzled about why people with that sort of feeling might want to congregate, I think those are good and helpful matters to talk about. [Marshall Massey]

Thanks, Johan - I like the idea of your "three word challenge" to define church using non-church language, and the way you build from there. I want to ruminate on this some more, but for now I'll go with church as a place I go for connection, inspiration, and encouragement. [Greg Morgan]

Sanctuary. [Adam Fazio]

Community ... [Penny Rutherford Sitler]

A school for experiential learning. [Marcelle Martin]

Hard to decide. [Jean-François Roussel]

I prefer hospital. [Jared A. Warner]

A Family. [Roger Dreisbach-Williams]

Thank you, Friends!

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I found out a couple of days ago that one of my favorite contemporary blues musicians, harpist James Harman, died last month. He gave me, and many others in many countries, countless hours of good musicianship and good-humored lyrics. I've posted many of his tracks on my blog over the years. It was hard to pick a favorite, but here's a delightful sample from a festival performance in Denmark:

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