Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

21 July 2012

An unlikely church sign



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18 July 2012

Liberal and conservative Christianity . . . and 'in between'

Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass have had their say. Now Rachel Held Evans has weighed in on the issue: Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-In-Between. She finds lacking in both positions a sense that "we’re in this together, that, as followers of Jesus, we may need to put our heads together to re-imagine what it means to be the Church in a postmodern, American culture where confidence in organized religion is at an all-time low." In the meantime, however, she professes to be caught between the two:
For one thing, I don’t "fit" in the conservative evangelical church:

I believe in evolution.
I vote for democrats.
I doubt.
I enjoy interfaith dialog and cooperation.
I like smells, bells, liturgy, and ritual—particularly when it comes to the Eucharist.
I’m passionate about gender equality in marriage and church leadership.
I’m tired of the culture wars.
I want to become a better advocate for social justice.
I want my LGBT friends to feel welcome and accepted in their own churches.
I’m convinced that the Gospel is about more than “getting saved” from hell.

But I don’t "fit" in the progressive, Mainline church either.

I love a good Bible study.
I think doctrine and theology are important enough to teach and debate.
I think it’s vital that we talk about, and address, sin.
I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus.
I want to participate in interfaith dialog and cooperation while still maintaining a strong Christian identity.
I want to engage in passionate worship, passionate justice, and passionate biblical study and application, passionate community.
I’m totally down with a bit of spontaneous, group “popcorn” prayer, complete with hand-holding and references to the Holy Spirit “moving in this place.”
I’m convinced that the Gospel is about more than being a good person.

On one level I can sympathize with Evans' feeling of being caught between polar extremes. Too often I experience this with respect to the political options on offer in North America. I have rarely voted enthusiastically. I generally vote against rather than for. Our electoral systems exacerbate the artificial duality of our politics. With respect to church life I am a member of a Presbyterian congregation, where I know in my heart I belong. I strongly believe that the Reformed tradition is most faithful to God's word revelation. However, I could wish that Reformed Christians celebrated the Lord's Supper as frequently as Anglicans and Lutherans, whose liturgies are much closer to the historic shape of western worship as it has developed over the course of nearly two millennia. So even on the ecclesial front I know what it is to feel caught in between.

However, something about the tone of Evans' piece bothers me. If she were arguing that her own position were somehow more biblically faithful or more obedient to God's expressed word than those of evangelicals and mainliners, then what she says might be worth hearing and weighing in the balance. But I don't hear her making such a case. What I do hear is: "I enjoy. . .", "I like. . .", "I'm tired. . .", "I want. . ." (this last one four times). I don't quite understand "I’m totally down with. . .", but I think it means she approves! In other words, Evans appears to be presenting a checklist of personal preferences which together make up something idiosyncratic at best. I could come up with a similar checklist, but all it would add up to is something that might as well be called "Koyzism," a religious "tradition" with, to put it mildly, precious few adherents. It would be presumptuous of me to stand in judgement on various Christian communities for not conforming to my checklist.

Obviously I would never try to assess the merits of Evans' personal faith. Nevertheless, because she hasn't really presented a solid justification for her somewhat eclectic collection of preferences, it is difficult to know why her remarks should have relevance for the rest of us. Admittedly, Evans does offer this near the end of her post:
I have no problem with Christians arguing with one another. Really. We’re brothers and sisters, for goodness sake! Of course we’re going to argue! We just need to learn to do it better.

Good advice, that last sentence. Yet arguing implies offering an actual argument, that is, the articulation of a reasoned defence of one's position by appealing to commonly acknowledged standards and authorities. Unfortunately, mere checklists will not take us very far in this direction.

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16 July 2012

Collapse or vitality: liberal versus conservative Christianity

The New York Times' contrarian wunderkind Ross Douthat wonders aloud: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?, against the backdrop of the collapse in the membership of the Episcopal Church.
The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.

But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)

Progressive christian guru Diana Butler Bass asks a different question: Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat. Bass points out that liberal churches are not the only denominations in decline, pointing to the Southern Baptist Convention, the Missouri Synod Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church, the first two of which have lost members in recent years, with the third maintaining its numbers only through largely hispanic immigration. Bass thinks that the liberal churches may have got there first but that conservative churches are not that far behind. Nevertheless, despite discouraging numbers, she believes there is vitality in liberal churches:
Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is--in some congregations at least--undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were "counter-intuitive" to the usual narrative of American church life.

There is more than a little historical irony in this. A quiet renewal is occurring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a twentieth century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now.

A focus on membership statistics is not entirely out of order, of course, as a chronically empty building with stained-glass windows can hardly be said to be a church by anyone's definition. Nevertheless, an ecclesiastical populism that simply panders to the crowd scarcely makes for satisfactory church life either. It seems to me that both conservative and liberal churches are caught up in similar games, even if their strategies are quite different.

Conservative churches generally maintain the purity of the gospel message, that is, the focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ, better than do liberal churches, but they too easily cast off the historic creeds, confessions and liturgies that have shaped the church down through the ages. The church itself is no longer an authoritative institution bearing the keys of the kingdom; it is rather a gathering of spiritually like-minded individuals who prefer to worship a certain way – a way which, not so incidentally, mimics much of contemporary popular culture. Litur-tainment, if you will. Worship itself is differentiated according to market share, with traditional, contemporary and blended worship services catering to a variety of tastes at what might be called an ecclesiastical smorgasbord.

Liberal churches tend to overuse such buzzwords as "inclusive," "open," "affirming" and "safe," playing down confessional distinctives and much of the content of the gospel message itself as summarized in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. Gone, very largely, is the call to repent and to live a biblically obedient way of life – apart, of course, from voting for the received politically correct causes. Liberals rather implausibly stake a claim to occupy the "mainline" of protestantism, although their version of the faith is increasingly distant from the historic mainstream of the christian faith itself, as J. Gresham Machen observed already nearly a century ago. In other words, the understanding of what constitutes the mainline is historically shallow and is based on the primacy of subjective experience and preferences over biblical revelation. Jesus Christ may be held up, but more as an ethical example than as actual Redeemer from sin and death.

Thus far, the liberal approach has succeeded in emptying the pews, despite the rhetoric of inclusivity. As it turns out, a church whose message is indistinguishable from that of the larger culture and refrains from calling to repentance and conversion quickly finds itself becoming redundant. Why bother getting up early on sunday morning for such thin spiritual gruel? Bass may be correct in noting the presence of vitality in some liberal congregations. But mere liveliness can be found in a variety of settings, including workplaces and garden clubs. It's not an argument for the church as such.

The "conservative" approach may be winning more people at present, but long-term prospects remain in doubt. Many of today's most successful mega-churches are heirs of the 19th-century "New Measures" revivalism of Charles Finney which places an emphasis on the use of clever techniques, including the notorious Anxious Bench, to elicit huge numbers of "conversions." If Michael Horton's analysis is correct, Finney himself appears to have held to a moral example view of Christ's atonement. The "conservatives" may be standing unknowingly on the same shaky ground that is failing to support the liberals.

What if the church were to subordinate concern for numbers, budgets, and social and political causes to the primary imperative of biblical faithfulness? What if it were to place its concern for bringing in converts within the larger context of the call to live the new life in the power of the Holy Spirit? The church might be smaller or larger than it is today. Its members would not be ignoring social and political issues; in fact they might increase their engagement with these. But they would do so along lines that recognize the clear authority of God's written word over the whole of life. They would be pursuing not just personal moral effort, nor social justice as understood in a narrowly ideological sense. They would seek instead to advance the kingdom in all its fulness through unwavering fidelity to the cause of Christ, consisting of properly oriented – dare I say "converted" – labour, leisure, liturgy and life.

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13 July 2012

'Getting saved' and assurance

J. D. Greear asks: Should We Stop Asking Jesus Into Our Hearts?

By the time I reached the age of 18 I had probably "asked Jesus into my heart" 5,000 times. I started somewhere around age 4 when I approached my parents one Saturday morning asking how someone could know that they were going to heaven. They carefully led me down the "Romans Road to Salvation," and I gave Jesus his first invitation into my heart. . . .

[But h]ad I really been sorry for my sins? And could I really have known what I was doing at age 4?

So I asked Jesus to come into my heart again, this time with a resolve to be much more intentional about my faith. I requested re-baptism, and gave a very moving testimony in front of our congregation about getting serious with God.

Not long after that, however, I found myself asking again: Had I really been sorry enough for my sin this time around? I'd see some people weep rivers of tears when they got saved, but I hadn't done that. Did that mean I was not really sorry? And there were a few sins I seemed to fall back into over and over again, no matter how many resolutions I made to do better. Was I really sorry for those sins? Was that prayer a moment of total surrender? Would I have died for Jesus at that moment if he'd asked?

So I prayed the sinner's prayer again. And again. And again. Each time trying to get it right, each time really trying to mean it. I would have a moment when I felt like I got it right and experienced a temporary euphoria. But it would fade quickly and I'd question it all again. And so I'd pray again.

Although my experience was quite different from Greear's, I did go through something of a crisis of assurance of salvation in high school. It was not a major crisis, but it was enough to cause me to wonder whether I had gone through the right procedures to "get saved." At some point it finally dawned on me that I needed to trust the promises of God in Christ and not the efficacy of my own decision-making abilities. I suppose that's one of the reasons why I love so much the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. What is your only comfort
in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own,
but belong—
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.

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11 July 2012

God Save the Queen, revisited

This was just published in the 9 July issue of Christian Courier:

Just ahead of the celebration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee last month, the Toronto Star had the bad judgement to publish an article by Bob Hepburn, titled, The Queen: three steps for Canada to replace the monarchy. He proposes a three-step process, the first of which would be a national referendum on this question: “Should Canada sever ties with the British monarchy?”

From the outset Hepburn has revealed his shaky understanding of our constitution, as revealed in this misleading question. This country’s ties to the “British” monarchy were ended as long ago as 1931 with the Statute of Westminster. Since that time Canada has had its own Crown and at present shares the occupant of that office with 15 other Commonwealth Realms, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. We have no ties remaining with the British monarchy.

Nevertheless, let us for a moment follow Hepburn’s proposal and see where it might take us. To alter the status of Canada’s Queen would require the approval of both chambers of Parliament and all ten provincial legislatures under section 41 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Thus far our attempts at constitutional change under this unanimity requirement have been spectacularly unsuccessful, as we experienced with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. A referendum on even a properly-worded question would probably not receive majority support in every province. A provincial government would be unwise to ignore the advice of the voters.

However, for our present purposes we shall assume that this unanimity is within reach. Then what? We would have to decide what to put in place of the monarchy. Perhaps a state presidency would replace the governor general’s office. How then would the president attain his or her position? The Indian president is elected by the members of both parliamentary chambers and of the state legislatures. We could do the same, but it seems unlikely that Canadians would want to leave the selection of a new head of state in the hands of politicians, which does not differ that much from how our current governor general is appointed.

The obvious democratic alternative would be to have the voters elect directly a new state president. However, a popularly-elected president would enjoy a democratic legitimacy that would effectively increase his or her power within the political system as a whole. This could give Canada a constitution similar to that of the French Fifth Republic in which executive power is shared – and sometimes contested – by president and prime minister. Might our new president take initiatives against the advice of the government of the day? In the absence of explicit constitutional constraints on the office, this is a distinct possibility.

We could, of course, abolish the office of prime minister altogether and have only an elected president, who would be responsible directly to the people rather than to parliament. Obviously this would take us into American territory. The United States has functioned quite well for 225 years with a separation of powers between president and congress. But Canada is not the United States. Our political traditions have developed differently in accordance with the central constitutional principle of responsible government. Under responsible government the prime minister and cabinet must retain the confidence of the House of Commons in order to keep governing. To abandon this principle, with all of its attendant usages and customs, would not be wise at this late stage.

More significant, however, is the fact that prime ministerial and royal functions really are different and require different offices. Nearly four years ago in this space, I observed that Americans had elected Barack Obama because of his kingly qualities and his promises to seek consensus and unify the nation. Since then, however, Obama, in typical prime ministerial fashion, has pursued divisive policies which, among other things, threaten the religious freedom of faith-based institutions.

Unlike Americans, we in Canada already enjoy a political system that quite sensibly separates these two executive functions into distinct offices. Our constitutional monarchy has served us very well for centuries, and we have every reason to celebrate it rather than to entertain ill-considered proposals for its abolition.

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09 July 2012

Recovering the Practice of Communal Singing

Just before the dawn of the recording industry, popular songs were sold to the North American public in a format requiring of customers more musical literacy. When Let Me Call You Sweetheart and Down by the Old Mill Stream were published in 1910, their popularity was judged by sales of sheet music, and not yet by the records that would come into their own during the interwar years. Yes, people would attend performances of these songs by local bands and choirs, but they were more likely to gather round the upright piano at home and sing them together. People had to make their own music rather than rely on others to make it for them. Obviously not everyone had professional-quality voices, but that didn't matter. Young and old alike sang their hearts out.

Although I was born well into the recording age, I grew up in a family that sang with gusto at the slightest provocation. We had two pianos in our house, and everyone played at least one musical instrument. We were raised on the old movie musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe and, of course, Meredith Wilson, whose score for The Music Man harked back to that earlier era just before the outbreak of the Great War. In fact, so many times did we play The Music Man soundtrack that scratches eventually caused the record to skip. (If you were raised on CDs, ask your parents or grandparents what that means.) The notion of Julie Andrews breaking into song in the course of her day did not strike us as the least bit unusual.

Where did all this come from? Read more here.

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