Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Re-forming Reformation Sunday: Beyond the School Fight Song

Despite being seen as some as a quintessential Anglican curmudgeon, Crusty has a confession to make:  he was not born Crusty, or Old, or even a Dean.  All of these things came to him later in life.  Further, Crusty wasn't even born Episcopalian:  he started attending the Episcopal Church in college, and wasn't formally received until he was already enrolled in seminary.  Crusty was raised Roman Catholic, and, as things go, a fairly pious Roman Catholic.  COD struggled with a vocation as a teenager, balancing a call to service and ministry with…well, being a teenager and staring celibacy straight in the eye (though, given Crusty's love life as a teenager, the question of celibacy was more an intellectual than praxis based proposition).  In college, celibacy was added to concerns about the Catholic Church's stand on women and LBGT persons.

But COD was raised Catholic.  Not just Catholic, but Catholic in Boston in the 1970s, when the old pre-Vatican II Tridentine Catholic Church was existing uneasily with the Vatican II church.  Think ancient nuns still wearing habits at folk masses with guitars and you get the drift.  Crusty likes to joke that he had a very religiously pluralistic upbringing:  he knew Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics, with a smattering of Lithuanian Catholics, along with a few Armenian Orthodox folks for some diversity. We knew there were Protestants, and knew there were different kinds of them, that they had differences they took really seriously but the only thing you needed to know is that they were Protestant, and COD really never had any interaction with them, and certainly never set foot inside a Protestant church.  Crusty distinctly remembers getting lost while over at my cousin's house -- we had all walked to a park to play, I wanted to head back to their house to get a drink, and got mixed up and wound up in some place unfamiliar -- seeing a Protestant church, thinking about going in any asking for help/directions/use the phone, hesitating about whether I should, and instead walking another block to a gas station to ask for directions.

I was in high school, away at boarding school, in 1983 when I began to hear the bell of the local church tolling.  The local Congregational Church in the village of Deerfield was located on the edge of the
We didn't need zombies in the 80s.  We had nuclear war to scare us.
school's campus, and also served as the de facto school chapel as well as a local worshipping congregation.  I thought it was odd.  It was not a Sunday.  I thought maybe there was a funeral or
something.  I wondered if there was some kind of school event I didn't know about.  And then it kept ringing.  And ringing.  It kept booming out for what seemed forever, I actually started to get a little nervous, wondering if something cataclysmic had happened -- The Day After would be on TV in a little less than three weeks, back then we still worried about nuclear war with the Soviets.  I walked into the hallway of my dormitory, not everyone was back yet from athletic practices, but I did see one kid in the hallway.  I asked him if he knew what was going on and he said, "It's October 31.  It's Reformation Day.  They're ringing the church bell 500 times to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's birth.  They're going to do it again in a couple of weeks for his actual birthday."  Turns out the kid I asked was one of the few who actually went to the church on Sunday mornings from the student community (they would line up school busses for Catholic kids to go to Mass on Sundays).

Crusty asked, "What's Reformation Day?"

Safe to say, COD's relationship with Reformation Day hasn't progressed much since then.  The Roman Catholic Church didn't acknowledge it -- in fact, the Catholic Church created its own feast, Christ the King, which was created in the 1925 to be one-part petulant reminder to an increasingly secularized world that had taken away the Papacy's temporal rule that God was still king of all, and one part
Gee Davey - did you know the Episcopalians have two settings for this hymn?
Catholic competition to Reformation Sunday, since it was originally celebrated the last Sunday in October, which, coincidentally, is when Reformation Sunday is normally celebrated in many Lutheran and Presbyterian/Reformed churches.  COD is always amused by the irony that many Anglican and Lutheran churches have adopted Christ the King seemingly unaware it was developed, in part, as smack down to Protestants.  Once Crusty became an Episcopalian, he never came across Reformation Sunday, since Anglicans don't celebrate it (Crusty preached on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector last Sunday, thank you very much).  Heck, the first time COD heard "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" in his early 20s, he thought, "Hey, that's the theme to Davey and Goliath."

There are two issues floating out there with regard to Reformation Sunday that COD has heard over the years.

The first critique is that Reformation Sunday can be an embarrassing celebration of Reformation triumphalism.  In doing so, this can perpetuate the lamest of historical anachronisms:  that the medieval Catholic Church was somehow trapped in decay and despair, true religion was nowhere to be found, until, by the grace of God, Martin Luther emerged to restore the true understanding of the Gospel.  COD grants that this is a problematic element of Reformation Sunday.  But to be clear, this kind of wretched reshaping of history into denominational origin story is something many of not all traditions are guilty of.  If he hears one more f*****g Anglican wax blissfully nostalgic about via medias under Elizabeth or three-legged stools in Hooker, reading back 19th century historical recreations into myth of origins which at best oversimplifies and at worst is simply fatuous,  you all will see what it really looks like when Crusty feels crusty.  Catholicism does the same, when, either because they have come to believe their polemic historical fabrications as fact, or in sheer effort to deceive, blithely asserts the only reason Anglicanism came into being was because Henry VIII wanted a divorce.   So, lots of sin to go around here, and COD thinks various flavors of Christian should be careful about the log in their own eye as they go straining after specks in others, but yes, Reformation Sunday as a time to sing the company loyalty song is not really worth celebrating.

A second critique of Reformation Sunday which COD does NOT hold to is the notion that Reformation Sunday is a glorification of sin in the eyes of God, because the Reformation of the 16th century resulted in the division of the Western church.  This runs the risk of laying the blame for the divisions in 16th century Europe at the feet of Luther, which is utterly preposterous.  The causes of Christian division in the 16th century are complex, from religious to political to social to cultural to economic.  Luther is not to "blame" for causing these divisions any more than Darwin is to "blame" for the divisions caused between people arguing over creationism versus evolution.  In Anglicanism, this dynamic is related to the distancing if not disparaging of the Reformation by some, which at its worst expresses itself in a sneering disdain of "Protestants" which at times echoes my own ignorance as a child and at other times perpetuates the unchurching of "Protestants" with their "invalid" orders, when, in fact, Anglicanism is one of the few churches in the world to have its order declared null and utterly void.  Christian division is a sin, to be sure; Crusty spent a decade as ecumenical officer preaching this to people who seemed not to care.  But the Reformation cannot be laid at the feet of Luther.  If there is anyone to be called to account for the sin of division, it should be all of us under indictment for the sin of continued reveling in exceptionalism and distinctiveness, clinging to our shibboleths instead of striving for the unity to which we are called.

What good, then, can come of Reformation Sunday?  COD heard a powerful and compelling vision of
Great sermon.  But she could've laid off the Episcopal joke

in the sermon preached by the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, at the installation of the new president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, the partner school of the seminary where COD is D, last Sunday.  Noting that Reformation Sunday was often for Lutherans a time to "sing the company fight song," and recite the denominational slogans of justification by faith, she called for Reformation Sunday to be something more:  as a time for Lutheranism to reassess its place as a reforming theological movement within the broader church catholic, grounded in a theology of the Cross.

What would it mean for each expression of Christianity to engage not in self-congratulation -- we each have our own versions of the worst elements of Reformation Sunday -- but in the kind of self-critique that Bishop Eaton expressed?

1 comment:

  1. Since the fastest growing segment of religion is "None of the Above", you're right. Singing a company fight song is pointless. As is any hymn singing, come to think of it.


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