Saturday, December 31, 2016

A New Year's Resolution for the Jesus Movement

Like all people, Crusty Old Dean has spent the last 48 hours in mourning for the amazing Carrie Fisher and her amazing mom, Debbie Reynolds.  Given my curmudgeonliness, it may surprise readers in crustyland that COD has a soft spot for Golden Age Hollywood musicals.  The Great One (aka Crusty's Mom) would make me watch every time one of the classic Hollywood musicals came on TV back in the
She could make a line like "nerf-herder" work.
day.  Old Man Time Machine:  you know, back in the 1970s, daytime TV on the five channels we got consisted of classic movies and bizarre talks shows with truly odd groups of people sitting around and smoking (Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, and so on).  The Great One's favorites were anything with Debbie Reynold and/or Gene Kelly, so of course Singin' In the Rain (any real musical buff knows there is no 'g' at the end of the gerund) was the holy grail.  Debbie was also one the last links to the great golden age, though we still have Olivia de Havilland with us (and who is a member of the Episcopal cathedral in Paris, BTW).  As for Carrie Fisher -- well, Star Wars came out in the summer of 1977 when I was eight years old, so let's just say COD is thankful he never grew up not knowing there could be awesome kick ass female role models.  And this is not even taking into
Unlike La-La Land, these people could actually sing and dance.
account their multiple, and extensive, offscreen contributions in drawing awareness to substance abuse and mental health advocacy.  Rest eternal, let light perpetual shine upon them.

This mourning interrupted Crusty's meditations on his 2017 New Year's Resolution -- that's right, singular, resolution.  COD has tried to mark each year by promising to try to work on one thing.  Just one thing. It can be anything.  One year COD dedicated himself to learning how to tie a bowtie.  Another year it was a promise to eat a fruit and/or vegetable at every meal.  Sometimes it's been in a more spiritual area.  COD has done this because we should never presume we never have anything else to learn, or aren't capable of stretching ourselves, and rather than picking big, grand, extensive, impossible resolutions, he's tried to pick smaller, manageable ones.

Which got Crusty thinking about the church.  COD has one New Year's Resolution for the Episcopal Church, though he's under no illusion the church cares at all what he thinks.  (Seriously, why are any of you reading this poorly laid out, wordy, ranting blog?)

We've heard a lot in The Episcopal Church in the past year about the Jesus Movement:  a mantra of the Presiding Bishop to help call us to a renewed understanding of mission and evangelism, and the central role of the church as not only being about vestments and knowing how to find the right
Funny how we talk about Sarum Blue but not Sarum Yellow.
Sunday lectionary readings (though to be sure COD is not against either), but about the central role of church in spreading the good news of Jesus.  We are not only Episcopalians or Lutherans or Catholics or whatever fragment of the Christian world we call home, we are part of the Jesus Movement.  As part of this, Bishop Curry has talked about The Episcopal Church as "the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement."  A wonderful, powerful, evocative, and potentially transformative way of looking at ourselves.  COD has been incredibly thankful to Bishop Curry for placing so much emphasis on this message, for a couple of reasons.

For one, it's given cover for us to talk about evangelism!  COD was in a church meeting once where he was specifically asked not to use the word evangelism, "Because it sounds like we're trying to convert people."  COD responded, "Well of course we are.  If not, why are we here?"  That line was to get people's attention, and then he talked about the Jesus Movement and placed emphasis on sharing the good news and good things that we have.  Thanks be to Bishop Curry for giving us the opportunity and the cover to bring evangelism back into the church!

For another, if you've wasted much time on this blog at all, you know that Crusty is firm believer that denominationalism as we have experienced and understood it is over.  The historical and theological factors which created denominationalism from 1500-1800 have changed remarkably, and we are being shaped by different historical and theological contexts.  The church didn't look the same in  the years 100, 400, 800, 1200, 1500, or 1800, and it's not going to look the same in 2100.  There are an enormous number of factors that go into this current phase of change and transformation, from
If only!
globalization, to changes in how we know things, relate to one another, build and form community, to understandings of ecclesiology and biblical interpretation, generational shifts, and on and on.  Denominationalism is dead.  And thanks be to God! Denominationalism in America has been a reflection of our racial, gender, and class distinctions.  Nearly 100 years ago the eminent scholar H. Richard Niebuhr spoke about American denominationalism as reinforcing the caste systems of our society.  Dr. King famously stated that Sunday morning was the most segregated place in America.  Crusty's favorite meme has been the whole "X at the beginning of 2016...X at the end of 2016."  We're getting there with denominationalism, not aren't quite there yet.

In addition, denominationalism has at times meant each expression of Christianity somehow jealously focused on the one or two things distinctive to it, while failing to see overwhelmingly similarities between expressions of Christianity.  COD served in a Presbyterian Church briefly and seemed to spend most of his time discussing polity.  Episcopalians and Anglicans at times fetishize our liturgy when their are plenty of other liturgically minded Christians out there.  Lutherans mark themselves with an understanding of grace cribbed from Paul and Augustine and which the Catholic Church has officially stated doesn't contradict its understanding. None of these elements were wrong at the time they were laid out.  Anglicans were right about adapting liturgy to reflect changing circumstances in the church.  Luther was right to re-emphasize classic Pauline and Augustinian formulations of grace.  But we can fetishize these things at times because they reinforce those markers of tribal identity that form denominationalism.  Crusty was having dinner with a Church of South India bishop once, and marveled at the ability of the Church of South India to merge Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Methodist churches into a single entity.  COD asked him how they did it.  The bishop smiled and said, "Because they were your divisions, brought by the missionaries, not ours.  We didn't have as much invested in them."  One of the reasons church unity faces such a tough slog in Europe and North America is that we have so much invested in our divisions.  This is a sin against the body of Christ, but sadly we've even lost any sense of church division or separation even being a sin, and have normalized it.

To COD is thankful these efforts to shape the church around being "The Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement."  But as 2017 dawns, Crusty also has some concern about this, and it can be put simply:

Are we going to be THE EPISCOPAL BRANCH of the jesus movement  

or will we be
 the episcopal branch OF THE JESUS MOVEMENT.

Will this phrase be nothing more than an effort to buff our brand, emphasize our distinctiveness, so that we can increase our market share?  Is this little more than the Decade for Evangelism or the
20/20 initiative ? (Old Man Alert:  Crusty now has to post links to these things that he remembers when they happened since they're now historical events.)

Or are we willing to live into what it would mean to see ourselves as part of the broader Christian world, preaching the good news of Jesus?  When asked as a new rector what my vision for the church was, COD replied, "We transform lives through the gospel so that we can transform the world. The church doesn't exist to do the things its been doing, it doesn't exist to pay for a rector.  It exists to spread the good news, and everything we do should be in the service of that."

Crusty says he has concerns because we are seeing two major aspects of what being the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement will look like in 2017.  The Episcopal Church has announced a series of Episcopal Revivals for 2017 and 2018, multi-day events to "motivate, equip, and mobilize dioceses to love and follow Jesus and to engage in his work of evangelism and reconciliation."   The church has also placed considerable initiative behind racial reconciliation, with three staff persons on the denominational staff charged with leading this work, and an impressive series of curated materials. 

To be clear, COD is enthusiastically in favor of both.  Crusty's noted his efforts to reclaim the evangelism word and have the local congregation think about what it means to organize itself around spreading the good news; despite the title of this blog, COD is now just a humble country parson, rector of a pastoral sized congregation.  As a historian and as someone who teaches church history, Crusty has tried to be as clear and consistent about the need for the church to commit to racial justice and racial reconciliation, and my history courses spend considerable time looking at the history of the church's relations with historically marginalized groups.  Reconciliation has to begin with a clear and honest reckoning and recounting, and COD has tried and will continue to try to do that in his classes. 

Crusty is enthusiastically in favor of public, organized, intentional efforts to raise awareness of The Episcopal Church, and looks forward to a Revival coming near him.  

The concern is this:  how are we doing the work of revival and racial reconciliation in cooperation, conversation, and collaboration with other members of this Jesus Movement?  

Have any of these Revivals reached out, for instance, to full communion partners?  Are these revivals another spasm of denominations desperately trying to preserve membership when denominations are going to change dramatically in the next 25-50 years into a post-denominational world?  Are we going to spend all that extra money designated for church planting plopping Episcopal churches on street corners and strip malls without collaborating with churches that we are in full communion with, down to sharing of clergy?  Crusty was recently interviewed by Episcopal News Service on the 15th anniversary of Called to Common Mission, the agreement with the ELCA that established full communion and interchageability of clergy.  COD was there at the beginning, starting as associate ecumenical officer a few months after the agreement came into effect.  One thing which Crusty said that did not make the final edit of the article was how disappointed he was in the failure of will in both churches to try to bring about closer ties.  Fifteen years after CCM, we have one shared joint appointment on denominational staffs.  This is simply pathetic, and is a failure of will and vision on the part of leadership, more interested in pouring money and staff and resources into institutional self-preservation.  

COD has actually come to the conclusion that full communion agreements may never really be lived into because the churches could be more interested in last ditch attempts to burnish their brands -- but given that they allow for interchangeability of clergy, perhaps these agreements can be lifeboats to transition us to a post-denominational world, and building blocks to construct a new foundation on the wreckage of our sinful and arrogant divisions.  BTW, please no straw person arguments about not wanting to merge into a single, bland, sterile featureless Christianity.  Christianity has allowed for diversity within unity.  The Roman Catholic Church has staggering diversity, from Eastern Rite churches with married priests to charismatic expressions to fusions of indigenous belief and Catholicism to socially progressive women's religious orders and so on.  Christianity in its first thousand years was no monolith, allowing for regional expressions and variations in Ireland, Spain, North Africa, and so on.  Saying we somehow have to give up diversity for the sake of unity is, by and large, just a way of rephrasing we are unwilling to give up our fetishes in the name of the one gospel of Jesus Christ.

Issues of racial reconciliation are complex and impact all aspects of our society.  It's one thing to talk about racial reconciliation internally in our denomination, about equipping our congregations to address issues in our local communities.  We should be doing that, we have been doing that -- though we are nowhere near making the kind of progress we should be -- and we have a body of resolutions, resources, and materials to help us in this.  

But that's not enough.  Crusty has said on this blog before and will say again: we are entering into a potentially very dark time in our nation.  The United States has spent most of its existence as a totalitarian, apartheid, white supremacist state.  White supremacy was written into our Constitution, legislated in our federal and state laws, and enforced by both the power of the state and by terrorist violence.  COD is concerned about some of the rhetoric around Muslims, immigrants, and persons of color which has emerged in the past few years and in the last election cycle. 

Thinking we need to focus on racial reconciliation in our denomination is no longer enough.  If we as Christians are not fighting for equality in justice in our society, then we are not Christians.  This must be done ecumenically with all people of faith who share these convictions.  Thinking we can have any impact in racial reconciliation without working ecumenically is either naive, delusional, or pathetic, or some combination of the three.

Crusty has been reading and rereading a lot of Dietrich Bonhoeffer lately, it's what he did when he woke up on November 9.  Bonhoeffer realized the failure of denominational Christianity over 80 years ago, as he saw Christianity in Germany, England, and the United States sacrifice the gospel through conforming to society, albeit in very different ways.  The church had clearly failed in his native Germany, as the vast majority of Christians rather quickly and seamlessly accommodated to Nazism.  He spoke in his letters of the need for a "post-church" and "post-religion" Christianity, since the church had so obviously failed.  COD believes were are in a similar place in the United States in the 21st century: the need for a post-denominational, post-church Christianity.  

The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement can be a part of that, if we don't blow it through our own fear and proclivity to sin.  The stakes are too high right now.

So here's my New Year's Resolution for you, Episcopal Church:  be "The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement," valuing all words equally.


  1. We do love belonging to a special club, with special words (crucifer, cope, canticle) and special practices. It's challenging to separate that from the sense of being special Christians. I don't know how comfortable I am with the change of focus you advocate; I hope I grow into it.

    Paragraph 6, last sentence: "We're getting there with denominationalism, not aren't quite there yet." I think you meant "... but aren't quite there yet."

  2. Dear Crusty, from a TEC priest who just laid down his orders:

    Denominationalism suggests Jesus has another body for each separate body politic, each denomination. How any bodies does Jesus have? Is he a monster? Or Denominationalism suggests that multiple bodies make up The Body. I don't know about you but my body is made of members not other bodies. Does that ecclesiology make any sense to you? Isn't that just not understanding how analogies work?

    The Jesus Movement suggests the Body doesn't matter but it's a spirit floating between many bodies, many ecclesiologies, many denominations. Isn't that just Gnosticism? Is our salvation in some larger movement or project Jesus started, or in the very Person of Jesus Christ, in his body and soul? If yes, isn't the Jesus Movement just Arianism? Jesus was a great guy with a great idea higher than himself, thus he couldn't be divine? Let's just throw Jesus in with Ghandi, MLK, Mother Theresa, and my really nice aunt then. We might as well reject The Nicene Creed.

    I believe Curry forgets the Jesus Movement collapsed from an authority vaccuum and its leader became an Orthodox Abbot elsewhere. Of course The Orthodox' Autocephalous Ecclesiology is similar to the Anglican one insofar as local bodies have no universal juridical authority over them. All the same logical problems can occur there.

    You're right we're moving to a post-denominational world. It would appear The Protestant Reformation was a complete failure. Thank God Jesus was victorious over death though. That means we'll see who's left when the fires settle. As for me, I'm joining The Ordinariate, I hope you'll do the same.

    Don't forget Bonhoeffer was an atheist by the end. He died not for Christ but for the sake of some sense of Justice. He wasn't a martyr, but he was seemingly a good man. Denominationalism did fail him, his "church" failed him, but the holiness is not in the members but in the Head. Rome alone has a central authority who can say, "I have not the authority to change doctrine or scriptures, but only to extrapolate."

    I can tell you it's a riveting time, I am for one extremely excited at having found the contradictions, and found The Truth in all that. At least now I may suffer for Christ, and not some devil in disguise.

  3. Glad you've found a place in the Ordinariate, Blake. I don't entirely agree on your characterization of Bonhoeffer as an atheist, although I do agree that his legacy is a complicated one. I also do not think that Arianism or Gnosticism are inherent to an understanding of Christianity as a movement, though to be sure that can be a possibility if it becomes too divorced from outward and tangible expressions. While glad that you've found a place in the Ordinariate, I also simply not accept that church's understanding of ecclesiology.

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