Update on Emergence (USA version)

Students at Trinity have been studying the Emerging Church over the past few weeks and I have had a few conversations about my involvement in it. I came across this useful roundup of the changes in the US-based Emergent conversation on the Emergentvillage blog at the end of 2010. It will help give a sense of the state of play from the USA. However, there needs to be a bit of a health-warning in that it reflects that particular Emergent conversation which is US-focussed, and should not be taken as reflecting the huge diversity of things happening over the world.

What is interesting is that the culturally “cool” aspect of the phenomenon (Apple Macs, designer-glasses, over-heated theoretical theology being spoken by bright, middle-class young – mostly – men) has been rejected and most folks have moved on. Emergent brought some very interesting, creative people together for a while and my hope is that these interesting, creative people are continuing to do great things for the mission of God, but under no common label. Labels don’t matter, but what we do does. It’s good to see that the thing has become less tribal and more diverse. It’s also good to see that interesting things continue to happen which are bringing Christian faith and community to life in new ways for new times. That’s necessary, and it’s always encouraging to see it when it’s happening.

America and Britain: some comments arising from Phyllis Tickle on an 18-month window

Phyllis Tickle has written an intriguing post on the Emergent Village Blog.  Here’s a sample:

Within the next eighteen to twenty-four months, denominations and established communions and the Christians who constitute them will decide, consciously or simply by default, whether “church” is first and foremost an experience of communal bonding, spiritual and religious expression, growth in concert with the ages, radical obedience, adoration, and transport or whether it is first and foremost an institution—one that does business and has structure and also structures which are to be supported, and one that is a means for organized interface with, and shaping of, the world external to it as the best means of effecting the Gospel’s principles upon and within culture.

She points out that these aren’t an either/or option, but a question of where the spiritual emphasis will lie – institutional survival or, if I summarize correctly, ‘pragmatic spiritual community’. She then points out the significance of those Emerging Christians who have opted to stay in their denominations as a context for doing Emerging Church. (Sorry to be so passé using that phrase. If you’re offended, just pretend it’s 2005 and you’ll feel OK…).  Phyllis Tickle continues:

Whether one calls this third body of folk the hyphenateds or by their sect-specific names of Methomergents, Luthermergents, Presbymergents, etc. matters not. What matters is that they are the “X” factor at the moment, What matter is that they are peeling off in increasing numbers from the institutionalized bodies out of which they have come. As they withdraw, they leave those inherited bodies more and more stripped of their resources and energy, certainly. More importantly, however, they also leave those established, inherited communions devoid of disparate voices and arguably more temporally relevant points of view.

America is always changing, so although it’s only just under a year since I last visited, there seems to be a changing of the waters in regard to the place of Emerging Christians in the established denominations. I would be interested to find out from some of my contacts within such circles whether they agree with Phyllis Tickle’s analysis.

The British situation seems considerably distant from these developments.  For several reasons:

  • Although we have had new, non-denominational churches for decades, they have not really eclipsed the continued significance of denominational Churches; the Church of England in particular.
  • The denominational Churches in Britain seem to have been far better at admitting and welcoming Emergent and Fresh Expression forms of Church; again, the Church of England in particular.
  • For those who are interested in Emerging Church, the denominational route (and, boringly again, the Church of England in particular) is at least as viable as an independent option, if not more so

Among Emerging (oops, there I go again! Think ‘2005’ people…) pioneers in Britain, the more pressing question pertains to what Phyllis Tickle describes as the ‘adolescence’ of Emergent Christianity (in the sense that it has left behind its ‘childhood’ and stands on the brink of adult public engagement). This particularly focusses on the question of whether, in Britain, Fresh Expressions/Emerging forms of Church run the risk of losing some of their cutting edge by being absorbed into the life of larger expressions of Church by the welcome and support they have received. A key commentator on this question has been Ben Edson. (See his recent piece on ShareTheGuide.org.)

A key factor in responding to this sort of questioning must surely be whether Fresh Expressions / Emerging Churches are becoming more or less effective missional communities by their continued engagement with denominational (or established non-denominational) churches. That’s a very difficult issue to judge, because, in contrast to the picture being painted by Phyllis Tickle of Emerging Churches in the USA, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of any other game in town in this country.

TSK – bye bye blogosphere and thanks for all the fish

Well, sort of. What do you know, after eight years the original Emerging Church blogger, Andrew Jones, is taking a break from blogging for a while. His highly mobile current circumstances suggest this might be a good idea (hey, the man has to have some fun without being tied down to his blog!). But it is also significant because, coming in the year after the Emergent Village changes, this is one further indication of the shift in the missional conversation which has been going on over the past 18 months.

For me, I think change is usually an exciting thing. Human empires fall, but the work of God remains. It just seems at the moment, we’re in one of those points when we need to turn the lens (or is it, shift our heads, or blurr our eyes) to see what it is all about at the moment. And if this means more doing because there’s less commentating, then that’s not such a bad thing.

In the meantime, expect some summary posts on his blog in the coming days or weeks.

I wonder if email lists are due for a comeback?

Church + Bicycles: the ultimate fusion

posterRespect to Nadia Bolz-Weber and the House for All Sinners and Saints: they’re running the “1st Annual Blessing of the Bicycles” in Denver on Sunday 17th May.  Details are here.

How come the Pentecostals have all the fun?

We need more of this kind of stuff in the Anglican Church … BOH!

Bye bye Brodie

Brodie’s taking a break from the blogosphere. He’s been one of my regular reads since I started in the spring of 2005 – when I think he commented on one of my early posts. I’m sad, but respect the decision any blogger makes over whether they keep it up. And if you’re one of those on Typepad paying an annual fee, then I can see the disincentive if – like me – you go through periods of bloglessness. I’m fortunate in having some space on a server outthere somewhere to carry this one, whether I use it or not.

But thanks, Brodie, for sharing your experience and your wisdom with us these past years.

I’m noticing a distinct fall-off of activity on some of the key bloggers of the past few years. This may be a healthy sign of a more rounded range of life attention, or it may be the credit crunch, or the past year’s traumas for the Emerging Church, which seems to be going through some major ructions. Perhaps there’s less buzz, less point of focus, or maybe everyone’s turning to their Facebook and Twittering. The Blog, by comparison is a rather pensive, introverted activity. As an extravert, I love Facebook (but don’t have time for Twitter) – lots of fast, networked, minimalist contact with lots of friends. It was wonderful to have a birthday this week and have loads of kind greetings: it made me feel linked up in a way that you don’t get with a blog.

Yet blogs, at their best, are a good way of forcing you to think in public. There’s a dangerous exposure to this, but something about it is, I think, rather good for us. On the other hand, at its worse it can be shallow, ego-centric self-promotion.

All I can say is that Brodie’s blog tended to exhibit the best of blogging for me. I’ll miss it – and Brodie, if you’re reading this – thank you and can you email me your Facebook page please? 😉

Obama and the religious factor in American politics

It would be entirely wrong to assume that Barak Obama’s victory in the American presidential race indicated a decline in the religious factor in American politics. The Democratic party have had to learn, again and again, that to ignore the strongly religious component in their country’s culture is to court electoral defeat. The practical problem they face, however, is that the religious Right have managed to capture their political constituency by a simple message of “pro-life or not”. Whilst this is an easy enough message to understand, my conversations with many American evangelicals suggest that for many of them, this is the win-or-lose question into which the whole of their understanding of politics has been poured. As a result, the resurgent evangelicalism among the Baby Boomers has served to boost the fortunes of the Republican Right – all a candidate needs to do is be reassuring on the Big Question, and the evangelical vote can almost certainly be counted upon. This was exemplified by the interview which Rick Warren, pastor of the megachurch Saddleback in Lake Forest CA, conducted with the two candidates back in the summer.  You can see the responses to the question “at what point does an unborn baby get human rights in your view” by both Barak Obama and John McCain here. Barak Obama starts out by saying that answering the question from “a theological or a scientific point of view” is “above my pay grade”. He then clearly says that his is “pro-choice” but also would like to see both a limiting of late-term abortions (if the health of the mother is not under threat) and also at ways in which the number of abortions could be reduced. John McCain comes straight back with “at the moment of conception” without any hesitation. The church congregation cheer. The right answer has been given to the Big Question.

Yet today we have a new President Obama who has been elected by a majority of about 2:1 of electoral college votes, and McCain failed to achieve nearly all of his electoral targets, whilst Obama did better than anyone would have believed back in August. What is going on? Well the economy and the quality of his campaign probably won the election for Obama, and a variety of factors lost it for McCain, including the economy, the quality of his campaign and the choice of Sarah Palin. Palin is another interesting factor in the basic religious question, since she was in the ticket to reassure the disappointed Right enough to get them out to vote for a non-Evangelical Republican candidate. The problem was that she clearly had neither the experience nor the intellect for the job, and this quickly became clear to most thinking Republicans and swing-voters. Her evangelical credentials were impeccable however, even if a little tarnished by Troopergate.

This returns us to the initial question of the religious component in this election. Which way, if any, did it go? Beliefnet seems to be pointing to a likely set of circumstances: namely, that Obama managed to forge a faith coalition of his own. This comprised the non-Evangelical mainstream denominations, who were worried about a wider range of ethical concerns than solely abortion – it is important, but not the Big Question; the fact that Obama, in ways more apparent than McCain, has a clear, active and thought-through Christian faith, founded on an Evangelical conversion with a strongly experiential component; and perhaps most significantly, what is called “The Rise of the Religious Left”. This includes elements within the broader-Church Evangelical constituency which we could identify as “Emerging”. Then lastly, of course, he could rely on votes from the Black Church constituency, which too often has been either divided or unregistered. There are echoes of a Martin Luther King effect here: mobilising black evangelical churches politically is quite an achievement, and perhaps it takes a black candidate or cause to do so.

Both from the perspective of politics and the religious landscape of America, it seems as though we have witnessed a change of historical era. Unlike the last Democratic presidential triumph (Clinton, 1992), here it seems as though permanent changes in American religion itself have participated in the process which allowed a non-white American citizen to enter the White House as President. Although this unique set of circumstances will probably never recur, the religious politics of America are on the change.

Phyllis Tickle’s correction

Oops! With blogs you never know who’s going to read what you write and drop into the comments. Phyllis Tickle has briefly (and graciously) responded to my very critical review of The Great Emergence with one correction, which I’m happy to accept. You can read the correction in the comments to the original review. As for the overall theory of the book, she’s sticking to her guns (and I’m sticking to mine!)

The Great Emergence – with the greatest respect, I demur

Perhaps the most well-announced book to be published this year in the American Christian book market, especially in Emerging circles, is The Great Emergence, by Phyllis Tickle. It’s published by the Emergent Village imprint of Baker Books, so comes as the latest in a highly marketable succession of titles. I managed to pick up a copy not long after its publication and read it some weeks ago.  Phyllis Tickle has had an auspicious career in religious publishing and is in a very good place to act as an authoritative commentator of trends within contemporary American Christianity. So it’s with some trepidation that I am going to have to say why I think the book does not deserve the significance all the pre-publication marketing hype has given it.

Phyllis Tickle’s theory is a simple one: that every 500 years, an upheaval occurs that forces the Church to reconstitute itself in ways which will set the scene for the next period of half a millennium. It is her belief that the Church is presently passing through one of these upheavals, and that the Emerging Church movement is laying the foundation of what is to come. To claim that an easily-identifiable, if amorphous, contemporary movement has significance for the next half-millennium of global world Christianity is some claim indeed. The theory, therefore, demands some scutiny. Tickle’s reference-points are the birth of Christianity itself in the 1st century; the pontificate of Gregory the Great; the Great Schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism; The Reformation; and, today, the Emerging Church.

The first question which naturally arises, therefore, is whether the first four of these points in Church History all have sufficient significance to support the theory, for without it, the basic thesis of the book crumbles. Certainly, no-one is going to argue with two of these being of primary significance to Church History: the First Century and the Reformation. The question is over the signficance of the other two points in the 500-year schema.  There is no doubt that Gregory the Great’s pontificate was good for the Western Church. It marked the emergence of the Western church structure as a strong political, missional and social force at the very time when the rest of Western Europe was succumbing to the collapse of classical civilization; a collapse which took roughly two hundred years. The problem is that the pontificate began in 590 and ended in 604, about 100 years after the time the theory indicates it should have happened. So a 20% margin of error becomes apparent. [Since writing this review, Phyllis Tickle has responded in the comments below. If you are looking at the comment-free version, you should click here, to see where she says I’ve got it wrong, and my response.]

What of the Great Schism, which took place in 1054 (10% error margin)? The mutual anathematization between the Pope and the Patriarchate of Constantinople is largely of symbolic significance, for the Eastern and Western halves of the Church had been drifting apart intellectually since Latin theology emerged in the Third Century, bringing in a distinctly different agenda to that of the East. The move of the administration centre of the Empire to Constantinople and a series of sacks of Rome (by the Visigoths and the Vandals in the 5th century, and the Ostragoths in 6th) led inevitably to competition between the major sees. The formal excommunication only capped a half-millennium of growing mutual isolation between two ecclesial tectonic plates. It was not a crisis, or even a seminal period for the Church. It was just a new low. Indeed, even after the excommunication, cordial relationships were restored and things did not really reach their worst point until the sack of Constantinope during the Fourth Crusade (1203-1204). By choosing the Great Schism, therefore, is Tickle selecting events of symbolic, contemporary, or consequential importance? For if these distinctions are not clarified, to what extent is the theory useful at all?

In addition to these questions of the margin of error and actual significance of two of the four points in history upon which Phyllis Tickle bases her theory, even more questions surround her omission of other events which do not fit neatly into the 500-year schema. The rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy, the work of Thomas Aquinas and the triumph of Scholasticism between the 12th and 14th centuries transformed the nature of Western Christianity, yet barely get a mention. The emergence of post-biblical patrisitic thought in the 2nd to the 5th centuries, including such giants as Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers, is absent from the picture.  And although the conversion of Constantine, and Christianity’s toleration with the Edict of Milan of 313, is not exactly kosher from some Emerging perspectives, it is rather a difficult ‘hinge-point’ to ignore in the history of Christianity. Sadly, its dating is not easily divisible by 500, not even with a 20% error margin, so it gets left out of the picture.  Of the global expansion of Christianity through missionary expansion between the 18th and 19th centuries, we hear nothing. Occasionally, we get a hint that Tickle herself is aware of the inconvenience of these significant developments, so she suggests other happenings such as these belong to settled periods between the great moments of change, but by then the flaws in the theory are all too apparent. If such settled periods contain developments which sow a seed for new crises, all well and good. But when it is far from obvious from the evidence that the crisis always breaks on a 500-year cycle, there is nothing plausible left by way of a theory.

So why does the book need this unlikely theory at all? The purpose of the climactic chapter of the book is to proclaim that we are now at one of these once-every-500-year moments: The Great Emergence. Her 20% error-margin allows Phyllis Tickle the scope to embrace just about any event of the 20th century, and even the 19th century, as an overture to what she has to say about the present. We get a helter-skelter through recent American church history (the Rest of the World tends to figure with rather less prominence). However, it is clear that this is ultimately a tract about the Emerging Church. At this point, the hyperbole gets out of hand. The footnotes to this chapter inform us that Doug Pagitt is ‘one of Emergent Christianity’s most influential and brilliant thinkers’. However, this is nothing compared to Brian McLaren, whose A Generous Orthodoxy is ‘an analog to Luther’s ninety-five theses’.  With such giants among us, we are walking in a once-every-half-millennium moment. So hold onto your hats.

The publication of the book worries me, not because of the implausible nature of its view of history, but rather because of its strong links to the movement which it seeks to fete. History, when read free of a grand narrative, is a humbling thing. One realises that the concerns and battles which fill our days, though perhaps important, must in the end be set alongside the long list of persons, events and concerns from earlier times. It is nigh-on impossible to make a judgement on the significance of present events when set in the train of this long, long story. The Great Emergence is not so much a grand narrative as a grandiose narrative. It is futurology masquerading as history, forcing the latter into an unlikely and unsuitable corset of teleology. Of course, all historians betray as much about their own time and concerns as those which they narrate. Published, as it is, under the Emergent banner and feted by those of whom it speaks, the events surrounding the publication of this book are saying a lot about how the present leaders of the American Emerging Church see themselves. Like Phyllis Tickle, I have a great respect for these people; as indeed do I for the author’s standing as an eminent commentator on American Christianity. But amid the book’s hyperbole, which reduced me at times to a state somewhere between laughter and tears, am I alone in detecting more than a little self-importance? The brand of Emerging Christianity which Tickle describes began as a gentle protest in the face of an over-dominant, comfortable and formulaic Evangelicalism in America. If, as I fear, it may now be succumbing to the perennial hybris of Religious Movements That Have Become Significant, it is likely to find that Church History will take a slow, leisurely time in proving, with its ruthless inertia, how relatively insignificant most of us are in God’s wider scheme of things.

Bishop of Rochester appears to turn his critical gaze on Emerging churches

The Bishop of Rochester, who these days is turning out to be one of the more reliable critics of everything that might be trendy, GAFCON-attender and no-show-er at Lambeth, was invited to to give the talk at the Annual General Meeting of the Prayer Book Society. (A group of traditionalists, who tend to dislike anything Anglican and liturgical that has been written in the past 350 years).

His talk is covered by Ruth Gledhill on her Times Blog. From her notes of his talk:

‘This new fashion of network churches – for people like one another in taste for music or whatever it maybe who want to be church together.

‘It might be possible for us to agree that Christians can be church in this way as long as this is not the only way they want to be church.’ (Closer study of the New Testament had brought him to this conclusion.)

‘The question precisely with many of the emerging church movements is whether people can be or are committed to such universal belonging.’

If I was a journalist, I’d probably listen to the talk, but to be honest, I have better things to do at the moment. That’s why I’m not a journalist.

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