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.

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