‘Churches’, says Phyllis Tickle, the American theologian of Emergent Church, ‘go through a rummage sale every five hundred years or so’. I love that image. So, five hundred years ago, in 1517, we saw the tipping point in the great rummage sale of the Reformation.
Of course, the danger for protestants is that we might say, ‘Been there, done that’, and forget the fact that the Reformation of the sixteenth century committed us to be a people who were always being reformed by the Word of God. The reality is that our particular protestant attic has now become full of stuff and a wee bit dusty, so we can’t always see the wood for the trees. But, in truth, we have become comfortable with things as they are.
We who rejoice in Luther and Calvin, Wycliffe and Tyndale, Cranmer and Knox, because they re-focussed the church of their day on the central truths of the Gospel, don’t always notice when the time comes for us and our ways to be reformed too!
However, it was always so. It will probably be the new Christian, the up-and-coming visionary leader, and the person who is hard to live with, who will all ask the awkward questions while the leaders, not least bishops like me, defend the ancient regime. So here goes a church leader trying to be a young whippersnapper!
Truth is this: none but the most esoteric are interested these days in the issues which have led to most of our denominational identities. When did you last hear a young person argue the pros and cons of church government? Yet we have whole denominations labelled by the answers once given: Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian. We have divided over it, as though the answer was ‘of the essence’ of the faith.
Or when did you last hear a heated discussion on predestination and free will between a Methodist and a Calvinist, or even on the amount of water used in baptism? I come from a denomination where most people used to be baptized as infants with a little water poured on their foreheads, where nowadays total immersion of adults is quite common!
If we are semper reformanda, we might just look for a fleeting moment at what St Paul says in 1 Corinthians, and wonder if all our beloved denominationalism is really God’s way:
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you…What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Cephas” or “I follow Christ”. Is Christ divided?”
Isn’t it amazing that the churches of the Reformation live comfortably with their divisions even though Christ prayed in his immaculately-timed high-priestly prayer, ‘That they may be completely one…that the world might believe’? But one of the reasons for the new reformation is that a new generation is not very much interested in these things. What is bringing a challenge is that they simply want to find communities of faith where God is palpably present, the scriptures are taught in a life-transforming way, and there is a level of real relationship and engagement with the needs of the community. Sadly, they often find that harder to come by in the institutional churches than we might think!
But I have been asked to speak of Northern Ireland – the most Christian region in these islands, which has sent out so many wonderful missionaries, raised up so many Church leaders, and yet finds it hard to emerge from deep-dyed and normalised ‘soft sectarianism’, with its roots somewhere in the Reformation divisions, but not so much in core Reformation theology.
We have settled into a kind of distant co-habitation with very little relationship and intentional peace-making. In truth churches, like politicians, can benefit from divided societies, because they create critical mass. If I were to look back over 20 years of being a bishop and say what has disappointed me most (even in myself), it would be the lack of real intentionality in churches with regard to peace-making and reconciliation.
A new reformation would lead to determined relationship-building, outrage at living in a divided society, the opening of our doors and hearts and minds showing the grace to others by which we have been transformed…free, plentiful, and offered gladly. It would lead to a ‘hard Gospel’ which learns forgiveness, because Jesus says that is the only way forward.
Learning forgiveness would bring so many of the famous ‘solas’ together: only by grace; only by faith; formed only by scripture (because human wisdom would say ‘Don’t go there!’); only through Christ who showed such forgiveness to us while still sinners; and because the goal of our lives is for the sole glory of God.
The question which remains to be answered in Northern Ireland is ‘Are the churches part of the problem in Ireland, or part of the solution?’ If we don’t become part of the solution very speedily, a new secular generation will rise up which will say ‘A curse on all your houses’.
These are just two areas in which a new reformation needs to happen. But reformations are costly, and we probably find it easier to look back to one 500 years ago, than to be part of one today. I hope not!
Harold Miller is Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Dromore in the Church of Ireland.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.
Thanks for your thoughtful article Bishop Miller. I agree with much of what you’ve said. Returning to Northern Ireland after being overseas for 2 1/2 years, I’ve been dismayed to discover that small peace building steps taken by my local Presbyterian Church have petered out. Someone recently asked me what my denomination was doing in terms of peace building? I struggled to answer as it’s not clear to me what is being done. I wonder if we’re all so comfortable that making efforts to build bridges is a step too far? As you point out, we seem happy with co– habitation and reluctant to risk developing more meaningful relationships with those who are different.
I found this article very thought provoking. In the group work I facilitate with men, which often responds to deep emotional hurts and pains I have found that denominational differences don’t even raise their head. I have concluded that when people’s backs are against the wall and they are facing adversity all they desire is Christ, in whatever guise he comes. This motivate me for mission especially in these times of austerity and poverty when all hands are needed at the tiller. As denominations we do not have the luxury to ‘tear strips off each other’ in the belief we are defending Christ, if we do this all we are doing is harming our “own body” and seeming increasingly irrelevant to the world.
A Response to Are we part of the solution or part of the problem?
Thanks Bishop Miller for your insightful and challenging call to the Christians in general and Christian churches in particulr for the need to constantly look out for “remmage” clerance and/or “sale” of our beliefs and practices in the light of the fundamental biblical teachings and their relevance to contemporary circumstances and needs. This needs to be done not every five hundred years but, I would argue, every decaded or so.
You are right to point out that the “remmage clearnce or sale” today has less to do with corrupt and immoral practices that affected the Church of Luther’s day or doctrinal beliefs such as free-will, predestination, salvation by faith alone, but to do with how we Christians love one another and our neighbours so that we may act as salt and light to the world.
It is regretable, in the light of Christ’s prayer and Paul’s injunctions for us to be united, that we Christians are divided into thousands of factions and denominations. But the absolute unity in the form of one Church structure is neither possible nor desirable. Let us not forget that the corruption amd immorality that prevailed in the Church before Reformation was at least partly due to the monolithic church administration and structure.
Surely we can belong to and worship in different chuch denominations and at the same time unite on certain economic, political, moral and social issues. It is to the credfit of the leadership of the four main churches (Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbeterian) in Northern Ireland that during the dark days of “troubles” they were able to present a united message of non-violence, peace and reconciliation. And they were added in their efforts by organizations such as Corrymeela and ECONI (predecessor of Contemporary Christianity). I, someone who hails from the Indian subcontinet, am amazed that during the course of 30 years of “troubles” just over 3000 lives were lost. In order to provide a prospective, imagine such a situation occurring in any of the countries of the Indian subcontinent. I can state without hesitation that the casualty figures would have run into tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.
Bishop Miller rightly reminds us that despite the 1998 Good Friday peace aggrement, churches in Norhern Ireland lack “real intentionality ….with regard to peace-making and reconciliation.” This has been borne out by recent sociological reseraches that show that in a many sections of our society sectarianism is still deeply rooted, though by the Grace of God we are spared the viollence that afflicted us prior to 1998. For this not only the churches but also our political leadership share a great responsibility.
Bishop Miller is right to pin future hope on the future genration who seems to be primarily interested in finding “communities of faith where God is palpably present, the scriptures are taught in a life-transforming way, and there is a level of real relationship and engagement with the needs of the community.” But this also prsents a challenge to the rest of us to make every effort to bring about such communities. So let us keep praying to God that he will guide us in this task by his wisdom, power and grace.