I've been invited by a study group of the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission to write a response to a report produced last year ‘The Teachers and Witnesses of the Early Church: a common source of authority, variously received?’ (not currently a public document) and a collection of responses from Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Quaker, and Methodist members of the commission.
As the meeting date approaches, I'm posting a summary of my thinking so far and would welcome your feedback, especially if you consider yourself part of the church growth movement or the emerging church conversation. The story behind why I connect those two ideas is the subject of several papers I am in the process of revising for publication, but the basic idea is: American-born churches develop powerful entrepreneurial ecclesiological narratives driven by cultural impulses favoring science, technology, and capitalism. These narratives are manifest most clearly in the church growth movement but are also present churches that do not formally associate themselves with it. I contend that the emerging church conversation (conducted variously in strategic, pastoral, and philosophical accents) is in part a reaction against certain products of that historical trajectory (the idea of a megachurch, for instance) that employs entrepreneurial narratives itself to develop its own communities of innovation and experimentation.
How to respond to this assignment with such churches in mind? How do church growth theorists and participants in the emerging church conversation make use of the (post-apostolic) teachers and witnesses of the early church?
I suspect the best short answer is something like: such churches tend to regard "the church fathers" as authoritative in a vague sense (i.e. they provide some more details on the Trinity if you ever needed to check), but generally do not make use of them in everyday ministry, though the emerging church conversation tends to be open to receiving witnesses from a broader period of history. My longer answer will draw on three points:
First, there is the issue of vocabulary. The ecumenical text, "Scripture, Tradition, and Traditions," produced by a meeting in Montreal in 1963, provides an important background distinction between Tradition (as the Gospel itself), tradition (as a verb or process), and traditions (as contextually specific expressions). I like this a lot as a way to get beyond a scripture vs. tradition polemics that don't accurately reflect the sixteenth century conflicts or acknowledge the complex formation of the 66-book canon. In practice, however, I find this distinction impossible to maintain because it is often hard to tell whether a colleague is using the capital 'T' or pluralizing 's' to indicate a precise meaning or is simply following grammatical conventions. Somewhat ironically, this is most challenging in relation to Roman Catholic and Orthodox responses--the very communions Protestants hoped to enhance dialogue with--the former because the English translation of Dei Verbum (a section of Vatican II) does not employ the Montreal formula and the latter because Tradition encompasses so much and in understood to be "a seamless garment."
Second, there the issue of distinguishing between Tradition and history that seem to be linked to positions on whether the church sins. Though the report acknowledges the ancient church is not known for its opposition to slavery and gender inequality, it does not probe this deeply enough. Entrepreneurial ecclesiological narratives, in their best sense, do not advocate change for change's sake but change as repentance for being something other than what God intends the church to be. This means confessing (to provide but three examples): The church has failed women. The church has failed Jews. The church has failed those millions kidnapped from Africa. If the church fathers are silent (or worse) on such issues, how can contemporaries distinguish between the areas where they are authoritative and those they are not? This discussion may be enhanced by drawing from Paul Ricoeur's language of memory and history. If we think of Tradition as memory, scripture is a memory-enhancing technology. If traditions get muddled with the failures of history it is possible to make corrections--to heal the church's memory through the process of confession--so that those things which are remembered through proclamation (in word and deed), manifestation (of gifts), and participation (in ritual, spiritual disciplines, etc.) are reinscribed into history as the church makes progress in the Holy Spirit.
Third, there is the connection of authority with holiness and the rise of so-called "new monasticism." Both in sixteenth century reform movements and subsequent ecclesial experiments (particularly during the nineteenth century in the United States), immorality among church leaders were a major concern and a key factor in why those whose desert practices served as protest against abuses of Constantinian Christianity are sometimes held up along with John Wycliff and Martin Luther in the narratives. The formation of monastic and monastic-like communities as means of organizing around a set spiritual practices draws from Catholic, Anglican, and Anabaptist streams, but offers new contextualization in twenty-first century urban centers. This is an important affirmation that the church passes on something other than a pristine set of manuscripts to future generations, but may not say anything about the authority of church fathers since they tend to draw from later coenobitic forms rather than ancient ones.
Are there things I've missed? Have church fathers impacted your community in significant ways?
I joined the Friars of the Atonement for the third lecture (full version to be posted soon) celebrating the centennial of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Msgr. John Radano presented an engaging summary of bilateral dialogues since Vatican II and identified trends in 21st century dialogues.
This week, hundreds joined Sojourners in Washington, DC to give voice to their conviction that the gospel impels Christians to direct their energies not just towards spiritual but also material care for those with whom Jesus most closely identified himself.
a graphical meditation on some of the iconic images of Septima Clark, Ella J. Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer
For the past three days, some of the great scholars of the Civil Rights Movement have reflected on the issues of memory and memorializing, representation and imagination, and the relation of praxis, rituals, and values. The various approaches to revisiting the movement (many in light of the Obama presidency) have enhanced my appreciation for the many contributions of African-American churches to the ecumenical movement. Among the many stories of tragedy, hope, and courage, the sense of the conference was powerfully expressed for me when those present were invited to join with Hollis Watkins in singing Calypso Freedom.
One of the great benefits of participation in the search for Christian unity is the chance to think theologically with those from different traditions. It was a delight and a privilege to be invited by my colleague, Fr. Joseph Loya, OSA, to reflect on how understandings of God as loving, what God requires of humans, and what it means to worship have intersected at different points in church history for his introductory class. He continues to remind me of the importance of Slavic communities for understanding the differences between Eastern and Western expressions of Christian faith. Such hospitality makes it easier to celebrate the Wildcats' victory over the alma mater of other great ecumenists and wish them well this weekend.
A number of my students have had issues with finding and utilizing sources in extended arguments. This flow chart is designed to assist them in making good use of a variety tools including library catalogs, Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia as an entry point to more complex scholarly discussions.
At this year's meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society, Somerset's own Richard Riss presented a review of the literature on John Wesley's Christology. John Drury presented in the same session on the resurrection in Karl Barth's Christology.
Other interesting presentations included Nathan Crawford's discussion of race and hospitality, Timothy Gaines on aesthetics, Dave Mowers on pacifism in the Assemblies of God, and Jeff Stark on postliberal theology, Thomas Bridges on the incarnation and secularism, and a panel discussion of Nathan Kerr's new book: Christ, History, and Apocalyptic. And, of course, John Caputo brought provocations and amusement in numerous addressess to the Society of Wesleyan Philosophers—most pointedly the connections he draws between Christian and transhumanist attempts to overcome flesh.
My own contribution, Narratives of Testimony, Witness, and Reconciliation, is included below:
As I'm making more use of online teaching tools, I've noticed how cumbersome and time consuming it is to create courses on Moodle. There is no easy way to repeat an assignment multiple times or edit them without a lot of waiting for page-loads. To make my life easier, I've devised a way to create courses outside of the Moodle interface and import them using the "Restore" option.
Create the course using my EditGrid template (you need to create an account and then File > Save As before you can make changes).
In your browser's navigation bar, append .moodle.xml to the template page's URL www.editgrid.com/user/yourname/course--> www.editgrid.com/user/yourname/course.moodle.xml Alternatively, you can use the EditGrid menu: Data > My Data Format > moodle.xml Either approach will apply an XSL stylesheet to the spreadsheet that you can also download here.
Use your browser to save the resulting page as moodle.xml
Compress moodle.xml as a .zip file (once zipped it can be renamed something sensible like M101.zip so that you can tell your zipped courses apart).
Upload your zipped file to your Moodle filespace or email it to an administrator.
In a Moodle course, click the restore option, select your uploaded file, and use it to create a new course. If you can't find the menu, ask an administrator to do it for you.
Both the template and the stylesheet are licensed Creative Commons Attribution. If you find it useful, please let me know. It's currently still under development (current version: 0.8) and may have a few bugs. One upcoming feature is the ability to author an entire quiz in a spreadsheet.
National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU) April 27-30, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona
Theme: "Desert Pilgrimage", complemented by the 2009 Week of Prayer theme "That they may be one in your hand", drawn from Ezekial 37:15-28.
The National Workshop on Christian Unity is pleased to announce a coordinated essay contest to encourage students to engage contemporary ecumenical issues. The contest is open to students working toward a graduate degree in theological studies at a seminary or accredited school of theology.