Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Responding to 'Teachers and Witness of the Early Church'

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?