The Great Emergence: What is it?
It is a fact that the face of the Church today is different than it was when many of us were youths or even in our young adult years. We have seen changes in church attendance, in the ways we worship, the ways in which we order our day to day and week to week lives. We are keenly aware that the traditional place of the Church within society in general and within the lives of many people has changed.
We can lament the change and pray for a return to that time or we can seek to understand what has brought about that change and so begin to find the place and purpose of the Church and our faith for this time. Somehow we can look back on the great disruptions and restorations that occurred in the Old Testament and even look at the disruption and restoration that happened with the coming of Jesus and the birth of the Church and convince ourselves that those things had to happen in order for the world to ultimately find its way to God. But then we imagine that somehow we have been in a holding pattern simply recreating that initial experience of the Church from its earliest moments and marking time until the return of our Lord.
And even though we know of the Great Reformation of the 1500’s and celebrate the changes that occurred as a result of that movement, we do not want to even admit that such a change or changes could ever be needed again. The words of the writer to the Hebrews ring true and cannot be denied: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. But that phrase may not mean that nothing ever changes. Changes in the society around us can cause two things to happen to the church: 1) we can seek to engage ourselves in dialogue around those changes seeking for how we can be the people of God in this changing world; or 2) we can disengage from the world and hide in our bunker waiting for the end of all things to come.
The reality is that whenever great disruptions and restorations occurred within the community of faith, there were fears that caused people to bunker but there was also courage to face the fears and seek for the presence of God and the wisdom of God to keep the Church honest and true to the gospel it had received.
Bishop Mark Dyer – in a bit of wit and humour – has observed that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. We are living in and through one of those sales. The point he is trying to make is that about every 500 years the Church looks at who it is and what it has become and begins to re-examine itself. And so we are not to fear this thing we are going through but give carefully consideration to what we will keep and what must be let go. Of course, most of what holds us back and prevents us from truly preparing for the rummage sale is our memories of what we most love about who we are and our fear of destroying those memories. But when the structure of our institutions inhibits real renewal and growth, we need to be prepared to shatter those institutions in order to allow something new to grow. And as much as that may scare us and make us wonder what will our Church locally and universally look like, we need to remember that we are not the first Christians to be faced with this challenge and let our look at how the rummage sales of the past gave us the Church and the faith that we have preserved for these past 500 years.
To begin with let’s have a quick history lesson on the rummage sales of our past. The first rummage sale going back in time was the one we know best – The Great Reformation of the 1500s. It was a time that has been described as throwing the baby out with the bath water – an extreme form of cleansing or rummage sale that stripped the resulting Protestant churches of much of the visual parts of the faith. Unfortunately, as with many of the disruptions in the Church, dialogue broke down and the result was a break between the major branches of the Church which are still in the process of being addressed.
Back of the Reformation of the 1500s was another rummage sale known as the Great Schism. This occurred in 1054 and was between the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople and the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome. The disagreements between them had festered for about a thousand years before the actual break occurred and it took to the middle of the 20th century before reconciliation was achieved. To us the issues might have seemed trivial but to them they were foundational.
Back before this was the time known as “The Fall of the Roman Empire” or “The Coming of the Dark Ages”. This time in the history of the church was less of a disruption as the others were and more of a consolidation to preserve the truth of the faith. The fall of Rome brought with it a change in the society. Many of the peoples who invaded Rome adopted the Christian faith but did not preserve it. The church would go through a time when the principles of the faith would be changed beyond recognition. Into such a time, Gregory I, known as Gregory the Great, ensured that the witness of the early church and the writings as well as the orders and observances of the Church would not be lost. The convents and monasteries were given charge of everything until the time would come when the church could emerge again and find its proper voice.
To help us come to terms with these disruptions in our religious and social history, Phyllis Tickle wants us to not lose hope for our ability to weather our own disruption which we have been experiencing as a people for at least 100 years. She uses the example of a ship’s cable.
As we move forward in this series on the Great Emergence in particular and in our journey of faith in general, I want us to see the cable in our life. The cable represents the three strands that keep a firm connection between us in this time and the initial revelation that is our faith. The cable is our spirituality, our community and our ethics or morality. The mesh sleeve that surrounds this represents our common understanding of how we will live out our spirituality, how we will live in community and what ethics or morals we will seek to uphold. The waterproof covering represents our story, the story that we will tell the next generation of where we have come from, the trials, tribulations and joys that we have experienced and our hopes for the future.
The cable is that interior strength that holds the boat firmly to the dock. It is composed of three strands of wire interlocked together, covered by a mesh sleeve and covered over again by a waterproof covering. The outer covering can be nicked and suffer damage but it can be repaired. Even the mesh sleeve can sustain damage and be repaired but the cable will ever hold the boat firm.
Whatever this new emergence of the church will be and wherever it will take us, we can know that the cable will never let go and we will ever find ourselves on the path God intends for us to take.