by Rassaphore Monk Angelos
This article constitutes the third installment in a series adapted from the author’s undergraduate thesis, An Ancient Future Church?: An Orthodox Examination of the Post-modern Christianity of the Emergent Church Movement. The introductory installment may be read here and Part II here.
Among the various analyses of the Emergent Church Movement (ECM), there is one intriguing theory that sets ECM well within a historical continuüm in Western Christianity, a pattern that indeed defines the historical path of Christianity in the West, and in those regions where Christianity has developed from a Western model.
Phyllis Tickle, a member of the Episcopal Church in the USA (ECUSA) and well-known writer on the sociology of religion, has termed ECM “The Great Emergence” and placed it in succession to a series of 500-yearly upheavals in Western Christianity: The Great Reformation, The Great Schism, and Saint Gregory the Great.1 She has based this concept on the thought of fellow Episcopalian, Bishop Mark Dyer, who claims that “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale”2 or in more scholarly terms, “about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and growth may occur.”3
In Tickle and Dyer’s theory are three things that inevitably follow such upheaval. First, “a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge,”4. Second, “the organized expression of Christianity which up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self”5 in which we end up with two bodies: one new expression of faith and a refurbished establishment of an older tradition. Finally, the result of the breaking of this established Christianity is the spread of the faith to places where it had never previously been.
The author’s membership in the ECUSA is likely demonstrative of her ecclesiology. The idea that such upheavals and contortions within a religious tradition are inherently positive must surely negate the concepts of heresy and schism, which are tragic and destructive to any religious community. The Orthodox Church, with its focus on continuity of the Faith and maintaining of the Tradition passed down from the Apostles, has no concept of acceptable religious upheaval, unless it is resistance to heresy.
Despite the questionable presuppositions of her ecclesial worldview, which is evidently rooted in the liberalism of ECUSA, Tickle seems to have accurately pointed out a fairly consistent phenomenon within Western Christianity. Much of the scope of her studies is limited to those movements born out of the Reformation, of which ECM is very much a continuation; but Roman Catholicism has not been free of such upheaval either. After all, the Second Vatican Council, a source of serious controversy in some quarters of the Catholic Church, took place only about four hundred years after the Counter-Reformation council at Trent.
In her book, The Great Emergence, Tickle builds her theory on the idea that this new reformation, the “Emerging Church”, has arisen from a need to re-evaluate the concept of authority within Christianity, just as the Reformation arose from disputes over the authority of the Pope.6 The Reformation attempted to fill the vacuum left by the absence of a papal figure with the precepts of Sola Scriptura and Solus Christus, both of which, according to Tickle came under heavy attack in the mid-nineteenth century onwards.
ECM, which has predominantly arisen from evangelical Protestant circles, is seen as a response to the series of defeats meted out to conservative evangelicalism in the political, cultural, and social spheres, often known in the USA as the “Culture Wars.” In the main portion of her book, Tickle outlines some of the main persons and events responsible for these defeats, which led to the collapse of the two aforementioned pillars of Protestant authority and the movement toward a reevaluation.
The Rise and Fall of Protestant “Fundamentalism”
One of the first challenges mentioned by Tickle is Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. It was in response to this and “the kind of biblical criticism and liberal theology it and other concomitant trends were seen as empowering”8 that the Conference of Conservative Protestants in 1895 issued a statement known as The Fundamentals, detailing the essential doctrines of the Protestant faith: inerrancy of Scripture; divinity of Jesus Christ; the Virgin birth; substitutionary Atonement; the physical Second Coming of Christ. It was on these five points that evangelicalism would stand or fall in the West and Tickle details the hammering that these points all took in legal, academic and other environments.
After evolution, Tickle also lists names and events such as Freud, Jung, Einstein, the advent of the automobile, Marx and the spread of socialism, Vietnam and the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, the rise of the drug culture, immigration, divorce, Roe v.Wade, euthanasia, and women’s rights. While some of these might appear odd, Tickle finds in each a defeat for traditionally-held, Biblical views in a cultural milieu that was accelerating quickly away from the conservative, Scripture-based Protestant morality and worldview. Although Sola Scriptura lost in all of these social struggles, we should point out that it was not the true authority of the Scriptures that had been irreparably damaged but rather the Protestant misinterpretation of Scripture. One need only point to the Civil Rights Movement here as an example of at least some Protestant denominations mis-applying Scripture to support their racially-motivated political views.
Of the events and movements listed, it is worth mentioning the following four for their special contribution to the very public defeat of Sola Scriptura and Solus Christus: the writings of Joseph Campbell, the Jesus Seminar, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Pentecostalism.
The first two are examples of activities, previously confined to academia, which made their way into the popular conscience in mid-twentieth century America. The writings and television work of Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative religion and comparative mythology, “were and are authoritative attacks upon Christian exclusivity and particularity.”9 The books The Masks of God and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the TV series The Power of Myth were incredibly successful, introducing a whole new discussion to American society. These works, Tickle believes, “persuaded much of North American Christendom that exclusivity and particularity were a hard, if not an impossible sell. What of solus Christus, not to mention sola scriptura?”10
Also entering into mainstream conversation was the so-called “search for the historical Jesus,” which later manifested itself as the Jesus Seminar. Although dating back to the early nineteenth century, this discussion became more public in the twentieth century through the writings of scholars such as Marcus Borg, Raymond Brown, Elaine Pagels, and others. Tickle dates the main thrust of the movement to Hermann Samuel Reimarus and his work The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples. In her description of his work, she writes regarding the scientific attack on conservative Christianity: “‘Scripture only and only Scripture’ really was, if not badly wounded, then certainly badly bruised, well before Einstein or Heisenberg ever came along. Their work would only reinforce and broaden an investigation already in progress.”11 The movement to deconstruct, criticize and analyze the Scriptures dealt a serious blow, not only to Sola Scriptura, but to the honor and esteem that the Bible had in society up until this point. Despite most of the critics’ theories having been proven untenable by both archaeological and historical evidence,
Literalism based on inerrancy could not survive the blow (though it would die a slow and painful death); and without inerrancy-based literalism, the divine authority of the Scripture was decentralized, subject to caprices of human interpretation, turned into some kind of pick-and-choose bazaar for skilful hagglers. Where now is our authority?13
The rise of Alcoholics Anonymous, on the other hand, was a blow against Protestant clerical authority and a movement that also contributed to the “spiritual but not religious” culture prevalent today. Ironically, the AA had its precursor movements among American and English evangelicals. The removal of clergy as authority figures in dealing with addiction was to “strike a blow at the Pastor’s Study as the seat of all good advice, holy counsel, wisdom, and amelioration.”14 At the same time, the AA insisted that one could place one’s faith not necessarily in God, as understood in the Person of Jesus Christ, or even Yahweh, but as one understands Him. Tickle sums up this idea’s effect on society:
Not only did AA, almost by default, being to supplant the pastoral authority of the professional clergy and open the door to spirituality in the experiencing of a non-doctrinally specific Higher Power, but it also revived the small-group dynamic that would come to characterize later twentieth-century Protestantism and, paradoxically, to enable the disintegration of many of its congregations into pieces and parts… AA opened the floodgates to spirituality by removing the confines of organized religion.15
The resultant idea that one can be “spiritual but not religious“16 has left a society completely bereft of any concept of spiritual discernment or discipline, making traditional Christian missionary work and evangelism incredibly difficult in the West, but conversely enabling New Age movements to grow.
The Growth of Charismatic Pentecostalism
Another principle actor in Tickle’s thesis is Pentecostalism. It is outside the scope of this thesis to describe the rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, but it is worth briefly examining its part Tickle’s theory of the “Great Emergence.” The effects of Pentecostalism on Protestantism have been immense:
Because Pentecostalism had its roots deep in egalitarianism, it was to come into North American Christian experience as the first, visible fulfilment of the apostle’s cry that “In Christ, we are all one body.” Pentecostalism’s demonstration of a Church of all classes and races and both genders became a kind of living proof text that first horrified, then unsettled, then convicted, and ultimately helped change congregational structure in the United States, regardless of denomination.18
The contemporary worship style of the majority of evangelical churches in the West today is heavily indebted to Pentecostalism and its later offspring, the Charismatic movement. It is difficult to find a Protestant church or denomination in the West that has not incorporated elements of Pentecostalism. Due to its rapid expansion, Pentecostalism numbers around five hundred million worldwide and is the largest Christian body in the world after Roman Catholics.19 This fact gives considerable strength to Tickle’s third point, that Christianity (in a broad sense) has spread to previously untouched places during this cycle of upheaval.
Most important is Pentecostalism’s contribution to the discussion on authority. Tickle’s assessment of this contribution is worth quoting in full:
Pentecostalism by definition assumes the direct contact of the believer with God and, by extension, the direct agency of the Holy Spirit as instructor and counsellor and commander as well as comforter. As such and stated practically, Pentecostalism assumes that ultimate authority is experiential rather than canonical. This is not either to say or to imply that there is a denial of Holy Scriptures. It is to say, rather, that forced into a choice of what the believer thinks with his or her own mind to be said in the Holy Scripture and an apparently contradictory message from the Holy Spirit, many a Pentecostal must prayerfully, fearfully, humbly accept the more immediate authority of the received message. The same thing is true when the contradiction occurs between a received message and the words of a pastor or bishop. Pentecostalism, in other words, offered the Great Emergence its first, solid, applied answer to the question of where now is our authority.20
This is particularly relevant for ECM, as, “probably slightly more than a quarter of emergent Christians and the emergent Church are Pentecostal by heritage or affinity, and they have brought with them into the new aggregate this central belief in the Holy Spirit as authority.“21 The extent and strength of Pentecostalism’s influence on ECM can be quite evidently seen when one considers the absence of such influence by Roman Catholics, who make up roughly the same proportion of emergents. Whereas the anti-hierarchical ethos of the Pentecostal movement is obvious within emergent circles, there is no pull towards institutional Roman Catholicism in any degree, unless we consider the emergent-Catholic (or Catho-mergent, in the lingo) communities that have developed within the Roman Catholic Church.
Emergent Movement as a Roman Catholic Phenomenon
It is interesting to note that, while almost all observers view ECM, at least in its origins, as a specifically Protestant movement, Tickle puts major emphasis on its shared roots with Roman Catholicism. Indeed, the term “Emerging Church” first appeared in the title of a book published by two Roman Catholic authors.22 One of the contributions to ECM that originated in the Roman Catholic Church is, surprisingly, the house church movement, which is now more closely associated with Pentecostal and Charismatic groups, as well as emergents.
The house church movement began in the inter-war period under the leadership of Franciscans in Belgium and France. “By the mid to late 1930s, house-church worship had become so substantial that the Roman Church not only had to acknowledge its presence but also had to recognize it as an acceptable mode of worship upon occasion, albeit rarely.”23 It was from these beginnings that the Catholic Worker Movement originated, under the guidance of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The Catholic Worker Movement, founded in 1933, can be seen as a precursor to the social vision of much of ECM, leading to its being tagged as a “social justice Christianity.” Tickle states that “Day’s vision of a world made holy by radical faith, radical obedience, and radical Christian practice would become the earliest expression on a massive and popular level of the vision that, over time, would come to characterize Emergence Christianity in general.”24
The Catholic Worker Movement was not the only one of its kind. Across in the Protestant world, the same period saw the early developments of what would become two of the most influential new communities in Western Christianity. In the 1930’s, The Church of Scotland minister George MacLeod rebuilt the Abbey of Iona along with a group of fellow clergy and working men. In 1940, Roger Schutz founded the Taize community in France. Tickle identifies these three movements or communities as the three momentous acts that launched ECM. It would be hard to disagree, as both the Iona and Taize communities have substantially contributed to ECM’s alternative worship for years, developing liturgies and chants based on those found in more traditional churches.
These two communities are prime examples of why ECM has been known as the “Ancient-Future Church,” in that they have developed a modern form of Christianity while heavily influenced by ancient traditions, in particular Western monasticism. It is worth mentioning that MacLeod was a leader of the Scoto-Catholic movement, a movement within Scottish Presbyterianism and influenced by Anglicanism’s Oxford Movement, which advocated for the adoption of more(small ‘c’) catholic practices in the Presbyterian church.25 This adoption of ‘catholic’ (read: traditional) practices by typically low-church Protestants is something heavily identified with ECM, and a facet of the movement that will be explored further in this series.
Rome’s second major contribution to ECM, at least in Tickle’s broader, all-encompassing view, is the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II’s pronouncements on interfaith dialogue, ecumenism, ecclesiology, and its acceptance of new ways of interpreting Scripture and doctrine are hailed by Tickle: “Regardless of what form or forms of Christianity may rise up out of the Great Emergence … it is safe to say that much of the thinking and many of the effectual conclusions will have their initial roots in the Vatican Councils.”26
Traditionalist Catholics consider the results of Vatican II with horror and Orthodox Christian opinion on the council is varied but generally negative. Yet for ECM, these changes are all for the better and help to midwife the development of a new, deconstructed or reconstructed Christianity for the post-modern world. The effects of Vatican II and the thinking of its era has had such a tremendous impact not only on the Roman Catholic Church, but also the Protestant and, regrettably, the Orthodox worlds, that we can safely say that Tickle’s thesis of ECM as a new Reformation has strength.
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Rassaphor Monk Angelos is a native of Scotland and a member of the brotherhood of Holy Trinity Monastery. He recently graduated from Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary.