I have been an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church for seven years and served as Rector at small church for six years. The Episcopal Church in my diocese is fairly progressive, smart, and invested in mission and ministry. But, like everywhere these days this diocese struggles with the issues at hand. Sometime soon I want to write about my journey through the waters of human sexuality. But today I want to write about "Progressive Christianity."
Progressive Christianity has been on my mind a lot. I think, in part this is because I have been a progressive Christian my entire life and didn't know that nor understand it fully. Still don't, but I am learning. And it is exciting. I also want to write about progressive Christianity because the RevGals blog site has a book discussion on "Velvet Elvis" by Rob Bell. This book, and I've only read about half of it, takes much of our Christian faith tradition and beliefs and looks at them through a new lens. Bell uses smart engaging language to do this. The book is clever in its design, font, and pagination. I enjoy reading the book. However, he is not saying anything new. If one has been immersed in progressive Christian thought for awhile then one already understands what he is saying. For the most part he uses words and language well to unpack his thinking, beginning with the image of a road side painted velvet Elvis to illustrate that understanding Christianity is like art, it's never complete. As soon as one thinks it is more is revealed and more needs to be explored.
My reflection today however is influenced by an article in the magazine, "The Progressive Christian." The publisher of the magazine defines it's intent "to offer our readers a magazine that ememplifies "progressive" in the best sense of the word by encouraging reasoned but passionate, creative thought and responsible action. We won't promote controversy for its own sake, but neither do we run from it; if you agree with everything we print, we are doing something wrong. Our aim is to help bring vital contemporary issues into the conversation with the christian faith and with the wisdom of ofther religious traditions..." (Volume 181, Issue 3, page 3).
This article, written by Fred C. Plumer (President of the Center for Progressive Christianity, Gig Harbor, WA), looks at the spirituality of progressive Christianity. He argues, and I would agree, that most people are more comfortable today talking about spirituality than religion. Even people who do not consider themselves religious will describe themselves as "spiritual."
In this complex global and often secular world, what are the defining characteristics of spirituality? Plumer states that the primary characteristic is "some strong connection." By this he means a connection to something greater than one's self and a connection to others. Diana Butler Bass argues this same point in her book, "Christianity for the Rest of Us," as does Marcus Borg in his book, "The Heart of Christianity." (I'm not sure if Bell does, perhaps if I finish the book I'll see if he too argues this point). Plumer goes on to describe this connectedness as having an emotional component of religion that shifs our consciousness and transforms us. There are particular practices being lived out in congregations that encourage and enable this emotional connectedness. These include the use of meditation, or drums, or Taize chants, and other forms of, as Bass would say, ancient forms of Christian tradition being practiced in new ways in order to connect people to the historic faith in ways that meet our modern day disconnectedness and help us feel part of community.
Plumer argues that where these practices differ in progressive Christian communities from a more orthodox community is centered in the communities theological, Christological, and sociological understandings. He says, "By 'progressive Christian,' I mean...(people) who start with the assumption that very person is a precious creation and a child of god regardless of color, sexual orientation, religious convictions, and yes, even their political party. Most would reject the Augustinian concept of 'original sin.' Aside from the psychological damage that has been done over the centuries because of Augustine's interpretation of Paul, the idea of sin continues to be terribly divisive. It has come to mean that some are in and some ae out, that some are saved and some are not. It is a form of tribal divisiveness that still haunts most religious expressions in the world." (15 of issue mentioned above).
Plumer goes on to state that he agrees with Irenaeus (Bishop, second century) on this point. Irenaeus, he says, argued that all humans had not been created perfect in the image of God, rather all humans were created "perfectable." We have the potential to grow into the image of God. Sin is a product of learning and growth and therefore part of God's process. What is most important is to remember (and this is the summary of most of my sermons): that we are loved for being who we are at this very moment, in all our brokeness. And that in the process of being loved and REALIZING the depth of that love, we are changed, because we must love others in that same generous way. This is the go and do likewise of Jesus' teaching to love God, love self and love others.
The spirituality of progressive Christianity Plumer says must include opportunities for silence and reflection. We need to create space and time and practices to move from the chatter in our heads. This point was also raised by Bass and others. We live in a noisy busy world. We need to enable opportunities for silence.
I agree with this and then I hear the rebuttal of one of my thirty something parishioners who says that she doesn't know what to do with the silence, it makes her anxious. She lives in a sound bit age and wants everything in short increments. And then she adds, but now when I try to worship with kids, I find that I appreciate the quite time before our worship (begins) so I can have a few minutes to pray and be still while my kids are in Sunday school. You see, at small church we begin every service with the lights dim, candles lit, soft music playing. We offer this quiet time for about 15 minutes before we start the worship. Although I would argue that the worship time begins with this quiet time...
What I am learning is that progressive Christianity has given me the language to articulate how I know God and how I have been a Christian ever since I was a little girl. And the Episcopal Church has given me a way to grapple with my faith and still be Christian. Someday I'll write more about my journey, but suffice it to say I have been in and out of Christianity over my life time, but I have not been in and out of God, prayer, and (well usually) faith. I am excited about the opportunities to create worship that engages our ancient traditions and practices and bring them to life in new ways. New ways that meet the needs of a hungry people looking for community and spirituality without being too bogged down by dogma and doctrine and "right" belief and "Truth."...if you know what I mean...