A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
A Progressive Church: Beyond Evangeliical and Liberal Boundaries
March 2, 2003
Last Sunday After Epiphany Luke 9:1-6
Speaking our Minds!
The greatest gift we can offer those we care about is the gift of clear messages. No games, no beating around the bush, no protection of feelings. Just clear messages. Listen to this story of messages gone haywire in a relationship.
A guy named Roger is attracted to a woman named Elaine. They go on several dates, have a good time and share the following conversation on the way home in the car. Elaine begins - "Do you realise that as of tonight we've been seeing each other for exactly six months." There is silence in the car. To Elaine it seems like a very loud silence. She thinks to herself; 'I wonder if it bothers him that I said that. Maybe he is feeling confined by our relationship.'
And Roger is thinking - 'Yoiks! Six months.'
Elaine is thinking - 'Maybe I don't want this kind of relationship. I mean where are we going? Are we heading towards marriage? And children? Do I really know this person?' And Roger is thinking- 'Let's see... Six months. That puts it at February, which was right after I had the car in for service, which means…lemme check the odometer…Whoa! I am way over due for an oil change.'
Elaine is thinking; 'He's upset. I can see it on his face. Maybe he wants more from our relationship, more intimacy, more commitment. Maybe he is reluctant to say anything because he is afraid of being rejected.' And Roger is thinking - 'And I am going to have to have them look at the transmission again. I don't care what those morons say- its still not working. 600 dollars later I expect better.
Elaine is thinking - he's angry. And I don't blame him. I'd be angry too. I feel so guilty putting him through this. But I can't help the way I feel. I'm just not sure. And Roger is thinking- 'They'll probably say it's on a 90 day warranty. Frauds.'
Elaine is thinking - Maybe I'm just too idealistic, waiting for a knight to come riding up on his white horse, when I am sitting next to a perfectly good person, a person who is in pain because of my self centred school girl romantic fantasy. And Roger is thinking- Warranty? I'll give them a warranty. I'll take their warranty and stick it ...
"Please don't torture yourself like this," she says, her eyes filling with tears. 'Maybe I should never have…O God I feel so…." She breaks down sobbing. "What?" says Roger.
"I'm such a fool," Elaine sobs. "I mean I know there's no knight, and I know there's no horse."
"There's no horse?" says Roger.
"You think I'm such a fool, don't you?" says Elaine. "No!" says Roger, glad to finally know the correct answer.
"It's just that…I need some time," Elaine says. There is a 15 second pause while Roger, thinking as fast as he can, tries to come up with a safe response. Finally he comes up with one that he thinks might work. "Yes," he says.
Elaine turns to face him and gazes deep into his eyes, causing him to become very nervous, especially if what she is about to say involves a horse. At last she speaks, "Thank you Roger," she says. "Thank you," says Roger.
And they go home. Elaine weeps on her bed, a tortured soul, until dawn. Roger opens a bag of chips and becomes engrossed in a game of tennis on the television. A tiny voice in the recess of his mind tells him that something major went on back there in the car, but he is sure there is no way he would ever understand what, so he figures it is better if he doesn't even think about it.
The next day Elaine tells her closest friend and they talk for six hours over every painstaking detail, exploring every word, every expression and gesture. They will continue to discuss it for several months, never coming to any conclusions, yet never getting bored of it.
Meanwhile Roger, while playing basketball one day with an old friend of Elaine's, pauses before shooting, frowns and says, "Norm, did Elaine ever own a horse?"
And that's the difference between men and women.
There's nothing startling in the suggestion to offer clear messages. We all know we should. Yet most of us find it quite hard. We prefer to avoid the topic.
Yet what if I told you that today's gospel is urging us to clear messages. Jesus engages here in an exercise with some of his disciples. He sends them out to share a clear message, a message of peace and an assurance that the peace of God is close by, even within the human soul. He assures them that the message won't be straightforward. In fact it will feel like being lambs amongst a pack of wolves. Yet he says take this clear message and if it is welcomed take the response at face value; eat and enjoy the company. If in taking this message you are not welcomed, then offer another clear signal; move on and refuse to be treated that way. It seems to me that this has nothing to do with people holding different opinions. We have no right to jump up and down and curse people for disagreeing with us. This is rather about being made to feel unwelcome.
My sense is that most of us know that being direct in conflict is the better way, yet find it a great challenge. There is even a Christian piety which would suggest that unity, that is peace keeping, is the greater virtue. As individuals the call of the gospel is to be direct and clear and demand to be treated with this same respect. It has application also for us as a church. Many see us at St Matthews as being a liberal church, even offering liberal leadership.
Let me offer a critique of liberal Christianity. I'm not much into labels. They mean so little. Where I came from to be called liberal was akin to being sworn at. Over here is it a badge of pride. Let me illustrate what I mean by liberal, as opposed to evangelical.
Q. How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb? A. None. God has already preordained when the lights will be on.
Q. How many evangelicals? A. Evangelicals do not change light bulbs. They simply read out the instructions and hope the light bulb will decide to change itself.
Q. How many liberals? A. Ten, as they need to hold a debate into whether or not the light bulb exists. Even if they can agree upon the existence of the light bulb, they may not go ahead and change it for fear of alienating those who use fluorescent.
(Just for fun) Q. How many United Methodists? A. We do not choose to make a statement either in favour of, or against the need for a light bulb. However if in your own journey you have found that a light bulb works for you that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship to your light bulb and present it at a forum which will explore a number of light bulb traditions including incandescent, fluorescent, three way, long lived and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence through Jesus Christ.
The point is that liberal Christianity can at times spend so much energy showing that everything is unclear, and avoiding an opinion, that the message becomes mixed. So much liberal energy goes into saving the Bible from contradiction, into safeguarding unity, that the possibility that the Bible may just be wrong at points is ignored. The strength of liberalism is that it opens up possibilities rather than prescribing life answers.
One problem with evangelicalism is that so much energy goes into ignoring the contradiction in the Bible, and ramming an over simplified message of judgment down people's throats that it lacks compassion and relevance. The strength of evangelicalism is that it believes boldly in its message, proclaims it strategically, and cares little for unity. The message is clear; If only it wasn't so bankrupt.
Far more useful is what I would call a progressive position. It would be willing to call the Bible a spade, useful in parts and in other parts needing to be left behind. Yet no need for anxiety. Far more significant is the clear message to all people that the peace of God which is powerful for healing in lives, and for social transformation, is not locked away in the Bible but is right here; in the human psyche, in the neighbour and in the ordinary sensory experiences of life. The Bible may help. But it is not the end of God's revelation, and may not even be the beginning for some people.
Progressive Christianity is what John Spong is on about. I believe it accurately describes his fight to open the church to all people and close the gap between belief and science, church and society, faith and ethics. Progressive Christianity is a wonderful vision for St Matthew in the City. A church which is willing to engage with the issues of contemporary life, break down the dividers between those who are in the church and those out of the church, and offer a space and a message which is clear and bold; speaking of wholeness and lives lived with integrity, signifying healing and social justice, faith and life. Belief in a God of peace who is as near as your own spirit, as ordinary as the touch of a friend or as surprising as the connection with a stranger.
As a church lets be direct. We owe that to each other. As a church lets offer a message which is clear and bold. We owe that to the pioneer of our faith. That's the gospel he lived and died for. The openness of the liberal message, the integrity of a progressive pursuit of relevance, and the boldness of an evangelical strategy. The best of all three worlds. That's a worthwhile vision.