Church Quest, Part Two

In Part One I recounted how Ilia Delio’s Christ in Evolution helped move my belief system forward and define its form so that I could snug it in just about anywhere in Christendom. But I do not want anywhere. I want a specific framework to best underlie the bulges and indentations of my personal convictions. I want structure that will support but also bend when I need it to, and with plenty of strength for expansion. I want a church I can commit to now and into the future. By the miracle of grace (which is the unasked-for fulfillment of need by the right supplier at just the right time) I was introduced by another great Christian writer, Barbara Brown Taylor, to Phyllis Tickle and The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.Types of ChristiansCoincidentally, Tickle used the emergence of the second axial age as her point of departure also, just like Delio did. Unlike Delio, she tackled the material as the academic she is, and her book’s slant is historical/sociological and not spiritual. She’s interested here in people and how they’ve changed Christianity, particularly North American people, whereas Delio’s interest was in Christianity changing people.In the final stage of Tickle’s examination, she identified a system dividing North American Christianity into basic components, a quadrilateral assessment. Imagine a square, or a “map,” bisected horizontally and again vertically, creating four blocks that are each named for a type of Christian group. The vertical line separates the groups such that those to the left, Liturgicals and Renewalists, are generally more concerned with faith. [Liturgicals are Catholics (Roman and Orthodox), Anglicans (e. g., Episcopalians) and Lutherans with a taste for ritual (“high church”). Renewalists are Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians.] Those to the right of the vertical line, Social Justice Christians and Conservatives, are concerned with works. [Social Justice is the name now given to those Christians formerly known as “mainline.” Conservatives are the Evangelists.]The horizontal line establishes the upper groups, Liturgicals and Social Justice Christians, as those to whom what one does religiously (“orthopraxy,” or correct practice) is more central to their understanding of Christian life. The lower groups, Renewalists and Conservatives, are those more concerned with what one believes doctrinally (“orthodoxy,” or correct belief). Tickle says that “one locates oneself or one’s faith community on the map in terms of that which is more, or most, important in one’s Christian practice.”What Type Am I?The quadrilateral gave me an effective tool of discernment. I had a context within which to examine my own experience for leads as to where I belong. Further, I inferred two basic questions to ask myself: what’s most central about my beliefs, faith or deeds (left or right of the vertical)?; and how can I best express that, with practice or with loyalty to a doctrine (above or below the horizontal)?The person with probably the most active church life among my group of friends, Barb, has told me that she likes being part of a church community where they can “do stuff corporately that we couldn’t do by ourselves.” Her faith tradition—Mennonite (Church of the Brethren)—is strong on encouraging good works, so it clearly locates itself to the right of the vertical on the Social Justice side. One of the qualities I most value in Barb as a Christian is her work for her community. She is creative, she’s a strong leader and organizer, and thus through a group of like-minded others, she multiplies herself for service in the practice of her faith.I know about myself, however, having sequentially belonged for years to two Social Justice denominations (Methodist and Unitarian), that that’s not my bag. Or rather, block. Because I am private and typically not a joiner, I’m more of a random-acts-of-kindness type of person. To me, my denomination must serve to strengthen me and keep me aware so that I can see needs as an individual-not as a member of a committee or corporate church-and address them the best way I can. For example, I think it’s a nice idea that when I’m in my car and see someone waiting for a city bus in bad weather, I could stop and offer to drive them to their destination, warm and dry. I found out at his funeral that my friend Frank used to do something similar for homeless people that he’d pass on the road looking exhausted or otherwise in distress. I’ve never forgotten about his small, undisclosed (to me) acts of beneficence.As for the east-west dividing line of the quadrilateral, I fit above it, in the orthopraxy (practice) camp. I like gestures of faith-kneeling, bowing my head, lighting (and then snuffing) candles, etc. I have always loved Catholics’ making of the sign of the cross, imprinting invisibly upon themselves, time after time, the way to God by the vertical and the way to community by the horizontal. When the gesture is combined with a dip into blessed water before entering a holy space, the sign serves symbolically to cleanse away daily cares and messiness, preparing the religious observer to devote herself to the spiritual realm. I am a poet-at any rate I used to be-and I love metaphor and symbol. And, such rituals give me a way to be mindful of why I am doing them. They coincide with and refresh my purpose.Clearly I wouldn’t fit below the east-west axis, in the orthodoxy (loyalty to creed) camp. I must insist on a denomination that permits free, evolving interpretation of Christian belief and scripture. Doctrinaire I’ll never be.The Right ChurchIn conclusion, I’m a Liturgical. As such, I’m narrowing the choices of denominations. I know that to find the right church, fine-tuning must now be done to consider my personal quirks. I could never belong, for example, to a church, whether it’s Roman Catholic, high Lutheran or Episcopal, that conducts casual masses. I know I don’t want, personally, a folksy God or a hand-clapping Jesus; I have worked diligently and sincerely to found my faith, and I need to honor that with the full dignity of a ceremonious God and a reverent Christ. I want anthems and cantatas, I want cathedrals, I want pipe organs and tabernacle choirs, I want soaring stretches of stained glass and tranquil side chapels, perhaps even the smoke from incense.I know too that I could never belong to a church where congregants wave their arms above their heads; shout hallelujah or amen, sister; or stand up and “testify” in any fashion whatsoever. The pressure to join in would stress me, because I am at heart a non-demonstrative conformist. I don’t even care for that moment in most Sunday services these days when you turn to the churchgoers surrounding you, shake their hands and bless them with your good wishes for their peace. I guess I just don’t see the point. What is the church trying to demonstrate? Connection?-then the ritual is perfunctory. Friendliness?-a better measure is that that would occur on its own rather than by programming. Welcomeness to newcomers?-why don’t members invite visitors to the coffee klatch after the service and have a getting-to-know-you conversation instead?So I repeat from Part One: I’m not a good shopper but I am a good buyer. I have plenty to go on now. The next in this series, whether or not it’s published someday, will be entitled “Church Quest, Part Final.”