Christian environmental change has already begun. Its significance and impact will be much greater than what the sixteenth century reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, ever imagined. It requires that our churches be not only supportive caring communities but up to date biblically and historically, and open to discovery and development. It requires that our churches be much more than just well-organized religious institutions.
For a number of years, I have been active in church reform activities, most of it involving Catholics. When I think today, however, about changing the Christian environment, my focus is much broader than the Catholic Church. Today, all Christian churches must be part of a necessary environmental change.
I have great respect and appreciation for my maternal Roman Catholic heritage and upbringing. All my professional career I have happily worked for Catholic schools, parishes, colleges, and universities. BUT….I am also proud and appreciative of my paternal Quaker and Huguenot roots. I am still a Catholic, but in many ways I think I have a very Quaker psyche. After reading one of my recent articles, a friendly critic wrote “your Protestant roots are showing.”
Changing the church environment, for all Christians, has to be a prophetic movement forward. Today, I suggest eight ways to change, improve, and move ahead.
(1) We must move from living in the past to engaging with the present and thinking creatively about tomorrow.This means moving well beyond, for example, antiquated understandings of human sexuality and gender, prejudice against women, and distorted biblical and historical understandings. I am an old man. I respect old people; but I don’t want today’s church leadership to act like a bunch of old people simply repeating, again and again, their old doctrines and stories. As my friend and mentor Archbishop Jean Jadot, former Apostolic Delegate to the United States, said shortly before his death: “Now is the time to look ahead. Just as we can look at the sky at night and tell what the morning will bring, so we must be able to read the signs of the times to prepare for the future.”
(2) We need to shift from practicing religion to living the Faith. It is easy to go to church and comfortably recite the creed and official prayers. It also gives one a sense of self and civic importance. I think this is what Jesus was speaking about in Matthew 23:5-6: “All their deeds are done for people to see. They broaden their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love the places of honor at banquets, the chief seats in the synagogues.” It is much more difficult to follow the example of Jesus and live our faith by being a contemporary Good Samaritan. Far too many “good Christians” remain anchored in racism, misogyny, and self-veneration.
(3) We need ongoing education that moves people from boxed-in religious ideology to open and developing theology. Whether Catholic or Protestant, all doctrinal statements are provisional understandings. We are all learners. No one has all the truth. There is still much to learn and discover. We need to move ahead into a new age of discovery and collaboration. Some people find it more comfortable to revert to “good old days” stagnation. There is no intellectual challenge. No human growth either! And frankly, the “good old days” were not always so great.
(4) We need to shift from self-protective bureaucratic hierarchies to communities of faith and courageous outreach networks. Christianity inherited and blessed some very bad elements of the power structures of the fourth century Constantinian Roman Empire. Thanks to Constantine, Christianity was both officially established and fatally compromised. The Constantinian church began to exercise power over people. Church leadership forgot that Jesus did not exercise power over people; but that he empowered people to take responsibility in living, learning, and caring for one another. Jesus did not control people through authoritarian decrees, laws, and sanctions.
(5) We need to abandon religious arrogance and move into humble inter-church collaboration. No Christian and no Christian tradition can be regarded as superior to others and therefore act in a haughty or snobbish manner. We need to humbly move from “possessing” all the truth to continually “searching” for the truth. Some Catholics still think they have all the truth. Some evangelicals think that way as well.
(6) We need to stop being energetic and proud temple-builders and start being traveling pilgrims, pitching their tents along the journey. What do people today really need? An impressive and bigger cathedral or a roof overhead, a meal, health care, child care, compassionate understanding, and a more secure and hopeful life. It is a values question. Very basically, do we value more impressive institutional architecture or men, women, and children in need? The Catholic Diocese of Orange California, by way of example, spent $57.5 million to buy the Crystal Cathedral of the American televangelist Robert Schuller and then $72.3 million to renovate it and turn it into Christ Cathedral,”the largest glass building in the world.” Just a thought…
(7) We must not focus on schooling professionals but mentoring spiritual leaders. When looking for a product or a service, I think we all appreciate people who are polite and professional. When it comes to Christian ministry, however, the mentality of the professional is often not enough. I trained and taught seminarians for many years. We need pastoral leaders and ministers who are much more than professionals who are well developed organizationally. We need leaders who are men and women anchored in deep faith and who, as our fellow travelers, understand us and support our own faith development as compassionate and genuine spiritual guides. Witnessing a funeral last year, by way of example, I saw an ordained minister who was professional and polite. When it came to his spiritual guidance and support for the family and friends, however, he was an incompetent cold fish who couldn’t wait to get the service concluded.
(8) Christians must stop seeing the world as their enemy and start appreciating the world as the real place where we live and encounter the Divine. He may have been an influential early bishop, but I never agreed with Augustine of Hippo’s dichotomy of the ”City of God” and the “Human City.” The Human City IS the City of God. Our world IS the place where we are and it IS the place where we encounter God and see the Face of Christ.
Conclusion: These eight points mean nothing unless we use them to OBSERVE, JUDGE, and ACT. We can and we must be change agents.
In our actions, however, we need to be nuanced and constructive. The aim is not to be confrontational but in a clear, responsible, and caring way to discuss, learn, plan, and move forward together.