Thinking about last week’s post about Gabriel Moran, several people have asked me to describe my ideal church. There are several qualities I would like to find in a church that is a healthy Christian community:
- I would begin my response by saying I want a church that is truly a supportive community of friends: men and women striving to live in the spirit of Christ. Not a doctrinaire, authoritarian institution.
- Some institutional structures of course are necessary but they should be understood as provisional. They, along with institutional leaders, should be regularly critiqued and changed.
- Institutional structures are tools – a means – constructed to help and support Christian communities. The innate danger in all institutions is that, if left unchecked, they cease being service-oriented structures and become hard-nosed self-serving institutions demanding unquestioned loyalty. A kind of institutional idolatry.
- A healthy church affirms the dignity and equality of all men and women, regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. It does this not just in official rhetoric and documents but in personal and institutional behavior. We need male and female ordained ministers. IGBTQ people should be welcomed in church ministries and employment. For too long church leaders have patronized, insulted, or simply removed people who do not fit their mold. It still happens.
- An honest and humble church must realize that it does not possess all the truth and has to collaborate with a variety of people in pursuit of the truth. It has to acknowledge as well that all church doctrines are time and culture bound. They are provisional and changeable. Some doctrines may have been meaningful in the past but just don’t work today. Others evolved more from religious fantasy and folklore. Gabriel Moran mentioned the great assumption about the Assumption.
- A healthy church asks questions and welcomes the questioner. Asking questions brings greater self-knowledge, a more realistic life understanding. It is an essential element in personal conscience formation.
- All the great advances in human knowledge have come from people who dared to ask questions. Isaac Newton asked: “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” and “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?” Charles Darwin asked: “Why do the Galápagos Islands have so many species not found elsewhere?” Albert Einstein asked: “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?” By asking these kinds of basic questions they were able to start the processes that lead to historic breakthroughs in human and scientific understanding. And of course, Jesus of Nazareth asks in the synoptic gospels: “Who do people say that I am?” In John 7:19, Jesus asks: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
- I want a church that stresses and practices tolerance and freedom of inquiry: a church that realizes that all doctrines, even RCC infallible papal declarations, are temporary. All “official teachers” must also be humble learners. A healthy Christian community rejects intimidation and realizes that conflicts must be resolved through patient and humble dialogue. It may not be easy but it has to happen.
- I want a church in which the higher-up ordained leaders dress and act like normal contemporary leadership people not museum-piece Renaissance princes. I just checked by the way. It costs between four and five thousand dollars to dress an RCC cardinal. I often think about the comment of Jesus in Mark 12:38: “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes…”
- I want a church in which leadership people are elected by the community for set terms of office, like five or ten years. They – like professors where I taught for many years — should be regularly evaluated. They should be replaced by new leadership people when their terms of office expire. If a bishop knew that he or she would only be bishop for about five years, his or her behavior would be greatly modified. Can you imagine, for instance, what would happen in places like the Archdiocese of New York? Or of course in the Holy See of Rome?
- I want a church in which openness to the signs of the times is a key virtue rather than a closed-minded condemnation of all that is contemporary. We live in the present. God – whatever one wants to call God – is alive and closely with us right now. Not as a controlling authority but as a loving companion.
- And yes indeed… I want a church open to the bigger questions that touch on a contemporary understanding of Jesus Christ and a contemporary understanding and experience of God. For many people today the old anthropomorphisms just don’t work anymore. God is just as much Mother as Father, but much more than that. Why don’t Christian religious leaders sit down with, pray, and meditate with leaders of non-Christian religions? God is much more than a Christian.
It is not too late to make a few good New Year’s resolutions: To ask more questions about contemporary Christian belief and practice. To support those who question. To explore together, in respectful and earnest dialogue, the complete range of answers. More questions will arise of course.
We are on a journey. We have not yet arrived. And a healthy Christian community is our GPS.