Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 14 of A Thorn in the Flesh:
Phyllis Tickle, Episcopal author and speaker, suggests that about every five hundred years the Christian Church goes through an upheaval that has been compared to a giant rummage sale. Using another metaphor, she says, “the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”
The last great carapace shattering was the Reformation—which took place about five hundred years ago. So the upheaval that is being experienced today is possibly a new Reformation. This is an idea that has occurred to many Anglicans over the past few decades, but there is no way of knowing who will eventually be seen to be the reformers and who the resisters of change. The good news is that in previous upheavals, both the new and the old have come out of it renewed and refreshed. Until it is complete and the ground has resettled, there is no way of telling what will last and what is just “part of the process.”
More than the Christian Church has been affected by these cyclical changes, because they challenge and mutate our very understandings of the meaning of life itself. What always gets lost is a shared sense of correct belief and action. The sources of authority and of knowing that have served up to this point are challenged and found wanting. Reformation starts with a gradual unraveling of authority and ends once the question is resolved and authority again established—for a few hundred years before the process starts again. Although it is the whole of society that is in flux, religion and its establishments are especially sensitive to changes in the consensual understanding of the world.
For Americans, today’s reformation, which Tickle has named the “Great Emergence,” started in the mid-nineteenth century with Darwin’s theory of evolution and the almost simultaneous development of biblical criticism. The strong and ongoing reaction against these apparent threats to Christianity and biblical authority led to a restatement of conservative Christian faith in a series of pamphlets, The Fundamentals, published in the early twentieth century. From these comes the term “fundamentalist.” Just as the evangelical revival in the Episcopal Church grew from the same historic root as the movement for lesbian and gay inclusion, so, almost a century earlier, fundamentalism developed from the same root as liberal Christianity.
In addition to the basic question of authority, the Great Emergence asks two further questions: what is human consciousness? And how can many religions coexist? As these play out within the Anglican Communion, the first one is expressed as: What is the nature of a human in relationship to God? This question has been articulated in terms of sexuality—can sex outside heterosexual marriage be holy and blessed by God? But there is a bigger question that underlies it. Put very simply: Are we sinners cursed to die unless we accept the gift of the gracious God who sent his son to die in our place? Or are we beloved children of God mired in a matrix of sin from which God longs to free us through the work of his Son?
In the Anglican debate, the second question about coexisting religions becomes: Is Jesus Christ the only way to God, or is it limiting God to think that he cannot also work in other ways? Archbishop Akinola, who sees Jesus as the only way, aimed to grow the Church of Nigeria as big as possible in order to vanquish Islam nonviolently—though he has never ruled out the possibility of a violent response. Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori, on the other hand, sees the valuable contribution of Islam and has joined in faith conversations with Muslim leaders.
It is within this international context of semi-millennial religious and social upheaval that the battle over gay inclusion is taking place.
Conservatives have talked about a new reformation, by which they mean a return to the Bible as the source of all authority. Do you think we are in the throes of a new Reformation? If so, what is getting reformed, and by whom?
In the 1990s Anglican theorists began to talk about “diffused authority” by which they meant that in the Anglican Communion, authority was not centralized but located in the different churches and then shared through the various meetings of the church. In a post-modern world, where do we locate authority? What do you consider to be authoritative?
What, if anything do you think is emerging in the “Great Emergence”?