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The Future Church: A Speculative
The author, an Episcopalian bishop, takes us through the liturgical moments in life from baptism to death, and discusses how a non-theistis church of the future might celebrate them. The old institutions and hierarchies will fall away, and the only condition for receiving the eycharistic bread will be that you are hungry.
|By John Shelby Spong|
So the Church became the place where life was first touched by the oppertunity to participate in transcendence.
The Church of the future must examine those liturgical moments that traditionally have been wrapped around the major transition points of human life. If they are to survive the exile, they, too, will have to be rethought in nontheistic categories.
The baptism service of entry into the life of the Christian Church has been a liturgy so filled with the theistic language of a supernatural deity as to be repugnant to an increasing number of believers today. It speaks of a cosmic fall requiring a cosmic act of redemption. In any developing liturgical rite, we must journey beyond those offensive assumptions which assert that the child was born in sin and that without this act of baptism that life is doomed. We must discover a deeper and more profound experience and meaning behind the act of baptism, or it cannot continue to be part of the Church of the future.
When we look at baptism nontheistically, we discover that the question implicit in the moment of every person's birth is "Who am I?" In this postmodern world the process of reproduction is not nearly so magical or mystical as it was when the faith and practice of the Christian Church were being developed. We now know, for example, that the fertilization that created each of us genetically was a random chance meeting of one of millions of sperm from our fathers with the ripened ovum of our mothers. Yet that chance meeting determined our genetic coding. The level of one's parents' personal security is a second chance factor shaping the mental health and emotional well-being of the newborn life. Whether or not our mothers got proper prenatal care or consumed alcohol and caffeine during their pregnancies is still another chance factor that will help to determine the baby's limits of development. Whether we are the first, middle, or last child in our particular family will shape much of our psychic makeup. All of these chance qualities raise deep and significant questions about our ultimate identity, our self-definition, and our being.
Without understanding the dynamics of birth, yet aware of its mystery and wonder, our ancestors in faith developed a liturgy whereby parents would take their newborn child to a place of worship and symbolically incorporate that child into the life of the community. Through the process of worship and Church life, that child then learned something about who he or she was and indeed where the parenting skills of the mother and father might be augmented by the whole community. This process also connected the child to a group of people who were self-consciously pointed beyond themselves to that which they called holy. So the Church became the place where life was first touched by the opportunity to participate in transcendence. The child was to be called beyond his or her limits. The child began to learn that he or she was a part of what God is. These are the places in which the nontheistic meanings of Holy Baptism are to be found.
Baptism in the postexilic Church becomes, then, not a ritual that purifies us of the sin of Adam, but rather a ritual that calls each candidate to be all that that person was created to be. It becomes a powerful starting point for entry into nontheistic worship.
The same can also be true for the other rites of passage that the Church has incorporated into its worship, if we can only enter their deeper meaning. The various puberty rites of our religious traditions were designed to acknowledge a powerful change in human status from childhood to maturity. They mark a transition when identity is confused, when glands are active, when hormones are colliding, and when one seeks clarification of one's very being. The primary message of the Christian Church to the emerging adolescent in the Church's rites of passage is "You share in eternity. You are holy. Your life reveals the presence of God." Once we travel beneath the rhetoric of our worship, the need for the image of an external deity begins to disappear. The reality of God and the potential of human life are not identical, but neither are they different or even separate. The puberty rites simply call us back to our deepest definition of self-hood.
We move on liturgically through the rituals of adulthood, such as marriage and childbirth, to that part of life in which we experience the decline of our human powers in both sickness and in the aging process and finally arrive at the moment of death. The various liturgies of the Church surrounding those defining moments continue to call believers to recognize themselves as sharing in the Being of God. We are God bearers, the revealers of the God who is present in all of life. That is the meaning behind the words we hear proclaimed in services of holy matrimony, in thanksgiving after childbirth, in sickness, and even in death. Once we refocus these services designed to mark the turning points of life, we will discover that much of their meaning can be preserved. The Church might well come out of the exile with its rites of passage intact, even if they have been redefined.
The Christ was identified both as the priest offering the sacrifice and the victim who was sacrificed, but only much later was he seen also to be the God to whom the sacrifice was offered.
Moving on to the primary liturgical act that has defined Christian worship for centuries, we ask if the common meal of the Church, the Mass, the Eucharist, the Communion Service, or the Lord's Supper, can be retained in any form. The answer to this query is surely negative so long as it remains caught up in the magical, supernatural power of the ages. A ceremony in which ordained hands transform ordinary elements from the tables of life into the supernatural realities of the body and blood of Jesus is not going to survive.
Tracing the roots of medieval eucharistic theology is not easy. Some of its antecedents are probably the primitive practices of prehistory, in which worshipers tried to capture for themselves the strength and courage first of their enemies and later of their gods by eating their flesh and drinking their blood. These cannibalistic rites, wrapped in more acceptable words, probably entered Christianity through the various cults of the Mediterranean mystery religions like Mithraism, with which Christianity competed for dominance in the first centuries of its non-Jewish life, though that connection is not universally agreed. In those traditions the liturgical practice of feeding on the symbolic flesh of the god figure was thought to enable the worshiper to share in that god's divinity. Such practices were certainly not present in the Jewish womb, which birthed Christianity. The Jews might eat the sacrificed animal, but to identify the sacrificial animal with the one to whom it was offered was inconceivable to them. The Christ was identified both as the priest offering the sacrifice and the victim who was sacrificed, but only much later was he seen also to be the God to whom the sacrifice was offered. Even the biblical accounts of the Last Supper are highly stylized liturgical creations of the early Church. They are not the literal words of a moment in history when this liturgical observance was born. Furthermore, the words attributed to Jesus by the tenth-decade Gospel of John about "eating his flesh and drinking his blood" are clearly a reading back into the Jewish Jesus of the late-developing practice in the Christian community, in which the Church's worship incorporated mystical moments of identification between worshiper and the deity (see John 6). Yes, surely there was a meal shared on the night before the crucifixion, and surely that meal, in retrospect, was invested with significant meaning. The last meal that this group ever ate together, like all last meals, became a point of reference to be recalled again and again until it was incorporated fully into the group's worship life. It was, however, probably not a Passover meal, though that interpretation was laid upon it very early. In this liturgical context, as the Christian story developed, that meal was used, first, to interpret Jesus' death and, second, to communicate the continued risen presence of Jesus with his disciples. Finally, that presence was interpreted theologically in terms of the traditional theistic understanding of God. This service bears all of these marks to this day.
|It is rather the God defined as the presence that is over,
under, around, and through the very fabric of life, the God who is not a personal
being but who is made known in the personal being of the whole creation.
Yet in worship we catch a vision of life's potential and, from that perspextive, look anew at life's actuality.
The essential element of eucharistic worship can survive once we understand the tremendous and almost mystical power present in the act of feeding. The sharing of food in human experience is the very basis of all human community. Our language reveals that time and again. The word companion, for example, literally means the sharing of bread with another. In the act of breast-feeding, the life of the newborn infant was not only saved but sustained and enabled to grow. In the ancient world, the death of the mother in childbirth almost always guaranteed the death of the child. Feeding another is the experience in which life, love, and being are first shared. So inevitably in our social order the deepest symbol of love has always been located in the act of feeding. That is why eating together is the primary way that relationships grow and are nurtured. It is the means by which love is shared. If love is ultimately a gift of God, and if love itself is finally the creator of our life and our being, then eating must always be seen as a holy act, an act in which God, newly understood, can enter our lives. This is not, however, the God identified with the external, supernatural language of classical theism. It is rather the God defined as the presence that is over, under, around, and through the very fabric of life, the God who is not a personal being but who is made known in the personal being of the whole creation. Here we encounter the God who calls the created order into self consciousness in that one creature who has the ability to escape the boundaries of nature and to commune with his or her creator. So the people beyond the exile who gather to celebrate the God in whom they live and move and have their being must build community around a common meal, for there is no better way to acknowledge the God who can be met, indeed revealed, in the life of the world. As we enter into that meaning of the Eucharist, we who are worshipers find ourselves not just transformed, but also enabled to be transformers and redeemers of the whole creation. The mission of the Christian Church is not to convert the world, but to call all who are also part of the creation into the fullness of life. This was, I believe, also the experience that was seeking expression in the original shapers of the theology of the eucharist. They were certain that God was met in the breaking of bread, but the only God they knew how to speak about was the God who lived beyond the world. So they placed upon the Eucharist the magic of theism and the rules of their value system. They decreed who could celebrate the Eucharist and even who could receive it. The only prerequisite that will remain beyond the exile for coming to the table of the Lord is that the worshiper must be hungry.
Once we have a new frame of reference into which we can place our traditional liturgical and sacramental symbols, then worship itself begins to take on a new meaning. What, for example, does the activity called confession symbolize? Is that not a liturgical way in which we human beings, over the centuries, have tried to come to grips with a sense of our barriers, our boundaries, and our limitations? In our evolutionary history we had to battle to prove ourselves fit enough to survive. Our survival instincts made us cling to our fears, to defend ourselves against all foes, and to seek our own advantage at the cost of denigrating others. Yet in worship we catch a vision of life's potential and, from that perspective, look anew at life's actuality. Confession arises out of our recognition that we human beings are not what we were created to be. It comes from an awareness of our unwillingness to risk our frail security systems for the chance to enter an expanded world. It is an expression of a humanity so desperate to receive that we act as if we have nothing that we can freely give. It proclaims a human nature so deeply a prisoner of its own limits that it believes it can capture God inside religious power systems. It is seeing that we have defined our life out of our evolutionary past instead of our expanding and potential future. To grasp this is nothing less than an act of confession. Confession is not a peasant sinner groveling before the king, begging for forgiveness in order to escape punishment. This is only the warping of our reality with the images of a theistic god. Confession is my being confronting the Ground of all Being, and forgiveness is my moving beyond my limits into something more real, more whole, more life giving than I can now contemplate. It is in this sense that confession and absolution, as liturgical acts interpreting profound human experiences, can be carried by the corporate worship of the Church living beyond the exile.
But worship will endure, for it is through worship that we begin to glimpse who we are. It is an intensely human activity.
Thanksgiving is the gracious recognition of the gifts we have received. It is an attempt to acknowledge those people who called us into being and those moments in which we were able to respond to that call. So thanksgiving can also accompany us into the liturgical life of the Church beyond the exile. We are eucharistic people. That is, we live out of gratitude. The Protestant pastor who challenged Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist mystic, could not have been more wrong. Gratitude is not only possible, it is necessary to be the full human beings that life in a nontheistic exile calls us to become.
The emphasis of corporate worship will surely shift dramatically as the theistic patterns of yesterday continue to decline and a nontheistic way of approaching the holy begins to beckon us in worship. But worship will endure, for it is through worship that we begin to glimpse who we are. It is an intensely human activity.
The Church that worships in this way will also be a Church that will create new architectural forms, new organizational structures, and new identifying marks. I suspect its arches and steeples will shrink until they are but vestigial remains of the inner need to point to the God beyond the sky. I suspect its stained glass windows will no longer seek to capture ancient truths in these timeless, otherworldly forms. I suspect the music of the Church will no longer sing of Jesus as a divine visitor but as a revelation of all that is true about life, love, and being. The affirmation of this postexilic Church will be that Jesus revealed this God through his humanity and thus that he was the God bearer, perhaps even the ultimate God bearer for those of us who see God inside this particular family of faith. The faith of the postexilic Church will be expressed in the conviction that we, too, will reveal this God when the Ground of Being draws each of us beyond our limits into fuller living, wasteful loving, and courageous being. Since form always follows function, Church architectural forms inevitably will begin to express the new understanding of God that is being born among us.
Clearly change in both liturgy and structure is inevitable, and this change will probably be radical, if not total. Those whose lives are dedicated to serving the Church of the past will resist these suggestions with a vehemence that always emerges from threatened hierarchies and dying institutions. Yet the forms the Church assumed in the past inevitably must die. Those forms and their defenders simply cannot evolve fast enough to prevent institutional, ecclesiastical death from becoming a reality. But the seeds of resurrection are present in the exile, and in time those seeds will sprout and bloom. When they do, we will once again be able to see continuity between the Church of the past and the purged and opened Church of the future. Just as the Church of the high Middle Ages, which built massive Gothic cathedrals, was able to recognize the earliest Church, which worshiped in the catacombs, as its ancestor, so in time the Church of today will recognize the postexilic structures of tomorrow as its descendants. When that connection is seen, the reformation that we are now entering will be complete. I am able to see just enough of those seeds beginning to bloom to be excited about letting the process of death and resurrection proceed.
THE CHURCH OF LOVE
It has no fabric, only understanding.
It has not membership save those who know tbey belong.
It has not rivals, because it is non-competitive.
It has no ambition, because it seeks only to serve.
It knows no boundaries, for nationalisms are unloving.
It is not itself, because it seeks to enrich all groups and religions.
It acknowledges all great teachers of all the ages who have shown the truth of love.
Those who participate practice the truth of love in all their beings.
There is no walk of life or nationality that is a barrier.
Those who are, know.
It seeks not to teach, but to be, and, by being, enrich.
It recognises that the way we are may be the way of those around us because we are that way.
It recognises the whole planet as a being of which we are a part.
It recognises that the time has come for the supreme transmutation, the ultimate alchemical act of conscious change of the ego into a voluntary return to the Whole.
It does not proclaim itself with a loud voice but in the subtle realms of loving.
It salutes all those in the past who have blazened the path but have paid the price.
It admits no hierarchy or structure, for no one is greater than another.
Its members shall know each other by their deeds and being and by their eyes and by no other outward sign save the fraternal embrace.
Each one will dedicate their life to the silent loving of their neighbour, the environment, and the planet, whilst carrying out their task, however exalted or humble.
It recognises the supremacy of the great idea which may only be accomplished if the human race practices the supremacy of love.
It has not reward to offer either here or in the hereafter save that of the ineffab1e joy of being and loving.
Each shall seek to advance the cause of understanding, doing good by stealth, and teaching, only by example.
They shall heal their neighbour, their community and our planet.
They shall know no fear and feel no shame, and their witness shall prevail over all odds.
It has no secret, no arcanus, no initiation save that of true understanding of the power of love and that, if we want it to be so, the world will change but only if we change ourselves first.
All those who belong, belong; they belong to the church of love.
The Cathar Prophecy of 1244 A.D. was that the church of love would be proclaimed in 1986.
This is the conclusion of a two-part article, taken from Why Christianity Must Change or Die: a Bishop Speaks To Believers In Exile. (c) 1998 by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Harper San Francisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
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