Monday, August 28 was the minor feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo. He was a fourth-century theologian, whose extensive writings are still used today. (I have edition of “The City of Man” and “The City of God”.) I make a connection between him and that week’s sermon from Pastor Rebecca, because her theme was that God (and Jesus) did not want the Church ever to become the Empire. Augustine lived at the time when the Roman Empire had recently adopted Christianity as its official religion. This gave leaders such as Augustine, and Ambrose before him, opportunity to speak about the faith openly without persecution. But at the same time, it allowed the Church to become Empire-like. In fact, when Rome finally fell to the invaders some two centuries later, beginning what some have called the “Dark Ages”, it was the Church that kept what we call “Western Civilization” going.
Rebecca mentioned that we may be living with the last vestiges of Christendom—that is, the portions of the world where the institutional church has been a bulwark of society. The Catholic churches (both Eastern and Western, including the Anglican Communion)have empire built into their organization. Dioceses were originally Roman imperial units of government. The various vestments we wear trace back in one way or another to Roman official garb. And while Protestant and independent churches have mostly dropped these things, they still have an institutional, culturally-supported quality to them; especially in the long-established denominations. And some, even newer ones, remain rigidly hierarchical (in the general sense) and patriarchal, which has more to do with governance than fellowship.
This brings me to an article written by a writer I follow on a blog called “Backyard Church,” Dan Foster. Dan is a former pastor who is totally disillusioned with the institutional church, such that he cannot even attend worship any more; and he’s part of a segment of “Christian” society that, according to demographic research, is rapidly growing. This particular article is “Six Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who Has Left the Church.”
The first of these is, “But my church is different”. That would be my default argument. “Can’t you just find a place like mine?” But he likens that to asking a battered wife to go back to her husband—or, I say, more precisely, it’s like telling her, “You just need to find a better man.” That could happen eventually, but not right away, until there’s been time to work through the trauma.
Dan says that behind this argument is “Your church was an anomaly.” Sorry, that won’t fly. Too many scandals and too much corruption about, only a small amount of which is covered in news media. I’m actually led to thinking that my church is the anomaly, which makes it ok to stay there and invite others when they’re ready. (I’ve never been much of a salesman, and I wasn’t a good evangelist of the door-to-door type either!) I might say that the current Episcopal Church is an anomaly among denominations, but that might be presumptuous. I do see some very encouraging signs, including the literal signs on out front lawns apologizing for the hurt the church has caused.
Dan’s second “never say” is “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” That‘s an old expression with interesting origins that I won’t go into here. One of my seminary professors used it often. However, he included a lot more with the “baby” than just Jesus. (Dan says he’s kept the baby—that is, Jesus, but thrown out the bathwater of the institutional church.) I think there’s more to the dirty, stinking bathwater than just the institution. That’s part of it, sure—especially when it presumes to dominate and silence people. But there’s also a lot of doctrine that I was taught explicitly in a Reformed seminary, that is also “baked into” our Episcopal liturgy.
What am I talking about? Mainly, the “substitutionary atonement.” That’s not a “good and necessary inference” from the New Testament, but from at least Augustine on it’s been orthodoxy in the Western church. That is, the idea that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice in the tradition of the ancient Hebrew sacrifices of animals to appease an angry god, who wants to punish people for sins. The people were made “clean” by offering the appointed sacrifices. In like manner, God is angry with us for “our manifold sins and wickedness” as the old General Confession puts it, and we need a sacrifice to appease him (or atone for our sins)—and Jesus is it! (The Agnus Dei, lamb of God.)
Well, Jesus as the atonement is good news. But there’s a lot of bad news behind it, which is why other people don’t buy it. First, the bad news that we are sinful—not just sinners, who continually mess thing up, but “totally depraved” as John Calvin put it. Then there’s the bad news that if we don’t “accept Christ,” or are not predestined the right way, or aren’t baptized, or just don’t buy the whole premise, the we’re eternally doomed to Hell. Yes, salvation from that is good news, but only over against all the bad news. And, playing on people’s fear of Hell has been the major tool of the Church to keep people “in line”—from keeping princes from disobeying the Pope, to the selling of indulgences that Martin Luther opposed, to the idea of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in New England, all the way up to contemporary preachers looking to maintain control and often to become materially wealthy in the process.
Phew! That’s a lot! And “Of making many books there is no end” as Ecclesiastes says.
Back to Rebecca’s sermon. She suggested one change in language that makes a lot of difference—“Kin-dom” rather than “Kingdom.” That’s one often used in more liberal churches today. Another is to parse “atonement” as “at one- ment”. That is, Christ makes us more “at one” with God and each other than we are without Him.
Rebecca also made a point that the Roman Empire crucified Jesus. Not “the Jews,” despite that language in the Gospel of John and the “let him be crucified” language in all of the Gospels. That idea has fueled two millennia of hatred against Jewish people by Christians. Jews, of course, have n=been hated by others as well, but Christians of all people ought to stand against anti-Semitism—and many have, as the history of World War II in particular has shown. We should not be anti-anybody. Here I’m coming almost full circle when I say the reason for that is God’s love for us all in Christ, and establishing that “Kin-dom.” And it’s all out of God’s grace—it’s not transactional.
In the end, though, we’re facing a perhaps darkening future not only as Church but of humanity in general. Give that, I want the fellowship of the church (or, to use less religious terminology, the deeper relationships of people who are all in this together) together. I may say more about this in another article. For now, I agree that the end of Christendom is not altogether a bad thing.
R.C. Byrne, September 2023
Most of the blog articles are written by our Rector, The Rev. Rebecca Ragland