Shuck and Jive

Friday, June 26, 2009

A New Reformation, Part 3: TCPC

My little club of bandits is affiliated with The Center for Progressive Christianity, which means for $100 we get a listing on its website. It is an interesting on-line connection. The website has books and resources and an interesting theological list called The Eight Points. Each point comes with an accompanying study guide.

To go along with Robert Funk's 21 theses and Matthew Fox's 95 theses, here are eight more points to add to your collection of lists. I have more lists to come as well as one that I am compiling for myself. For comparison, I will include the list of vows required for leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I will have more to say about that list in future posts.

Here is a teaser.

Vows are a good thing. To make a vow is a sacred act. It is a binding to one another, a commitment to one another, a promise to stick with one another through thick and thin, through personality conflict, disagreement, poverty, wealth, sickness, and health. It creates a bonding of interdependence which encourages creativity, compassion, intelligence, imagination, trust, and love. Vows are sacred acts. We need them to bind our communities and to show each other through ritual and reminder that each of us matters.

But something has gone wrong. Maybe it has always been wrong and I am just getting to the point at which I can voice it. It isn't the act of making a vow, it is the content of the vow and the function of the vow that has become problematic in the church today.

The vows foisted upon clergy, elders, and deacons are not wrong so much as they are dated. The vows themselves are innocuous on one level. The best word I can use to describe them is quaint. They don't really mean much of anything. I affirm them in all their sentimentality.

Their primary function, however, is punitive. Because they are thought to mean something other than what they say, they serve to keep the church in a state of institutional inertia. For instance, here is a common response to a clergyperson (we won't say who, who writes favorably about say, the Jesus Seminar, on his blog):
"You are violating your ordination vows. How can you be a Presbyterian minister?"
Get it? As opposed to "Here is where I think you are wrong" or "Here is where I disagree with you" the response is punitive: "You can't say that."

Worse than censure from the outside is self-censure. Clergy are so afraid of the potential charge of heresy (and there is good reason for it as clergy can lose their livelihoods) that they remain silent and acquiesce to that which goes against their own consciences. Far too few clergy speak what they truly think (or even what they learned in college or seminary) from the pulpit.

Sadly, the ordination vow culture that is the Presbyterian Church is not about a vow to uphold truth, goodness, conscience, beauty, integrity, or even "God" however that term is defined. These are vows of subservience to "the club" and its symbolic world. They are vows to uphold so-called "right belief" or orthodoxy. The constant repetition of these vows (every year with the ordination and installation of deacons and elders) reinforces this culture of subservience.

I use as an example the Presbyterian Church, but you will find parallels in the other Christian groups. What is amusing is that all the institutions think they are orthodox. I heard that there are over 30,000 Christian denominations in the world. There are over 10 Presbyterian denominations in the United States alone. Which one is the orthodox one?

Christian orthodoxy has a place. If you describe yourself as orthodox, if you believe that the various creeds of your particular sect reflect the most true statements in the universe, you are on my team. You are in my club. You can come to my church. I will vote your approval at a presbytery meeting. The orthodox path is an acceptable one. The reverse is not true, is it? Orthodoxy, perhaps by definition, cannot abide freedom of thought that counteracts its own. Orthodoxy is a word that people in power use to describe truth. When might makes right, subservience is a virtue.

In response to religious institutions that reinforce subservience and control are the Eight Points of Progressive Christianity. These points didn't just arise from the vapors. They are a particular response and rejection of church-as-usual.

By calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we are Christians who…

1. Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus;

2. Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God's realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;

3. Understand the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus' name to be a representation of an ancient vision of God's feast for all peoples;

4. Invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable (including but not limited to):

believers and agnostics,
conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
women and men,
those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
those of all races and cultures,
those of all classes and abilities,
those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope;

5. Know that the way we behave toward one another and toward other people is the fullest expression of what we believe;

6. Find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty - more value in questioning than in absolutes;

7. Form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God's creation, and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers; and

8. Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

Part 2, Fox
Part 1, Funk


  1. I am curious what the difference is between a vow and an oath. The Quaker in me has always found it interesting that Jesus's prohibition on oaths is one Christian teaching that almost no Christian follows.

    It seems to me that vows are just a tool of the Christian thought police. As you suggest, they are a cudgel that the right thinking ones can use to wield and put free thinking back into line.

    It is too bad that Christianity is often thought in terms of right thinking, rather than in terms of service, community, fellowship, love, and relationship.

  2. Good point about vows and oaths. What is the Quaker reasoning regarding that?

    I do think there is a place for vows and oaths, Hippocratic oath or a marriage vow come to mind.

    You raise an important point here:

    **It is too bad that Christianity is often thought in terms of right thinking, rather than in terms of service, community, fellowship, love, and relationship.**

    Take a vow to doing those things would be what is necessary and good.

  3. I think a Quaker view on oaths is that one shouldn't have two levels of speech one where God is formally invoked as witness and one not. Instead one should always be honest and truthful. Promising to do something is not forbidden.

    It is the Quaker view on creeds which is likely to make them wary of the vows as you describe them

    Quaker Faith and Practices of the Britain Yearly Meeting might be useful. Note it is descriptive rather than prescriptive and meant to have people think and possibly disagree not just agree blindly. Section 27 has some relevant to this post. Each is by one person expressing his view at one time.

    The Quaker objection to credal statements is not to beliefs as such but to the use of an officially sanctioned selection of them to impose a uniformity in things where the gospel proclaims freedom. 'Credo' is the Latin for 'I believe'. The meaning of the word is debased if you confine it to an act of the will giving intellectual assent to articles of faith. It is much better translated as 'I commit myself to...' in the sense that one is prepared to take the full consequences of the beliefs one has adopted. One adopts not so much a set of propositions as the discipline of working out in one's life and experience the consequences of the truth one has espoused. The value of the beliefs lies solely in their outworking. This I take to be the heart of the original Quaker message.

    John Punshon, 1978

    or 27.3
    We do not in the least deprecate the attempt, which must be made, since man is a rational being, to formulate intellectually the ideas which are implicit in religious experience... But it should always be recognised that all such attempts are provisional, and can never be assumed to possess the finality of ultimate truth. There must always be room for development and progress, and Christian thought and inquiry should never be fettered by theory... Among the dangers of formulated statements of belief are these:

    a. they tend to crystallise thought on matters that will always be beyond any final embodiment in human language;

    b. they fetter the search for truth and for its more adequate expression; and

    c. they set up a fence which tends to keep out of the Christian fold many sincere and seeking souls who would gladly enter it.

    Particularly in these days we need to be on our guard against these dangers. Multitudes of people are being shaken out of their comfortable beliefs by the terrific experiences through which the world is passing, and are seeking a secure basis for their faith. And some are finding a Reality which is much too great to be confined within the narrow limits of a creed.

    True basis of Christian unity, 1917

    There are others there.

    (Note I'm not a Quaker, just have an interest.)

  4. Thanks Erp!

    I think I may just have become a Quaker. : )

  5. Quakers do vary. Note that some African Quakers take as dim a view of some American/British Quakers as Nigerian/Ugandan Anglicans take of the TEC. One reason being their respective views on gays and lesbians.

    In the US the Friends are divided into roughly three groups

    Friends General Conference (FGC) (tends to be liberal)
    Friends United Meeting (FUM)
    Evangelical Friends International (tends to be the most conservative)

    For FGC, the Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting seems to cover your area

    They seem to be revising their Faith and Practices according to their website and you can find the working document there.

    I will note that attenders may be quite active while never formally becoming a member (my great grandfather married a Friend and became heavily involved in their anti-slavery activities but never became a member [this was in England]).

    If you are interested, be aware that finding a meeting house can be tricky. Apparently there is often a reluctance to appear to be advertising. Also be aware that meetings for worship are different from church services; in the FGC they tend to be held in the traditional manner, complete silence unless someone is moved to speak (I believe the Evangelicals are closer to a standard church service). No one announces the meeting is about to start, you just know because it is the right time and people have begun sitting in silence. It ends probably after an hour when the delegated member clasps the hand of his/her neighbors and they do the same to their neighbors. Announcements are then made. Admittedly I've only attended a handful of meetings and only in one meeting house.

  6. I thought you might be interested in learning about OUR Jewish traditions, one which has embraced the real Christ of the gospel, the Law and the prophets.

    If this doesn’t interest you, I apologize in advance.

    If you are interested let me tell you that we are the Frankist Association of America. One of our members has a new book out:

    I am not trying to sell you something. We are not ’some kind of cult’ (like Jews could ever take orders from someone!). We’re just a tradition which has lasted for centuries and I think we might be able to teach you a thing or too about that messianic tradition you ... ah ... stole from us and continue to misrepresent.

    If you're interested, you're interested. If you're not, you're not. No big deal.

    If you can’t afford the book you can see the website of one of our living teachers –

    I just wanted to let you and the scholarly world that there have always been more than one type of Judaism in the world at any one time. Some forms of the faith had to learn to hide their beliefs in order to survive and perpetuate themselves.

    Shalom, God Bless
    Everything is perfected in God's glory (and a rotten, stinking pile of something without)

    Beth El Jacob Frank

  7. Dude,

    You already advertised your book on my last post. I was at first mildly interested but now I see you are just a spammer.

  8. Erp,

    I really like those quotes about Quakerism and vows and for the info about Quakers in general.

    Thanks for taking the time to post that here, it was very helpful.

  9. John,

    So kill the spam.


    "It is too bad that Christianity is often thought in terms of right thinking, rather than in terms of service, community, fellowship, love, and relationship."

    That's just the influence of Platonism on Christianity. Personally I think it is a heresy. Judaism was always interested in right doing instead of right thinking, and Jesus was emphatic about right doing. Even faith was about doing, about making things happen.

    How Christianity became Platonistic is an interesting subject in itself, but probably the best is a combination of the two. Right thinking that is manifested in right doing, and right doing that informs right thinking.

    I think the term for it is "praxis".

  10. This is a very timely post for me for a number of reasons. You may remember that I am a Canadian theology student. I would like to be on the ministry track but my Presbytery (one on which I have been an elder member for 8 years) has decided that I am "not deep enough spiritually and that if I "do more work" they may put me through or they may reject me again. The message to this was the last person in charge of this Committee was too soft on the students (that would have been me). They insist they have treated me like any other student and yet I would never have treated a student like this. Anyway that's my story, I would appreciate any feedback you might have, but also know that you have your own fires.

    I am much more comfortable with this set of beliefs as opposed to the other but I am happy that you have given us stuff to think about. It is interesting to me that Matthew Fox, coming from his tradition, has basically reformulated the "priesthood of all believers" for our post-modern age.

    Thanks again for this blog. Now that I have finished my Greek requirement, I hope to participate more in these discussions.