Reflections On The Emerging Church
After The Trinity Ancient Wisdom-Anglican Futures Conference
By The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.
We just had a really stimulating conference here at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge PA on the relationship between what is called The Emerging Church and the Great Tradition and what role Anglicanism plays now and could play in the future with this new movement in the church. The Emergent Church is a term that characterizes a wide spectrum of Christians and churches often composed of young adults that are seeking an “ancient-future” way of being the church. These young Christians often come out of Evangelical and Pentecostal circles, though there are refugees from the Mainline Churches as well, and they are looking for something more significant than the trendy consumerist relevance that has characterized many of the approaches to reaching a secularized society in the Twentieth Century. It is a very disparate movement and includes examples that resonate deeply with the orthodoxy of the ages and other examples that seem, as one of the conference presenters George Sumner said, the latest installment in the long book of Gnosticism. (In fact a book I would recommend for self described emergent types is Against the Protestant Gnostics by Phillip J. Lee.)
As I listened to the themes that were attracting these young Christians: a more narrative understanding of the message of the Bible, an interest in ancient practices of prayer and spiritual discipline, a turn toward the writings of the earliest Christian centuries of the Patristic period, an interest by formerly free church types in sacramental theology and in the theology of the church, I was struck by the way in which this movement is revamping much of what was good about the story of the church and theology in the Twentieth Century. At the end of the conference the Trinity faculty members present were asked to reflect on a series of questions one of which was, “where are we now?”
I think we are in a moment when there is a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit moving to renew the ecumenical church. The Twentieth Century saw a series of movements in the theology and the life of the church which were clearly movements of the Spirit. The Century started with the great missionary gathering in Edinburgh with the vision of winning the world for Christ in one generation. There was the movement of Biblical Theology and the turn toward the narrative represented in figures like Karl Barth. There was the movement of Liturgical Theology which produced among other things the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer. There was a new interest in the mission of the church to the poor and the marginalized. There was the Charismatic revival that swept through all the churches including the Roman Catholic Church and which had leaders of the stature of Cardinal Suens. All of these movements in some way brought with them a painful consciousness of the brokenness of the body of Christ as it faced the challenge of an increasingly hostile and secularized world. Out of the renewal in theology, liturgy and mission came a new desire for ecumenical healing and partnership. The apogee of this convergence was the formation of the World Council of Churches, the production of the consensus on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry in Lima Peru, and the formation of the Church of South India. It is striking how the saints of the ecumenical convergence of the Twentieth Century are the figures that interest the emergents of the Twenty First the most. Karl Barth, Lesslie Newbigin, Michael Ramsey, Yves Congar, Alexander Schmemann were names that were invoked constantly during the course of this conference.
During the Twentieth Century God gave to the broken and fractured global church a gift of the Holy Spirit, an ecumenical moment of mission and renewal. It was for the most part squandered and has been allowed to fall to the ground and especially by the daughter churches of the Reformation in the old Christian homelands including Anglicans. It seems to me that God is doing in the Emergent Church movement something that He does over and over. When His gift is rejected by the people He has prepared to receive it, He seeks out a new people. So it is that sons and daughters of Anabaptists and Pentecostals are being drawn to the Great Tradition. It is a moment for repentance for those of us in the historic churches which have stewarded the Great Tradition but have lost touch with the life which generates the tradition and which carries it forward. It is also a moment of testing for that which is emerging. Will they marginalize doctrine and the labor of seeking a consensus in faith and order? Will they succumb to the motto that deeds unite and doctrine divides and then find themselves in the midst of church dividing controversy with no deep doctrinal consensus to guide? Will they be lured into trivial and faddish relevancy and all too worldly politics at the expense of a more profound service of peace and justice? Will the established churches who are in a panic about their declining influence in the culture repent of quick fixes and pandering to culture and engage with a new generation in a deep renewal of the roots of Christian wisdom and practice? Will we all catch this new wind of the Spirit or let it pass us by? What an exciting time to be a Christian.