Springtime Reflections for Church Renewal



April 20, 2017
Reform-minded people need to change their conversation about church reform. Otherwise they end up either talking to themselves or simply repeating what everyone else has been saying for the past ten years. Changing the conversation means looking at church life in new ways and developing new strategies and patterns for church life today and tomorrow. It means thinking creatively and asking challenging and deeper questions….

Some proposals for refection: 
(1)   Look less at the church as institution and more as a community of faith. What is happening within your own community of faith? What are the life-issues that really concern your family and friends? Where do you find your support? How can you motivate and help the men and women in your community to truly minister to each other? What is keeping us from experimenting with new forms of parish and parish life? Perhaps a parish should be a collection of many smaller communities of faith? Household churches in which the heads of the households – men and women — preside over informal Eucharistic liturgies, as in the Apostolic era?

(2)   Look deeper than the shortage of ordained ministers and ordained women ministers. Let’s look at the meaning of ministry itself. Let’s look at and examine the very idea of ORDAINED ministry. Jesus did not ordain anyone. Let’s scratch our heads about new forms of ministry and break out of the old patterns and paradigms. Why not have ordained graduate students helping out in university parishes? Ordaining men and women for five year terms? Perhaps a parish should have many part-time ordained ministers who have “regular” jobs? And how about dropping the word “priest”? “Minister” has better resonance with the Gospel. Should we close all seminaries and agree that they are not the best structures for the formation and education of ordained ministers?

(3)   And why not elect diocesan bishop overseers for limited terms of ministry? Why not five year terms, which could be renewed for just another five-year term? Another thought, do bishops have to be the top person in a diocese? Why not give ecclesiastical authority to a diocesan leadership team? I could see a team of at least three people: a diocesan administrator, who could be a man or woman and not necessarily ordained; a diocesan director of pastoral formation, who could be a man or woman and not necessarily ordained; and a bishop (man of woman) who would serve as spiritual director and sacramental coordinator for the diocese. Shared decision-making and a great way to dismantle the clerical old boys club.

(4)   Catholic and Christian. Healthy Catholicism is rooted in healthy Christianity. So what does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ today? This raises questions of belief. What do we really know about the historical Jesus? He was not white, for sure. Jesus was most likely dark brown and sun-tanned. What about all of those rather saccharin and androgynous images of Jesus that really distort who he was and what he was all about? Was his biological father the Holy Spirit or the man we call
Joseph? Isn’t the “virgin birth” more about saying he was a very special person than analyzing the biology of his conception? What if Jesus was gay or a married fellow with children? Would that make a difference for you? Would that destroy his meaning for Christian believers? Why? Was JesusGod? Early Jewish Christians, including St. Paul, would have never said that. Or was Jesus the revelation of God’s graciousness and love, as well as the revelation of authentic humanity? Jesus is “Lord,” the “Christ,” “Son of Humanity,” and “Son of God.” All of our language tries to point to his uniqueness……..

(5)   Ecumenical discussions. What are the real differences between church groups in Christianity today? Are there any good reasons why we cannot simply start worshiping together? Are we not locked in medieval theological categories about “them” and “us”? Are structural church distinctions based on Protestantism and Roman Catholicism still significant differences in belief? Isn’t Jesus Christ, for example, just as truly “present” in Episcopalian Eucharist as he is in Roman Catholic Eucharist? Are Lutherans and Presbyterians cut off from him in their worship services? What today is the uniqueness of Roman Catholicism? Perhaps the goal of ecumenical collaboration today should be respecting a variety of traditions and at the same time enhancing the Christian life of all believers and not creating a mega-church institution? Why not turn places, like the Vatican, into United Nations heritage sites? Tourist revenue could be used to fight world poverty. Church palaces could be turned into schools and hospitals or residences for political refugees.

(6)    Seven sacraments. We now know of course that the seven sacraments were created by the church not the historical Jesus. What then is the meaning of “sacrament” today? Who controls sacramental forms? Does it make sense to argue about who can “validly” administer certain sacraments? When I got married, I was told, based on Catholic sacramental understandings, that my wife and I as baptized believers “conferred the sacrament” on each other and the priest was simply an official
witness. OK, what about baptized gays and lesbians who get married? Isn’t their marriage then just as “sacramental” as mine? What about “lay” pastoral ministers in hospitals and homes for the elderly. They are often the key Christian ministers in these people’s lives. Why can’t they “anoint” the sick and dying? Maybe they should just start doing it? Isn’t Christian ministry about prayer and  compassion and comforting the sick?

These are just a few thought-starters…… Creative and critical reflection is not a dangerous activity and it can be a source of life….

14 thoughts on “Springtime Reflections for Church Renewal

  1. Jack some will say you have opened a can of worms!! However I think the ideas stated above are well worth pondering and a thoughtful discussion. So I will do a bit of pondering first before comment further!!!

  2. It brightened my day, Jack, to read these comments from you. I especially took note of the comment that ‘Maybe they should just start doing it?’ I think that is the essential element that will eventually reform our church. Well-known reformers like yourself must come out and say it loudly and clearly so that those folks in the pew can’t misunderstand or equivocate that message. It is a very lonely experience to stand up against a mighty force like the Roman church. To be accused, defamed, libeled, and otherwise dismissed is an extremely hurtful experience especially when these acts are perpetrated against you by the institution you love and have dedicated yourself to your entire lifetime.
    Hopefully, others who share your standing will come out forcefully not only with the ideas and words but with the actions that validate them. I pray for you and ask your prayers for me!

  3. Jack, I love the way you think. A friend of mine, who is a Catholic Deacon, participates in what he calls ” Alternate Church”. A group of friends (all Catholic) gather at one of their homes and celebrate their own Mass with one another. They bring bread and wine, consecrate it together, and enjoy scripture and each other. They do this on occasional Sundays rather than at Church. I can imagine that these smaller gatherings are much more meaningful to all who attend.

    • This is exactly the kind of thing I support and encourage. However, many of these groups tend to be on the careful and somewhat clandestine side of things. Rather than protecting themselves from the institutional church, I think we need to shock the institutional with many of these kinds of communities springing up throughout the world and publicly recruiting members.

  4. Wow, Jack, you have really thought outside the box! These are wonderful ideas that are worthy of action and not simply academic discussion. You have given us a deep starting point to address our vision for the future. Bless you, again, good friend!

  5. Some might say that these suggestions have already gone past the idea stage. The key is truly “what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ today”. It’s too bad that we can’t have an open conversation but that’s apparently not possible without reprocussions.

  6. This is exactly the kind of thing I support and encourage. However, many of these groups tend to be on the careful and somewhat clandestine side of things. Rather than protecting themselves from the institutional church, I think we need to shock the institutional with many of these kinds of communities springing up throughout the world and publicly recruiting members.

    • I agree, it would be great to see more out there challenging the norm. Part of the reason so many are careful and clandestine though is because of the hurt they’ve experienced in institutional church. Hopefully like you say many more will spring up throughout the world, and many that already exist will be able to come more into the open; but also be patient with all those that are trying to fly under the radar while God heals ’em up!

  7. Brian Coyne of the Australian Forum CATHOLICA drew my attention to John Dick’s current blog urging a closer look at what to do about church reform (https://anothervoice-greenleaf.org/ 20/04/17). Dr Dick put up six proposals. Leading items there made me feel that John Dick and I could have a constructive conversation.
    Dick is not going on about deck chairs. For this kind of activity, in Robert Mickens’ concurrent ‘Letter from Rome’ (Commonweal, 17/04/17) we have what is possibly the strongest complaint yet about silence and lack of will regarding the shortage of priests. In my own city (Melbourne, Aus.) pastoral planners published a 2017 book telling priests how to spread their load among the non-ordained. Elsewhere in 2017 a much bruited US publication, Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century, includes outcomes for its 5 authors from a decade of research covering ‘Changing Demographics in Pastoral Leadership’ (aka shortage of priests), reconfiguration of parishes, administration, finances… There we go. By contrast, in 1000 words John Dick puts up 6 proposals ‘asking challenging and deeper questions’.
    First, he advises we look ‘less at the church as institution and more as a community of faith’, and in the process look ‘deeper than the shortage of ordained ministers and ordained women ministers’. Instead he recommended looking at ‘the meaning of ministry itself’. Included here is the suggestion: ‘how about dropping the word “priest”?’ With just this much – others can engage with election of bishops, how best to come to grips with Jesus theologically, ecumenical dimensions, and culling the 7 sacraments – my own conversation with Dick can begin.
    What John Dick surmises could be rewarding investigations have actually been my theological preoccupation for over 25 years. Thus in my new book, Gateway to Renewal: Reclaiming ministries for women and men (Northcote, Vic.: Morning Star Publishing, 2016) I not only review what ‘ministry’ meant within ancient Greek literature and early Christian Greek-speaking communities, but, in the light of those scenarios, I question the viability today of our inherited notion of the ‘priest’ (e. g., pp. 121-39) at the same time as I attempt to arouse a perception of a ‘church’ established on Paul’s ministry as ‘a community of faith’ (e. g., pp. 149-57).
    This long preoccupation has not been of my own choosing but the unavoidable outcome of the nature of my research. An exegetical doctoral study of the early 1970s ended up requiring a semantic investigation into what kind of ‘ministry’ Jesus was engaged in when one of the foundational gospel statements about him (Mark 10:45) stated that he had come to ‘serve’ or (as in the earlier translations) to ‘minister’ (Tyndale, 1526; Rheims, 1582; AV, 1611; RSV, 1946). The Greek verb here belongs to the diakonia word group and has been famous for a century or more for characterizing the ministry of Jesus and, thereby, the ministry of the Christian church as a ministry of service. Week by week, in homilies and addresses, Pope Francis reminds bishops and all Christians of this call to service. After all, his predecessor, Benedict XVI, had enshrined the service value in his encyclical God is love as ‘part of the fundamental structure of the Church’ (no. 21) and presented it as ‘My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others’ (no. 34).
    There has been a wildfire of diakonic service across writings about ministry since the 1950s, ignited, we need to say, in German studies of the 1930s (Brandt, Kittel) and fuelled in the 1950s by Swiss and German scholars (Barth, Schweizer, Käsemann, Küng… ) In the 1970s the smokehaze was still dense and made a nonsense of Mark’s rhetoric at 10:45. I could not accept that his powerful theology added up at this point to ‘sharing in the needs and sufferings of others’.
    My next years, accordingly, were dedicated to examining the field of meaning that the Greek diakon- words cut out for themselves across centuries of ancient literature. In this field, the notion of ‘sharing in the needs of others’ left not a single footprint. What diakon- terms designated was the mandate under which a person went about tasks.
    While my ‘revolutionary’ description of such usage was published by Oxford University Press in 1990 (Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources), attracting some startling comment (‘he has forced us to re-think one of the dogmas of New Testament scholarship’ – Jerome Murphy-O’Connor), it was not fully endorsed until 2007, when the German scholar, Anni Hentschel, published her parallel linguistic investigation, arriving at the same semantic profile of the diakon- words. My 2014 volume, Diakonia Studies, provides the story of the re-interpretation of diakonia (pp. 3-20). It also provides the account from an earlier out-of-print book of ‘How Ancient Greeks Thought of Diakonia’ (57-77) as well as an overview of ‘Diakonia in the Teaching of Jesus’ (pp. 78-100).
    In the Afterword to my 1990 volume I asserted that working through the implications for ministry in the church/es required ‘a finesse beyond the capacity of one writer’ (p. 253) so that I went on to express a hope for collaboration in the tasks involved. The Church of England, through the publication of The Mission and Ministry of the Whole Church by its Faith and Order Advisory Group (GS Misc 854, 2007; online) is singular in embracing the task in the light of its own historical and pastoral experience. And now John Dick prompts me to think that the present time requires a further effort to translate basic ecclesiological values of the first Christian century into the complex matrix of contemporary life and cultures.
    – John N. Collins

    • Dear John

      Yes indeed……”the present time requires a further effort to translate basic ecclesiological values of the first Christian century into the complex matrix of contemporary life and cultures.”

      Jack

  8. Always encouraged to see these thoughts across denominational and generational divides! Many people are rediscovering the value of taking “church” outside the building, especially by making it a bigger part of their home. Meeting in homes helps take the edge off inviting friends who have lost faith in the big institutional churches, and it provides opportunities for everyone in the group to serve instead of just a select few! If nothing else, it’s a wonderful good reminder that God isn’t found in a building!

  9. Reblogged this on Rogue Millennials and commented:
    Here’s a good read to remind us how prevalent the need and desire among God’s people is for reform – it’s a need that is recurring, a need that is pressing, and a need that transcends generational and denominational boundaries. You’ll find in it many of our own suggestions and hopes. Get away from the institution and discover faith as family and community once more. Empower the people in the pews to minister instead of acting like only paid clergy are qualified or capable. Consider term limits and any other possibilities to ensure leadership is frequently refreshed and new ideas, perspectives, and gifts are brought to the table. Allow discussion on debated issues and challenge teachings that are not biblical yet hold us back from being relevant and efficacious in the world. Thanks for your insights!

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