Opening note: This reflection has turned out to be longer than most of my postings – apologies!

There’s been a lot written lately about the demise of the liberal church. In the Canadian press, popular pundits such as Margaret Wente and John Snobelen have written, perhaps a-wee-bit dismissively, about this phenomenon. The United Church of Canada is most often the target of these attacks.

Allow me to tell you a story: About 15 years ago, I found myself at a crisis of faith. The Pentecostal, Baptist and Brethren (yes, all of those!) churches of my childhood and adolescence, often steeped in both political conservatism and theological fundamentalisms had seemingly failed me. I had, by my own imperative (and perhaps with some indirect thanks to Bruce Cockburn and U2 – but that’s another story), started to read the Old Testament Prophets, and study the whole life of Jesus, and realized that the story being told in many of those churches, though true, was not necessarily the whole scriptural story. Salvation in the afterlife – great!  But where was the talk of justice, creation-care, and the poor that seemed to also be such a strong narrative in the whole of the Bible?

My initial response was to place myself in exile from the Christian church, to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ and then (perhaps craving the Jesus who I had experienced as a little boy as well as some semblance of faith community!) slowly finding my way back into the church through the back door – yes – into the United Church and other liberal and activist student and church-based social movements.

Those liberal-activist years were, in many ways, good ones. I lived my faith in an embodied way through action. I was arrested for protesting war several times. I prayed for peace and justice. I started eco-justice camps. I dialogued respectfully with people from many religious traditions (and studied world religions at University). I lived in an amazing Catholic Worker community and practiced radical hospitality. I earnestly questioned how certain groups – such as women and LGBT folks – were mistreated, shunned and damaged by the church.

In those years, I don’t think I ever fully lost that Christ-centred ‘core’ of my faith. At the same time, I often found myself confused, rootless, repeatedly burning out as an activist and in a deep inner turmoil. While constantly de-constructing scripture and tradition, while always reacting against something, I regrettably had left little room for a foundation on which to stand as a Christian, never mind as the Christian-leader that I was being called and formed to be.

Though God hadn’t abandoned me I no longer knew who, in Christ, I was.

Perhaps the shift away from liberal church for me began in the awkward grace of a short-term dating relationship with a good Baptist girl – who (among other things) re-introduced me to the praise and worship music of my youth. In the heady-ness of those liberal churches, steeped in their 19th century historical-critical analysis, late mode-bureaucracy and the weathervane having replaced the Cross – something had been lost. Evangelicals might call it ‘first love’ or ‘heart religion’. Though those terms might feel more like a pop-song than a biblical paradigm, I too realized there was something missing, something achingly lost. The permission to sing: “Hungry I come to you for your arms are open wide” certainly wasn’t given in my new found liberal ecclesial home (I can remember one minister dismissively labeling that kind of song as ‘co-dependent theology’). However, as I started to sing those simple, repetitive songs as I had as a kid (as well as discovering the Taize Community – yet another story), I could feel something re-ignite in me that was never lost, but was perhaps a flame buried under a bushel.

These days, I do find myself gently critiquing the United Church for where it has found itself (or at least it’s spokespeople – my experience of folks in the pews, especially outside of the urban centres is quite different).  I’ve come to realize that I do that critique, at least in part, because I love the potential of the UCC so much. Unlike Wente or Snobelen, I don’t shoot darts due to the UCC’s often controversial political stances or positions on social issues (whether those stances are courageous or foolish only time will tell) – but more so because I feel that the radical holistic evangelical-sacramental Wesleyan roots that the United Church are rightful heir to in Canada are sorely needed in this day and age in the wider Church in this country. Having said all of that, the United Church with all its flaws once allowed me and others I know to ask the questions, explore the edges of faith, and push my boundaries in ways that I’ve never since encountered in other places in Christ’s Church (not to mention encourage and allow me to be creative in liturgy and music, and actually allow me to preach my first sermon – thanks Eugenia/St.John’s United!). Without it, I would not likely be a Christian today. So thanks be to God almighty for the UCC!

If classic liberalism contains within it the encouragement of the individual to ask questions and even to faithfully doubt, I believe that aspect of liberalism to be an important (dare I say, fundamental) part of a vibrant Christian faith. Having said that, I also believe that purveyors of modernist theological liberalism – whose faith too often exists without the rootedness of Orthodoxy and without the witness of a wider community of authority (aka ‘the global Church’) – are in big trouble which is akin to the trouble I found myself in during my most liberal years.  At worst, we risk becoming passion-less wanderers who become little to anyone, including ourselves. We may drift toward radical individualism and religious consumerism.  We may become more about cultural trends than about ancient faith. Our faith becomes more about ‘issues’ than about faith itself. Our communities then tend to shrivel up with a lack of commonality. The Resurrection-fueled passion that sustained our earliest forbears in the church to danger and martyrdom becomes a laughing stock as so-called Bishops deny the Creeds, and church leaders and populist authors find a self-congratulatory niche as they deny the centrality and Lordship of Jesus in favour of a more palatable, marketable ‘gospel’.

Said another way, Christianity without Christ; without the Incarnation, without Jesus’ life/teachings, without the Cross, without the Resurrection and without the Ascension is not Christianity and will not survive. Yes, to talk about the death of the Church is bad theology (as someone once said) – but to talk about the pruning of passionless, heady faith that throws the baby out with the bathwater is arguably acceptable. And maybe there is a reckoning on that front. Maybe Wente and Snobeleon and others are, generally speaking, right insomuch as that the liberal institutions are having to account for their ‘sins’ (though I would add to this that, in time, so will the conservative ones!)

I have to admit that not too much has actually changed in my beliefs around the ‘social justice’ issues that we in the liberal church were obsessed with. What has shifted in me is a new found (or perhaps re-discovered) realization – a deep belief (the word Credo means “I believe”) that we as humans and humanity need a ‘heart’ relationship with the Living, Triune God. To sustain and inform this we need the Creeds – a summary of the story of scripture and God’s saving action – to dialogue with our story, to hold us up and correct us in our essential beliefs, to shift us away from radical individual interpretation – all of which should then launch us together into right action (orthopraxis).

Several weeks back, a friend asked me whether I felt my fundamentalist upbringing had hurt me. I replied that indeed, there were still some lingering scars of emotional manipulation, Biblical proof-texting, political neo-conservative nonsense, and even spiritual abuse. Having said that, I shared with him that it was in that milieu that I first experience my call to ministry. It was in that milieu that I was encouraged to learn the ancient stories and memorize the scriptures. It was there where I experienced countless people of mercy and passionate faith. It was in that milieu that I began, through a very personal conversion, to experience the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that shapes me to this day. To untangle the blessings and problems of my childhood faith also continues through today – but overall, I’ve come to a place of deep gratitude.

And then I continued: I think that the abuses of fundamentalist liberalism; a similar shutting down of conversation, similar proof-texting, similar kinds of manipulation, and exegetical and hermeneutic approaches that were so in the head and devoid of the heart were equally as damaging to me. I’ve come to believe that a common life marked by the foundational cornerstones that had been assumed in my fundamentalist upbringing (though, ironically those cornerstones were never systematically stated as such) is so important – and that to lose those waymarkers in my journey for a time, with no challenge – in fact with implicit and even explicit encouragement from the liberal church – was perhaps even worse than the abuses of the fundamentalism of my youth.

Conservative and liberal fundamentalisms. Opposite sides of the same modernist coin.

So where does that leave me? Where does it leave all of us who have struggled with the subcultures of church that are fundamentalist or incomplete in one direction or another? Where does it leave us who have bounced from pole-to-pole, striving to be faithful to who God calls us to be and do? My proposal is that together we find a ‘third way’ and head into the uncomfortable middle. A faith that encourages questions and allows for broad diversity of belief and action in non-essentials. A faith that is deeply rooted and fed by Holy Scripture and living tradition. A faith that does not sell out on the essentials (I would suggest that the Creeds – especially the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds – are ideal for this – which is very Anglican of me to say – though some of you may be more inclined to a more evangelical statement of essentials such as this one).  A faith that holds to Truth about the Triune God at work in the world and as our hope – respectfully, dialogically and humbly amidst and amongst competing truth claims. A faith that realizes that we all see through a glass dimly, and that individuals and institutions – no matter how right or left they may be – how holy or righteous they may seem – will never live up to who Jesus calls them to be.

To do that sure is a dance.

So I propose that we dance together into the uncomfortable middle. Not a lukewarm, passion-less middle. But a passionate, holistic, healthy Holy Spirit-filled dance of life rooted in something very ancient – rooted in a deep understanding of God’s story and of His grace at work in our lives (and even in the lives of our very broken institutions) – a dance where God’s economy of grace transcends the very modern labels of ‘liberal’ or ‘evangelical’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘fundamentalist’ – labels that we all too often place on ourselves and others and which ultimately eclipse our beautiful true identity in Jesus Christ.

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