Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community

In “Strength for the Journey”, Diana Butler Bass illustrates the dynamic strength and persistence of mainline Protestantism. While many baby boomers left the church, only to come back later in life, Bass was a “stayer” who witnessed the struggles and changes and found much there that was meaningful. Offering thought-provoking portraits of eight parishes she attended over two decades, she explores the major issues that have confronted mainline denominations, congregations, and parishioners during those years– from debates over women clergy to conflicts about diversity and community to scrimmages between tradition and innovation.

Topics: Spiritual Exploration & Practice. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community

  1. Review

    Diana Bass’ compelling book is the story of her pilgrimage of faith over the past two decades, intertwined with the stories of eight Episcopal churches. A scholar of American religion, she is presently an adjunct professor at the Virginia Theological Seminary and serves as director of faith development at Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia.

    Her personal story is set in the context of the throes of change experienced by mainline denominations, congregations, and individuals during the past twenty years and "played out against the tableau of the baby boomer generation, with all its doubts, seeking and questions." She considers herself part of the generation of seekers who may explore turning or returning to a church, but at a significant point, she sees her story in a slightly different way. She writes, "I am not a returnee. I am a stayer." In spite of all the change she experienced in the eight congregations and her own faith struggles, she never left the church.

    As a teenager, after leaving the Methodist church, she came under the influence of Protestant conservative evangelicalism, was "born again’ and for six years was a member of a "nondenominational" church while a student at an evangelical Christian college. During her senior year in college she "first stepped inside" an Episcopal Church. She fell in love with the liturgy and felt she had found a spiritual home. This event set the stage for her twenty-year pilgrimage. During those years, behind the scenes of her participation in Episcopal parishes, she was torn between her new love and the theological orthodoxy of evangelicalism.

    She devotes a chapter to each of the eight Episcopal parishes, ranging from liberal to conservative. She provides a sketch of its history, and a profile of clergy and the congregation. She highlights and explores the issues, with which the parishes struggled. Each was dealing, in its own way, to one degree or another, with liturgical change, theological identity and diversity, the ordination of women, the place of gays and lesbians, inclusive language, the nature of the Bible and ecclesiastical authority, issues which engaged the author intensely. She writes, "The Episcopal Church often forced me to come to terms with people and ideas I would rather have avoided. But throughout the process, the church was being quietly transformed by the experiences of stayers like myself who demanded different visions and practices of churchgoing than the institution had traditionally offered."

    Her pilgrimage led her to conclude that there has been "a quiet resurrection in the mainline tradition, unnoticed and unreported by most observers of American religion." She believes that the church has "re-invented itself." The "re-invented" church is a congregation that has discovered its identity by embracing a "pilgrim spirituality" and becoming an "intentional" community. A pilgrim spirituality congregation knows it cannot depend on its past for its future. An intentional congregation is engaged in "purposefully remaking their traditions, attempting to create meaningful worship and spiritual practices, engaged in intellectually credible reading of the scriptures, and in reaching out to serve the world with near evangelical zeal." All of the eight congregations in which she participated were in the process, to one degree or another, of embracing pilgrim spirituality and becoming intentional congregations. She believes that this pattern of congregational life is more widespread that most people have noticed and is a "stunning and perhaps revolutionary change in American religious life."

    Trinity Church, Santa Barbara, California proved to be "one of the most remarkable churches" in which, for two years, she was a participant. When she arrived, the Church, a symbol of Anglican establishment, was embracing the pilgrim and intentional pattern of congregational life. The embrace began with what "few churches think of doing – it just opened its doors." She writes, "Many different people with an extraordinary number of perspectives walked through that open door…It became a safe place to explore faith, to think about God, to bring one’s heart and mind together." According to one Trinity parishioner, the church is "maddeningly inclusive." In a short time she found a "palpable sense of God’s spirit, a warm accepting and honest community." Her break with conservative, evangelicalism was completed.

    He concludes her story by expressing her belief, based on her experience and academic training, that "a new kind of mainline congregation is indeed being born, a new period of American Protestantism has been birthed in the midst of decline." According to her analysis, these congregations are not seeker-oriented or program focused. They embrace the "pilgrim spirituality of the intentional congregation." They have a clear identity, "appropriating, reclaiming, and recreating their own traditions in imaginative and innovative ways." They have a clear mission, providing "a theologically meaningful (but not dogmatic) vision in worship and Christian formation," giving people "the ability to see their work, relationships, and the world with spiritual insight."

    This is a story of hope – for a revitalized Church with a renewed vision of mission to the world.

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