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Who We Are and How We Got Here

My presentation this evening has three parts. First, I want to tell you about The Center for Progressive Christianity, the situation that gave rise to this idea, the strategy we are developing to keep the churches from drying up and blowing away, and a description of what we are and what we are not. The second part of this presentation is to pick up on our international flavor. I will sit down and let Hugh Dawes to tell us a little about the situation in the United Kingdom and how he sees things from that perspective. We North Americans can get parochial and forget that some other people in the world are struggling with the same issues. For the last part of this presentation, I want to pick up on a challenge that Wes Seeliger presented to the second national forum: what do progressive Christians mean by the term “God”?

First, about The Center for Progressive Christianity. We do, like all other organizations these days, use our initials — and they may be unfortunate — “TCPC”. Wes Seeliger said that TCPC sounds more like a gasoline additive rather than an organization of churches. But there it is!

TCPC started off with the people I knew, most of whom were Episcopalians. But we intended from the beginning to be an ecumenical organization in the full sense of the word. We have been trying mightily to be ecumenical. Just a few weeks ago I entered into our database 196 congregations of the United Church of Christ. I got their names because they had declared themselves to be Open and Affirming congregations. I sent them a letter that said that “Now that you have decided to welcome gay and lesbian people, how about taking the next step and welcoming people who have trouble with church doctrines and beliefs?” Several have responded. I am going to do the same with the Presbyterians as soon as I can find a Presbyterian yearbook, and with the Methodists, Unitarian Universalists, Lutherans, and the Metropolitan Community Churches.

This is our third forum. We are planning ahead. In 1999, we are going to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts where we will focus on progressive Christianity and the arts. Our working title for the conference is “Risking Art, Risking Faith”. In the year 2000, we are going to be in Orange County, California. Coordinating that is Advisory Committee member Fred Plumer.

The situation that gave rise to our organization is something that I am sure you are aware of. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, when religious leaders noticed a rapid decline of membership in all the mainline churches, they reacted with nostalgia, jealousy, and entrenchment. The nostalgia was for the fifties. I can see by the color of your hair and the markings around your eyes that some of you are as old as I am, so you remember the fifties. You couldn’t keep people away from churches. People were pouring into churches. People were building churches all over the suburban parts of the United States. It was wonderful. If you wanted to be ordained you could be, unless you were a woman. Women simply didn’t count in those days, but for the guys getting into the Episcopal Church was the easiest thing in the world. I think the same was true for the Methodists, the Presbyterians and everyone else. The churches were desperate for clergy. Clergy look back with nostalgia on this period, not only for the great growth in membership and the abundance of salaried church positions, but also for the opportunity to act like corporate executives. Before the fifties, church leaders did not have staffs; they didn’t have offices filled with people behind typewriters. The corporate model took over the churches. Some people noticed that the corporate model was taking over all of American life. Anthropologists compared what was going on in the churches, the universities and the offices of corporations with orangutan society. The head orangutan is the one that has the most females. That’s how a man got status: lots of women hovering around him. There were lots of women in the Church: secretaries, directors of religious education, and altar guild leaders. The importance of a clergyman was based on how many women were fluttering around him ready to do his bidding. It was a wonderful life for some clergy. No wonder they look back on the fifties with nostalgia!

Some people are willing to realize that the fifties simply produced a blip in the statistics. There were never so many people going to church before that. Do you know what percentage of people in this country claimed church affiliation in 1790? Just above 10%. Church attendance had not been a priority until that strange period after World War II, but the nostalgia is so great that few are trying to rethink what we should be and how we should be restructured. Instead we have this painful downsizing, as job by job is eliminated.

Part of what is going on, in addition to the nostalgia, is jealousy. In the mainline or “old line” churches, during the 1980’s, one could look around and see that not all the churches were shriveling up. Not all the churches were losing members. What about all those evangelical and fundamentalist churches that were actually growing? If you think you’d like to have your church be bigger, and you see some other churches getting bigger, you become jealous.

What do you do with the jealousy? You start trying to imitate the people who are successful, which produces the third reaction, entrenchment. Let’s do what the successful churches do, emphasize orthodoxy and belief. Then maybe we can grow like they grow. There are a couple of problems with that approach. One is that people have not been reading the yearbooks of the National Council of Churches. If you look at these yearbooks, you’ll see that those churches have not been growing much in the last nine years. The rapid increase in membership began to taper off at the end of the 1980’s There’s not so much to be jealous of any more if you are watching the numbers.

Entrenchment produced many changes in the mainline churches, including a change in perception about what is important. In 1960, when I was in my first job, the decline in church attendance had just begun. You could see that young people were not coming to church. I remember a conversation outside the church where I was the young assistant. A retired Army colonel accosted me after the service one Sunday and asked why the young people were not in church any more. I said, “Well, Colonel, I guess it’s because they don’t believe it any more.” He said, “Believe it?! Who believes it? We never believed it! It’s a gentleman’s duty to be in church on Sunday.” I don’t think the colonel would like what’s going on today with all the emphasis on belief and doctrine. People really got so involved in imitating what was going on in successful churches that they didn’t realize how many people they were driving away. A friend of mine actually said with pride in his voice that they have half the number of people they had ten years ago, but double the pledged income. That’s what tithing will do — you get committed Christians — but what about those other people he drove out? Doesn’t he care about them? Apparently not. The Church became a hostile or at least an inhospitable place for all the people who had trouble with doctrines and beliefs.

Some of us think that the Church doesn’t have to dry up and blow away simply because it has taken a wrong path. Seeing what the Church had been and could be, we have found ways to change direction. I have often found that when we have an idea and pursue it, sooner or later somebody else will come along and tell us what we are doing and why we do it. This past month, I was fortunate enough to listen to three lectures by Marcus Borg. All three lectures were wonderful, but he particularly got my attention with three categories of people whom we need to think about in terms of our religious life in these times. We didn’t realize until he told us that the kind of people whom we are finding problematic are those who are involved in pre-critical naiveté. He said that these people find the Bible to be factually correct about history, science, and morals. The more confusing, complex and pluralistic the world becomes, the more entrenched the pre-critically naive become in their positions. We have a strategy for dealing with these people. It is the strategy that was first devised by that great wit from Baltimore, H. L. Mencken. Mencken said a lot of outrageous things in print, and frequently people wrote back to complain. He had a standard response: “Dear Sir or Madam, You may be right. Sincerely yours, H. L. Mencken.” That’s our strategy. We will respect them, and try to love them, and remember what we learned from our parents: you never argue about religion. “You may be right”. We don’t need to put a lot of energy into relationships with the pre-critically naive. They like themselves just the way they are, and we have no responsibility to change them.

Another group of people identified by Marcus Borg are the critical thinkers. These are people who, because of the way they were born or the way they have become in this post-modern age, cannot help but think critically about whatever is presented to them. These are the people who recognize that Newtonian physics and Biblical fundamentalism have more in common with each other than either has to do with the world in which we live. Newtonian physics assumed that you could describe in simple terms and formulas the world that you observe. Now people involved in quantum physics and chaos theory say that it is not so simple. Biblical fundamentalists are of the same mentality. They can describe the world simply and accurately the way they believe it really is. The post- modern understanding of the world says nothing is that simple. You have to look at things critically. These are the people who see that language provides no more than a set of labels for trying to make sense of the world. I was struck by something related to this subject in my favorite section of the New York Times not long ago. Every Tuesday the Times has a science section. I never understand much of what I am reading, but I always read it. There was an article not long ago saying that even mathematicians now admit that math does not describe absolutes. Mathematics is another way of putting labels on observations to make sense out of the world. Now stop to think about it: what is magical about dividing everything up into tens? We do it because it is easier to count that way. Think of what mathematics would look like if we had seven fingers instead of ten, or seven on one hand and twelve on the other. Math would have been different. The critical thinkers are people who see that all religion is a human invention. People over the ages have created religion. Among those people who are critical thinkers are the ones who know that they themselves have to make some sense out of their lives. They are searching. These  people who are searching are the ones the mainline churches should have as their primary interest. It is no accident that the people here in Seattle called this forum “Honoring Those Who Search”. The people who are searching deserve our honor and our respect because they are trying. Perhaps we can help them in their search, and perhaps they can help those of us who will listen.

Honoring those who search leads us to the third possibility identified by Professor Borg: post-critical naiveté. I love that phrase because, by identifying this category, we are admitting to ourselves that the most important truths are beyond the limits of logic and analysis. The only way that we can get at the most important truths in human existence is to pay attention to myths and music, poetry and song, ritual and prayer. Post-critically naive — that’s me. That’s us, I think, because we know we are always involved in the search. That’s why the imagery of the road is so powerful. Every once in a while, someone who is upset with what I am doing will send me an E-mail trying to straighten me out. The most recent example was one in capital letters, reminding me that Jesus did not say, “I am A way” but rather “I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE.” Maybe Jesus said that, but I go with the Jesus Seminar view that doubts if Jesus said any such thing. I think it may be John speaking. When he talked about Jesus as the way, I think he was saying, “Jesus is my road, the one I follow on my search.” That is what we are doing here. We are on the road. We are joining each other in becoming, at least for this time, companions in the search for meaning.

We are on this search together, but who are we? What is The Center for Progressive Christianity?

Legally we are a non-profit corporation. Earlier this week I was back in my home town, and I was thinking about a little sign that was posted behind the cash register in the diner: “This is a non-profit organization. That was not what we intended, but that is the way it turned out.” We did not really mean to spend money faster than we take it in, but “non-profit corporation” was a way of putting ourselves into a convenient legal niche. If people want to give us money, they can take a tax deduction because the Internal Revenue Service has granted us 501(c)(3) status.

Structurally, according to our articles of incorporation, we have a board of directors consisting of four officers. We also have an advisory committee of twenty-two members. We meant to have another body attached to The Center for Progressive Christianity, called the Council of Patrons. To be a patron, you have to give or to find $10,000 a year, every year. Currently, all the Council of Patrons’ seats are vacant. If anyone would like to become the first patron, we will welcome you, and you can make all the Council’s decisions by yourself.

That’s all we are: a corporation, a board and an advisory committee. What are we not? We are not a membership organization. We talk about members, grass-roots members, but what does membership get you? It doesn’t even get you a book at discount. It is just a gimmick for getting at least $25 from each of you. We don’t have conventions where we pass resolutions and take minutes. So we are not really an organization. And we are not an advocacy group, attempting to influence public policy. Many people affiliated with the Center belong to advocacy groups. We have people involved in Christianity and Ecology and Mobilization for the Human Family. Others are working on reproductive rights, or opposing capital punishment, or promoting better conditions for workers in developing countries. Our Center encourages such involvement, but TCPC itself does not take on an advocacy role. Our movement is focused on the church. Even to say it is a “movement” may be rather arrogant. How can you say that 130 people meeting in Seattle are movement? Maybe we are a part of a movement, or a symptom of a movement. It is probably more accurate to say that we are an attitude. We are people with an attitude about church.

We are becoming something more than an attitude. We are developing resources. One that Fred Plumer is working on will help us think through what it means to be progressive. Another person is working on adult education materials that we will soon be available. We are doing more seminars and workshops in addition to the forum, helping churches get on with the task as we understand it. So we could claim that we are becoming a resource center.

Finally, we can say that we are beginning to be a network. We are becoming more than just a list of names in a database. Through our Web site and our published reports, we are becoming a means of putting people in touch with each other, around the country and around the world . We are helping one another reclaim our symbols and redefine what it means to be a progressive church.


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