“We’re all Congregationalists now.”

The Episcopal Cafe points to a Christianity Today interview with Stanley Hauerwas.

Hauerwas is among the most important Christian thinkers of our day. A professor of Ethics at Duke Divinity School, he has authored many books and has become famous for his earthy conversation style (he blames that on his father, who was a bricklayer in Texas).

Here is the quote in question:

I say, “We’re all congregationalists now.” I don’t particularly like it, but we are. How to ensure given that reality that Eucharistic assemblies are not separate from each other is one of the great challenges before us. The role of the bishop is very important to make sure that Eucharistic assemblies are not isolated from one another. There are also other ways to do it. Certainly sending people from one congregation to another helps. But how we recover Christian unity in the world in which we find ourselves is a deep challenge. By “unity,” I don’t mean just agreement about ecclesial organization; I mean the refusal of Christians to kill one other. I think that the division of the church that has let nationalism define Christian identity is one of the great judgments against the Reformation in particular.

When Corrie and I were teaching Religious Studies in the South, we did a lot of research on Religion in the South and most of our students came from that region of the country. We used to joke that in the South,  “everyone’s Baptist; even Catholics are Baptist.” By that we meant Baptist understandings of religious experience and conversion permeates religion in the South (it’s even beginning to influence non-Western Religions).

But there’s another side of that. I think Hauerwas is correct only if he has a very narrow notion of “we.” The Baptists contributed a great deal to the large push toward individualism in American religion. In fact, we aren’t all Congregationalists, now. Those few of us who belong to churches might be, but most of us (even in the South where weekly church attendance is below 50%) find connection with the divine outside of organized religion and do it by ourselves or with ad hoc groups.

The interview mentions Hauerwas’s tenure at Notre Dame and Duke and explores his denominational affiliations (he now is a communicant at the Episcopal parish where his wife serves as Assisting Minister). It doesn’t mention his deep engagement with John Howard Yoder, one of my teachers, nor with the Anabaptist tradition from which I come. If you want to know about this, check out the most recent issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review.

Hauerwas recently published a memoir Hannah’s Child, which is on my reading list.

1 thought on ““We’re all Congregationalists now.”

  1. Perhaps Prof. Hauerwas was reacting to an experience many of us have shared when we find the focus of parishioners centered on the life of the Church only as they experience it in their immediate community. How often do members (even delegates to diocesan convention) talk about reducing the parish payments to the diocese and the national church, not because of necessity, but to express their dissent from some action beyond their boundaries? How often is “outreach” discussed almost entirely in terms of support for parish level (or perhaps community) programs to help those in need, but seldom much beyond that unless there is some dramatic event? The MDGs may be talked about, but too often they are ignored. ERD is often distrusted (and not just in the South) because it is run by the national church. Even support for Haiti and other severely impoverished neighbors in the Caribbean and Latin America can be a hard sell.
    Bishops can and do seek to counter the tendency toward turning inward and becoming “congregationalist” — but it is frustrating especially when effective mission often requires a coordinated response of many parishes to address larger challenges. To be sure, it’s silly to blame the Baptists for that, since they are reflecting rather than creating the attitudes that underlie the rejection of any notion of community that is larger than the local area.

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