Celebrating the Reformation

My twitter and RSS feed gave me links to reflections on the significance of “Reformation Sunday.” One was from Crusty Old Dean; the other from Stanley Hauerwas (a sermon preached on Reformation Sunday, 1995). Both offer insights into this odd event. It’s not commemorated in the Episcopal Church—we’ve pretty much done away with the “Protestant” in our traditional name “The Protestant Episcopal Church.” But our communion partners the Lutherans observe it and rightly so.

Of course, Stanley is right. Reformation Day (or Sunday) celebrates the disunity of the Church. It commemorates Martin Luther’s break with Rome. Over the last almost 500 years, Reformation Day has meant many things—German Nationalism, the triumph of Martin Luther, the victory of the individual over the institution. Like almost every other historical event, it has been invested with all sort of meaning, world-historical significance. But that’s more than a single day, a single event, can bear.

When Luther posted his 95 Theses, he sought debate on matters that he thought were of eternal significance—the significance of the rite of penance. That his theses ended in a major schism within Western Christianity was unimaginable to him in 1517. That he might be excommunicated for his questions and for the ideas that he developed in response to his questions was also inconceivable.

Yes, it’s a tragedy that Luther’s courageous witness ended in schism. It’s a tragedy that the Roman Catholic Church couldn’t find a way to embrace the profound theological insights that Luther developed (as has been documented recently, Luther’s ideas were hardly unique in the early 16th century and there was significant support for much of what he wrote as late as the 1540s). It’s a tragedy that after 500 years we remain divided in so many ways.

On the other hand, Luther’s insistence on the correctness of his theological insight in the face of Papal and Imperial opposition did something else. It provided inspiration to all those who in the last 500 years have sought to follow their vision of God and of Jesus Christ even when the authorities of Church and State have claimed their vision was wrong. It has given voice and power to the voiceless and powerless. It has provided a stance of prophetic opposition to the complacency and power of church and state. It reminds us daily that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not confined to the trappings of papal or imperial power, of state or church, or of institutional self-satisfaction.

For us Anglicans, by the way, who try to avoid the label of “Protestant” whenever possible, Luther and Reformation Day remind us of an uncomfortable historical reality. Without Luther, without his brazen defiance of papal authority, without his appeal to and protection by Frederick the Wise of Saxony, there might not have been an English Reformation. Had he not gone before, had he not shown a way, Henry VIII might not have had the courage to resist Clement VII.

Luther, the Protestant Reformation, remind us of the important role of critique. They remind us that it’s too easy to let the gospel be coopted by power; it’s too easy to compromise to make sure the institution survives. When we remember Reformation Day, when we sing “Ein feste Burg” we are not celebrating the victory of the Protestant Reformation over the forces of evil, we are calling for reformation of ourselves and of our churches; we are calling for transformation: ecclesia semper reformanda!

 Oh, and by the way, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses. Start planning your party now!


Hauerwas on the American story and the Christian story

Hauerwas writes regularly for the Australian Broadcasting website. His essays are insightful and often frustrating. This week he looks at the end of American Protestantism and looks back at American belief:

Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church.

I heard something quite similar from him at the CEEP conference in March. He’s laying out an argument that the story of freedom and self-determination that is at the heart of the American mythos is profoundly different from the Christian story:

the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us through engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.

It’s well-worth reading, especially on this 150th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Gettysburg and all of the stories that have been created about the Civil War and the making of our nation.

Perhaps most brilliant is his observation of the utter absurdity of the statement “Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my opinion.”

Stanley Hauerwas, Diana Butler Bass, and the future of the Episcopal Church

This past week I attended the annual conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes. It may sound pretentious (and to be honest, there’s more than a little pretension to be seen around) but it’s an exciting opportunity to hear from some of the best minds inside and outside of the Episcopal Church and to hear from others how they are innovating and responding to our rapidly changing culture.


I was especially intrigued when I saw that Stanley Hauerwas and Diana Butler Bass would be presenting back to back on the conference’s last day. I’ve long been an admirer of both and expected to be challenged to think in new ways about the role of the church in twenty-first century America. Although I had to leave before the end of Bass’s presentation, listening to the two of them on the same morning provided some gist for thought as the twitter hashtag emerged: #HauerBass.


As I listened to Hauerwas’ lecture, I puzzled over his intent. He spent much of his time revisiting the history of Liberal Protestant theology. Hauerwas has long been critical of the American church’s embrace of nationalism and easy acceptance of American culture and he sounded those themes again. He railed against the privatization of religion that is one of liberal theology’s hallmark, as well as the high value placed on toleration. The critique of liberal theology led him back to Karl Barth and that earlier critique of German liberal Protestantism. For Barth, the shock came when leading German pastors and theologians, including his own teachers, signed a declaration in support of the German effort and Kaiser Wilhelm II at the outset of World War I. Over against this assimilation of Christianity to the German war effort, Barth began to articulate a theology in which the Word of God stands in judgment of all human effort, including religion. That theological position would ultimately lead Barth to pen the Barmen Declaration in which he and others set out their resolute opposition to the idolatry introduced by Hitler.


Hauerwas seemed to want to suggest to his audience that we are in something of a similar cultural situation. Certainly Protestant hegemony is over; Christendom has come to an end, but as he points out the liberal state demands our allegiance and wages war in which we are complicit. Hauerwas argued instead that the claim “Jesus is Lord” is a political assertion and if we are serious in making that claim, our allegiance is not to the liberal state, but to the Reign of God that is breaking in upon us. He also asserted that “Jesus is Lord” is an absolutist claim and that it does not brook “toleration.”


On one level, none of this is new. As I listened to him, I thought back to workshops I had attended over the previous days, as well as my pastoral experience in Madison. At the heart of Hauerwas’ project is a view of the Christian faith that begins in absolutist claims like “Jesus is Lord” and assumes total allegiance. The Christian community he envisions is a gathered community, in conflict with the dominant culture and open to martyrdom. He looks back to the early church and sees Constantine’s conversion as something of a watershed, perhaps even a “fall.” Unfortunately, none of this describes the lived experience of most people living in America. Perhaps it should. On the other hand, most people experience a host of competing claims, from job, family, financial security, and the demands of the marketplace, to the ongoing search for meaning in life. Christianity, for better or worse, is only one claim among many. A common theme in the workshops I attended was the importance that we (as clergy, as communities of the faithful, as the Episcopal Church) find ways to engage people as they seek meaning. I wonder whether in the American context, for many, if not for all Americans, Hauerwas’ assertion that “Jesus is Lord is an absolutist claim” makes any sense whatsoever.

And this is precisely where I wanted to hear Diana Butler Bass reflect. For the culture she is describing has very different contours than the one Hauerwas described. She too talked about the decline of Protestantism in America, pointing out that according to the latest Pew Survey, the percentage of all Protestants has declined to below 50% for the first time in US history (I presume she wasn’t thinking about Native Americans when making this claim). The percentage claiming to be mainline Protestant is now lower than the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. This is a culture in which there are multiple claims on our allegiance, religious and otherwise and negotiating among those claims, making meaning in the midst of those competing claims, is difficult, demands nuance. I think it also inevitably requires allowing a certain amount of ambiguity, if one is at all self-reflective.

I don’t find Hauerwas’ construction of “post-Christendom” Christianity particularly helpful. It might work for certain Anabaptist or neo-Anabaptist communities, but the Episcopal Church is situated differently, and Anglicanism, whether or not the Episcopal Church survives, offers a different stance toward its cultural context. We may be able to develop committed communities of faith made up of disciples seeking to follow Jesus Christ, but we also welcome strangers and seekers who encounter Jesus Christ in our liturgy and may not, for a multitude of reasons, ever make the sort of deeper connection we want and hope. They may never be able to experience and submit to the absolutist claims of “Jesus is Lord” because they encounter other absolutist claims from other sectors of our culture. We must be able to minister to them as well. We must be able to find ways of helping them make meaning in their lives, whether or not they are able to fit into the membership boxes we want to stuff them in. It’s more important to speak their language than to expect them to speak, and accept, ours. Because if we are able to help them find meaning in the contexts in which they live, they will also be able to find God there, and to experience the redemptive love of Jesus Christ.

Hauerwas on the church–local and universal

Several weeks ago, I came across this essay by Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School: The place of the church: locality and catholicity – ABC Religion & Ethics – Opinion.

It begins with Constantinianism, post-Constantinianism and John Howard Yoder. Yoder argued that with the rise of Constantine, something important was lost in Christianity. It’s often assumed that Yoder viewed the church in the centuries after Constantine as completely fallen. That’s not the case. Hauerwas cites Yoder’s views concerning faithfulness in the Middle Ages, but he also thinks Yoder’s analysis went deeper than that:

For him the alternative to Constantinianism was not anti-Constantinianism, but locality and place. According to Yoder, locality and place are the forms of communal life necessary to express the particularity of Jesus through the visibility of the church. Only at the local level is the church able to engage in the discernment necessary to be prophetic.

Hauerwas’s essay is actually a review of Bruce Kaye’s Conflict and the Practice of Faith: The Anglican Experiment, in which Kaye uses the controversies in Anglicanism to explore the tension between locality and universality (catholicity) in the Christian faith.

Kaye is building on ideas of Rowan Williams. In defending the Church of England’s unique role in English society, Williams (according to Hauerwas) argues that:

the New Testament testifies to the creation of a pathway between earth and heaven that nothing can ever again close. A place has been cleared in which God and human reality can belong together without rivalry or fear.

For Williams, “the role of church is to take up space in the world, to inhabit a place, where Jesus’ priesthood can be exercised. Such a place unavoidably must be able to be located on a social map so that it does not have to be constantly reinvented.”

Hauerwas’ final sentences are provocative:

The culture that inhabits us – and by us I mean Christians – is a subtle and seductive one. It tempts us to believe we are free of place. It tempts us to believe that we do not have the time to do what needs to be done, so we must constantly hurry. These temptations are often assumed to be congruent with the gospel imperatives to have no permanent home.

But in the process we lose the visibility necessary to be witnesses to the One who made it possible to be Christians.

There’s something quite interesting here–and important for us to reflect on as we think about the role of the church in contemporary culture. But it’s more than that abstract question that I find interesting. It’s the concrete question: What is Grace Church’s role in our community?

We occupy a unique space that offers opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities. What does it mean to be church on Madison’s Capitol Square?

Back in the 1980s, Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book entitled The Naked Public Square. I don’t recall the gist of his argument (it’s been over 25 years!) but the image of a public arena in which religion had no role is a powerful one. We don’t live in a completely secular world, and religious voices continue to clamor for attention and influence policy. But at the same time, the church as an institution plays a much smaller role in our society than it did even a half-century ago.

But there’s something to be said for the reality of place. For what it’s worth, Grace Church still occupies a corner of Capitol Square. Whatever mission and ministry we do at Grace, part of what we do has to involve nurturing that space where heaven and earth meet, as Williams put it, “to inhabit a place where Jesus’ priesthood can be exercised.”

“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.