July 31, 2012

Church Renewal at its Finest

Church of the Holy Communion in Dallas, TX.

Last week I had the great pleasure to attend the Anglican Way Institute (AWI) in Dallas, TX at the Church of the Holy Communion. Entitled “Renovate Your Life: Christian Formation in a Post-Modern World,” the event brought together about 100 participants (26 clergy and the rest young people under age 35) to learn about catechesis in contemporary society. Bishop Ray Sutton, Bishop Keith Ackerman, and Fr. Lee Nelson lectured as featured plenary speakers.

The Rt Rev. Ray Sutton, Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of Mid America in the Reformed Episcopal Church, taught on renewing the mind. Sutton, who also works as professor of Scripture and theology at Cramner House Theological Seminary, instructed that man as Imago Dei expresses the mind of God. “The Imago Dei including the mind of God is corporate,” Sutton asserted. He then argued that sin had a noetic effect, in which the Imago Dei as expressed in the mind was marred but not removed. Likewise, Bishop Sutton warned that Satan takes the mind to twist it to think contrary to God. Thankfully, the bishop observed, “The Incarnation restores humanity and the human mind with it.” Later on, he exegeted Romans 12:1-3, highlighting that the text refers to “bodies” as plural and “mind” as singular. “The singular mind is first and foremost the mind of Christ,” he added. This same singular mind of Christ must then have the mind of the undivided church, Christ’s Body. Assuming Anglican sacramental theology, Sutton instructed that the mind must first be exorcised and regenerated by baptism to wash away original sin. The soul must also convert to continue on the path of pursuing the mind of Christ. Liturgical habits of Word and Sacrament conform the human person to the redeemed Imago Dei. A significant part of Christian life then is the catechumenate—the spiritual formation of the person pivots on the practices and teachings of His Church.

Head of Forward in Faith the Rt Rev. Keith Ackerman shared his vision for catechesis in one of his sessions. He instructed that catechism derives from kata (“down”) and eichein (“to sound”); the catechumenate is the sounding down of the church’s teachings. “We’re trying to go back to the time when the church acted rather than reacted,” he claimed, “We have a lot to say. I think the church fathers had a lot to say.” He warned, “We can no longer operate under the assumption that the school…and the church [alone] can teach the faith.” He encouraged families to transmit “the Gospel of the Christian community as it has received, understands, celebrates, and communicates it.” Indeed, the family was pivotal in Ackerman’s conception of catechesis. “We can stay that if there is a redefinition of family, there will be a great destruction of the truth,” he counseled. He pointed out the harm done when divorce ceased to be the exception in society. Nevertheless, the former bishop of Quincy remained hopeful. “God doesn’t give us obstacles, but opportunities to be overcome by his grace,” he announced, “We can be the preservation of society…or we can preserve the truth about the transformative work of Jesus Christ.” “It doesn’t make any sense to get mad at a world that doesn’t know any better…I’m mad at my own people,” he chirped.

Again encouraging the recovery of family, he recommended providing catechetical materials for homeschoolers. He inquired, “How many of you young people here were homeschooled at some point?” A vast majority of the room raised its hand (myself included). Turning to the clergy, he ordered, “I need you to look around. This is the future. Our idea of community is changing.” Bishop Ackerman implied that churches should start ministering to and pulling from such counter-cultural groups rather than alienating them. He explored how liturgical practices and the church calendar could be applied to form young Christians in childhood. “We need a catechism bound in absolute truth in order to be passed on in appropriate ways,” he proclaimed, “You and I are going to have to communicate this catechism, possibly in strange and unusual ways.” He concluded, “The task of worship is not to entertain people…but is grounded in worshipping God.”

The young Rev. Lee Nelson, who pastors a parish in the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, shared his passion for catechesis in contemporary culture. A member of the ACNA Catechesis Taskforce, he reminded his listeners of the Scriptural command to “be not conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Nelson distinguished between “renovating” life and “renewing.” The former “includes a demolition—it was old and worthless at some point.” Unfortunately, the church today fails to lay a strong foundation of teaching for its members. The building blocks of the Christian life cannot endure rightly without a proper base. “Today, we’re heavy on content and little on process,” he worried. Nelson then provided a lengthy description of the early church’s catechetical process, which included many sacrificial steps before membership in Christ’s body. He defined the catechumenate as “the operational framework in which catechism takes place.” He contrasted this with the “seeker-friendly” models of today. He contended, “The church has tasked itself with teaching the world, ‘We’re not that different from you.’”

Nelson blamed this development partly on the Sunday School movement. In the beginning when Sunday Schools basically taught grammar school to street children, teachers—regardless of denominational background—consulted together to author their curricula. Because of the wide range of faith traditions, the teaching materials pursued the very lowest common denominator in theological content. Thus, far too often today, Sunday School doesn’t teach doctrine. “Teaching the grammar of the faith is essential,” he posited. He deemed it crucial that churches form “a simple process that leads people through stages of spiritual growth…Process in today’s world matters.” Nelson believed that would-be Christians have too much disorder in joining a church. All too often, church membership pivots on a perfunctory account of one’s use of the Sinner’s Prayer or simply dropping a check in the offering plate. He reported, “So when you have a catechumenate, there’s a plan in place—a gateway into the life of the parish.”

The California priest realized the church faces three significant obstacles. Christians face congestion, where they stay the same and do not grow in Christ. Nelson also condemned theological divergence: “This harms our witness to Christ. ‘God loves me’ does not equal ‘God accepts me.’” Similarly, parishes face rampant moralistic therapeutic deism. In response to these ills, the church needs the catechumenate to fulfill several requirements. The catechumenate must provide clarity; like a blueprint, everything must be right before a structure is even built. Similarly, there must be an alignment. All constituencies in the congregation are fighting for the same thing. Nelson asserted that when youth and children’s ministries are aligned with the rest of the parish, they can actually yield great fruit. Unfortunately, most youth ministry involves cutting an entire generation away from the full body. Churches try to entertain the young and raise up faithful Christians sans elders. While the families are broken up for various age-segregated activities, the church reassures parents that simply sending away their children will result in a beneficial end. “The church has done more to dishonor the family in recent decades than you could ever imagine,” Nelson claimed.

Finally, there needs to be focus in the church. The priest informed his audience, “Although this is hard in our particular culture, [focus] pivots on the ability to say ‘no.’” Nelson rallied against the “program-approach to church ministry.” Some believe various activities ranging from yoga to elaborate shopping bazaars will somehow help congregations grow. The ACNA catechist stood for the opposite: “We have one purpose, and the purpose is to make Christians.”

Mornings began with Eucharist. Pictured here is the sun rising through the stained glass which overshadows the altar.

What struck me as different from many Christian conferences I’ve attended (emphasis on many) was that AWI was truly “churchly” in its character. Several churches within Dallas provided resources to bring the event together, with the Church of the Holy Communion at the helm. Volunteers fed attendees and housed visitors. The hospitality was truly exemplary. Parish priests taught nearly all of the workshops, constantly offering a pastoral outlook and poised practicality in their lectures. Parishes also offered musical talent in the youth choir and various ensembles. Choir director Andrew Dittman and organist Christopher Hoyt arranged hymns and composed settings for chant. AWI also provided daily Eucharist and Evensong. The liturgical life of the youth shone through here: most did not need to consult the 1928 Book of Common Prayer since so many had it memorized from daily usage.

We here at IRD try to encourage church renewal and reform. From what I experienced in Dallas, the Anglican Way Institute is certainly a big step in the right direction. Stay tuned throughout the week for more posts on the workshops and lectures.

6 Responses to Church Renewal at its Finest

  1. Sara Anderson says:

    “We have one purpose, and the purpose is to make Christians.”
    Wow, what a novelty!

  2. Barton: thanks for attending! It was a pleasure to meet you and talk with you (especially about Of Gods and Men. Thanks for writing this well-written article.

  3. Mary Woolsey says:

    What a fantastic article and summary of the conference! Thank you for fowarding it to me Kathy and Monica! <3

  4. Randy says:

    Fr. Nelson is correct in that we must be taught and transformed. However, no amount of “right” teaching can or will transform until we are made ready to “see and hear” by the power of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, too many churches leave Him out of the equation of transformation process. Knowledge is useless unless it is filtered through the Holy Spirit and seeded in the heart. Yes, we must align ourselves with the parish to yield fruit as Fr Nelson says… but, only when the parish is aligned with the Holy Spirit can fruit that glorifies God be sprouted and harvested for the edification of all his church.

  5. […] week’s Anglican Way Institute (AWI) hinted at the hopes and goals of traditional Anglicans in the United States. Ecumenical […]

  6. Sabine says:

    I guess the popularity of the non-denominational mega crechhus speak to this. People want the message and none of the politics and dogma.My brother does not go to church, I guess he would identify himself as a non-denominational Christian, and he as a great way of expressing what exactly it is about organized, traditional denominations that does not work for him. I have to admit, I find myself agreeing with him as I have difficulty identifying with a particular denomination. A single Christian church might be a good idea.

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