Why We Can’t Reform The Church, 2: Definitions

I mentioned in the previous post that the springboard for these discussions would be the new direction of the collective known as The Liturgists, specifically as they pursue a more direct reformation of the church. I’m neither able nor interested in taking down this group in any way, but public initiatives and philosophies deserve public critique, however unknown the critic may be.

Again, to be clear, I have no real issue with the group, and Michael Gungor doesn’t (nor should he) care what some rando from the peanut gallery thinks of his work. I don’t think the Liturgists are in some way bad for wanting to reform the church and, despite my admittedly cynical first response, I don’t think this is some attempt at regaining any lost popularity.

They’re just wrong.

Now, apparently there has been some issue taken with stating this as the group’s intended goal. 

Yet if that’s the case, then there has been a confusion with, well, words.

In the written description (and content) of their second episode in this new endeavor, The Liturgists Podcast sets out to emphatically “make a case for what we think needs to continue to be reformed and reframed within Christendom.”

They go on to discuss their starting point for this project: essentially, that Christianity (or, as is often said in these episodes, Christendom—and yes, there is a difference, and yes, we’re getting there) is “the water we swim in,” and so we ought to, in essence, clean it—adding in a filter, replacing the nasty rocks at the bottom, and updating to decor, and, yeah, this metaphor has been exhausted.

Tim Regan via Flikr

I feel kinship toward the pursuit of reformation, whether the reformer is specifically calling out the institution’s systemic injustices by nailing ninety-five theses to a cathedral door, or trying split hairs by “reshaping the meaning and application of ‘Christian’ language and practice.” I feel this kinship because, as I’ll cover in later posts, I spent the better part of a decade attempting reform from within the institution in a professional context.

I would love to discuss why, through study, contemplation, and experience, I find this particular goal not only wrong, but anti-Christ; but first it seems we need to work on some definitions, because, despite every protestation to the opposite, the Liturgists and others like them, do in fact want to reform the church.

Words are important. The terms with which we define our goals locate the debate and determine its scope. So, when people explain themselves as setting out to “reform and reframe” things “within Christendom,” they are locating the aims of their movement squarely inside the institution of the church and limiting its scope to predetermined, institutional boundaries.

Now, all of this may seem way beside the point; nothing more than rhetorical throat clearing and fussiness, but it’s not. I want to move beyond their small collective to the larger issues of historical import, but there are some key points hidden here that can set up my desired discussion of why, if the church wishes to best embody its founder, it needs not to be reformed, but to die. So I’ll persist in the persnicketiness. 

If this quote was an off-handed comment within a much longer discussion ranging far beyond those words, then I would be in error. But the fact is, the word Christendom is used several times in those opening episodes and, again, the actual written episode description. So, on to what I hope to be mercifully short thoughts.

First and very much foremost, Christendom is an incredibly loaded term that I am honestly surprised they used. When locating their debate, they could’ve simply chosen “the Church,” or “the faith,” but instead went with a term directly linked to temporal power, imperialism, and enforced creedal profession. Strange place to begin if one does not care about “trying to reform the ‘church’.” Or, has “no interest in fueling the power structures that sell shame and suffering to others with the name ‘Jesus.’” However, such misnomers (often accidental, occasionally the result of purposeful obfuscation) are endemic to the history of reformation.

I completely understand wanting to separate one’s work from an institution whose fruit has been, at best, a mixed bag—but if you want separation from a harmful institution, you may want to use language less steeped directly in its forceful expansion. To be sure, Christendom can mean simply “the church” across space and time, but as far as loaded words go, this one bears the weight of literally thousands of years of misuse, so the choice and consistent use of it has to be, I believe, purposeful. In which case, do these and other would-be reformers truly hope (despite tweets to the contrary) to change this bloated, perpetually self-mutilating institution from within by reframing its language and practice and seeking what they refer to as a “non-dual” path?1 If not, then where in the hell do they propose to enact these changes? And if so, let’s look at what could result.

The worst-case scenario is a repeat of the Emerging/Emergent Church: a failed aughts crusade resulting in virtually nothing more than candles and better coffee.2 The absolute best-case scenario, however, is the creation of a contemplative protest movement within the larger system, a la the Ancient’s desert mothers and fathers, the Middle Ages’ Franciscans, or, to a lesser extent, the modern Taizé community; not a bad result, but one that falls far short of its stated goal.

Again, if this shrinking collective can, through their podcasts and symposiums manage to carve out a lasting place within the walls of the church—excuse me, Christendom—that provides a refuge for the disaffected and marginalized who still feel a deep desire to gather in structured environments of Jesus-based worship, then bully for them. I just find their goals a bit too pedestrian—I’m after something a bit more . . . total. 

What I desire is nothing short of the total disintegration of the entire institution—for the church to die. Only then do I believe it can arise after the image of its founder.

So let’s move on, shall we?

1. To be clear, Christianity could very well do with some more non-duality. Thankfully, there are many examples of such communities and thinkers throughout its history.

2. I’m at least half joking. We have much thanks to offer the EC’s leaders in helping move the needle of American Christianity around LGBTQIA affirmation, women in leadership, and various theological issues surrounding “atonement,” shame/guilt, and the social-political nature of Jesus’ message. I’ll spend more time with this movement later.

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