Thursday, October 11, 2012

"Pulpit freedom" vs. World Communion

One of the fortunate things about being at Union is the presence of Syngman Rhee.  Those who know their mainline Protestant history of the mid- to late-twentieth century know he's kind of a big deal.  He spoke in chapel Wednesday of this week, and the sermon for a few wonderful moments broke into an impromptu group rendition of "Something Good" from The Sound of Music.  As the last notes echoed away, the good reverend had the presence to add, "Beautiful song, but bad theology," to waves of laughter.

Later, at community lunch after chapel, a blessing was offered by Michel Freychet, a French Protestant pastor and onetime exchange student at Union, who among other things has been active in formulating and promulgating a Christian response against torture in the Protestant churches of Europe.  In one of those wonderful things that happens when a non-native speaker of English grapples with the language and comes up with a far better phrase than we native speakers ever do, Freychet brought us to the moment of prayer with the imprecation to "do silence before God."

These are just a couple of the enlightening moments that have happened over the last couple of years due to the international connections that have been forged over the years at this seminary.  This doesn't even take into account the international students who studied here last year from Ghana and South Korea, and who are this year living as exchange students from South Korea, France, Hungary, Switzerland, and India.

Western churches have not "got it right" today any more than they have over many years of history, and churches in Ghana or South Korea or Guatemala or whatever country you may name have not "got it right" either.  Any church composed of human beings has not "got it right," when you get right down to it; we screw up.  We fail. We get things wrong, do or say the wrong thing, over and over.  The miracle is not that the church fails, the miracle is that the church has gotten as many things right as it has in its history, given the human propensity to go straight to the convenient and safe.

With that propensity for getting things wrong, any church is better off keeping its ears open in order to gain the benefit of the experiences, triumphs and failures all, of our brothers and sisters in Christ from points near and far.  Whether this is done by Union's (or any other seminary's) hosting of students and scholars from around the world or by a simple remembrance, on something like World Communion Sunday this past week, that the church is not confined to those buildings that look just like ours or memberships that look just like us.  Nor is it confined to those that believe just like us, as much as it may pain me sometimes.

Of course, not all churches observed World Communion Sunday this past week.  This thing called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" is still out there, apparently.  I blogged about it last year about this time, and my opinion hasn't changed much.  I am struck this year, however, by the supreme irony of calendaring that brings these two diametrically opposed events together.

For, among the many other things "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" betrays about a church, one of the less obvious but most deadly is the degree to which such a choice speaks to the closedness of that church.  Way beyond the tweaking of the IRS that provides the nominal motivation for the event, to follow after such a vicious definition of pastoral authority rejects any kind of notion that such a church has anything to learn from any other church.  We have the answers, and no one's going to stop us from foisting them upon you.  What else do you need to know? And yes, we're going to use your tax monies to do so.  Try and stop us.  

It isn't talked about so much as the usual frights confronting Protestantism today, but one of the scariest things about the modern religious landscape is the utter non-connectional mania of so many of today's evangelical megachurches.  They stand alone.  There's no sense of belonging to anything larger, or being accountable to anybody outside the walls of that church.  It gets frighteningly easy, I'd imagine, to bunker down inside the multi-billion-dollar compound and insist on a mental loop that we've got it right, everybody else is wrong, and we're somehow the ones being persecuted in the whole deal, not the people we use our money and votes to deprive of civil liberties or even basic needs.

Connectionalism has its pains.  Being part of a denomination is agonizing sometimes, as I was reminded by this summer's General Assembly of the PC(USA).  Still, being cut off from all outside accountability and living only in the endless echo chamber of one's own preferences and biases...I just can't see how that ends up being a healthy place.  You end up with things like "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" instead of World Communion Sunday.  And that's not a good thing.

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