Where is the 21st Century Plumbline?

this morning’s homily was given by Dr. Richard Wiley

Before I get to the topic at hand, I want to give you a little personal history. When Jane and I were married in 1960, we had a church problem to solve. Growing up, my family had been active members of Presbyterian or Methodist churches as we moved around Western Pennsylvania. Jane’s family was active in the Roman Catholic church. Based on a little knowledge of history, we made our way to St. Alban’s Episcopal Church here in Syracuse–where I had taken a job after graduation from college. After serving in the Army, mostly near Washington DC, we returned to Syracuse and selected St. Luke’s in 1964. We had three small kids in tow–and eventually six kids. St. Luke’s has been a good fit for us and we have done many jobs. Both have been on the vestry, I’ve been warden several times in 50 years (“Warden-in-charge twice). Both have taught Sunday school and Jane was in charge of Sunday school for several years. She was also in charge of fellowship for many years and in the choir, etc.

Although all of this was good for us and our family, our local kids have not remained active here and generally speaking the Parish has not grown—at least not numerically. But this is not just a problem for St. Luke’s or the Episcopal Church. It is a problem for all of the mainline Protestant churches and is starting to b e a problem for the Roman Catholic Church as well. What is going on????

A few weeks ago Fr. Craig mentioned the webinar he attended, presented by Phyllis Tickle. I was interested in her ideas and got two of her books which discuss what many are calling Emergent Christianity. Here in the West, there is a pattern of big upheavals about every 500 years. The beginning in the first century it was a result of the radical life and ministry of Jesus. He ate with sinners and prostitutes and accepted all—even children. Today’s Gospel reading of the Good Samaritan illustrates the radical departure from the Old Testament. The hero is a foreigner outside of the religious establishment and illustrates that everyone is our neighbor. Christianity is born and spreads and transforms people and becomes the state religion of the Roman Empire—the Great Transformation. By the 6th century, the empire has crumbled and the church is in danger of disappearing into the Dark Ages. The Pope wisely sets up the system of Monasteries and Convents which stay isolated from the world and preserve the sacred and secular books and knowledge from destruction. After another 500 years, the Dark ages are coming to an end but the 11th century church is now split between an Eastern branch with headquarters in Constantinople and our Western branch with headquarters in Rome. For reasons which are obscure to me, the Pope in Rome adds a phrase to the Nicene Creed which says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The church in the east objects saying the Pope had no right to modify the creed and in the process downgrades the Holy Spirit. The argument goes unsettled and eventually the Pope and the leader of the eastern or Orthodox church excommunicate each other—resulting in the Great Schism. The next upheaval is the Great Reformation in the 16th century. This is what we are most familiar with. We mark the start with Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenbug in 1517. Once the Great Reformation took hold across northern Europe, there was a need for organization and theology to replace the power of the Pope in Rome which had been rejected or overthrown. This dilemma arises in every upheaval—who provides or from where do we get our authority? In the early days it came from the remembered words and deeds of Christ. Then in the hands of the Bishops who had more knowledge and were literate. It gradually came to be centered in the person of the Pope in the West. When the Great Reformation occurred, the reformers turned to Scripture: “Only Scripture; Scripture only.” This provided a way to put aside such Papal decrees as Celibacy, use of Latin, Indulgences, requiring confession to a priest, etc.
When is the next upheaval? If we assume the 500 year cycle continues, the next big change will be in the 21st century—Hey, that’s now and that’s us!!! Just as the other upheavals were preceded by a century or more of preliminary skirmishes, our current situation did not start with the turn of the 21st century. Look at what has happened to the source of our authority the Scriptures. At the time of the civil war, the Bible was used to both justify and condemn slavery. The Bible actually more of less accepts slavery as a fact of life but neither praises or condemns it. But after the struggle, the authority of the Bible was more open to question. Strike 1. Next consider Women’s rights. For example, the Bible says a woman should keep quiet in the assembly and if she has questions she can ask her husband at home. But we are striving to have gender equality and in the recent past our church joined other mainline churches in ordaining women. Strike 2. Next consider the current movement to give equal rights to gay people. Our church added fuel to the fire by ordaining a practicing homosexual as a Bishop. Strike 3. Is the Bible out? This question of where is our authority and how shall we live is very unsettling and divisive. The fundamentalist churches are striving to retain its authority and call on people to live literally according to the bible’s words. The mainline churches are struggling with refuting charges that anything goes or that they have gone astray. Meanwhile the Roman Church is having difficulties persuading people that the Pope is infallible when it is plain to see that he is elected by ordinary mortals like the rest of us. I think the current upheaval will continue until we have a satisfactory answer to the question, “Where is our Authority and how shall we live?”

In our Old Testament lesson today, the Prophet Amos sees a vision of God holding a plumb line along a wall:

7:7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.

7:8 And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;

7:9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

The commentaries on scripture say the wall represents the people of Israel and the Plumb line is God’s measurement of how straight the wall is or how well Israel measures up to God’s commandments. Amos’ vision included a device to measure our ability to bring about the Reign of God. We need a way to guide development of the current upheaval. (I don’t have a solution and neither does Phyllis Tickle. I do have some ideas. But first, note that none of the sources of authority we had have lasted forever. As an Engineer, I was intrigued by the Plumb line vision. It’s just a string with a weight but if shows clearly how to build a wall perpendicular to the ground. But even a plumb line isn’t a perfect reference if the building is big enough. The terminal at the Detroit airport is so long that constructing the building had to consider the curvature of the earth. A plumb line at one end is not quite parallel to a plumb line at the other end. History and Physics tell us we’ll need to be careful about applying our standard of authority too widely or for too long a time. Indeed Modern Physics gives us more reason to be wary. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is well proven by experiment. It says that if we know exactly where an atomic particle is we cannot know exactly where it is going and vice versa. The Great Reformation was influenced by Newton’s wonderful insights but in Newton’s world, things were not subject to uncertainty.

The Emergent Christianity often consists of small groups of like- minded people who do not want to sign up to creeds or rules, who often meet in home or pubs or vacant store fronts. Music of all types is important, but the group cannot afford a paid staff. They may want the help of traditional clergy for special occasions. They often use old and new forms of worship together. And they make heavy use of the Internet and social networks, often including remotely located associates via Skype in their gatherings.

It seems that the Anglicans (that’s also us) have been playing a role in this Emergence. In fact the Church of England recently showed a small but measurable increase in membership. Who would have predicted that in the 21st century? When examined more closely, the growth occurred in what is known there as the “Kirk and Chicks.” This is a structure where there are small groups (the chicks) loosely connected to the larger parish church or cathedral.

In this country, a report called “Seizing the Episcopal Moment” was published in 2009 by some “Emergent Anglicans.” It included a Foreword by Brian McLaren, a former Episcopal Priest who left us to start his own non-denominational church. McLaren wrote:

Where is our Authority and how do we live? One thought is that the wisdom of the group is greater that its parts. Consider Wikipedia. It is said to be more accurate than the old printed encyclopedias because experts in many fields look at it and if they see an error or something important missing they correct it or add it. It may be that in the next few centuries we will have an authority that resides somehow in a network connecting believers and includes not only scripture but biology, physics, psychiatry, etc. In any case, let’s be aware that something new is emerging and be ready to help guide and nurture it

Please join me in prayer: Gracious Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior. Amen.(BCP)


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