Reuniting the church so that civilization can be saved

January 31, 2011

Half a century after the Consultation on Church Union began, it is difficult to understand the sense of urgency that fired the movement during its early years. Eugene Carson Blake, the Presbyterian leader who launched the effort, can help us understand. During his formative years, he had read deeply in theological literature inspired by two crisis-oriented theological conferences held in Oxford and Edinburgh during the summer of 1937. Although Blake may not had have read Five Minutes to Twelve by Swiss theologian, Adolph Keller, he encountered similar ideas in the journal Christendom and in J. H. Oldham’s Christian Newsletter (Brackenridge, 107).

Christian leaders around the world recognized that the Great War that had been waged during Blake’ adolescent years had not solved the problems of the world. It had given way to the Great Depression and to the rise of new political powers that were struggling for mastery of the world: Fascism, Communism, and the “constructive idealism of which the League of Nations may be called the most conspicuous example” (Keller, 37).

Church leaders were convinced that only a united church shaped by the gospel and empowered by the Holy Spirit could be effective in the world that was coming to be. During World War II and the post war revival of religion, Blake was pastor of the 4,500-member Pasadena Presbyterian Church. Turning away from the traditionally conservative religious ethos of his boyhood years and the liberal theology that had taken its place, Blake was drawn to the neo-orthodox theology and activist approach of Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian whose stern visage had been portrayed on the cover of Time during Blake’s Pasadena years (March 8, 1948).

Niebuhr provided a model for a theology that was seriously scriptural, consonant with the intellectual tradition of western culture, and actively engaged in the political, economic, and cultural struggles of the society. (For a description of Blake’s neo-orthodoxy and acknowledged dependence upon Reinhold Niebuhr, see Brackenridge, 37-40.)

The persistence of this mood into Blake’s COCU years are manifest in a series of sermons that he and Martin Niemöller delivered in Philadelphia during Lent 1965. During World War I, Niemöller had served in the German navy. Later he had become a Lutheran pastor, aligning himself with the Confessing Church, and endured eight years in a concentration camp. He was one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches, where he and Blake had become strong friends.

The Lenten series took place at The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. In his sermon on the opening evening, Blake declared that the word that God had spoken to the churches in the book of Revelation was being repeated in their own time. They are “threatened with apostasy in forms caused sometimes by their ancient traditions and their rootage in separate and limited cultures.” These churches now stand before “an open door, [the] opportunity to move with boldness in the name of Christ out into an open sea of an ecumenical movement in a frail craft with a cross for the mast, leaving the safe moorings in the protected harbor of our past” (Maertens, 33).

Later in the series, he affirmed that there were “two realities toward which all of us ought to turn our attention as Christians.” One was the life and death power struggle between “atheistic communism and the traditional Western nations which once could be called Christendom.” The other was “the technological revolution” that was “changing both East and West at a speed with which neither Western nor communist ideologists are able to cope” (Maertens, 65). Blake closed this sermon with the exhortation that Christians “press forward…into increasing involvement in the world as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ” (69).

Both preachers were convinced that the ecumenical movement was a central factor in the process by which the churches could fulfill this urgent ministry in the world. In his concluding sermon, Blake stated that they had been “trying to persuade you who are leaders and pillars of the church in Philadelphia to follow that vision which has come to the church of Jesus Christ worldwide through the open door of the ecumenical movement of our time. The burden of much of what we have said has been to ask you to move out from the safe and comfortable tradition of the churches into the center of the stream of human history, to serve Jesus Christ your Lord in the world for which he died, to risk your lives and the life of the church itself in the many-fronted battle in which the loyal army of Jesus is now engaged” (Maertens, 101).

Whatever they may think about church reunion, Christians today are called upon to continue in this struggle for the well-being of the world and its people.

The Challenge to the Church: The Niemöller-Blake Conversations, edited by Marlene Maertens (Westminster Press, 1965). Eugene Carson Blake: Prophet With Portfolio (The Seabury Press, 1978). Five Minutes to Twelve: A Spiritual Interpretation of the Oxford and Edinburgh Conferences, by Adolf Keller (Cokesbury Press, 1938).

Santa Rosa to Seattle by Bicycle in 1909

January 26, 2011

In the summer of 1909, following graduation from high school, Vic McDaniel and Ray Francisco bicycled from their hometown of Santa Rosa, California, to Seattle, Washington, in order to attend the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. With editorial support from their local newspaper, they started their adventure on August 9 and 54 days later, on October 3, they reached their destination, just in time to claim a $25 prize that had been offered them by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The distance they traveled was recorded on a Veeder cyclometer: 1,000 miles, 200 of them walking and pulling their bicycles behind them with a device that one of them had designed.

Vic and Ray rode used, single-speed bicycles, wore the garb that was customary among cyclists of the time, and carried camping supplies and other necessities for life on the road. A photograph in the book, taken on the morning of their departure, shows them carrying surprisingly compact loads. Given the primitive character of the roads they would ride, the less they carried, the better.

Their route was one that is familiar to everyone who has traveled through Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, whether on the Pacific Highway, old US 99, or Interstate 5: Vacaville, Corning, Weed, Medford, Eugene, Salem, Portland, Kelso, Olympia, and Tacoma. Since they made their trip before a system of roads had been established, their route consisted of wagon roads, horse trails, and railroad tracks. In a few towns, streets had recently been macadamized and part of the time they enjoyed graded gravel roads. In places, the road surface was corduroy planks; and once they traveled over a road made of corn stalks.

The two teenagers spent most nights camping along the trail, sometimes anxious because of wild animals. Because they had little money, they had to stop several times to work in order to replenish their meager treasury. They had to deal with tire troubles, and late in the trip one of the bicycles broke apart, necessitating time out for it to be brazed back together.

Although they encountered a few dishonest people along the way, the more common experience was friendship and encouragement. Near the end of the trip, one of the travelers encountered medical challenges: first, serious saddle sores and then a feverish condition they called the grippe. They persevered, completed the trip, claimed their prize, and enjoyed the exposition.

The story was reconstructed by Evelyn McDaniel Gibb, the daughter of one of the travelers. Day by day, as she developed her manuscript, she read it to her father who corrected her account, added details, and encouraged her to continue. Although Gibbs does not report when these conversations took place, it must have been several years before the publication of the book, which was in 2000, ninety-one years after the two high school graduates took their trip.

She draws upon post cards the boys sent home, letters to the Santa Rosa newspaper, stories written in the Santa Rosa and Seattle papers, and other research into conditions of the time.

Gibb writes the story in first person, with her father the narrator. She has created dialogue between the boys and with the people whom they met. Her language sometimes is contrived; it is hard to believe that the boys talked the way they sometimes do in this story. The author’s prose style, however, can be overlooked because the story itself is so strong. Although a few people from Santa Rosa had traveled to Seattle, they had gone by steamer or train. These two teenagers were the first to travel “overland not by rail.”

The story is interesting and suspenseful. It expresses the adventuresome character of travel a century ago. The book was winner of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association nonfiction book award. Two Wheels North: Bicycling the West Coast in 1909, by Evelyn McDaniel Gibb (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000).

In 2009 a group of cyclists retraced this route. For details, click here.

Ultimate Allegiance: A good resource for Lenten studies

January 24, 2011

People today make the same request that Jesus’ close friends made of him long ago: “Help us learn how to pray.” In response, he gave them a model, which continues to be useful to all kinds of people all over the world, some using it as a guide for developing their own prayers and others as the very text of what they say to God.

In either way of using the prayer, it helps to be familiar not only with the words but with the meanings that lie behind these compressed, highly metaphorical phrases. This is where a little book—only 60 pages of text—by Detroit pastor Robert D. Cornwall, Ph.D., comes into the discussion.

In his preface, Cornwall states his underlying thesis about prayer. “If taken seriously, prayer is more than simply telling God what we humans want to have done on our behalf (or on the behalf of a friend or relative). It is a statement of trust and commitment, by which we declare our ultimate allegiance to the God who receives our prayers.”

This statement helps us understand the title of the book: Ultimate Allegiance. The subtitle, The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer, follows as the obvious and necessary result. These words “transcend time and cultures, inviting each new generation to consider to whom they owe their allegiance, and in whom they find their purpose in life.” Because the prayer declares our allegiance to God, it “challenges our world views and our loyalties,” and “remains in its very essence a subversive prayer.”

Because the book grows out of a series of sermons preached in Cornwall’s church, the ideas are expressed in language that is readily understandable by readers without technical theological training. Yet Cornwall is well aware of the large body of scholarly writings about this brief biblical text. The point of view that he expresses is consonant with the work of scholars with long-established reputations such as John Dominic Crossan and Walter Brueggemann.

Although Cornwall’s academic training is in post-Reformation church history, he helpfully refers to the Greek that lies back of the words in the English translation of this prayer. His discussion of “Father” is an example. The word here translated is not “abba,” the intimate “daddy” as some scholars have understood this word. Rather, Jesus uses the Greek “pater,” a more formal term from which the English words patriarch and patron are derived. Because “in the Roman world the Emperor was considered the Great Father of the people,” Cornwall suggests, “in addressing God as Father, the early Christians were signaling that their ultimate allegiance was to God and not the emperor.”

In a book as brief as this one, there are topics that left me wanting further discussion. The author rightly affirms that for Christians our dependence is upon God our provider. He also refers to the role of government in providing a safety net for people today. The issues related to survival, way of life, economic life, and national policy are complex enough that they call for fuller treatment than can be given in a book of this size.

One of the strengths of sermons is that they use illustrations and phrasing that are immediately current at the time that the sermons are preached. In order to become a study book to be used in places and times other than when the sermons were first preached, language and illustration often must be changed. In a few places in Ultimate Allegiance, that revision still remains to be done.

It is common practice in churches to use a study book as part of their enriching of congregational life during Lent, which this year begins on Ash Wednesday, March 9. The six chapters in Robert Cornwall’s slender volume would serve this purpose very well.

The reflections with which Cornwall concludes his book would help us add a stringent and healthful tone to Lenten life: “Christians live in the world, and yet they are not of the world—that is, Christians, including American Christians, live in two parallel orders, so that the Christian’s ultimate allegiance is to God and not nation, clan, tribe, or even family.” By praying the Lord’s Prayer with understanding, we learn the implications of this ultimate allegiance and are strengthened by the same Spirit that empowered Jesus to live the life he gave for the sake of the world.

Bicycling Along George Washington’s Rivers

January 21, 2011

Early one morning I went online in search of a route for a bicycle trip from Leesburg, Virginia, to Indianapolis. Already committed to mid-June responsibilities in the Hoosier city, and interested in attending Le Cirque du Cyclism in Leesburg earlier in the month, I was considering the possibility of a solo bicycle tour from one location to the other. Is old U.S. 40—the National Road of long ago—the best way to make the trip, I wondered, or is there a better route through the Alleghenies and across the open lands of Ohio and Indiana?

Taking advantage of a developing feature of Google Maps, I clicked on the bicycle logo. The result was a full set of instructions, eighteen pages long, that would take me all the way—665 miles in two days and thirteen hours (that’s how it read). As with all of Google’s cycling maps, the instructions stitched together a multitude of short sections—226 ft, 0.3 mi, 4.2 mi, 85 ft—resulting in a route card so distracting that it would quickly force me to find the closest, shortest, fastest arterial.

After a few minutes of close study, I discovered that the multitudinous detail obscured the basic route for the first half of the journey. I could travel from Leesburg to McKeesport on the southern outskirts of Pittsburgh on off-road bicycle trails. Hard to believe! 279 miles (335 if you started in Washington) with no motor vehicles. On this easy passage through the Alleghenies no grade was steeper than 2%, and all along the way there was a richly detailed story from our nation’s history.

From Leesburg to Cumberland, Maryland, the route would be the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath, now preserved as a national park. From Cumberland to McKeesport, I would be cycling on the GAP, The Great Allegheny Passage, which consists of railroad rights of way transfigured into a bicycle trail. I soon discovered a considerable body of literature about these trails and their earlier history. Beginning in the 1600s and continuing into modern times, as Mike High points out, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania have struggled over “boundaries, canals, and railroads, and many of the disputes  [have involved] the Potomac River valley.”

During the colonial period, struggles for domination over this mountainous territory pitted French against English and European against Native American. During the Civil War, the Potomac River was virtually the boundary between North and South, and some of the bloodiest fighting took place along its banks. Throughout much of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, this same region was the focus of attention as New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia vied for mastery of transportation routes between the seaboard and the territories that were developing west of the mountains.

The more I read, the more I knew that this was a journey I had to make. To read the rest of the story, click George Washington’s Rivers.

“A Proposal Toward the Reunion of Christ’s Church”

January 18, 2011

The sermon that Eugene Carson Blake, preached at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on December 4, 1960, is one of the great sermons of the twentieth century. Following the proclamation, James A. Pike, host pastor, declared: “His prophetic proclamation is the most sound and inspiring proposal for the unity of the Church in this country which has ever been made.”

Somewhat calmer was the assessment by Robert McAfee Brown two years later: “After much general talk for decades at high levels and low about ‘the imperative to unity,’ a responsible church leader has finally put the challenge to reunion in concrete terms. Unwillingness to examine the Blake proposal with full seriousness would be an abdication of ecumenical responsibility, and one more tragic indication that Christians are more proficient at mouthing their convictions than in acting upon them” (The Challenge to Reunion, 1963, p. 17).

Since this sermon is of such importance, I have been surprised that the actual text is not easily obtained online. To remedy this situation, I have prepared an edition and hereby make it available to all who are interested in bridging the chasms that divide Christians from one another and impede us from being fully faithful to the church’s mission in the world.

The sermon was preached prior to the triennial assembly of the National Council of Churches that was soon to meet in San Francisco. It was widely covered by the press, both religious and secular. Soon thereafter representatives of four churches that embraced the broad middle of American Protestantism (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, and United Church of Christ) formed the Consultation on Church Union (COCU). Their purpose was to establish a reunited church that would be fully evangelical, fully catholic, and fully reformed.

Although this prophetic venture fell short of its goal, the impact upon American church life and upon American culture was profound. These documents deserve to be studied with great care. In God’s good providence, the time may yet come when this vision comes to pass.

The title to Blake’s sermon is: “A Proposal toward the Reunion of Christ’s Church.” He included a quotation from a statement by thirty-four leaders of  Reformed and Presbyterian Churches on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Calvinist Reformation. Pike’s response consisted largely of quotations from a statement by Anglican bishops attending the Lambeth Conference of 1958.

The full text of sermon and response are filed in  the section of this website entitled Writings on Religion.

The image, which shows the interior of Grace Cathedral at the present time, comes from the website of Grace Cathedral.

Brew to Bikes: with thoughts on how churches fit in an artisan economy

January 12, 2011

The book’s title, Brew to Bikes, caught my eye, but its subtitle, Portland’s Artisan Economy, and conversation with principal author Charles Heying persuaded me to buy it. Simply put, this book devotes nearly 200 pages to descriptions of small, entrepreneurial businesses in Portland, Oregon—craft brewing, coffee roasting, clothing design, handcrafting bicycles, and others on a list too long to post here. The book also takes nearly 100 pages to propose that “Portland’s artisan economy is a particular and local response to the larger economic forces that are changing our world” (23).

The contributors contrast “the Fordist system” characterized by “standardization of component parts and assembly line manufacturing,” and “post-Fordism,” a new set of economic and institutional relationships marked by decentralization, networked forms of organization, the knowledge and service sectors, flexible specialization, and other features.

Heying proposes that Portland’s version of the artisan economy is based on making things. It is developing a soft infrastructure, engages workers in humane ways, and values social wealth so much that people are willing to live with less because their lives are so richly satisfying.

How does this artisan economy fit in the larger picture of economic systems in the world today? The authors are properly modest in their claims. “The current economic arrangement,” they suggest, has not served us well. The artisan economy is “a path of resistance in a globalizing world, a path that is immediately accessible to individuals and communities who are looking for alternative futures.” They offer “suggestions of how cities and citizens can support the move to an artisan economy” (300).

My reflections upon this book naturally move in two directions. As aggressive cyclist, I rejoice that my passionate avocation is one of the signature models of artisanship in the community of my childhood and old age. The book makes me even more interested than before in handcrafted bicycles, components, gear, and clothing. Because of Heying and his colleagues, I can more easily justify buying a Portland designed Wabi Woolen winter jersey. And if there is a new bicycle in my future, it will have to be handcrafted, perhaps from one of the builders mentioned in the book.

As religious historian, I am interested in exploring ways that churches and the artisan economy intersect. Here are my first thoughts.

1.     Churches can develop bicycle-friendly facilities (beginning with bike racks), plan biker-friendly activities (including worship), and cultivate bicycle-centered alliances (with the Community Cycling Center, for example).

2.     Churches can encourage the use of local, artisan-made products in church activities and in the homes of congregants. Examples include birthday cakes by a local, in-town bakery rather than from an edge of the city discount chain, locally or home-baked artisan bread for communion on Sundays, and art by local artists.

3.    Churches can focus on the creation of social wealth, which is important to a city’s artisans, and on developing sustaining communities of people who know and care about one another. Pre-wedding guidance, family nurture, youth activities, and caring ministries for people of all ages are examples.

4.     Churches can seek out ways for worship to be an artisan craft, encouraging local musicians (composers and artists) to use their art in worship, developing liturgies that are consistent with classic principles and adapted to the special qualities of the immediate community.

5.     Churches can develop a theology that supports personal life in communities that are nurturing and sustainable. One of the classic creeds begins with the statement that “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” In his recent exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, which also begins by addressing God as “our Father,” John Dominic Crossan explains that in this context “Father” is to be understood as “Householder.” This God could be thought as “artisan par excellence,” the one whose purpose is that all people of the world have what they need in order to thrive.

When I purchased my copy of Brew to Bikes, the author told me that one of the downtown churches had purchased multiple copies for use in study groups and as a stimulus for program planning. Of course, he as the author would like the idea. As reviewer, aggressive cyclist, and religious historian, I do too.

On the Sunday after tragedy, who speaks of the soul?

January 9, 2011

A Sunday afternoon phone call alerted me to the blog that Diana Butler Bass posted the day after the shooting in Tucson that killed six people including federal judge John Roll and severely injured congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Bass notes that politically aligned commentators will have much to say about this event but then asks “but who will speak of the soul?

“The ministers,” she answers. She then speaks clearly about what kind of commentary preachers  should offer. “At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming.  Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words…Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans—how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.”

To which could be added other needs of the soul: to express remorse and to lament, and to be pointed toward hope in a time when there is little reason for that hope. Equally important, although it may be more difficult to provide, is to propose a theological framework for understanding the ongoing events of life.

While sermons on the Sundays after terrible events are important, there is an even greater need for a steady diet of preaching that is politically aware, spiritually sensitive, and theologically constructive—all at the same time.

In addition to the sermons, the prayers in the service of Word and Sacrament provide a way for the needs of the soul to be cared for. Prayers combine an awareness of the living presence of God, the continuing reality of life in the world, and the ardent desires of those who offer the prayers. Certainly the long prayers of intercession can be adapted to conditions in life, with specific references to the events that dominate the news and overwhelm the hearts and minds of worshipers. They can easily (and properly) become prayers of lament as well as of bewilderment, frustration, intercession, and hope. When national events are so horrendous that the president calls for a minute of silence and the House of Representatives rearranges its order of business for a week, it is appropriate for churches to include these events in the prayers they offer to God.

Roman Catholic theologian David Power proposes that even the eucharistic prayer can be offered in  ways that incorporate the events from our lives—especially those marked by tragedy—into the events of Christ’s passion and exaltation.

On some liturgical calendars the next few Sundays are referred  to as Sundays in “ordinary time.” One of the themes appointed for these weeks until the beginning of Lent is  the “epiphany,” the manifesting” or presenting of Christ to the world. This could be a time for church leaders to give special attention to the kind of world Jesus proclaimed and to interpret the implications for all of us who follow after him.

A request to pastors and others who see this blog: please send me links to or comments about the things sermons and prayers in your churches on this Sunday after this most recent horrendous happening in American public life. I look forward to seeing your thoughts about planning and leading worship that is politically sensitive but not partisan in its political character. With your help, I would like to write more on this topic.