Narrating church success

Amid the chronic expressions of church (and Christian) decline there remain a few narratives of church success in urban North American settings. There are new Canadian congregations in which an established faith from another country/context is transplanted here transferring an existing vitality. Then there remains the suburban evangelical mega church model which skews either towards a charismatic spirituality and/or conservative family values (these sometimes have ‘satellites’ in the downtown area). These narratives of success tend to remain in keeping with the larger socio-economic forces whether it is the value of social cohesion and coherence of new immigrants, the capitalist aspirations of infinite accumulation in health and wealth charismatic spirituality, or the reassuring stability of the nuclear family in evangelical mega churches.

I would like to explore a third narrative of urban church success, namely those churches emphasizing the use of ‘higher-church’ liturgy and a more straightforward commitment to theological orthodoxy. While I don’t find this article particularly well researched, a recent response to Serene Jones’ denial of a ‘literal’ resurrection attempts to demonstrate how Jones’s liberalism is now passing and another generation is rising up who embrace an orthodox theology without retreating from present issues. This article is characteristic the common claims of orthodox forms of liturgy and theology that are revitalizing the church. I would like to explore this narrative of success through my experience at and reflection on St. Margaret’s Anglican Church here in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Before continuing I should add that by ‘success’ I simply refer to congregational/parish settings that reflects vitality in terms of broad demographic engagement, ministries offered, and profile in the larger community.

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Closed communion: On maybe not being God’s gift to the world

As the trend in Mennonite Church Canada continues to drift towards ‘open communion’ (which typically refers to an invitation to receive communion regardless of one’s ‘merits’ [baptism, membership, etc.] or even designation as a Christian) I found myself becoming more resistant than I anticipated. There are several reasons for this.

First, by way of orientation. In my experience ‘closed’ communion is typically supported by the notion that communion already reflects a faith commitment. This could be appealed to by way of the biblical precedent of only disciples being present at the founding event and then also of the very early church tradition in which communion was given special weight in relation to a believers commitment. It is assumed that people find value in communion and as a significant site of spiritual formation and worship it is not something to be undertaken lightly.

As many traditions in the last 50 years or so began to question and address the manner in which the church has functioned to exclude people and hold an unhelpful and hypocritical measuring tape up against others there have been attempts to ‘open’ communion, focusing rather on the radical hospitality of Jesus and the rejection of meritocracy, on who is ‘worthy’ to judge and to receive communion. Communion becomes a symbol that anyone should be able to recognize and receive as a sign of grace.

What I find myself wondering about is the arrogance of the church in both of these models. Closed communion can certainly be reflective of a larger ‘closed’ culture in a congregation which is unable to recognize faithfulness and goodness in people who do not fit the moral codes of a congregational theology. This is still most easily identifiable in matters of marriage of equality or sexual orientation but this extends in basic postures of piety that often reflect middle-class values on what being ‘blessed’ looks like and in turn what we expect others to look like. And so ‘closed’ communion can easily function to reinforce who is really a part of God’s chosen people. There can be an equating holiness with perfection and the church as stewards of this protection. This aligns with the deeper theology of Christian supremacy which believes the church to sufficient and superior prior to contact with what is unrecognized.

In this way it makes sense for those addressing these harmful practices to ‘open’ communion and indeed focus on radical hospitality, extending the table as it were. However, I find this posture to be more a reaction in overcoming the narrowness of its more conservative brothers and sisters. What I mean is that I am concerned this approach is more about soothing our own guilt and distancing ourselves from what we find distasteful in other church forms than actually thinking about how communion can and should function in the church. So, a few thoughts.

If communion is meant to be an intimate space in the relation to God and fellow believers church leadership should never consider it a completely open space. One can only wonder how many times victims have been forced to take communion alongside abusers. The time has fully arrived for the church to re-visit the question of church discipline particularly in relation to issues of abuse and harassment. It seems reasonable if not necessary to reflect on how to make communion a safe space (which includes an interrogation of the theology behind communion practices).

And so while communion should hopefully support and protect those within a congregation I also feel like we need to be more attentive to how communion protects those outside the congregation. Unless we wish to make communion literally a meal basically like every other meal (which could well be fine) then we need to acknowledge that communion reflects a practice that bonds one to God and to one another. There is great pious theology that can articulate the abounding love of God which is for everyone. And most of us in the church do hope that if there is something good we can offer, we want to offer it. But deploying this theology at the site of communion may not be the most helpful.

This call to open communion can again communicate that we are literally God’s gift to everyone, that we have what is good for what ails you. And so what I am wondering if we are willing to acknowledge that we may NOT actually be good for some people to be bonded to. I hear this from some black people who are uncomfortable (to put it mildly) with our white churches trying to be more ‘diverse’ (making them a project of their aspirations). I hear this from queer individuals hesitant to receive welcome when it is only practiced in a let’s-all-agree-to-disagree-and-focus-on-unity context (ultimately subsuming them under a repressive theology). And it is quite simply arrogant to assume we have what you need (I can’t help but think there is a sneaking supremacy in all this).

Rather, take your time. Get to know the church. Learn about its history, theology and practices. You know, catechism. If the church can only offer communion as a means of support to those outside its congregation it is probably doing something wrong. There are all kinds of tables, all kinds of relationships and opportunities. We don’t have our house in order and should not be quick to begin bonding someone to our family dynamics until that person has a better sense of what they are getting themselves into. Particularly as Mennonites we cannot allow our theology to become increasingly divorced from our ecclesial realities.

Review of Marcus Rempel’s *Life at the end of us vs them*

Marcus Peter Rempel, Life at the end of us vs them: Cross culture stories. Privately published with Friesen Press, 2017, 318 pages.

I confess that I picked up the book because I hated the title and because the author was local and writing from the same Mennonite tradition I am connected with. I hated the title because I hated the notion of speaking beyond or at the end of us and them. This gesture typically requires the enactment of some synthesis or overcoming of what is, some teleological or transcendent authority to accomplish such a feat. Historically or world historically this has been performed through the variations of Christian supremacy, even in its most benevolent forms (which is of course its preferred self-understanding). As I heard one professor put it the creation of a ‘we’ is always the creation of an other, an excluded. I am of the same conviction. I am sure that an individual’s personal ethics or morals can be generally kind and just while holding to some transcendent ideal of ‘we’ but if we want to work in the realm of thought we must also give account for the genealogy and political or ontological relations of these thoughts. And so suffice it to say I began with some apprehension or almost disdain at the brazen notion of entitling a work Life at the end of us vs them.

I will also confess that the book was much better than I expected. Rempel’s writing reflects sustained and humble attentiveness to his experiences as well as intellectual engagement with significant cultural and theological writers. I was impressed with Rempel’s awareness of his own limitations and the potential for abuse and misunderstanding that can come in addressing the issues he raises. The chapters in this book run the length and breadth of hot topics covered in churches, social media and politics.

It is his personal confessions that stand out as he wrestled with understanding indigenous/settler relations, liberal and religious uses of violence, sexual orientation and gender abuses, economics, terrorists, etc. Rempel hits all the talking points often with surprising freshness. If this were all, if Rempel offered these accounts as the fruit of extended introspection it would have much to commend it. However, and to return to my initial (then uninformed) criticism, Rempel does not frame these accounts in genre of introspection and personal confession but rather turns them outwards where they become projection with the influence of Rene Girard, Ivan Illich (and John Milbank to a lesser extent) and a guiding quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn which reads famously that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” These are Rempel’s tools for constructing a life beyond us and them.

While always hedging and qualifying the contingency of his position he also asserts that these teachers offer genuine answers into not only present but world historical (even pre-historic) questions of humanity, religion and meaning. The Solzhenitsyn quote as well as Girard and Milbank in particular impose a levelling effect on humanity and bring each life into a sort of equal analogy, that is, that there is a way of thinking uniformly across human experience. For Solzhenitsyn it is the entangled (and universal) soul which cannot completely eradicate evil from the human heart, for Girard it is the universal scapegoating mechanism by which human civilization and ‘peace’ is founded on the murder or sacrifice of particular individuals, and for Milbank it is the church’s ontology of peace which funds the resources for humanity’s wellbeing. I am not familiar with Illich and so will not speak of his influence.

The trouble with these authors is how smoothly the get recuperated into the imperial project of Christianity. This is explicit in John Milbank who seems to have no qualms in reclaiming Christianity as the best possible hegemony (often in trying to illuminate the deficiencies of both Islam and secular liberalism). Girard is even grander claiming a universal and scientific claim about humanity and how Christianity is the one event which holds open the possibility of reversing humanity’s use of violence to establish peace. To be sure these scholars offer tremendous critical tools and I think Rempel puts them to good use but these tools often betray him in the process.

This betrayal is particularly evident in chapter 4 ‘Sex Fiends: Jian Ghomeshi, My Rooster and Me’. In the wake of all the high profile revelations of sexual abuse and the #metoo movement Rempel opts for sympathy for the devil considering these powerful men as ‘scapegoats’ allowing us regular dudes the ability to disavow our own potentially harmful sexualities. It is not so much that Rempel is wrong about us all being complex and caught up in larger social forces it is rather precisely his inability to read those larger forces. He frames his engagement with Ghomeshi as a bold vulnerability inserting all men (and women) into the equation of sexual abuse (or at least abusive impulses). For those working at the front lines of sexual abuse (that I have encountered) it is precisely Rempel’s approach that is entirely predictable. Despite all the attention now given to sexual abuse the predictable response is still  to assert this appeal to ‘nuance’ to quickly include all of our seemingly tortured souls. This continues in Rempel’s larger critique of contemporary gender issues noting the confusion and conflicts that surface among both men and women not ever accounting for the remaining internalized patriarchy that so many feminists are clear about. And so in the end many of his chapters are inevitably about his sexuality (which fair enough is his right as an author!) and not about centering other marginal approaches to gender and sexuality. Again, if he had made other claims about the book this would have been perfectly understandable (even if problematic). But this is the temptation of the models like Girard and Milbank. They return time and again to a white male accounting for everything. And so rather than attending to entirely different models of life like the black scholarship that is emerging from a profound meditation on anti-blackness as the founding of the world (see Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson) slavery (with Girard) can be quickly is positioned as just another analogy in the logic of scapegoating. These theoretical models are dangerous because they continue to posit a sort of pure origin that can necessarily only ever be accessed by these privileged approaches and so necessarily turn to projection, determining and positioning those who encounter it.

Rempel offers an important distinction towards the end of the book,

“Illich and Girard have helped me to understand the strange world I live in by transforming my condemnation into contrite grief and my confusion into an exploratory hypothesis. But living in community – rather than intellectual conversation – are what give shape to my hopes and energy to my resistance.” (191)

I take this statement in good faith but would hope that someone like Girard would precisely become less important in his thinking and articulation over time. His model is too easily coopted into dominate discourses of theology and I don’t see Rempel’s expression as actually following from it. Not every situation is ripe for pruning along the line that divides our heart. Not every form of oppression and resistance can be collapsed neatly into a scapegoat theory packaged nicely for the Christian story of peace. I confess that Rempel’s approach remains likely more appealing that what I could offer as it is constructive. With notions of transcendent hope and pure origins there are resources for a constructive projection. My approach remains critical, the naming of idols. The confession with prophets of 1 and 2 Kings that have only the refrain the king has caused the people to sin. There is of course the daily work of care and right worship but these do not need to make the claims that Girard and Milbank ask for but can continue in the way of bearing with one another.

In the end I did not hate this book. It should be read. It is much better than many of the popular resources I see passed around in my circles. But to use Rempel’s own method I would suggest that no author can draw clearly the line in their own entangled heart and so I would suggest that Rempel and his readers attend to the remnants of an imperial imagination that persists there and have proven so hard to uproot and perhaps cannot be but does not absolve us from such field work an analogy I hope Rempel can appreciate.