“May You Live In Interesting Times”: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
There was a time when Church history taught us to see today’s Church in its right place. It was a time when we could say with conviction that, “The Church does not forget”. What was meant by this was that we confidently expected the Church to carry the wisdom of past centuries forward to not only the present, but to future generations as well. We had reason for such confidence. Once we could see Church life, from the outward form of a church building, to the inward form of a church service or liturgy. We could hear it in familiar prayers, the cadence of scripture being read and the contents of hymnals being sung. We experienced this life in concert with leadership from a trained and generally well educated ministry.
Now, this is not to say that the Church was static. It was not an heirloom carefully cosseted and protected from any change. Any unbiased reading of Church history will show that the Church did not shun change when sensible reasons dictated adjustments which did not compromise the central core of the Church’s mission and message. This is to say that to be conscious of historical continuity and our debt to the past does not mean being rigidly conservative and averse to progress. Indeed, I would argue that it is an intimate acquaintance with history that enables us to differentiate between essentials and non-essentials in times of change. It allows us to see our own Church life as being a part of something greater and integrated into the great communion of Christian life of centuries past, present and future.
This was the narrative that held sway for much of the modern era, but it is a narrative that now, I believe, is rapidly slipping away.
In our current situation, rather than saying “The Church does not forget” it sometimes seems more appropriate to say “The Church does not remember”. Indeed, in much of the American Church in particular, we have become either hostile toward history (especially that which we don’t agree with) or, increasingly, ahistorical. As the rising generations abandon their participation in any sort of Church life, aging congregations (along with their aging leadership) are not concerned with the past or the future, as much as with survival in the present. Outward forms, such as church buildings, and inward forms, such as church services or liturgies, are fluid and often viewed mainly in pragmatic terms of multi-use convenience and being “seeker friendly”. Scripture, at least, still seems to be honored, although hymnals (remember those) have given way to catchy choruses and large drop down screens. Meanwhile, multiple seminaries have closed or become, largely, non-residential thereby curtailing the process of spiritual formation as a normative part of ministerial education. All of this, of course, is not to mention the effects of Covid and the impact of “virtual Church” services offered online.
Sometimes I remember the old so-called Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”.
Clearly matters concerning the Church are in flux. For much of the last twenty-five years, if you wanted to be hired by a church, all you had to do was convince the call committee that you could “bring young people into the church”. As that did not happen in most cases, now you have to convince the call committee that you can keep the church open for their lifetime. Additionally, there may be a political litmus test.
There are, of course, those who are now considering what it would mean for the Church to be largely, or even exclusively, varied online communities of faith. For eucharistic centered believers, this obviously creates issues. Even baptism becomes problematic, not to mention marriage, confirmation and all the rest. It would even redefine, at least to some extent, what we mean by the word “fellowship”. Perhaps, however, it can be done. Yet, the more relevant question might be, should it be done? The digital world was once viewed by the church as a tool. What is the price if it becomes our sole or overarching reality?
While I personally would desire a return to a model of the Church rooted in history, one that “does not forget” I begin to wonder if we have already passed a point of no return and what that may mean…