A very personal email about a friend’s faith journey.
With his permission, I share a few lines:
“I spent August driving a Land Cruiser the 900 miles from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma, Tanzania over dirt roads. My priest friend and I stayed in villages along the way praying, singing, eating, staying with, and talking to the poor. Mud huts with thatched roofs. A five star hotel meant that your five gallon bucket at the head of your bed was full so you could shower, wash your cloths and flush the toilet. Tanzanians are the most beautiful, happy, peaceful and loving people on the planet….For a month I lived in the presence of God, receiving the sacrament almost every day….
“I have returned to my (home) city, one of the wealthiest in the United States….Now that I am back in my cozy setting, I am having trouble acclimating. I have not gone to mass since August. I have no desire to be with the people of my rich parish most of whom voted for Trump. These are not my people. To support a church that does not care for its nuns, covers up sexual abuse, and to have to listen to inane sermons based on a 19th century ethos, has no appeal for me…..
“I had an epiphany several days ago: how could I be so close to the church in Tanzania and so far from her here in the States? In Tanzania I was with the true church, the loving people of God, the mystical body of Christ. What I have here is a hierarchy that is more concerned with power and prestige at the expense of the message of Jesus. The priests in Tanzania do not wait for their day off so they can go golfing with the good old boy’s club, as they are too busy feeding the souls and bodies of their flocks.”
My correspondent described a church which is a community of believers. His email reminded me of an observation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so appropriate for this time of the year: “As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.”
The awareness of Divine presence goes to the heart of Christian community. The early Christians were animated by that awareness, before a kind of self-protective religious rigidity began to set in. Perhaps we need to re-visit the originality of the early followers of the Way of Jesus.
Most English translations of the New Testament use the word “church” to translate the Greek word “ecclesia” which generally meant a “community called together” a “convocation.” It would be far better and more correct for us to use the word “community” rather than “church” to capture the life-style of these early Christians: e.g. the “community” in Corinth, the “community” in Ephesus, etc. There was no uniform or monolithic reality in their community life. Jesus did not establish a church. He gave no institutional blueprint for the organizational style of his followers. The early Christian communities had great freedom. They had no set ritual forms for the sacraments. The communities were charismatic and creative. Men and women, who headed households, presided at celebrations of Eucharist. In the second century, Tertullian, the early Christian author from Carthage, wrote about the early Christian communities: “See how these Christians love one another.”
As the early communities grew and Christianity spread far and wide, a need developed for a kind of quality control process to make certain that the communities had qualified and well trained leaders. Ordination was introduced as a way of selecting and designating qualified community leaders. It was NOT understood as conferring special sacramental power for “confecting the Eucharist.” And we know that the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. He probably had no inkling or understanding of ordination.
The early Christian communities selected, as well, overseers, who visited communities to see how they were doing and to provide guidance where needed. In Greek they were called “episcopoi.” Our English word “episcopal” comes from that. The better translations of the male minister “episcopos” or the female minister “episcopa” are “overseer” and “supervisor.” Quite often however the words get translated into English as “bishop.” I would like to think of “bishops” as user-friendly supportive overseers….
After the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, called by the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christianity was well on its way to becoming a highly organized religious institution. The church-now-institution demanded that the faithful accept and profess official doctrines, like the Nicene Creed. Curiously, the Council of Nicaea said nothing about spirituality.
Religious institutions have their value; but they are a MEDIUM not the MESSAGE. They exist to be of service and not to be served.
In 380 CE, the emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which made Christianity, specifically Nicene Christianity, the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christian groups not accepting Nicaea were deemed heretical. They lost their legal status; and they had their properties confiscated by the Roman State. The official church took over Roman governmental structures (like dioceses) and Roman imperial court pageantry and rituals, especially by the papacy. Bishops became, as well, regional civil judges. Liturgy and sacraments became more standardized. Christians gradually began to seek and exert power over people. Women were edged to the sidelines. A clerical culture, with varying degrees of ingrained prejudice against women, began to take center stage. (Unfortunately, self-serving clericalism then and now undermines the credibility and ministry of zealous and wonderfully pastoral ordained ministers. Contemporary morale among Catholic ordained ministers (priests) is now very low. A very sad situation.)
Richard Rohr describes well the shift from spirited community to rigid institution: “I believe there is a deep dilemma and contradiction at the heart of institutional Christianity. Maybe it is even a necessary one. All I know is that it can only be resolved by authentic inner experience, prayer, mysticism, or dare I call it, spirituality. I am convinced that religion, in its common cultural and external forms, largely protects the ego, especially the group ego, instead of transforming it. If people do not go beyond first level metaphors, rituals, and comprehension, most religions seem to end up with a God who is often angry, petulant, needy, jealous, and who will love us only if we are ‘worthy’ and belonging to the correct group. We end up with the impossible scenario of a God who is small, and often less loving than the best people we know!”
Historically, every Christian reformation – and there have been several — has tried to regain the spirit and creative life and ministry of the early Christian communities.
That indeed is our reformation challenge today.
J.A. Dick’s reflection was published in his blog Another Voice December 13, 2019