Phyllis Tickle kicks off Cathedral conference

Dispatches from The Church for the 21st Century Conference at Washington National Cathedral, May 10-12, 2007

By Deryl Davis

Is it possible to envision a new direction for the church in the 21st century? Perhaps even a reformation? Author, editor, and Episcopal laywoman Phyllis Tickle (The Divine Hours, The Shaping of a Life) answered both questions with a resounding yes in her opening plenary address at this conference yesterday. Tickle challenged the 150 or so lay and ordained participants to envision this meeting as a new council of the church universal, seeking to divine the way forward in a world where many traditional assumptions about the nature, role, and relevance of the church are being re-examined. “We talk about post-modern, post-Reformation, post-Protestant,” Tickle said, “but what we are really saying is that the institutionalized presentation of Christianity, and of Protestantism specifically, is no longer sufficiently viable to sustain the whole of the living church now or in the next five centuries ahead.”

In fact, Tickle suggested that we are now transitioning from one age of Christian history to another, each age roughly equivalent to a 500-year period. She deconstructed Christian history for conference participants in terms of these half-millennial cycles: Go back 500 years (1517 is a convenient date) and you get the Reformation; another 500 years and you encounter the Great Schism (1054), when Christianity split into Eastern and Western branches; 500 years further on, and you arrive at the great church councils, such as Chalcedon (451), when many of our creeds were hammered out; 500 more years, and you come to the birth of Christ. The paradigm has been noted with other world religions, as well, in books such as Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation. These illustrations serve Tickle’s argument that the church, and perhaps Western society in general, is at a unique turning point; it’s time, Tickle said, to meet as the early church did and wrestle with the great questions of who we are as a people of faith, why we are here, and what we are called to do.

The title of Tickle’s address is significant: “The Great Emergence: Reformation in our Time.” Like the other plenary speakers yesterday and today (Cathedral Dean Samuel T. Lloyd, III, theologian and Bible scholar Marcus Borg, and religion scholar Diana Butler Bass among them), Tickle sees the mainline denominations at a catalytic moment, when new voices and practices are emerging, even as ancient traditions are being recovered and re-valued. In tracing the paradigm shifts of Christian history, Tickle sees each transformation leading to something larger and more encompassing than what came before.

“Our current reformation fits the pattern of those that came before,” Tickle asserted, and in each transformation “there is always one central question: Where now is the authority? In what, and where, does authority now exist? This determines what the truth is for us.” Tickle argued that, for many of today’s Christians, scriptural authority is no longer enough (Luther’s famous sola scriptura). However, she said it was too soon to determine where authority will rest for the church of the next half-millennium. “Our times call out for no more arrogant individualism,” asserting one point of view above all others, Tickle declared. “But whatever we name as the source of authority must render up a religiously satisfying definition of humanity and of religion.” Tickle noted that, in addition to questions about religious authority, contemporary Westerners (whether religious or not) struggle with notions of what it means to be human, now that science has challenged Cartesian assumptions of the relationship between consciousness, identity, and existence. Tickle said it was important to consider the ways that technology impacts our relationships, human and otherwise, and that the internet is already providing new ways of thinking about faith practice.

Tickle noted that Western culture has been irrevocably shaped by the ideas of the Enlightenment, science, and reason, but that Christianity is now a global (and not simply a Western) phenomenon. While Western Christianity has tended to dominate other forms of the faith over the past millennia, that may not be the case in the future. “There could be a second Christianity emerging that may not be able to be absorbed by our North American . . . Western version,” Tickle said. “In past times, forms of reformation in the West drummed out non-Western forms [of Christianity]. This time it may be the West forced to wait out its time.”

Tickle concluded her address by noting that, for the first time in Christian history, a new configuration or understanding of what it means to be Christian can be disseminated through the means of mass communication – allowing almost instant transmission and sharing of ideas as well as differences. “Unlike our forebears, we can discern together in an intentional, unified way,” Tickle said. “We must decide how together we want to be. That’s what we’re here to see.”

Deryl Davis is producer of the Sunday Forum at Washington National Cathedral and an associate faculty member in religion and drama at Wesley Theological Seminary. This is the first of several reports on The Church for the 21st Century Conference at the Cathedral.


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