Several years ago there was a remarkable conference of the Roman Catholic bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean, and attended briefly also by the then Pope Benedict XVI. The report of that conference is written into a document entitled: The Aparecida Document. I have been reading it with much appreciation, and one part of me was wishing that more of those who call themselves ‘the church’ could struggle with cultural, theological, and missional issues so profoundly. But another part of me, in the process of digesting this report, found the ‘disconnect’ that I so often seek to address in these Blogs. That disconnect is delicate, since I do not have any desire to denigrate, or underestimate the enormous contribution that the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy have had on Latin America, and the huge contribution to the humanitarian crises in so many locales in that region of the world.

The disconnect is subtle, and has to do with the presupposition of these discussions: that of the primary role of clergy, and the fostering of a church that is near totally dependent upon those clergy, and upon the ultimate control by the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Vatican. The disconnect has to do with the misunderstanding of both Catholics and Protestants (and Pentecostals, etc.) that the church is a humanly built and controlled ‘institution’ in which there is a class of ‘clergy’ who are those to be looked up to as the active, equipped agents of Christ’s Kingdom/New Creation, and that the rest, the laity, are to be appreciatively passive and dependent upon those clergy in the mission of God to the world.

Such an understanding (or misunderstanding) seems: 1) not to have a place for the primary and spontaneous role of the Holy Spirit in the creation of the Church; and 2) seems not to recognize the primary function of church leadership in equipping all of God’s people for their work of the ministry in places of their incarnation. Yes, there is to be order in the church. The New Testament speaks of overseers (bishops), and wisdom figures (elders) to whom the folk in a local colony of believers are responsible. But, previous to all of that, is the reality that I repeat again and again in these Blogs: there are those four equipping gifts mentioned in Ephesians 4, and given by the risen Lord by which all of Christ’s followers are to be mature demonstrations and communicators of the faith in the social and cultural vicissitudes of daily life.

A tragic episode of this misunderstanding (to my mind) comes in Oliver Goldsmith’s classic poem: The Deserted Village, written in the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the industrial revolution when the working-class population moved from home industries in the villages, the security of a small village, and the role of the village church and the much loved and caring clergy at the center of their social life, … to the vast impersonal, faceless employment and poverty of urban centers. The tragedy? Their passive role in village churches did not equip them to be the mature and fruitful disciples of Christ in the secular urban culture where the church played a very minor role, and they were pretty much on their own.

The Latin American bishops look with some fear upon all of the members of their parishes who are migrating to North America, and who have no priests/clergy to accompany them on their journey into the North American scene where they will be but ‘aliens and exiles’ (immigrants).

But it’s not just Latin American immigrants. We all live in a very mobile culture, vastly connected by social media, but without the close relationships of neighborhoods, or vocational stability, aliens and exiles, and churches hardly a factor. What if the church were transient colonies of well-equipped disciples who find each other in unlikely settings, and covenant together to encourage and support each other in that calling? Something like that is what is on my mind—a church not dependent upon place or clergy. But that’s a whole other paradigm, and for another time …

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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