Friday, October 14, 2005

Protestantism as Church in Exile, Part II

Ecumenical dialogue and involvement I think can become more firmly grounded if we understand Protestant churches as people of God in exile. On the one hand it allows for Protestants to admit that Rome and Orthodoxy have continuity that we have lost, without denying that we are of the Church. It is though also humbling for us, for it is to admit that we lack something, that although we have experienced the presence of God on the banks of the Chebar that this experience of God is not sufficient. It is admitting something distasteful to many Protestants:not all Christian groups are equal and equally the Church in spite of our divisions. The theme of exile also means though a possibly painful and distasteful recognition by Rome and the Orthodox: While the Church may be one, God has dispersed his people and thus even in the midst of claims of continuity there is a lack and a wounding, that will only be healed in the return of the exiles.
personally I know that I love the Church, and I am Protestant. In that sense a return to the Church will not simply be turning to Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy. Symbols of this are both Eastern/Byzantine Rite Roman Catholics and the controversial Western Rite Orthodox. This issue of rite and the problems attending to it both for Rome and the Orthodox indicate to me (what some Orthodox theologians admit) a lack of articulation of what it means to be fully One, Holy. Catholic and Apostolic Church. To put it another way the schisms between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians, between East and West, and then in the West between the Reformers and Rome are a different order of schism than say Gnostic Arian and even Donatist etc... If nothing else the East West schism makes it difficult for Protestants to decide who to listen to when it comes to returning from exile.
Of course from the Roman or Orthodox side of things the Reformation seems to have unleashed a particularly virulent strain of schism as Protestant groups seem to multiply infinitely, without much regard for continuity, as Bible and personal experience are all that are needed to claim a better take on the Gospel than those who came before. Life in exile is unstable, and most of us don't believe we are in exile, and don't really care about returning to the Land.
But this is why I think Protestant ecumenists need to begin talking of Protestantism as being in exile from the Church. We are of the Church we are people of God, we worship God in Christ and the Trinity, but we are not the Church, and our divisions which clearly have broken a certain continuity are the signs of this exile.
I see Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler as such an ecumenical venture. Reconciler is not the Church, nor what the Church should be. Rather it is an encampment along the way of the Protestant return from exile. It is saying okay, we all believe (or at least claim to believe) that the division of Christians is a scandal well then lets live like it is a scandal and find our way back to the Church. Now the Orthodox will say just come we'll take you back. But in that I think the Orthodox may be too willing to meet us Protestants at the point of our worst feature: our independence and individualism, which is tied to our desire for that pure undefiled church (which never existed in fact, there have always been tares among the wheat, Protestants hate to admit that). The Orthodox admit this when they are at their most honest. The stories of saints are full of those tares who persecute the saint, send the saint into exile, etc., but also insist that such events do not change the Holiness of the Church nor alter the fact that it is the spotless Bride. So, I question the willingness of Orthodoxy to take without question (or at least seemingly so) Protestants who come either out of an individualistic sense of having finally found the truth, or out of Primitivist and fundamentalist impulses that can put on the dress of Orthodoxy. I am not wishing to impune here all who have converted from Protestantims to Orthodoxy but some convert voices I hear sound a little too much like disaffected Protestants wearing Orhtodox dress. However I recongize that those of you who have gone to Orthodoxy are perhaps preparing the way, but I also wonder if you have repudiated your experience of God on the Chebar, and thus are little help to us still in Exile and who long to return.
And I must also admit that from my perspective Rome and Orthodoxy, while I can recognize continuity even admit that their claims to be the Church make a certain amount of sense, do appear to be living in ruins, very nicely maintained and cared for ruins, and certainly very ecclesial ruins. In other words even those who may have strong claims to be the Church are not and were not unaffected by the events that brought about the Protestant exile. If I am correct (and I am just beginning to think along these lines so I am only saying this way of thinking makes sense of my experience and call, but I could be mistaken) then return of of us exiles will mean a rebuilding, my suspicion is that preparation has already begun. At least I am aware that there are Orthodox theologians who have been and are pointing out ways in which the daily life of the Orthodox at times contradicts what it claims to be true about itself: Whether it is Ouspensky and his criticism of certain themes that have crept into iconography, or Schmemann on liturgical renewal, or the issue of multiple jurisdictions overlapping in the America's, where one in fact has more than one Orthodox bishop in the same place. But really it is not my place to speak to any rebuilding while I am still in exile, which I am. So, I will busy with this ecumenical work and hope that we Protestants can awaken to the reality that we maybe of the Church but are not the Church, but are in, and have been for 500 years, in exile.