Sunday morning adult education occurs following worship, around 11:15am and runs until 12:15pm in the JFO Room. Childcare is available during this time.
Upcoming programs include:
Sunday, May 5: Peter Freeman (an OC double-degree student), "A Conversation."
Sunday, May 12: Music Sunday (no Adult Education)
Sunday, May 19: Ed Long, "On Marking the 65th Anniversary of My Ordination."
Sunday, May 26: OC Commencement (no Adult Education)
Wednesday Evening Adult Education begins at 6:45pm in the JFO Room and ends around 7:45pm. There is a dinner ahead of Adult Ed. that begins at 5:45pm. Dinner costs $3 a person, $10 a family, and Oberlin College students eat for free. Childcare is available during this time
Upcoming programs include:
Wednesday, May 1 Greg McGonigle, OC's Director of Spiritual Life and the Interfaith Student Council.
Wednesday, May 8: Gerald Crawford will lead a hymn sing entitled "My Mother's Hymns"
Wednesday, May 15: David Hill and Bob Longsworth will offer a discussion of the 2008 Academy Award– winning Japanese film Departures (a.k.a. "Okuribito"). Please watch the movie before we meet; for your convenience we will show it beginning at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, May 13, in the JFO Room. Also, it can be borrowed from the public or college libraries, streamed from Netflix, or purchased from various Internet sources. This will be our final program for the school year.
Some Aspects of Christian History with significance for thinking about the present and future of First Church. (Ed Long)
Note: Any document of this kind is bound to be suggestive rather than definitive. Everybody, no matter how well intentioned, reads the past from a present standing ground. This does not involve deliberate misrepresentation–but it does often reflect predispositions that inevitably color the way in which the past is understood and interpreted. All such efforts, therefore, should be viewed more as useful (or not useful) rather than being correct (or incorrect). This means that more than one of them can be helpful in thinking how the past influences the present. Ed Long.
Christianity in this early period was what today we might call a movement rather than an institution (that is, rather than a Church). In the very earliest part of the period Christians were sometimes considered by Roman authorities to be a subgroup within Judaism, and to that extent they enjoyed the tolerance by state authorities that was afforded Judaism. But that slowly changed as the work and influence of Paul spread the movement beyond its culture and place of origin. The early Christian movement came to exist separately from Judaism and was increasingly persecuted because its adherents refused to profess loyalty to the Roman political/religious establishment. They rejected the use of violence, often shared property, and met (frequently secretly) in the residences of members. The movement had few, if any, institutional features, such as specially designated leaders (i.e. clergy); special buildings for group use; or constitutionally defined governance. Various groups of members often differed in particulars and sometimes were at odds with one another but possibly less than all of them were at odds with the culture. The core belief was that God-- through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–had provided a mighty saving act for humankind, particularly for those who responded to that act by faith regarless of ethnic or cultiural identity. That affirmation was accomapnied by changes in life styles and was stated in several gospel narratives written at this time as well as in a number of writings by authors now known as the Apostolic Fathers. Although differing in detail and perspective these writings all witnessed to the same affirmation.
In 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine issued an Edict of Toleration which ended the persecution of Christianity. Shortly thereafter Constantine sought to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire. There has been endless debate about his motives for doing this–whether they sprang from genuine conversion to the faith or from expediency. In 325 he convened the leaders of the church at Nicea and urged them to settle on an authoritative statement of their basic convictions about Christ’s nature. He realized that a single way of understanding Christian doctrine would be most likely to render the church more effective in uniting the Empire than a lot of somewhat different ways of attesting to the faith. Constantine may have thought it possible to settle doctrinal issues this way but the effort to develop an agreed-to creedal foundation for Christian belief proved difficult and it took several more Council meetings spreading over several decades before it was settled–if indeed it ever has been completely. Almost every seminary student today spends a not inconsiderable time in mastering the story and implications of these so-called Christological controversies. What is most interesting about them is that the leaders of the Church in those controversies seemed to have had more difficulty affirming the human side of Christ’s nature than the divine side (which in many respects is the reverse of the difficulty many people have in our time.) The Council of Nicea is associated with a Creed that has been central to the thinking and worship of much subsequent Christianity.
In the several centuries that followed, the Christian community underwent significant changes. The bishop of Rome came to play an increasingly authoritative role. A clerical class developed and the Church acquired more and more property in its own name. It eventually built cathedrals and other specifically ecclesiastical structures. It sought to exercise power in the political affairs of society, and to enforce orthodoxy and conformity. It abandoned the early Christian refusal to employ violence and developed more and more uniform ways of worship. All of this constituted a process of institutionalization (which in many respects is a normal maturation for movements and crucial for their survival). Smaller groups of Christians adopted monastic practices, which at first were somewhat independent of the Church but were eventually brought under its authority and regarded as a special form of vocation. Christian spirituality was increasingly understood in terms cancelling out sin and assuring life after death.. This not only tended to emphasize what is often called “works-righteousness” but through the confessional and indulgence system associated with it rendered the Church the alleged manager of believers’s destinies.
The hope for one overarching form of Christianity was never entirely realized. In 1054 the eastern and western branches of the Church separated. From 1305– 1378 the papacy itself was divided into two rival camps, one at Rome the other at Avignon in France. Smaller groups with alternative ideas of Christian fidelity began to arise and helped to prepare for the Reformation period. These movements put more stress on Christian faith as constituting a new pattern for living than on doctrinal correctness and institutional identity.
The reaction against the claims and the policies of the Medieval Church took several forms. These forms became models for different versions of Protestantism that persist even into our time. The most important of these forms trace back to the continental reformation that took place in the sixteenth century under leaders like Luther and Calvin. This side of the Reformation was grounded in a reaffirmation (perhaps even rediscovery) of the idea of justification by faith alone–an emphasis found in the writings of Paul. This theological affirmation undercut the Church’s claim to be the agency of salvation through its management of the confessional and indulgences. This branch of the reformation did not, however, repudiate the idea of an institutionalized Christianity–rather it only condemned the Roman Catholic form which it had acquired. It also affirmed the traditional trinitarian orthodoxy which had been arrived at through the deliberations of the various ecumenical councils. Although it rejected the sacerdotal role of the clergy it did not reject the idea of a designated and ordained form of leadership. This form of the reformation is the parent of the Reformed tradition, which includes Lutherans, and more specifically Presbyterian and Reformed groups (some of which are an important part of the United Church of Christ’s heritage).
The second most influential form of the Reformation took place in sixteenth century England. Even more than the Continental reformation it affirmed the institutionalized practices of Christianity develped by Cathlicism but tended to place ecclesiastical matters in the hands of temporal rulers. It affirmed a prescribed liturgy (though recasting its particulars) and continued to regard clergy as priests more than as teachers. This form of the Reformation is trinitarian–though the medium by which it represents its faith heritage is primarily through an official prayer book rather than an emphasis on orthodox confessions. Even so, the thirty-nine articles of religion at the end of the Prayer book are thoroughly Calvinist in outlook but not as functionally decisive in this branch of the Reformation–which includes Episcopalianism and–with considerable modifications– Methodism.
Two other expressions of the reforming impulse are often lumped together under the rubric “the left wing of the reformation.” I had students come to the doctoral program at Drew who had never heard that term. As alternatives to the main (or classical) heritages the left wing movements need to be described separately. One of these, the Anabaptist movement, arose on the continent at about the same time as the larger reformation groups but attacked those groups for their failure to advocate sufficiently radical changes in the nature of Christian faithfulness. The Anabaptists repudiated infant baptism (and thus required members coming into their group from other Christian bodies to undergo re-baptism). They also understood the church to be a voluntary association of committed members rather than a self perpetuating (or hierarchical) institution. This tended to make congregations independent and autonomous groups exercizingtheir own authority.. Many, but not all, of these left wing movements repudiated the use of force and sought to make the Christianity a collection of unique communities with special openness to the less affluent and established members of society. Many were advocates of religious liberty before this was a generally secular idea. In all of this they appealed to scripture as the rule of faith (as did the continental reformers) but drew different inferences from it. Some of the most conservative and some of the most liberal forms of contemporary Christianity stem from this branch of the reformation. It is the parent of modern Baptist groups with all their diversity and, with respect to matters of governance, of the congregational side of the UCC heritage.
The other group within the left wing of the Reformation, Socinianism, developed in the 16th and 17th centuries and was critical of trinitarianism. It is a predecessor of present day Unitarianism. Both the Anabaptists and the Socinians were often severely persecuted by the larger Reformation bodies. Mennonites and the Amish are related to the left wing of the Reformation and continue to practice some of its unique features.
Each of the several groups that emigrated to America brought with it the form of Christianity with which it was associated in Europe and gave it established status in the colony which its members formed. This was true in each of the colonies with the exception of where Baptists(or Quakers) were in charge. They pioneered the idea of religious liberty and hence tolerated more diversity. Incidentally, participation in church life--despite assumptions to the contrary-- was very low in colonial times, as usually tends to be the case in countries with an officially established church.
When the movement arose to unite the various colonies into one nation, the only way to deal with their religious differences was to deny the new federal government any right to an official religious identity overriding the patterns in the separate colonies (hence, non establishment) and to protect the right of each colony and its members to choose their own religious identity (hence, free exercise). As it came to be applied on an individual basis rather than on a colony- to-colony basis this strategic compromise eventually become a cherished feature of American life and has played an important role in our country’s religious scene ever since. One of its perhaps unexpected consequences was to make America a country in which religion (primarily in Protestant forms for much of its history) has been widely embraced–albeit in a variety of ways. Religious groups have freely solicited members, often through evangelistic and revivalistic strategies that are quite different from the historical forms in which Christianity had been earlier institutionalized.
This is the context in which to understand the heritage of First Church, which was founded on the ministry of Charles Finney. Here, in cryptic summary from Williston Walker’s A History of the Christian Church, is a characterization of Finney’s stance:
In 1834 and 1835 he published his Lectures on Revivals of Religion, spelling out his proven ways of promoting revival. In the latter year he went to the new Oberlin College in Ohio, where as professor of theology and later president, he became at once the leading exponent and the major theoretician of American revivalism...in which the test for any doctrine was whether or not it would contribute to salvation. (p.509)
Along with the emphasis on salvation that was central to Finney’s thinking Oberlin was known for its serious concern with social transformation–particularly for the abolition of slavery and for equal educational opportunity for women. Morever, this combination of revivalistic fervor and social activism was accompanied by concern for personal rectitude, which accounts for the close connection between Oberlin and the temperance movement. In all of these ways Oberlin was a unique model of a religiously inspired voluntary association populated by a selected group of similarly dedicated people who might seem to many of us as somewhat overzealous and even inhospitable to other versions of Christian fidelity..
In seeking to understand Finney it is important to realize that the thought-world of his time predates a number of factors that greatly influence our situation. The work of Darwin would not appear until almost two decades after Finney preached; the historical approach to the use of the Bible was scarcely yet imagined; the idea of the Social Gospel (as a contrast with the idea of a personal gospel) was still embryonic, and the secularization of society had not yet hit with its massive power. The idea of papal infallibility was not yet dogma; the emergence of Protestant Fundamentalism was almost three quarters of a century in the future, and the Scopes trial still later. Reactions against these important modern pressures would come only well after Finney’s ministry. Despite the ferment and turmoil created in the American Christian community by the rise of so-called secular modernity the numerical high point of religious participation in American life was in the nineteen fifties–though this did not necessarily provide a unifying influence for our society.
One consequence of free exercise has been the development of many new Christian movements which have come to dot the “faithscape” with almost every conceivable option. Oberlin, for instance, has well over two dozen different churches and the surrounding area many additional ones, most of them recent origin. Suppose it had that many different electric companies each offering a different voltage and frequency, or that many different police departments each enforcing a different set of laws. Religion in American is now generally looked upon as something sold in stores rather than a unifying dimension of public life. This is a profound change that cannot be ignored in thinking about its role. One cannot help but wonder what kind of Christianity Finney would have espoused had he ministered in recent times rather than in the Oberlin of his time with its quite different ethos and self identifying isolation from the wider world.
There is no doubt that developing and embracing a convincing Christian identity in the last several decades has been a great challenge, both for individuals seeking to understand what it means to follow Jesus, and also for communities of faith seeking to understand the message they should be offering as their reason for being. For First Church, for instance, it involves dealing with the fact that the evangelistic aspect of our heritage has been espoused most visibly by versions of Christianity that have exhibited a kind of believing that reacts defensively against the challenge of modern ways of thinking and sometimes have gone pretty much their own way in setting forth the meaning of Christian fidelity. Many of these have often been rigid and divisive and have tended to discredit the evangelistic model. On the other hand the social action aspect of our heritage has been taken up by an enormous number of philanthropic organizations–each with its own agenda–many. if not most of them, seeking social renewal as a humanly motivated undertaking, They have sometimes been more effective at changing society than churches have been. Both of these changes have tended to leave us uncertain--perhaps even unwittingly suspicious–of our theological roots and therefore without a clear set of convictions for grounding for our life together.
The foregoing admittedly overly brief summary of our past should prompt us to take stock of our present and future reasons for being a church. The United Church of Christ, with which we are affiliated, is a union of two groups. One of them was a prior union of two groups belonging to the classical or continental side of the reformation and the other, a combination of two groups somewhat more typical of the left wing of the reformation. This challenges the United Church of Christ to wrestle with complexities that do not bother denominations that trace back to a single origin. The questions that we face as a consequence are daunting but not insurmountable–how to do justice to both sides of the heritage.
Failure to do justice to the emphasis on grace central to the clasical reformation can lead to a neglect of confession, repentance, the acceptance of forgiveness as the sources for newness of life offered bythe Gospel. Turning the emphasis on transforming behavior central to the left wing of the Reformation can lead to a religiously grounded idealism that thinks it is adequate because it constitutes “new thinking.” The danger of a confessional focus is to ossify into doctrinal rigidity; the danger of idealism is to forget--as Finney so strongly insisted–that all faith convictions should be functional in relationship to a gospel of salvation. In trying to do justice to both aspects of our heritage we have to ask, what, if anything, about Christian faith makes it worth embracing because it cannot be had from any other commitment or from participation in any other community.