The Condomization of the Church
by Craig Uffman
first published on Covenant
A friend wrote recently of her frustration with her parish. The presenting issue was what she called the exclusivity of her parish. Her fear is that if the parish did not change its ways it would ultimately wither because people like her would walk away if the parish did not change its exclusive, unloving ways and its “19th century notions of equality.”
My friend is more honest than most about the attitudes of her generation. “We are floaters,” she said, and she went on to note that many like her fall away from their Christian roots as young adults and only come back at “moments of return” such as marriage, baptism, children starting religious education programs, and when burying their parents. Her complaint: young parents come to the parish to be married or bring their children to be baptized but are sent away because they are not actually bona fide parishioners. If the Church is to survive, she claimed, it must adapt to the new attitudes of the floating generation and become more loving and inclusive, for, if it doesn’t, they’ll simply go elsewhere.
I think my friend is on to something. She’s right that the Church is struggling to respond well to the floating generation. But her diagnosis of the problem and proposed cure are woefully – even tragically - wrong.
Why are so many in our culture floaters? There’s a lot of evidence that, for many, the underlying cause is a deep theological malaise - “a playful nihilism” - that infects our culture. When one hears some parishioners claiming they’ll leave unless the parish brings in rock music and a worship style cleansed of its ancient influences, and others claim they’ll leave unless the parish sticks to traditional music and a traditional worship style, one is reminded that our generations have all been McDonaldized. When a consumer places her order in church for a taste of the sacred - for an experience of the depths for which we yearn but which our overly rational lives can not provide – we expect to get it our way and in a timely manner that fits into our frenzied lives. That’s what we’re paying for, and if a church does not “meet our needs”, well, there’s always Burger King just down the street.
While McDonalds explains a lot about our culture, I don’t think it adequately explains the attitudes of floaters. Remembering a phrase from theologian Emmanuel Katongole, I suggest that the condom is a better metaphor through which to view the floater phenomenon. One of the important marks of condoms, of course, is that they are disposable. We could capture this aspect by pointing instead to disposable cameras, disposable diapers, disposable phones, and other consumer goods, but condoms symbolize not just the disposability of a good, but also to the disposability of the good behind the good: that of our sexual relationships. Condoms teach us that sex is a good that can be consumed, at our discretion, with or without the cost of a serious and enduring commitment. The disposability and detachment of relationships that condoms provide are important because they make possible that which our culture values as “enlightened” – the flexibility to be always on the move, seeking ourselves, and the freedom to build whatever altars the Self demands. Condoms are a good metaphor for the habits and attitude of floaters because the metaphor captures the underlying values that drive their 21st century ideal: self-ruled individuals unencumbered by serious and enduring commitments who see the Church as just another supplier of things that trigger the pleasure circuits as we journey into deeper selfhood.
Our condomized culture has learned to think of its relationships and commitments to core values as disposable. Of course, it’s impossible to reconcile such a value system with the demands of the gospel. So, while I appreciate my friend’s worry about the Church’s ability to satisfy the demands of the floating generation, I am confident that the solution does not consist of the Church adapting to the culture in areas where it is the culture itself that is sick.
Rather, the vocation of the Church is to be that alternative community that embodies Christ in its common life, even when that life may seem archaic, exclusive, and unloving to the world. In certain areas - such as the invitation into the special vocation of Holy Marriage - the Church errs by forgetting what Holy Marriage is. So, too, with baptism. Most parishioners are ignorant of what Holy Marriage is, conflating it with the social contract by the same name through which the State governs property rights, and most are wholly ignorant of how the Church views children and the role of those entrusted with their stewardship on behalf of the Church (i.e., “parents”). Given the Church’s vocation, it is most unwise for a parish to reinforce a floating couple’s expectation that the Church will cater to their desire for the Church’s blessing on their social contract by pretending that it is Holy Marriage when there is no tangible and enduring commitment to the common life of a particular parish. Holy Marriage has no meaning without that commitment to the support and mutual subjection to a particular community of Christ. The same is true of all of the “points of return” at which floaters “come back” to the Church, expecting to be sold good feelings through rites that they mistakenly see as rights.
Upon inspection, “floater” turns out to be a euphemism for a worldview that locates the floater at the center of the universe and which rejects any vital commitment and relation to a particular people and way of life. “Equality!” in the language of floaters, is not the plea that the dignity of all individuals be affirmed in concrete ways, but rather the demand that no criterion be allowed to stand that requires substantive commitment to a particular community and its way of life, for such criteria encumber the individual in its quest for Self. The euphemism conceals what earlier generations would recognize as the immature desire to be free of commitments that bind, the demand that one’s autonomy be given priority above the life of mutual interdependence to which the gospel calls us and which we can only practice through immersion in a particular community of Christ to which we have pledged allegiance.
I think my friend is correct in her assessment that the Church has grave problems with the floating generation. But, like many, she has misdiagnosed the problem to the extent that she thinks the problem is that the Church does not adequately adapt to the new attitudes of the floating generation. A better explanation is that our culture suffers from a nihilism and a worship of our own autonomy which manifests itself in the false belief that our relationships can be both disposable and Christian, and which is astonished when the Church demands substantive and enduring commitments to participate in our demanding and alternative way of life in Christ that is the shape of restored humanity. We must not forget that “the confessing people of God is the new world on its way” (Yoder).
Is there cause for hope? The gospel accounts teach us to expect that the vast majority of persons in the crowd will indeed come and go around Jesus without ever actually becoming disciples of Jesus. And those in the crowd will always be offended by the cost of discipleship as they walk away, often shaking their heads and fists at the disciples who refuse to make the ways of the crowd normative for the life of the Church. And so there will always be ebbs and flows in the sizes of the crowds gathered around Jesus, just as we see in the gospel accounts, and, indeed, as we see in Church history.
But we believe and have seen that the Holy Spirit sustains the Church so that God’s purposes are fulfilled by calling, equipping, and sustaining persons as disciples who are truly willing to bear the costs and commitments of discipleship and walk in the way of the Lord, especially in those times when the crowds grow thin. When a parish fails, it’s rarely because they were too demanding, but most likely because they were not demanding enough. Inevitably one discovers that they failed to hold each other accountable for staying on the path of authentic discipleship. And when that happens, it is appropriate that the parish wither like the grass.
We need not fear for the Church even as we live in this epidemic of withered grass, for we see throughout history that the Spirit plants new communities among the fragments, sustaining the Church in new ways so that God’s purposes are fulfilled.
My name is Craig Uffman. Prior to completing a Ph.D in theology at Durham University, I received my M.Div at the Duke Divinity School, Duke University, in Durham, NC. Many years before that, I studied economics at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. I served as a nuclear submarine officer, and ultimately became president of a high technology company in Baton Rouge, LA. Along the way, I authored a book on small business lending in the credit union industry. While discerning a call to ordained ministry, I served in a variety of lay leadership positions and taught adult Sunday School for over twenty years.
I became the tenth rector of St Thomas’ Episcopal Church of Rochester, NY in September of 2010. I train for triathlon and marathon in my spare time.
The fact that I serve on the Fulcrum leadership team offers an important clue to my theological priorities. Relative to some colleagues in the Episcopal Church, I have a much greater interest in “Reformed” as an important adjective that qualifies my Anglican catholicism. That fits naturally with my academic interests which are principally in the field of ecclesial ethics. My scholarship focuses on the ethics of Richard Hooker, holding him in conversation with contemporary voices such as Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and Sam Wells. I have a strong interest in the role of the Church within society, the way the Church orders itself to fulfill its mission, and the way Christians participate in the self-ordering and interrelating of our communities and nations. Some colleagues have called me ‘radically ecumenical,’ which is a description to which I aspire.
I hope you find my posts interesting, sometimes challenging, and always edifying and communicating God’s love. Please share what you find edifying so that those in need may be blessed.
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