NCC Framing Story – Progressive Christianity

“NCC’s Framing Story – Progressive Christianity,” Susan Ryder

 READINGS:
1 Corinthians 12:14ff For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.”

Rev. Gretta Vosper, “The definition of Progressive Christianity is a difficult one to make. Any community that pulls itself outside of its own worldview to question its purpose, its practice, its foundations, and its beliefs will be challenged by what it finds. Working through the reality of that challenge will eventually cause it to reject one thing (or many things) in exchange for something else. Whether it be an understanding of what is just, a belief in a theistic God, or a way of creating a welcoming environment, the communities that employ the elements of progressive thinking, openness, creativity, passion, intellectual rigor, honesty, courage, balance and respect, will see themselves progress along that endless continuum of what Christianity can be. Progressive Christianity cannot be nailed down to one thing. It lives in flux. It always will because that is its nature. It always will because it must.

REFLECTION
Why are you here? What did you choose New Covenant Community to be your spiritual home? What got you out of bed on this last Sunday of summer to gather in this place – whether it’s your first Sunday or your hundredth or thousandth? I know some of us are here because we were rejected by other churches because of our progressive beliefs or sexual orientation, or we were dissatisfied with traditional theology. Others may be here because we appreciate the encouragement of questioning and doubt, which has strengthened our ability to believe. Some are here because this is where our friends are and we feel comfortable and cared for, while others come because someone thought NCC might be their cup of tea and invited them. The reasons for each of us being here is rich and varied, and we value all who are part of this community just as Paul admonished the Church at Corinth to value all of its members, even those who were different in form and function from others, using the body as metaphor.

Just as we may be here for different reasons, we also don’t necessarily agree on everything. Some believe in life after death, while others think this mortal coil is all there is. Some are Democrat and some Republican; some are very certain of what they believe, others are still searching. Some are extroverts and speak their minds instantly, while others are more introverted and need time to think before expressing a thought. Some prefer Reflections based on modern interpretations of biblical passages while others wish we’d quit using the Bible altogether. Some have no trouble expressing their views while others may not feel comfortable voicing what they perceive might be a minority opinion. Some believe that there is some sort of God, while others are agnostic about it. Some call themselves Christian, others do not. In short, we are a beautiful mosaic of people, beliefs, circumstances, expectations, and histories who have all come together because we have found something meaningful here.

As we have been considering NCC’s framing story the past few weeks in anticipation of celebrating our 25th birthday, certainly at our core is our identification as Progressive Christians. From the very beginning NCC’s founders were people of faith who valued spiritual searching over religious certainty – in other words, Progressive Christians. While that may not have been the term used at the time, it is certainly what NCC was and continues to be. When Bob and I arrived to be your co-pastors in August of 1997, there was a letter from Episcopal priest Jim Adams waiting on our desk, inviting NCC to embark on a new project – The Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC). Adams, then rector of St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. had a vision to create an organization that encouraged churches to focus their attention on those for whom organized religion had proven to be “ineffectual, irrelevant, or repressive.” Adams hoped “to keep the churches from drying up and blowing away,” a response to statistics showing that membership in mainline churches was on the decline. Based on his experience at St. Mark’s, Jim Adams was convinced that if churches were bolder about professing their progressive tenets, they could not only survive, but thrive. Adams and a small group of peers agreed that they needed to provide some way to help churches find ways to self identify as “progressive,” which was the genesis of the “Eight Points” defining progressive Christianity. This early founding group also thought it important to provide opportunities for these churches to network, to share “progressive Christian” articles and book reviews, and to gather occasionally for conferences and workshops.

Bob and I shared this information with the Steering Committee, and then we presented it to the congregation, who enthusiastically endorsed the Eight Points because they expressed who we were in much the same language as our mission statement. We became a member congregation of TCPC in late 1997. Bob was elected to their Executive Board, which he served on for many years as Secretary, attending meetings and helping launch TCPC into a global network. By the early part of the new century, TCPC realized that they had tapped into a larger hunger and need than anyone had imagined in the early years. The list of churches that wanted to associate grew, and the interest in the website attracted people beyond professional clergy and church leaders. By 2002, the term “progressive Christianity” had become a common term that was being used by scholars, the media and other Christian organizations all over the world. In 2003 they revised the Eight Points, with another revision in 2011 – seeing them as a living document. I am sure they will be revised again. In 2010, the name changed to ProgressiveChristianity.org to better reflect their web based presence and global network (and the fact that they aren’t actually a physical building or “center”).

“By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean that we are Christians who …” – that’s how the Eight Points of Progressive Christianity begins. Of course not all spiritual progressives consider themselves Christian, even if you slap “Progressive” in front of it. Christianity has been painted with such a negative brush by so many who profess to practice it that there are some who prefer another term so as not to be associated with those who use the religion to bash and judge, while others think Progressive Christianity has no resemblance whatsoever to Christianity and ought not to use the name at all. But that’s a different Reflection. For our purposes this morning, we are considering the Eight Points of Progressive Christianity. As you listen and read along with your bulletin insert, consider which one resonates with you the most; which, if any, are objectionable; or is there a 9th point you would add?

“By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean that we are Christians who …”

  1.  Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;

 

  1.  Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;

 

  1.  Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to:
  • Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
  • Believers and agnostics,
  • Women and men,
  • Those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
  • Those of all classes and abilities;

 

  1.  Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;

 

  1.  Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;

 

  1.  Strive for peace and justice among all people;

 

  1.  Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth;

 

  1.  Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.

 

That’s quite a list – it’s both inspiring and challenging at the same time. Fred Plummer, the current President of ProgressiveChristianity.org writes in the introduction for a Study Guide of the Eight Points: “A sacred community, by definition, is a community that is imbued with spirit. I refer here to a spirit that draws each other into an atmosphere of radical compassion and peace. It is the same kind of spirit that Jesus taught and modeled in his life and his words. It is the same kind of spirit that was evident in the sacred communities that he formed with his disciples and his followers. In such an authentic community we can discover more existentially that we are all part of one divine creation. When we discover similarities in the joys and sorrows of our individual stories; when we practice true compassion while also holding each other to account; and when we can respect and learn from our differences and disagreements because we recognize each other as a living part of the divine creation, something changes. This practice of radical egalitarianism and compassion in our respective communities can provide the opportunity to engage the rest of the world with the same tools. Such practices in our respective communities can result in an awakening that allows us to see that this divinity is all around us and within us.”

Looking back, we know that in some ways we are at least similar to who we were 25 years ago – a progressive gathering of seekers who value spiritual searching over religious certainty, with this inclusive, open table as the centerpiece of our Sunday gatherings. But in other ways we are different, which is to be expected.

Just as when we look at photos taken when we were kids and compare them to our what we look like now, while there may be resemblances between the NCC of 1992 and today, the differences at least equal the similarities. It’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time that this is a good thing – growth and change are challenging, not always linear or smooth, occasionally even disappointing. But on the whole we are on a good path – and my hope is that new people will continue to find us, feel welcomed, and be nourished by our progressive approach to faith, which remains the foundation of who we are.

As I turn things over to you, let’s go back to the question I asked a few moments ago. Which point resonates most with you; or which, if any, are objectionable; or if it were up to you, is there a 9th point you would add? Let’s hear from a few folks as we pass the microphone.