It’s not often you hear of Sydney Archbishop, Peter Jensen, and Emerging Church author, Brian McLaren, being identified as co-leaders in the same ‘extraordinarily diverse and fast-growing Christian movement’ but that’s just what happened in the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday in an article entitled, ‘Jesus walks into a bar …‘
My Dad drew my attention to it during my blogging hiatus, wondering if this was the sort of thing I was into. Well, having now read it my answer would have to be yes … and, er, no.
What I mean is, yes, exploring emerging expressions of Christianity is very much what I am into and I certainly identify with ‘some’ of what was explored in this article. I do network with some of the Melbourne based Urban Seed folk, for instance, as well as with Alan Hirsch and other Emerging Church leaders in Australia. But surly it is drawing a long bow to lump Emerging Church and Sydney Anglican experiments all together as part of a single movement as this author does, particularly given the repeated denunciations the Sydney Anglican hierarchy have launched at the Emerging Church movement over recent years.
Sorry, I just find it kinda weird. I mean, I’ve got first hand experience with both sides of the coin here, and having participated in a Sydney Anglican pub experiment in North Sydney … well … what can I say? Let’s just say I ‘ve drunk more booze at Baptist bible studies (seriously!) and was left rather sobered by the experience.
To Zwartz’s credit he does identify ‘two distinct strands’, but his typology of ‘mainstream churches trying variations on a theme’ and ‘a much more radical, iconoclastic reinvention of what it means to be Christian’ obscures as much as it reveals. We are very different, but not necessarily in the ways he describes.
Where should I start? Well, given that many of these more ‘iconoclastic’ Emerging Church experiments are criticised precisely for their reintroduction of icons and candles into Christian spirituality, I find his classification deeply ironic! Iconoclastic? Only if you forget the original meaning of the word! And does it escape Zwartz’s attention that many of these non-‘mainstream’ experiments are just as much under denominational umbrellas as his ‘mainstream’ strand? Are they truly less ‘bible-based’ as is implied? I think not. Not in Australia anyway.
Consider this by way of example, one of the best known Emerging Church experiments in Australia is Small Boat Big Sea, an experimental Christian community associated with Mike Frost, the vice principle of Morling College, the Baptist theological collage in Sydney. He’s hardly what you would describe as disassociated from the mainstream, given his role, or non-Bible based, given his teaching specialty is evangelism. And what about yours truly, where did I pick up my ‘iconoclastic’ style of using tarot imagery in explaining Christian spirituality? From Philip Johnson and Ross Clifford of the Community of Hope, the first whom was lecturing at the Presbyterian Theological College when we first met, and whom now lectures at Morling College, the latter whom is currently the national head of the Baptist Union in Australia. This ‘non-denominational’ anarchist owes his radicalism to the head of a denomination amongst others! LOL.
It is disingenuous to imply we ‘iconoclasts’ are unorthodox, or ‘iconoclastic’ for that matter; that sounds more like reactionary rhetoric to me than anything else. I think the real issue lurking below the surface here is actually the homosexuality debate – specifically, (1) that Sydney Anglicanism uses homosexuality as a litmus test for orthodoxy (more so than the Nicene Creed it would seem at times) and (2) many of the Emerging Church leaders mentioned in this article are aligned with the Uniting Church, a denomination renowned for it’s softer position on homosexuality. So here is a tip from a Sydney Christian: when you hear Jensen, et al, use the phrase, ‘bible-based’, take it as dog-whistle language for ‘no poofs’. I suspect this article may have panned out very differently if ‘iconoclasts’ hailing from more evangelical denominations had been interviewed more extensively. Then we may have been privileged with a glimpse beyond the interdenominational sexual tensions to the true heart of the matter – differing approaches to cultural contextualisation.
But, gay politics aside, surely one of Zwartz’s biggest omissions is the fact that Ruth Powell, the quoted spokesperson of the National Church Life Survey, is the wife of Glen Powell, co-founder of one of the earliest Emerging Church experiments in Australia: Cafe Church in Glebe, Sydney. Was he even aware of it?
All in all, though, I did appreciate the article. I find it fascinating to see how we are perceived (perceptively or otherwise) by the Australian media. With the prominence given to Hillsong, Pell and Jensen, Australians could be forgiven for thinking they represent the only styles of Christianity on the contemporary menu. Despite the problems with this article, I think we can take this as an encouraging sign that some at least are beginning to recognise that Australian Christianity is becoming more diverse along with Australian culture and that not all of us can be shoehorned into the old categories.