Wednesday before the Memorial holiday marks our last day of guided bible study for our small group at our parish. It is the end of the academic year for us until we reconvene in September for a new year. It may sound not so “churchy” but Episcopalians take vacation seriously, even from bible study.
This year we studied The Dream of God, a book by a late long-time member of our parish, Verna Dozier. We decided to read her book to mark 10 years since her death and to celebrate the tremendous impact she made in our church community. This final Wednesday of bible study brought back memories of many years ago when, as graduate students, we met at the professor’s house for the final session of the semester and a sampling of wines.
It was academic, a point I’ll return to later.
In The Dream of God Verna argues that the people of God have strayed away from God’s purpose in creation and that God’s dream is for the return of the people of God. The first part of the book deals with how we have misunderstood the bible and the negative consequences, ranging from subjugation and marginalization of women and minorities to the worship – rather than following – of Jesus.
Much of the presentation about scriptures is not new to the clergy and theologians. They learn this information in seminaries and graduate schools as part of biblical and historical criticism. Yet, this knowledge has not been transmitted to the faithful in the pews and in parishes. For some reason, or reasons, the clergy have not articulated this knowledge to their flock. Why? What are we, having refreshed our minds in these sessions, going to do about the refresher?
Verna does not give an answer and it seems to me that neither did we adequately seek to address the mystery.
The second part of the book is about the institutional church, and according to Verna, in establishing an institution, the people of God formulated creeds and doctrines which have taken the place of Jesus of Nazareth. Similarly, the institution elevated the order of clergy and stifled the laity. In so doing the institution prevails over the community.
Two questions remain lingering in my mind; one Verna raised right from the outset and she attempts to make a suggestion at the conclusion, yet it remains to me, unanswered: How can the church as a community function without the institution?
The second question regards the head of the church. Verna points out, that Jesus was not God – meaning he should not be worshipped but followed. Yet a good majority of Christians, even an overwhelming majority, believe otherwise. Indeed, I personally go to a church where in the liturgy we chant the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…And in one Lord Jesus Christ; the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made…”
It may be true, that many who recite this creed do not believe – with the intellect – what they are saying. I personally do not pause to think, “wait a minute, what am I saying?” But that is the point: When they (the council of Nicaea in 325 C.E) formulated the statement of affirmation, it was known, in Latin, as Symbolum Nicaenum, the Symbol of Nicaea. Our present mindset understands a creed very differently from a symbol, and we need to acknowledge too that the council did not have our mindset of a creed. In fact, even “I believe” did not carry the meaning of our modern day idea of intellectual rationale. What it meant was, “I agree/affirm with you: I join in the consensus” that so and so.
Obviously, in our – especially American mindset, consensus is not our way. Indeed in the course of our bible study, the “consensus” was, “it is alright to believe what you want to believe and for me to believe what I want to believe”. I like it, provided that we bear in mind that our “believe” does not exactly mean what they, the council, meant by “believe”.
And that brings me back to where I started. Then what? Are we engaging in these and similar sessions so that we can all be firm in our own convictions? Is this academic only? Or, as Verna points out in the book “what difference does it make?” You believe so and so and I believe this and that. So what? What difference does it make?