Rev. Richard Wollan, a friend and colleague, has read Tickle's work and has offered this thoughtful review.
Rich's assessment that Tickle does not sufficiently address the contributions of Orthodoxy I found helpful.
Before I comment on The Great Emergence, by Phyllis Tickle, it is necessary to make my bias known. Until I had read this book I viewed the whole “emergent” movement as just another churchy fad. I knew that some emergents were making use of ancient practices and traditions, but I believed even that to be part of the fad—it would not last. More to the point, I viewed much of the emergent leaders and their thinking as so much 1960’s rehash. Liberalism, socialism, environmentalism, antinomianism, anti-clericalism—so much of the emergent movement seemed like very old news, and very boring. Been there, done that, sick of that! True, helpful criticisms of churches stuck in modernity were being leveled, but usually at the expense of the historic, apostolic, catholic faith. If not for my deep respect of the author and Rev. Duke’s strong recommendation, I would never have cracked the cover of this book.
The strength of Tickle’s brief sketch is her ability to paint convincing murals with broad strokes. Despite the inherent weaknesses of speaking in sweeping generalizations, she has done a convincing job of giving the reader a solid look at the past and the present. For a culture that cannot remember the significance of what took place mere months ago (eg. The current financial crisis, or the just completed election cycle!) Tickle’s historical reminders are a big, big help. I found her insight into the 500 year cycle of momentous cultural upheaval to be quite brilliant. And she is undoubtedly right. We are living in the middle of another bi-millennial earthquake where everything (social, political, scientific, ecclesiological, etc), and I mean everything is being shaken down. And her assurance that this has happened before and we are not to blame is wonderfully liberating!
I am not sure, however, that I buy into her interpretation of the massive changes taking place within North American Christianity. This may be because I do not seem to fit into any of her categories (Traditionalists, Re-traditionalists, Progressives, Hyphenateds), at least as she defines them in the book (pg. 140ff). (Although, I do use lots of hyphens to describe myself: Anglo – Catholic – Orthodox – Wesleyan – Arminian – Ancient/Future – Semi-Charismatic). At any rate, here are my points of contention:
1) Abortion. Tickle seems to give this huge topic short shrift (pg. 103). She argues that the definition of what it means to be human is currently up for grabs, but does not connect this to the issue of abortion. To put it in academic terms: HELLO!! In chapter 4 she expresses grave concern that the current fight for hegemony (who or what will be the seat of authority) not become a blood bath like the 30 & 80 years’ wars of the Middle Ages. What is abortion if not a blood bath? And what of Nazi concentration camps, and Stalin’s gulags? Countless millions are already very dead in the fight for hegemony. Now I grant that her primary focus is on
4) Authority. The bottom line is that I fail to see how this perennial conundrum will be resolved in a new way in the Great Emergence. It seems all has been tried before: authoritative leaders (bishops, popes, and patriarchs), authoritative bodies (Ecumenial councils, partisan councils, synods, conferences, etc.), authoritative documents (Bible, creeds, bulls, encyclicals, books of discipline, etc.), authoritative experiences (outpouring of the Holy Spirit, tongues, healings, revivals, charismatic preachers, etc.). Tickle talks about authority arising within the conversation of a community that shares a common story and life. This is not predictive but merely descriptive of the beginning stages of how the issue of authority is always resolved. You see it most clearly, perhaps, in the first 500 years of church history. As the community of Jesus grows numerically and geographically, all of the methods of setting proper authority (as listed above) are employed and with good and positive effect. The fact that all of these methods are abused and eventually fall out of favor is no argument for selling them off at the bi-millennial rummage sale. And Tickle does do a good job of showing how Christianity always grows exponentially as sincere believers argue, reject, renew and reform what has been. My point is that as the 21st century progresses “emergents” will invariably turn to and more fully develop the various means of determining authority that history and the Holy Spirit has given us. The problem is that it feels like an all-you-can-eat buffet free-for-all until certain lines can be more solidly established.
5) Orthodoxy. Tickle briefly mentions the importance of Eastern and Oriental Christian exposure in the West. I wish she would have said more, for I believe Eastern Christianity holds a model of authority that the West has ignored since the centuries leading up to the Great Schism. The West consistently has an either/or approach to authority. Uncomfortable with the Bishops of the great sees being relatively equal, the Bishop of Rome becomes the first among equals. Between the Pope and church councils, the Pope must have final say. Between tradition and the Bible, one must be chosen to the diminution of the other. The East, it seems, long resisted this apparent need to locate authority in primarily one vehicle. Orthodox often describe themselves as “conciliar Christians”. They refer specifically to the first seven ecumenical councils. (Certain items from these councils cause a good deal of squirming for Evangelicals, like calling Mary “Mother of God” and the use of icons in worship). Orthodox tend to refer to the consensus that exists over the centuries and over the continents of the earth. Yes, to rest authority in a mushy concept like consensus is messy—indeed, church history is very messy when it comes to the issue of authority. But for Orthodox, the “mess” comes together in the Liturgy to create a vivid and striking mosaic of apostolic, historic, biblical, and catholic Faith. Of course Orthodoxy has experienced huge changes over the centuries, even in the Liturgy. They would argue, however, that the changes largely bring the Gospel into great clarity and fullness. The bottom line is that it is in the corporate worship of the Church, expressed and transmitted in the Divine Liturgy, where authority is most accessible for the Orthodox Christian. Yes, they have priests, Bishops and Patriarchs (and the first among the equal Patriarchates is in Constantinople!), Councils, the Bible, and essential beliefs one must possess to be called Orthodox; but it is in and through worship, liturgy, and the sacraments that the Christian comes to understand and live the truth of the Gospel.
And certainly this is true not only in emergent churches, but also in Evangelical and Protestant churches. Why is Joe Christian such a vociferous proponent of social justice? He grew up in a church where the worship and teaching centered around social justice issues. Why does Sue Christian believe the Word of God, the Bible, to be inerrant and the only authority for the believer? It is her inheritance from the particular people of God she has been in community with. And on it goes. Phyllis Tickle is certainly right about authority flowing out of community. It has always been so. Perhaps the difficulty now is that with technology our “community” has become global in scale!
My concern for emergent churches (and even for my own Wesleyan church) is the kind of formation that is taking place in our corporate worships services. Believers and non-believers ARE being formed and shaped through the songs, preaching, teaching, prayers, drama, café seating and technology that are employed there. I believe that the Great Emergence now happening is forming around the deep roots of the historic Christian faith. If there is a rummage sale happening, what is being sold at discount prices are the now old and out-dated items of the Enlightenment and Modernity. Meanwhile the very old and ancient is being restored and polished and being put in increasingly prominent places in our worship and community life. Will the pop-emergents (those merely seeking the latest do-dad or fad to add to their eclectic faith) and Wesleyans, 50 years from now, find themselves somewhere in or around that ancient center; or instead in the trash bins and refuse piles that much of Protestantism now finds itself in? I think I know the answer and that’s what greatly bothers me.