making progress?

I’ve been hearing and reading about Progressive Christianity for the better part of a decade. What I have heard and read has not grabbed me. I grew up in the 1960s when the United Church of my youth was seeking to be a progressive church. I remember the great controversy over the New Curriculum that was intended to be an up-to-date, progressive Sunday School resource. I remember, too, the progressive politics of my father and many other United Church ministers like him. We cheered for the New Democratic Party on election nights. This was, as Dad believed, gospel politics. Now, three decades into the life of an ordained minister of the United Church, I have spent much of my ministry in re-discovery of Scripture and tradition as crucial components in the formation of Christian identity. In the process, my reading of the claims made for Progressive Christianity by its supporters has not been hopeful. Have I been guilty of breaking the ninth commandment by bearing false witness? Perhaps I have. So, when I noticed that a local United Church congregation invites those who visit its website to explore Progressive Christianity, I decided to put down my hermeneutic of suspicion and to take up the invitation. Perhaps this movement is not the enemy that I too often imagine. Perhaps, instead, it is the visit of a holy guest akin to those who arrive at Abraham and Sarah’s table. Since I trust in a God who is providential, might God be providing good news in this distinctive expression of Christianity?

Progressive Christianity is diverse. I followed the link and was taken to that modern day repository of knowledge known as Wikipedia, where I learned that this movement is: “characterized by willingness to question tradition, acceptance of human diversity with a strong emphasis on social justice or care for the poor and the oppressed and environmental stewardship of the Earth.” Reading further, I discovered an extraordinary list of “Notable Progressive Christians.” There I learned that theologians as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr., Tony Campolo, Gretta Vosper, Jay Bakker, Bono and Walter Brueggemann are all considered progressive Christians. Knowing something of the diversity of theology represented by this group, I wondered at how they all fit under the same umbrella. Campolo clearly considers himself to be an evangelical. Brueggemann tells his students that he owes a huge debt to Karl Barth. Vosper’s recent book argues for the abandonment of belief in the transcendence of God, debunking divinity in order to focus on ethics. Wikipedia’s taxonomy of a progressive Christian focuses not on the theological location of the individual but, rather, on their social and political witness. They are progressives politically. But is this what makes for Progressive Christianity? If so, there are many Catholics and Orthodox who would also fit under this broad umbrella.

Continuing my pilgrimage, I visited the home sites of the North American versions of Progressive Christianity. Here, again, I discovered diversity. Both the U.S. based “Center for Progressive Christianity” and its Canadian counter-part, “The Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity,” feature eight points of belief. Both sets of eight fundamentals, for want of a better word, highlight the intention of progressive Christians to be inclusive of all people, to live compassionately and to seek social justice. The difference between these two national expressions seems to reside in their relative comfort level with speaking of Jesus. Neither of the eight point manifestos mentions God. However, the American version of Progressive Christianity does affirm the path and teachings of Jesus, but only as “one of many ways to experience of the Sacredness and Oneness of life ...”. The Canadian Centre does not mention Jesus in its eight identifiers. It does state that progressive Christians “engage in a search that has roots in our Christian heritage and tradition” before it calls its adherents to “embrace the freedom and responsibility to examine traditionally held Christian beliefs and practices, acknowledging the human construction of religion, and in the light of conscience and contemporary learning, adjust our views and practices accordingly.”

My exploration continued. In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle names The Phoenix Affirmations to be the most helpful presentation of Progressive Christianity to date. Drafted by a group of clergy and laity from Phoenix, Arizona these twelve principles continue to be amended (the current set being labelled version 3.8). Divided into three sets that are made of four statements each, the Phoenix Affirmations name what the Christian love (1) of God, (2) of Neighbour and (3) of Self includes. Reading this outline of Progressive Christianity I was reminded of Diana Butler Bass’s recent book, A People’s History of Christianity:The Other Side of the Story. In it, Butler Bass seeks to undergird new expressions of Christianity that are not explicitly evangelical or orthodox with an untold history. She glimpses something coming to birth in the midst of the apparent demise of much of mainline Christianity: "Scholars and observers have been struggling with a name for this rebirth: emerging, progressive, practicing, intentional, neotraditional, new paradigm, postmodern, postliberal, postdenominational, postpartisan and transformational Christianity are all terms used to describe the renewal of mainline and liberal churches and the creation of alternative forms of community (such as house churches and online churches)" (p. 316).

In tracing the arc of Christian history that she sees re-emerging Butler Bass calls this “Great Command Christianity,” grounded in Jesus’ command to love God and to love neighbour. She says that, “Unlike formalized church tradition, something that often appears as an approved list of what to believe and how to act, this is open-ended history. Great Command Christianity invites us to participate in a living tradition, to reconsider faith as a community of people who practice God’s love and mercy through time” (pp. 11-12). This sounds very familiar to me. Like the Phoenix Affirmations, Butler Bass expresses a liberal Christianity that is widely shared in The United Church of Canada.

Back on the northern side of the forty-ninth parallel, it is worth noting that the two most well known Canadian advocates for Progressive Christianity are ministers of the United Church. Gretta Vosper is the founder and past chair of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity. The Centre’s Board of Directors is largely made up of United Church members. In defining Progressive Christianity Vosper writes: "... 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 rigour, 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." While Vosper’s version of Progressive Christianity has taken her beyond belief in a theistic God she argues that the reason for wide diversity of expression within the movement lies in the very nature of being in progress.

The other noted Canadian proponent of Progressive Christianity is Bruce Sanguin, albeit on a distinctive basis. Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver, where he serves, invites newcomers to join them in this way: "Are you seeking an open-hearted and open-minded community to explore the meaning of life? We are an inclusive, dogma-free church that supports the radical exploration of Christianity and your personal spiritual journey. We call this distinctive exploration Evolutionary Christian Spirituality."

While Vosper is eager to shed explicit Christian language in her pursuit of progress, Sanguin’s congregation describes its progress as an expanding, evolving understanding of that language and story: "God is present in the historical unfolding, calling ‘Her/His’ people to go, set out, and to leave behind the security of present circumstances to help realize a sacred future . . . While it is not explicit we think that there is an evolutionary intuition reflected in many of Jesus’ teachings and Paul’s theology . . . From an integral or evolutionary worldview Jesus . . . is the embodiment of the sacred evolutionary impulse itself─one who has consented in absolute fashion to giving his life in sacrificial devotion to the emergence of the new thing God is doing─what he called the Kin(g)dom of God. At this stage, he is regarded once more as fully divine and fully human."

In keeping with his conviction that a progressive Christianity makes imaginative use of the tradition, Sanguin regularly preaches sermons that take their starting point in Scripture from the Common Lectionary. Using an evolutionary hermeneutic, Sanguin’s sermons are thought-experiments in an emerging, not yet fully realized, Evolutionary Christianity.

What to make of my exploration of Progressive Christianity? It is not clear what new form of the church may emerge from this experiment. That there is energy for being the church, for being Christian, for living the Great Command is no small thing. But is this new-found energy a gift of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, or is it driven more by the spirit of the age? I am hesitant to be too bold in answering this question. Throughout my ministry, I have been aware of the ways in which Progressive Christianity seems to reflect the spirit of the age. I have met many lay people who are excited to have discovered what is “newest in theology.” In an age which places extraordinary trust in the benefits of the newest technology, there is danger in trusting that a theology will carry us safely through the storm simply because it is new. Yet Christianity is a future-oriented faith in which we too often spend our time looking in the rear-view mirror at what was, rather than searching the horizon for what lies ahead. At the heart of the gospel is the conviction that history is moving towards the Kingdom of God, or more accurately, that the Kingdom of God is moving towards us from tomorrow. To the extent that Progressive Christianity reminds the church of this future orientation, it stands as a witness to God’s promises that we are pilgrims on a journey toward the justice that comes from divine judgment and to the mercy that is the gift of God’s amazing grace.

My hesitancy in coming too quickly to a negative judgment about the value of Progressive Christianity also may be a result of the discovery that my body is now in the process of progressing toward its end. While that is always true for all of us, the recent diagnosis of multiple myeloma has resulted in further progress of my soul along its earthly pilgrimage. I see familiar faces, lives, ideas and concerns through a new lens. I am more curious than I have been, more open to other possibilities, ready to be taught rather than to teach. At the same time, I find myself listening intently for a gospel word addressed to my mortal condition.

To the extent that Progressive Christianity is a contemporary offshoot of the taproot known as the social gospel, it is a crucial voice in the conversation and a welcome guest at the table. Yes, the social gospel is not restricted to those known as Progressive Christians. But the social dimension of Christianity is a common thread within Progressive Christianity. Any contemporary lived witness to the Christian gospel that is worth its salt will speak and act with courage against injustice and oppression. Too much of what passes for “spirituality” in today’s marketplace - both within and without the church - is mute when it comes to the prophetic calling to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. My own journey this past year has brought me under the tender care of a hematologist who was raised on a farm in Libya. An immigrant to Canada, a Muslim by faith, he is a brilliant and caring man who is tending me through my trials and tribulations. Through it all, I am a recipient of the benefits of a medical system imagined by forbears in the social gospel, the cost of my care being shared by all Canadians. The ethic that Progressive Christianity holds dear, and finds compelling, is wonderfully expressed in the care that I am receiving.

And yet. And yet there is something crucial that is missing for me in Progressive Christianity. A lifetime in ministry has taught me that the social gospel also must be deeply personal. If the evangelical church has too often ignored the gospel’s call to society, then the liberal church, of which Progressive Christianity is an heir, has regularly ignored the difficult personal journey that the Bible describes as confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, leading to redemption. In its enthusiasm for finding new ways of living the Christian life, Progressive Christianity drops the narrative of sin and salvation. But a pastor who pays attention soon discovers that every household and every neighbourhood is immersed in this troubling yet life-giving plot. No wonder that Twelve Step groups multiply in the church basement during the week while the mainline church living above it struggles Sunday by Sunday. Twelve Step groups know that sobriety is a matter of life and death. They know that conversion to a new way of life is only possible when the addicted are prepared to give their lives over to a Higher Power. When Christianity is reduced to the Great Commandment it becomes a wise life, a good life, a life that is in our control - if we will only do as we ought. What then when a son or a daughter, a father or a mother, or you yourself can no longer do what you ought? What is gospel then?

And what is gospel when the doctor tells you that your time is running out? I live on the west coast of Canada were death, like sin, goes largely unspoken. When death occurs, it has become a time not for funerals but for “celebrations of life,” gatherings that look back at memories of what has been because there is little promise of life to come. This, the culture assumes, is progress. Progressive Christianity, as it currently articulated, does not speak boldly or prophetically to a culture that is afraid of death, nor to people who find themselves or their loved ones dying. The biblical language of lament and sorrow leading to the impossibly good news of life and joy on the other side is deemed archaic. The narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection seems more an embarrassment than inexplicable, good news of great joy.

It leaves me wondering at what point Christian faith slides into something else. When does the pursuit of the sacred out ahead no longer look like the search for the God met in Jesus Christ? Should Christian faith be defined by the present feelings of members of the contemporary church? Does the community form Christian faith, or is the church called out from society to be something that it did not (and does not) invent? Can we really "reinvent" Christianity? These are questions that have followed me throughout a ministry in the midst of the progressive mind-set that is often prevalent in the United Church. My witness has leaned into the formative power of Christian Scripture and tradition to shape a faithful church and away from the supposed need to be liberated from Christian dogma and doctrine. But I recognize that the court room in which such witness is given will hear a variety of truth-tellers before coming to its conclusions.

Progressive Christianity, like the liberal theology from which it springs, is worried that the church’s tradition has become an idol. It fears that we will not spot God reaching towards us from the future because we are so busy looking back at the God met in the past. At the same time, like liberal theology, Progressive Christianity can too easily abandon precious truth in its eagerness to keep up with the times. Knowing what of the new is of the God, whom our ancestors met in the Law and the Prophets, as well as in the One born in a manger and hung on a cross, is never as easy as we would like. Prophets and prophetic movements are regularly ignored and persecuted in their time, unwelcome in their home towns. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff in Progressive Christianity, as in any emergent movement in the church, takes place over time as the fruits of its witness become known. Is this a dead end or a new beginning? On this side of the Kingdom, the answer is not as clear we would wish. As Paul says, “we see in a mirror dimly” (I Corinthians 13:12). It is striking that it is Paul, who seems so sure about so much, who testifies that in the light of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection we see but three things with clarity: faith, hope and love.

Readers of a journal that is named Touchstone are well situated for the difficult but crucial work of discerning the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst from the spirit of the age (and of discerning when the Holy Spirit is at work in the spirit of the age). It was a surprise to me when I learned the origin of the word “touchstone.” A touchstone is not a precious mineral. Its value does not lie in what it is, but in what it discloses. The touchstone’s value comes when the prospector discovers something that is, by all appearances, surely gold. How to know that it is not fool’s gold, a fake, a fraud? Only by rubbing the rock across the touchstone to see if it makes the dependable mark that tells one and all: gold.

As we dialogue with those who claim that Progressive Christianity is the gold that we are together seeking, a sign of the future God has long promised, we will do well to continue to carry with us the touchstone of Scripture and tradition that has been passed on to us. Scripture and tradition do not constitute the presence of God. But they also are not weights to be discarded or prisons from which we need to be freed. The priceless value of Scripture and tradition lies in its capacity to form a people who are better able to sort the wheat from the chaff when faced with the next new thing that promises progress toward the Kingdom of God.

                                                        - Edwin Searcy
                                                                   originally published in Touchstone (January 2012)


  1. Wow. That was quite a complex piece. It would take a lot to comment on that. (Although I did find myself responding to the sentence "Should Christian faith be defined by the present feelings of members of the contemporary church?" with the thought "But isn't that true throughout the history of Christianity? Hasn't the church often - one might almost say always - been "contemporary" with the feelings of its time?"

    Anyway, I was thinking about the fact that Walter Wink just died. I had always hoped to see him, and sadly missed him when he was recently here. I guess I should just start reading his books.

    The other thought I had when you mentioned the fact that no one talks about death is that maybe we should. I think about it quite a lot these days. I suspect some of the older members of UHill do as well. Would we ever be brave or vulnerable enough to have a public conversation about it?

    1. Thanks for your good reply Susan. It sounds like its time to get together for a cup of coffee! I guess my comment about whether the faith should be defined by the feelings of the contemporary church is not about interpreting the faith in contemporary terms so much as it is feeling free to change the basic definitions of the church and the faith by trumping what we have received with our own version of Christianity. Are we free to we abandon central doctrines/teachings of Christian faith simply because we don't like them or agree with them and/or because they are a hard sell in the time and place in which we live? And, yes, talking about death publicly is something that we need to foster within our life together. If anyone should be able to talk about death it is people who worship under the state's cruelest instrument of death. There is more about that in the piece called "Funerals as Counter-Cultural Practice" posted here on April 17 (click on the "testimony" category and scroll down to find it quickly). Actually, it is not just the older members who want to talk about the subject of death. That is one thing pastors learn early on. Thanks again for your good reply - its always good to hear from you.

  2. As usual, a thoughtful piece, Ed, thank you! As I absorb your scribblings of late, I also ponder ways in which our conversations as student/supervisor might be somewhat different if they were occurring now. Holding you in prayer, dear friend and pastor, as you walk this part of your particular pilgrimage. None need be alone; all are part of God's story. Thanks be to God!