Growing the honest church
Rev. Dr. Andrew J. Good has worked in the ordained ministry for over forty years, chiefly in United States. The main issues addressed in his book The Dishonest Church concern fear and cowardice, honesty and courage, pain and growth in the faith, respect for people and the mystery of God. His main argument is that clergy have gained a considerable amount of important theological knowledge while in training, but that they do not draw on it in their work in ministry, but revert to the more childlike faith that they had held prior to ordination training. He regards this situation as disastrous for the church and totally disrespectful of its lay membership.
“Here is the central issue: pastors and other trained professionals of the church often have developed a system of beliefs that is qualitatively different from the faith they communicate to local congregations. Their individual faith has developed, in most cases, after an intense and sometimes painful time of questioning, dismantling, and reconstruction. For reasons that are not clear, these leaders assume that local church members are either unwilling or unable to survive a similar process. So, in an act of dishonesty that threatens to erode the core of the church’s mission, they hold one kind of faith for themselves while the literature they produce for the laity and the sermons they deliver assume another, basically different, style of faith for the non-professional” (p. 9)
He discerns four main fears:
- Laity will react negatively if challenged to develop a more mature faith
- Clergy are afraid of letting laity think for themselves
- Exposing the human roots of religious tradition will mean it will lose its spiritual power
- Similarly the Bible will lose its power if exposed to criticism
He believes that “facing our fears forces us to acknowledge the wrong-headedness of the church’s desperate effort to avoid honest wrestling with faith.” (p. 122)
Like most other ordinands, he initially found the period of his theological training quite distressing as his teachers challenged his childhood faith. However he soon discovered that he was growing both intellectually in the faith as well as spiritually as a person. He describes well the necessity for faith development as part of a believer’s life long human maturing and quotes from the research of James W. Fowler on stages of faith development
“Truth must be approached from a number of different directions and angles of vision. Faith must learn to maintain the tensions between these multiple perspectives, refusing to collapse them in one direction or another. In this sense faith must come to terms with indissoluble paradoxes: the strength found in apparent weakness; the leadership that is possible from the margins of society….the immanence and the transcendence of God…In what Paul Ricoeur has called a second or willed naivetÈ, persons of the Conjunctive stage manifest a readiness to enter into the rich dwellings of meaning that true symbols, ritual, and myth offer.” (p. 50) (James W. Fowler, Faithful Change: The Personal and Public Challenge of Postmodern Life, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 65)
He writes of people who as teenagers or as young adults became estranged from their churches. What they were being taught in their church clashed with what they were learning in school, perhaps in science. He reports on one such person that “He was no longer willing to hear either his pastor or his parents tell him to accept dogma simply because it had been handed down from one authority figure to another. His sense of estrangement deepened.” (p. 40) Quite a number of years later this same person eventually found a church where the minister respected his desire to grow intellectually in his faith. “This church…was a place of faith, one that embraced secular knowledge as an aid to exploring the Mystery at the core of all that is. For the first time in his life…[he] was in a spiritual environment where his questions, his commitments, and his spiritual quest were welcome” (p. 41)
Dr. Good decided when he was leaving his theological college that he would try to be respectful of the people, whom he would be seeking to minister to, by preaching honestly to them. Yes, they might have to come through a tumultuous phase, but that would be the price of growth. He would journey with them and be there as interpretations of the faith collapsed around them in what one might describe as a ‘theological earthquake’; he would help in the process of the reconstruction of credible beliefs. His personal experience of such a way of preaching and teaching is that “Congregations are not nearly so fragile, nor so unsophisticated in their faith, as many pastors assume” (p. 95) He writes of other clergy who do not use the same approach “Perhaps they see this as kindness, sparing tender people in church pews the pain of reworking their faith. Yet, in protecting people from pain, they also deny them an opportunity for growth” (p. 73).
In a number of well-written chapters he contrasts the ‘Jesus’ learnt about in theological colleges who was shaped by 1st Century Judaism to the ‘Jesus’ presented in sermons. He also explains the differences in a more mature appreciation of the mystery of ‘God’ from the childish picture of the ‘protector god’ who fills much preaching. “Mature people have despaired of hearing God described exclusively as an ancient combination of Superman and Santa Claus.” (p. 37) He is aware that there is and, from the beginning, always have been controversies between theologians with an abundance of contested theories.
This book may well make a considerable number of lay people very angry, why have they been treated as if they did not have the capability for growth towards a fully adult faith? It is not surprising that many people who effectively have left the churches find, when, for some reason, they attend a service, that they experience an uncomfortable sense of unreality in the worship and preaching. Dr. Good believes that courage and honesty, and learning good skills in helping people grow intellectually can help transform our churches, the culture of fear can be addressed and overcome. One of the implications of his outlook is that people will understandably place considerable emphasis on their own findings as they search for meaning, as they both interact with and help shape an evolving Christian tradition. Thought forms more appropriate to a contemporary world will replace the words of ancient creeds.
The Churches in Ireland have plenty of evidence of a culture of fear that has inhibited its clergy from bravely seeking to inform and support their laity on a journey of growth in the faith. However, despite this, there are many laity who have found alternative ways by which to bridge the growing gulf between the pew and the exciting developments in theological thinking over the last two hundred years. They no doubt had their shocks and turbulent times as their childhood faith was dismantled, but if they had not endured such a time they would never have arrived at a reconstructed faith still in the making, that enables them to make more sense of the modern world in which we live. We are called to love God with our minds. The intellectual contribution to religions is essential if they are to continue to be living meaningful traditions and not conservative restrictive practices. I concur with one of his main summaries of the nature of an honest church:
“The honest church… will believe profoundly that an ever-present, persuasive Spirit can make, and is making, a difference. Through worship, the honest church will stress those foundational beliefs that motivate us: that the power/powerlessness of the Numen has been lived out through Jesus of Nazareth, and that the search for ways to encounter and serve the Ultimate Mystery gives breadth, depth, and meaning to life. The honest church will help its members live out the implications of their relationship to this creative, supportive spiritual web in which we exist. In so doing the honest church will remain securely rooted in its tradition, while reaching forward in hope.” (p. 210)
Republished with permission of the author from the (Anglican) Church of Ireland’s journal SEARCH, Vol. 26, No. 3, Winter 2003.