Make the Destination Clear: “The Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement” – what does that mean?
The promo on the Episcopal Church web page for the Beloved Community” begins, “As the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, we dream and work to foster Beloved Communities..”
I’ve written about the notion of the Jesus Movement here” http://anglicanfuture.blogspot.com/2017/06/why-jesus-movement-movement-does-not.html
My concerns about the phrase “Jesus Movement” was that it has been used in very sloppy ways by a variety of people and groups that would have found The Episcopal Church to have been decidedly NOT part of its work. Any movement must be defined not just by what it moves away from (say stagnation and cooption) but by what it moves towards. That something towards which it moves is not spelled out, except by reference to fostering Beloved Communities.
Beloved Communities are communities loved by someone, in this case one assumes by God. And the assumption is that by being communities of love ourselves we are reflecting God’s love and are in turn loved by God. Beloved is a community activity, engaging both God’s actions and ours.
This stuff of doing what the Lord requires - It’s a fine notion, one that I readily affirm. Micah got it, Jesus got it, the Apostles and Prophets got it, and even I’ve got it. If that is what the Jesus Movement is – a movement fostering beloved communities – great.
But about the Episcopal Church being a “branch” of the Jesus Movement, I am unclear and unmoved.
The phrase “The Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement” is an amazing conflation of two very different images of life in Christ – one quite institutional and the other quite individual.
Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” It is a stretch to say “branches” had anything to do with churches. And yet there are amazing numbers of charts that show the church branches that have grown out from the tree of life (i.e. Jesus).
As a teenager in New Orleans, a strongly Catholic town at the time, my priest showed me this chart with Anglican churches clearly labeled as being in continuity with the main trunk of faithful people. With some pride he talked about how we Anglicans were the third largest branch of the Church. So in spite of what those Roman Catholics would say, we are a branch of the true church. And, just as icing on the cake, he then would reference the “I am the vine, you are the branches” statement, as if that settled the matter. But of course it didn’t.
It was a useful image for me as a teenager, in love (as much as I could expresse it) at that time with Roman Catholic young woman. It gave me talking points in conversations about our religious beliefs. IT kind of gave me a pedigree.
The reference, “The Episcopal branch” is a hint back to the assurance that what we are about is both part of the core activity of being followers of Jesus, and being part of the “true” church. May it be so.
But the problem is that the Jesus Movement, which is not apparently an edifice or tree or vine or any other definable organized entity, is that it is not something that has branches. It is not an organization (like say a bank) that has branch offices. It is not a tree or vine organized as a living organism that has tendrils or new growth extensions.
I believe the Jesus Movement is an aspirational and spiritual declaration, and as a result, it is part of the personal side of the baptismal covenant. The individual (I) joins this movement towards belonging to and engaging with the beloved community. But the beloved community is itself “not of this world.” It is not an organized entity of any sort. Rather beloved community is found as we gather in a whole variety of ways to live out what Moses, Micah, other prophets, and Jesus (and a whole host of others) point us towards.
The notion that The Episcopal Church is a “branch” of some ongoing historical organization called “the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” is an institutional claim. But what is it to say we are a branch of the Jesus Movement? I think it means almost nothing.
Fostering beloved communities is not the same as establishing new communities that will somehow BE beloved communities. We can foster beloved communities in every parish in the church, but the funds for such efforts tend to go to “new” work, not to support of already existing parishes so that they become agents of new community. The new work being funded looks increasingly parallel to, but not included in, the ongoing effort to foster beloved community IN parishes. Giles Fraser in an article posted this week https://unherd.com/2020/08/the-neoliberal-revolution-within-the-church/
points to a similar dynamic in the Church of England.
Episcopalians can be, and I hope are, part of the Jesus Movement. I hope I am. I hope we take our baptismal vows seriously. And I believe I am not the vine, but a really small tendril from that vine, one of the followers of Jesus.
But the Episcopal Church is not such a branch. People are.
So when there is this rush to do “new work” we in the church may be told that this is all about being the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, but don’t believe it. It may indeed be about doing or supporting very important and good work “fostering beloved community.” Those ongoing communities of faithful people gathered in congregations across the land will be mostly left out of the conversation.
Existing parishes will mostly be left to their own devices, the bigger and better off will make it. The smaller and less financially capable will mostly die off. And new work will be mostly unrelated to the institutional Church at all. The branch of the tree may whither even as new shoots are planted.
All of this may be part of moving on, and if so let it be. But don’t mutter about the Episcopal part of the Jesus Movement. I am not at all sure that there will be any need for bishops in the Jesus Movement at all, much less The Episcopal Church.
Time to clean up the language, or else, to use Fr. Fraser’s insight) face into the new-liberal deconstruction of the church as we now know it.
I believe we need to make the destination clear. If the call to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement is a post-denominational claim or an extra-institutional claim, then be clear that what we are asked to join and support is not new work of The Episcopal Church but rather the work of Jesus people moving on towards the realization of the beloved community. This is the new wine, new wine skin crowd. . If we are The Episcopal Church AS an organization fostering Beloved Community in our own corporate life, perhaps we might better start by helping existing communities to be more like the communities we are called to be. This is the crowd that seeks to be born again, even when old.
Me, I’d like to see the church that perpetually seeks a rebirth of wonder. (To cop a phrase from Lawrence Ferlinghetti). But if it must be, get a new wine skin for new wine.
Either way: Make the path clear.