Sabbath Day – Our Confessional Heritage
In 1923 Karl Barth delivered a series of lectures at the University of Göttingen on “The Theology of the Reformed Confessions.” These lectures have been translated into English and were published as part of the Columbia Series in Reformed Theology in 2002. The lectures ran from May 1 through July 27, and in their published form are accompanied by the dates of their delivery. Lectures break off in mid-thought, only to be picked up again in the subsequent lecture with, seemingly, no concession to the students by way of summation of where they had left off. (Parenthetical remarks do, sometimes!, to remind students what had been spoken about previously).
Months ago I had committed myself to make these lectures part of my summer reading. Dutifully, I began on May 1, reading a lecture day. I’m not sure if I reveal myself as a historian, a geek, or a Presbyterian/Reformed nerd, but I have found (most of) the lectures page turners – and in a flurry of reading since Tuesday, have completed my study. (Particularly compelling were Barth’s assessment of the Westminster Confession as a “tragedy,” “Calvinism’s death,” a “failure” and “a plague”.)
My copy the lectures could be spotted today at Dunkin Donuts (8:30 AM), in Starbucks (noon), at a local Deli (2:00), and at the GW Elementary playground (4:30) as I waited for my son to be released from his after-school “Mad Scientist Club”.
Some Important Context: The congregation I serve is preparing for its 300th anniversary. We date our founding as May 27, 1714, so we have 24 months to get ready. We have committed to using the next two years to explore our past so that during the actual anniversary year (May 2014-May 2015) we can focus on our present life and imagine our future calling (the next 300 years). As part of this “looking back” process, we are holding a series of “Heritage Days.” Our first, focusing on “Our Confessional Heritage” is coming up next week. My mind is very occupied with preparing for this.
We have hanging in our sanctuary a series of eight banners representing eight of the nine confessions which make up the first part of our church constitution, the Book of Confessions. Not only have we never acquired a banner for the ninth confession (The Brief Statement of Faith of 1990), but the existing banners are showing their age (they are modeled on a series of banners commission by the congregation in Port Jervis in 1968 – our banners were created not long after, and show it: several symbolic colors now blur into a drab brown/grey). These banners were first presented to our congregation using a service of worship created by Avery and Marsh, then worship leaders in Port Jervis (1968). Their “Festival of Banners” has been in continual use ever since. White Plains Presbyterian Church held a “Festival of Banners” again in 1996, and a quick web search reveals congregations using it as recently as Reformation Sunday 2011.
Well, the historian in me has found this service, to say the least, problematic. To take but one example: the text for the Nicene Creed, and the accompanying banner, appear to uncritically celebrate the tradition of “Imperial Christianity.” Not only should this have been problematic in the original context (1967/8 – a period of anti-colonial struggle and liberation movements), but it certainly should have been troublesome for my multi-cultural, international, increasingly progressive congregation in 1996. The service as a whole is also triumphalist, a-historically anti-catholic, and thoroughly Western in orientation. I have found myself over the last few weeks trying to tinker with the service – but in the end I have had to chuck the entire thing and start from scratch. What is needed is a compelling history of our confessional heritage that makes our broadening/inclusive/progressive history worthy of our commitment. What we now have planned for Sunday, May 20, owes its inspiration, and little else, to the original “Festival of Banners.” In fact, though the banners will be on display in our sanctuary, the word “banner” will not be heard at all.
For several weeks I have been immersing myself in confessional theology (thus the impatience to finish Barth’s lectures). Numerous resources cover my desk (my chairs, my floor, my bedside), all of them alternatively compelling and dull (BOC, Dowey, Rogers, Hendry, Kirkpatrick, Pelikan, Dempsey-Douglas, Wilmore, Iosso). Recent works on theology and empire fill my shelves and inform my thought. Conversations within my congregation of The Accra Declaration (Ghana), The Belhar Confession (South Africa), and the New Social Creed must be addressed. Future liturgies based the Brief Statement of Faith (Pentecost, May 27), and The Confession of 1967 (June 3) are very much in mind.
All of this is to say – I have spent more than twelve hours today reading, mediating on, praying over, and writing about “Our Confessional Heritage.” And though the disciplined and Sabbath-observant part of myself says that this is “work”, I have enjoyed every minute of it. And though my dissertation has been set aside again, the historian in me is completely satisfied.
In my slightly-OCD/self-accountable records, I count today as a full work-day (preparation for next week), and a completed Sabbath (twelve hours contemplating the Glory of God). Every moment has felt prayer-full/prayer-filled; the members of my congregation have accompanied me at every step; my scholarship has been opus dei; God has been revealed to me anew, and I return to ministry renewed.