A new Reformation: A matter of case

Today most of the Protestant church observed Reformation Sunday, marking the 500th anniversary of the day in 1517 when the German priest Martin Luther posted in Wittenburg his celebrated ninety-five theses, detailing significant errors in theology or practice he found in the way the Roman church was being church. It sparked the Protestant Reformation, and, as people like to say, things haven’t been the same since. The celebration I attended in one congregation today made me aware of my own little reformation of faith, one that has been going on for some time and seemed to want this particular day to crystallize.

Reformation is nothing new in the history of faith. It’s a continuing process. Presbyterians, for example, like to claim their place in the tradition by saying they’re “Reformed and still reforming.” (It reminds me of that great theme of the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking.”) A couple of decades ago Ben Johnson, professor of spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary, published a little book, 95 Theses for the Church, in which he wrote of the growing number of “unchurched” people and observed that the church’s old ways of being church will no longer work. His book was, he wrote, a collection of invitations to conversation, reflection, and evaluation designed as “an attempt to awaken denominations and theological seminaries to their plight” and as a challenge to them to seek new direction.

Denominations and seminaries may be awake to their plight – church membership, at least in the Western world, continues its decline to a degree that can no longer be ignored even by barely informed laypersons – but from my perspective there’s hardly any sign that a necessary new reformation is under way to address the decline and its root causes. Now that I’m retired after thirty-six years as a parish pastor, I find that, surprisingly, I’m hardly if at all concerned with that. I don’t feel a significant interest in the church’s situation, only a mild, detached curiosity, like I’m watching a movie from which I will soon arise and return to the real world.

What does have my interest is my personal reformation of faith. It came out of the shadows in 2003 and has been working on me since, and it starts with what I see as a profound problem with the church. It’s a problem well phrased by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and globally recognized ecumenical teacher who is academic dean of the Living School for Action and Contemplation. Describing what is perhaps the church’s central problem, where it got derailed at the outset nearly two millennia ago, Rohr wrote, “We worshiped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of ‘belonging and believing’ instead of a religion of transformation” (quoted by the Clergy Coaching Network).

So I’ve decided to adopt an editorial style change to help me keep that problem in mind, a selective change in the case of the initial “c” in the name that has been given to the faith tradition that grew up around Jesus. When referring to the organized – some would say “disorganized” – religious association, I’ll use an uppercase “C”: “Christian” or “Christianity.” When referring to the original faith which Jesus embodied and to which he called his first disciples and calls us still, I’ll use a lowercase “c”: “christian” or “christianity.” It’s a small difference in usage and certainly not a new one, but it will keep me mindful of the big difference between religious tradition and the faith of Jesus. I hope it will remind me where to invest my energy.

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