In 2008 Phyllis Tickle introduced the theory that every 500 years there has been a major shift in western Christianity in her book, The Great Emergence. This means that we are in the midst of another significant shift presently, which she calls the “Great Emergence.” I’m reading her follow-up book entitled, Emergence Christianity, in which she attempts to define and describe the present movement. Besides her endearing writing style, I appreciate the journalistic objectivity that comes with not being an academic or a cleric.

I will focus this post on the first half of the book where she recounts the events that paved the way for Emergence Christianity. “As a general rule, the first substantive evidence that a serious change is in process is the presence of organized, albeit not always well rationalized, resistance…” This resistance took the form of Vatican I and the declaration of the infallibility of the pope for Roman Catholics; for Protestants it was the declaration of the five fundamentals at the Niagara Bible Conferences, with the inerrancy of Scripture being central. A central question in the history of the western church is: Where is the authority?

Our denomination, Mennonite Church Canada is in the midst of an ongoing process of discernment called “Being a Faithful Church” that is designed to discern the homosexual question, but has up to this point been rightly consumed with the prerequisite foundational question about how we read and interpret Scripture. How is Scripture an authority? A few quotes from Tickle’s book are insightful in this regard.

“In the years immediately preceding 1868 [before Vatican I and the Niagara Bible Conferences], the disestablishment of slavery had delivered a major blow to the principle of biblical inerrancy and, thereby, to Scripture’s role as the absolute basis of authority in latinized [western] Christendom. While the Bible does not require that one person own another, it clearly acknowledges that practice and clearly provides for its just application. And by 1868, there could be no question about the fact that abolition, whatever else it did, had declared that what was permitted in Holy Writ was wrong—egregiously wrong.”

From here Tickle mentions the events, movements and people that gave rise to a new way of Christianity: the Pentecostal movement on Azusa Street and the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the century, in the 1930’s and 40’s it was the Catholic Worker Movement, the Iona Community, and Taize, house churches and what is now known as Neo-Monasticism in the 1950’s and beyond, Vatican II, liberation theology and the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, John Wimber’s Vineyard movement and music festivals such as Greenbelt in the 1970’s and beyond, and hyphenated Christianity exemplified by people such as Robert Webber [Ancient-Future Faith] and Brian McLaren [Generous Orthodoxy] moving into the new millenium.

The following quote comes toward the end of this historical section, but it ties back to the previous quote and also to the process that our denomination is in at present.

“The rightness of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered life, much less the rights of those who so live, was to dominate cultural conversations for decades. It certainly was to thrust [western] Christian theology and ecclesiology into a divisive turmoil that has not yet reached resolution… The injunction against homosexuality in all its forms is the last of the biblically based injunctions still standing in the [western] world. Should it come to be resolved, the doctrine of Protestant inerrancy will have no other battlefield on which to defend itself.”

Although our denomination does not use the word “inerrancy” or even “infallibility” in our doctrine of Scripture, we do hold the Bible to be a “fully reliable and trustworthy standard” for the church. We are in the midst of a long and messy journey together. Will we sacrifice propositions or people in this process?

My next post will focus more on the main theme of the book—the nature of Emergent Christianity.