The high school from which my wife graduated 50 years ago is in a district of just one square mile, assuring that it will always be relatively small and tight knit. The many who have lived their entire lives in or very nearby are deeply and intimately dedicated to the school and what it stands for in a way I have not ever experienced. Consider that these people were together from kindergarten through grade 12 as one unified class. Those who remained in the area have only deepened their loyalty to the heritage that is theirs through that school experience.
Indeed, heritage is the word I heard over and over again during our few days in Oklahoma. Oddly enough, it was never defined, just assumed. Exactly what is the heritage of which they are so proud and to which they are so loyal? It was never said. The most common meaning of heritage has to do with cultural traditions and values, and I was fascinated that those traditions and values seemed to be assumed without the need to articulate them. As a visitor, even an informed visitor, all I could do was guess as to what they might be.
If I ever get the chance to sit down for a good long visit (interrogation?) with a couple of their leaders, I’d like to find out what they think that heritage actually is. It must be something important because they are certainly loyal to it. My one guess is that, however defined, it might serve as something of a bulwark against the anxieties of uncertain times and undesired change.
Does any of that have to do with church? It does in my mind.
It made me reflect on how we deal with heritage in the mainline Protestant church world. Do we clergy, who are deeply loyal to the traditions and values of our denominations, ever try very hard to articulate what they are to the people who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday? I don’t think so. Good people desiring a nurturing and nourishing worship experience wander from Presbyterian to Methodist to Episcopal to Lutheran to Baptist without ever recognizing the serious theological traditions and values that underly each of them.
For example, when I arrived in the parish from which I retired, I discovered an erstwhile member trying as hard as she could to remake it into something more out of the holiness tradition. I doubt if it ever occurred to her that being Episcopalian in the Anglican tradition was anything other than local custom. Moreover, I doubt if she knew much about the holiness tradition either. She just liked the style of worship and conservative theology that she saw in local congregations and read about in books from popular sources.
The point is that, regardless of denomination, most mainline Protestant clergy are lousy at articulating what it is that makes their particular tradition a unique part of the Body of Christ with unique gifts to offer. If there ever was a time when the heritage of a denomination could be assumed because everyone who is a part of it has always been a part of it, it is long gone.
There is no such thing as generic Christianity. The particularities of our denominations have real meaning. They cannot be assumed. They need to be well taught and well understood, not to further divide us, but for two other reasons:
First, so that members worshiping in a particular tradition more fully understand how that tradition leads them into deeper communion with God in Christ.
Second, so that we all may more richly benefit from what each has to offer to the whole.