Chicago. New York. Washington, D.C. In quick succession this year, three women have been chosen to lead historic tall-steeple churches in all these cities.
In May, the Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner became the first woman solo senior pastor at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church. In June, the Rev. Amy Butler was elected senior pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church. And finally, in July, the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli began leading Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.
“For women to speak in those pulpits and speak boldly as public voices in these very public buildings is very powerful,” said the Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, who recently hosted a dinner party with some of New York’s movers and shakers to welcome Butler to town.
It’s been 40 years since the Episcopal Church first ordained women, and other denominations have long included women in their clergy ranks. But these new advances are occurring sooner in the lives of these three women than some of their older counterparts. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research reports that women clergy are much more likely to serve in smaller congregations.
Scholar Diana Butler Bass hailed the arrival of these women — all in their 40s and leading large, urban, neo-Gothic churches — but also wondered if they reflect the “General Motors phenomenon.”
“Are women coming into leadership only as the institutions are collapsing?” asked Bass, author of Christianity After Religion.
Week after bloody week, the chart of killings lengthens. And in Afghanistan, while war rages, a million children are estimated to suffer from acute malnourishment as the country faces a worsening hunger crisis.
Around this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we can and should remember the dream Dr. King announced before the Lincoln Memorial, the dream he did so much to accomplish, remembering his call (as the King Center asks) for nonviolent solutions to desperate concerns of discrimination and inequality within the U.S. But we shouldn't let ourselves forget the full extent of Dr. King's vision, the urgent tasks he urgently set us to fulfill on his behalf, so many of them left unfinished nearly 46 years after he was taken from us.
This is the third and final installment of my little series on Harry Emerson Fosdick, his sermons about Modernism and Science, and how these century-old sermons remind us that our present conversations about the same are anything but new. They may be necessary, but they aren't new. You can read my first post, “I Love How History Repeats Itself,” and my second post, “Science, Faith, and An Ongoing Conversation.”
I want to continue to focus on the same two sermons, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" and "The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism," and finish up a line of thought about American Christian Fundamentalism and interlace a third and final sermon entitled, “The Greatness of God” in which Fosdick outlines some of his own understandings of atheism, science, and religion. Typical of Fosdick, there is a tome hidden in between the lines of that sermon. Nevertheless, I'll try to share some of it with you.
What does Fosdick say is the trouble with Modernism? In “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism,” he lists a few problems. Here's a list:
- “... it is primarily an adaptation, an adjustment, an accommodation of Christian faith to contemporary scientific thinking.”
- for this reason it tends “toward shallowness and transiency” and thus cannot adequately represent the Eternal;
- “Unless the church can go deeper and reach higher than that it will fail indeed.”
- “... excessively preoccupied with intellectualism” eschewing the heart and thus missing much of Christian spirituality
- excessive sentimentality, which means the eternal progress of the human character and the eradication of evil and the loss of moral judgment, scientific progress being equated with human moral progress
- “... modernism has even watered down and thinned out the central message and distinctive truth of religion, the reality of God.”
Forty-five years ago today, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his now-famous speech at Riverside Church in New York City, declaring his opposition to the war in Vietnam. One year later -- 44 years ago today -- he was murdered by an assassin.
It is fitting that these anniversaries occur this year during the week we commemorate the death and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
Dr. King’s Riverside speech is frequently quoted, with his scathing political indictment of the war and the systems of exploitation and oppression that led to it. But how often do we remember that he began that speech by noting that while the Nobel Peace Prize was “a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before,” it was not the most important thing. He continued by saying that:
This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all … Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?
Dr. King was able to be the leader he was, take the risks he did, and ultimately make the final sacrifice, because he knew who called him and who he followed. He knew that the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus was a living presence in his life and gave him the hope to follow.
For him, as well as us, believing in Jesus means being a follower and a disciple in bringing the kingdom he lived and taught. By raising Jesus, by vindicating his life and death, God vindicated his message – the kingdom he proclaimed has come and will come. And because God raised Jesus from death, his living presence continues among us and we are empowered to follow him and to live the kingdom. The resurrection is the event on which our faith and hope depends.
That faith sustained Dr. King, and it can sustain us.
When trying to make sense of the changes that new media have brought to us, we can use either supplementary or substitutionary logic. With supplementary logic, Facebook et al. extend the range of our embodied relationships; with substitutionary logic, social media replace them. Those who want to use social media to enhance their churches' outreach implicitly use supplementary logic. Those who want to worship online and don't want to change out of their pajamas or meet other people in their messy particularity ... well, you get the idea.
A recent trip to New York City for a first meeting of the New Media Project Research Fellows reminded me of the superiority of supplementary to substitutionary logic. This happened because the neighborhood around Union Theological Seminary is so deliciously, specifically, embodiedly particular. Union itself is a marvel: its gothic architecture makes it unmistakable that this is a place with history. Niebuhr taught here; Bonhoeffer smoked and worried and decided to go home here; James Cone and Christopher Morse teach here; Serene Jones leads here. The neighborhood extends this particularity; the Jewish Theological Seminary, down Seminary Row, has a glorious crest above its door: "And the bush was not consumed." A tunnel under Union leads you to the grandeur of Riverside Church, where Fosdick and Forbes thundered. Go a few blocks south and east, and you're at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest interior church space in North America. The morning I visited, the light shone blue through the rose window, filling the clerestory with incandescent beauty. The chapel at Columbia University, with its stained glass above the altar depicting St. Paul preaching on Mars Hill, is a perfect image for situated Christian truth vis-à-vis the gods on campuses and in Manhattan.
This series written by Logan Mehl-Laituri for God's Politics focuses on selective conscientious objection. Read more posts in this series here.
Last March I testified at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War (TCCW) at the Riverside Church in New York City.