Leading From the Center: Strengthening the Pillars of the Church by William J. Weston
Part I: How did we Get Here?
Chapter 1 - Too Big: The Inclusive Liberal Church of Charles A. Briggs
The first chapter introduces us to Charles A. Briggs, a Presbyterian professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York in the late 1800s. Briggs studied theology in Germany and became a proponent of the higher critical approach to scripture. His teaching spawned a series of church court cases that led to his suspension from the ministry in 1893. A couple of colleagues soon followed.
Weston gives some helpful background to the case. I found two lengthy paragraphs particularly fascinating:
On January 1, 1891, a few weeks before he delivered the address at Union Seminary for which he was tried, Briggs published a clear statement of his vision of the church in “The Advance toward Church Unity”:
[I]t is only within recent years that liberty and variety have been won within denominational lines. The victory results in the decay of denominational lines. This victory results in the decay of denominationalism; for in most, if not all, of the denominations there are those who break over the lines to the right and left and clasp hands with kindred spirits in other denominations. The conservatives are, for the most part, denominationalists, but the progressives are indifferent to denominational difference, and are most interested in the progress of the Church of Christ as a whole. The progressives [in each denomination] … are now the most powerful parties. The only hope of conservation is to unite the conservatives of all denominations against the progressives of all denominations. But so soon as this is accomplished the denominations will pass out of existence, and two great parties will divide Christianity between them. The old controversies are dead and buried; it is impossible to revive them. Those differences that gave the denominations their existence have lost their importance. … The signs of the times indicate that we are rapidly approaching … a crisis that will destroy denominationalism and make the Church of Christ one.
These words of a century ago could have been written by liberals today. Liberals today are drawn to the view that there is a vast “restructuring of American religion” that will dissolve the old denominations. If today they are not as likely to believe that “the progressives are now the most powerful parties” in each denomination, they often believe that history is on their side. Briggs makes the error here of treating conservatives and denominationalists as the same thing. Conservatives often agree with liberals that “the denominations will pass out of existence, and two great parties will divide Christianity between them.” Loyalists, however, stubbornly preserve the denomination as the living form of the church. Activists, whether of the left or the right, who miss this point, often end up outside the church. (14)
I almost laughed out loud as I read this passage and reflected on the fact that it was written 115 years ago! Not only is this worthy of reflection from the standpoint of the PCUSA but also for the emerging Church conversation. I have been in conversation with some emerging types who believe the postmodern world will usher in an entirely new state of human existence and denominations, along with many other social structures, will dissolve away. It is a historical inevitability. Mark Twain’s comment “Tales of my passing have been greatly exaggerated” comes to mind here. I do believe that we are experiencing a major upheaval and transformation of institutions but complete dissolution seems highly unlikely to me. It just isn’t clear what the new structures will look like. Briggs was predicting the imminent demise of denominations and then the culture entered a period almost hyper-denominationalism.
The basic impact of the Briggs saga was twofold. First, his vision expanded the boundaries of the church beyond that which conservatives could tolerate. They feared retreat from the Westminster Confession and doctrinal standards. Weston suggests that indeed Briggs and likeminded leaders probably sowed the seeds that lead to the abandonment of Westminster as the only confession in the 1960s.
Second, in essence Briggs vision dissolved the denomination in its efforts to create a broad inclusive “Church of Christ.” The institutional loyalists rejected that vision and saw it as a threat. It would appear from hindsight that they were justified in their fears as Briggs went on to become a champion of organic union between all denominations.
Weston writes that liberals were chastened by the Briggs case and a couple other notable dismissals in the 1890s. He closes the chapter by noting that:
They [liberals] learned a greater respect for compromise and for the constitution of the church. For this reason they had much greater success in broadening the institutional base of the church in the decades of the 1900s. Ultimately the ability of liberals to compromise with the loyalists – and the rejection of accommodations by the conservatives – would mean the triumph of pluralism in the Presbyterian Church for a long time. (18)
In short, the liberals wanted a church that was too big, too fast.