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Keep the faith, change the church

Dr. Tim Huffman (Professor of Christian Mission, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio)

September 10, 2002

These words are the slogan, and the growing battle cry, of those who are working for significant reform in the American Roman Catholic church today. Inspired by the painful crisis of abusive priests, the Boston-based group, Voice of the Faithful (, is the latest of many reform groups popping up almost overnight in all the U.S. church bodies. Church historians will find this an intriguing and significant moment in establishing the direction of Christian denominations for the 21century.

These groups have several things in common. None was planned. They emerged very rapidly in response to events in the respective denominations. The issues ranged from sexual standards for ordination to irresponsible leadership to official actions of national bodies that were not representative of the church bodies as a whole. Each of the groups seems quickly to have moved from the single issue that was the breaking point to a recognition that genuine “re-formation” is needed in structures and a “re-centering” is needed in theology. It is fascinating to read words that would apply to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) written and spoken about the Presbyterian Church USA, the (Protestant) Episcopal Church USA and even the Roman Catholic church.

All these groups represent attempts by people of God with a self-described “centrist” perspective to take back their churchly institutions. Common threads include identifying the failure of systems of checks and balances; the gap between “pew-sitters” and hierarchical decision makers; a sense that these managers and administrators have strayed from the theological center of the church; a call for major structural change and reformation that will resolve these problems and that will embody the priesthood of all believers. Implicit will be a new look at the theology and practice of ordination, and the relation of the ordained to the laity.

We seem to be in a new ecclesial moment, one full of possibility. The decline of the denominations per se did not produce our reform movements, but it does give them more influence than they would have had a generation ago. All mainline denominations are aging, are facing financial problems and are failing to attract adequate numbers of seminarians. The critiques sting because they ring true.

Where is this process leading? One possibility is a new ecumenical alignment that will shake and split all denominations. Another is that denominational leaders will begin to recognize the new instability, and will be proactive in responding to the concerns. The ELCA has new leadership who do seem to understand that major change is needed and that the time is short. In preparation for an Oct. 6 live webcast on the future priorities and mission of the ELCA there is an invitation to address questions and concerns to Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson.

WordAlone (WA) is one pioneer among the new reform groups, and is in contact with others to discern common agendas and useful approaches. WA also could be the first to help shape important change in a mainline denomination, if we find the ways to use our grassroots strengths to maximum effect.