So, some folks I know are running an “Eight Letter” conference in Toronto at the start of next month. Taking the letters to the seven churches in John’s Apocalypse as the point of departure, they have extended an invitation and asked people to pen an “eighth letter” to the contemporary church in North America. Of course, certain high-status people — Shane Claiborne, Pete Rollins, etc. — were contacted as well and will end up dominating the presentations (because, hey, whose going to pay to attend a conference where a bunch of nobodies share their thoughts? However, if you take a few nobodies and then mix them up with a group of somebodies, then you’ll make a profit and look like you’re doing something radical… which will sell more tickets!).
I’ve been thinking about what an eighth letter might look like, and have resisted writing anything because it seems presumptuous to write to “the Church in North America” in the same way that Jesus is said to have dictated letters to the churches in Asia Minor.
Additionally, I find myself at a loss when it comes to recognizing “the Church” in North America. What is this Church? Is it all those who gather together — in part — because they confess Jesus as Lord and participate in the sacraments? How can this be the case when various factions exist within this Church, and many of those factions are excommunicating, damning, or refusing to be in fellowship with various other factions (or, as in the recent case of one parish in Vancouver, are actually taking each other to court in order to try and possess properties valued around $20,000,000)?
Is it simply those who gather together in a way that I think more truly reflects what it means to follow Jesus (“new monastic” communities and so forth)? Wouldn’t that simply be me engaging in a similar action of excommunication and refusal of fellowship? I refuse to think that I can determine what is or is not the proper form of Christianity. Sure, I have my own beliefs about Christianity, and I openly espouse them and argue them (in part, because I’m willing to be converted), but that doesn’t mean that I think those who believe different things are not members of the people of God.
Is it, instead, the “Church of the poor” whose members apocalypse the crucified body of Christ in our day and age? If that is the case, then who am I — a person neither poor nor crucified — to pen such a letter? Wouldn’t one want to be a member of this Church before presuming to write to it?
Or is it simply the sum total of individuals in our context who are living a life empowered by the Spirit of Jesus? But if that is the case, does it make sense to talk of a “church” — an assembly of people gathered together? Furthermore, how are members of this group even identifiable to us? We can’t know them with any certainty, and the result would be a letter written to a non-existent theoretical audience rather than a letter written to any concrete persons.
Finally, perhaps “the Church” is some combination of all of the above? Would it be better to address a letter “to all those in North America who believe they are members of the body of Christ, as well as all those Scripture identifies as members of the people of God”? However, how can a person hope to write a single letter addressing this massive, disparate body?
At the conference in Toronto, I expect people will simply assume that everybody knows who or what “the Church” is and then will use that to push agendas for which they have already been fighting. There is nothing particularly wrong with that — I expect people like Wendy will speak about sexuality because she believes that “the Church” in North America really does need to address this issue, people like Shane will speak about Empire because he believes that “the Church” really needs to respond to this, and so on and so forth. However, I’m at a complete loss as to what I would say because I don’t know where or what “the Church” in North America actually is.
A little help here?