An article of mine, published in this month’s Presbyterian Record. The Record’s online version is here.
During my years within the Presbyterian Church in Canada, I have noticed we have a bad habit when it comes to our use of the possessive pronoun in the first person plural—that’s right, with the word “our.” Whether it’s within the courts of the denomination, informal gatherings of clergy, or meetings within the denominational colleges, that little word rears its head in the most inappropriate way.
Let me be more precise. It’s not just our use of the word “our” that gets me exercised. Rather, it is the phrase “our church” that frustrates me. What is the provenance of this phrase? Why do we use it? Do we not realize how theologically inappropriate it is?
The theological problem can easily be clarified: Our use of the possessive pronoun introduces a line of division within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. If the church is one, how can it be appropriate to speak of “our church,” since this language assumes that there is some other church out there (”their church”)? In this respect we do well to remember that there is only one person who is free to use the possessive pronoun with reference to the one church—but he uses it in the first person singular. Jesus says: “It is my church.”
But our use of the possessive pronoun is unsettling for another reason—it gives expression to a hopeless tribalism.
Though my grasp of the denomination’s history isn’t terribly strong, I’m left to wonder whether this phrase isn’t yet another symptom of Presbyterian insecurity in the wake of church union. While we could just as easily speak of “our denomination” or refer more generally to “the Presbyterian Church in Canada,” we often choose to employ the more substantive “our church.” It comes across almost as an instance of communal self-talk by which we try to convince ourselves of our significance.
Consider an encounter recently described to me: A minister who has belonged to the PCC for a lifetime said to a minister who had joined some years ago from another denomination: “When did you join our church?” The questioner’s use of the possessive pronoun points to the tribalism that underlies every use of the phrase.
Communities, by definition, are set apart by their distinctive beliefs, lexicon, and practices. Yet the boundary between a given community and the wider society can range from rigid/closed on one end to flexible/porous on the other. Our easy use of the phrase “our church” suggests a rigid/closed perimeter around the denomination—which implies that tribalism is just the right word to describe our sense of ourselves and our relation to the wider world.
Lest you think I’m using the pages of the Record merely to air my own petty grievances or to split theological hairs, consider the challenges we face as a denomination. The Christendom model that has sustained Presbyterianism through generations is nearing collapse and we face a significant demographic drop-off in the years ahead.
The shine has come off Presbyterianism. Almost everything in our 21st-century context points to our need to develop novel forms of Christian community, alternative patterns of worship, a more imaginative language of faith, and new approaches to the task of witness for Christ. But the lack of a flexible/porous boundary around our community of faith prevents us from reaching out, with any kind of ease, toward a new language of faith and toward new practices.
Otherwise put, our tribalism is slowly suffocating us. As long as we are characterized by a preoccupation with “our church,” then by definition we are closed to the gospel improvisation that the Spirit might perform among us, we are closed to the creative practices that might define us in the years ahead, and we are closed to those persons who would bring us astonishingly fresh ideas about discipleship.
Maybe you are thinking that the last thing we need is someone else slagging the denomination or reminding us of our decline. I have no interest in wasting my breath with such negativity. But perhaps some honesty about our circumstance will provide an impetus toward the risk-taking and imaginative openness which must define the church today, which must become the hallmark of any denomination that would look hopefully to the future that God in Christ gives.
Without such creative openness all we are left with is “our church”—and that’s not enough.