Whether we like it or not, church exists within a cultural context. We are therefore faced with a choice, interact with the milieu or basically ignore it and continue the same practices regardless. And when the church has hundreds of years of proud history informing its practices, such a choice is heavily weighted towards status quo.
I love the Episcopal Church, I love the reverence we afford the Bible, our traditions and to reason. And this tripartite understanding of what informs us is integral to who we are as Episcopalians. We call it the “three-legged stool” and its origins are foundational to the formation of our church, having originated with the great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (c. 1554-1600). The notion is that each are required to balance out how we operate as a church, and provide the authority under which we operate.
Eminent Oxford Systematic Theologian and Anglican Priest, John Macquarrie (c. 1919-2007) argued that three other ‘legs’ might be included, experience, revelation and culture. And I believe his suggestion of the inclusion of ‘culture’ provides a way forward to how we the church continue to remain relevant while respecting our traditions.
But rather than ‘legs of a stool’, I prefer Bishop Munday’s more helpful image of each being part of ‘ascending towers’. Scripture remains at the foundation, tradition resting on Scripture, Reason upon Scripture and Tradition. And to build on this, I see this ‘tower’ as existing within the context of culture. That each is referenced continually to our cultural context.
And one significant cultural reality that the church is still to fully embrace or reconcile is the digital.
As Bishop Andy Doyle rightly points out here, this is a new missionary context. Through social media, websites, apps and wearable technology, we have a vastly influential new way to be church.
Our job is to discover where people are already dwelling and learn what brought them there. The online world might feel like a wilderness road, but it is where the Spirit is drawing us to participate in meaningful conversations as we seek to embrace and learn from communities that already have an online presence.
These ‘wilderness roads’ are actually well established highways, and represent extraordinary opportunities to grow our impact as a church. The spread of the gospel and consequential growth of the early church would not have happened as quickly if it wasn’t for the Roman Empire’s transport advancements. The Roman Empire built a vast series of roads spanning from the Atlantic coast of Europe to the boarders of India, covering a distance of some 250,000 miles. They were all paved, and mostly in excellent condition. So by the time the Apostle Paul set out on his missionary journeys, he had a fast, relatively safe way to travel. And this significantly aided the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church.
In the same way, we the church today have a well established ‘road’ to traverse in the digital superhighway. But my caution is not to relegate it yet another church program, but to wrestle with how we might integrate the digital reality into how we approach evangelism paradigmatically. And even more so, allow it to shape our ecclesiology in 2017 and beyond.