Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Imperial Church: On Nuns and the Neo-Reformed

            I had reason again this week to be thankful that I am a Pietist.  For reasons buried deeply within Vatican paranoia the Roman Catholic Church decided to take aim on that most dangerous group of ecclesiastical miscreants and malcontents: American nuns.  The nuns were evidently spending too much time caring for the poor (which Rome acknowledged was admirable) and not enough time working against abortion and gay marriage.  I will leave it to Rome and the nuns to settle their differences, but I was struck once again by breath-taking power assumed by the Imperial Church.  Rome from the peak of its lofty pyramid assumed the right to reshape the ministry of the nuns by fiat.  Now before anyone accuses me of Catholic bashing let me first say that, yes, I know, as they famously put it, “The church is not a democracy.” And furthermore, yes, I understand that the nuns should have known what they were signing up for.  But I would say even more: the imperial church is not located only in Rome.  It is found in many cities and in many denominational offices.  The Imperial Church has been a plague on the people of God since almost the beginning.

            Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Spiritual problems cannot be solved by administrative techniques.”  But that has not stopped the Imperial Church from trying.  The Imperial Church loves uniformity.  It loves agreement and cooperation.  It loves unquestioning obedience and feathers unruffled.  The spirit-fired, prophetic-inspired, charismatic free lances are quickly co-opted or destroyed.  This is as true of the Imperial Church today as it was in the fourth century.  And this is true whether the Imperial Church is Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, or Southern Baptist.  This is true whether the Imperial Church is bound by creeds and confessions or officially, at least, non-creedal.  Ironically the church acting most imperially these days is a church, historically at least, non-confessional: The Southern Baptists.  Not only are they squeezing the life out of their faithful critics, they are lusting after official recognition and specious power in Washington, D.C.  Within the larger Evangelical sphere the Imperial Church is represented by the solemn, neo-reformed heresy hunters who sniff out the theological faults of others with a typically rigid intransigence insisting on the proper pronunciation of various theological Shibboleths, especially “penal substitutionary atonement”. 

            In all fairness, the Imperial Church has plenty of advocates on the left as well as the right.  For some in the the left-wing of the Imperial Church taking the Bible seriously is an embarrassing faux pas; suggesting that Israel may not be completely responsible for the problems in the Middle East will get you kicked out of the Social Justice clubhouse; and believing that people need to hear the good news and respond to Jesus’ offer of grace and forgiveness will get you branded a Fundamentalist.  Years ago in one of his monologues Bill Cosby suggested that most parents are not interested in justice, they want quiet.  And the same is true of the Imperial Church: line up, take your medicine, and don’t make waves.  The Imperial Church is well represented by Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor who was terribly annoyed that Jesus had shown up when they had just gotten things settled down.  The motto of the Imperial Church seems to be, who needs the Spirit when you’ve got committees.

            My people, the Pietists, saw through the Imperial Church.  They saw through Rome and they saw through the high church Lutheranism that seemed intent on strangling the life out of the vital beast Luther had set loose on the continent of Europe.  They saw through the self-satisfied and well-connected Anglican Church of the 18th century.  They saw through the rickety state churches in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany and the unofficial state churches of the United States.  They sought a living faith, founded in the Scriptures, in warm-hearted worship of God, and commitment to care for the poor, homeless, helpless and hopeless.  They were wary of creeds and confessions because they had seen them distorted into tools of control and considered them insufficiently rooted in the Bible.  They insisted that so-called “lay people” were also priests (following Luther, of course).   They had their faults.  They could be legalistic.  They could be simplistic.  They could be anti-intellectual.  They could be a pain in the neck.  But at their best they sought to bypass the Imperial Church with its stranglehold on God and find their way back to the “living water.” 

            Pietism is messy.  Organizing Pietists is like the proverbial herding of cats.  So Pietist denominational leaders are always tempted to take their cues from the Imperial Church, to rein in their adventuresome or silence their irksome.  In his London concert of a few years ago, Leonard Cohen gave a long list of pharmaceuticals he had taken over the years to deal with his various emotional difficulties.  At the end of this litany he commented, “But cheerfulness kept breaking through.”  And so it is with the Spirit.  No matter what the Imperial Church attempts to do, no matter how strong the administrative soporific, the Spirit, and all the messiness that entails for the Imperial Church, will keep breaking through.  Thanks be to God.

John E. Phelan, Jr.


  1. So - should I send in my annual dues to remain in the "good standing" category? ;-D

  2. Nicely done. I have my quibbles (of course!): 1. Wondering if this is a reification of pietism independent of the actual history of institutions that claim pietism as their essence, and 2. in an opposite way, of turning pietism into a principal, in this case a principal of opposition to the Imperial church, and thus falling guilty of 1. Nonetheless, the message of the danger of the Imperial Church is clearly stated; we should be duly warned. It is a temptation that never goes away, as Jay rightly warns. Shucks (as Don Frisk used to say--his form of swearing), I thought I'd be more offended.

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  4. Just read this today 2 May - Interesting to read at the same time I'm reading Robin Meyers' THE UNDERGROUND CHURCH!

  5. Hi,

    Imperial Advocates is Scotland’s longest established and most diverse self-selecting set of Advocates practising in the Supreme Courts, Sheriff Courts and tribunals throughout the country.