A great deal has been written about the renewal of mainline Protestantism. The prescriptions are endless. Below is a prescription of how one person sees the mainline and attempts to renew it.
Turning around the Mainline: How Renewal Movements are Changing the Mainline. By Thomas C. Oden (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006).
Over the last two decades Thomas Oden has written a great deal about theology and renewal. In this book, Oden captures with clarity what renewal is about and what it means for Protestantism in North America. Oden is clear that the Mainline’s decline is not simply about slouching numbers but about the loss of “confessional integrity” (21). It is a loss that speaks volumes to the lack of a theological “spine,” especially with respect to sexual morality and biblical interpretation (22). Oden’s book reveals the tensions now apparent in most mainline bodies.
Oden divides his book into six parts. Part One addresses the loss of confessional identity and church discipline among mainline Protestants. Part Two analyzes the implosion in the mainline and the ways confessional Christians are changing the landscape. Here, Oden not only takes on the role of analyst but also cheerleader as he makes the case for "steadfastness" to the cause of renewal. Part Three looks at how confessional Christians are turning toward a “classic orthodox” model of ecumenism, and how they, along with others, are working toward renewal. Part Four explores the “core teachings” of confessional Christians, detailing the many documents they have produced. Part Five examines the Confessing Movement in the United Methodist Church, along with the United Church of Canada, and stipulates how they have lost their confessional identity as part of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church (214). And lastly, in Part Six, Oden takes as a case study the highly contested issue of church property, utilizing examples from the United Methodist Church, showing how church law, doctrinal commitments, and judicatory oversight intersect.
Oden’s work raises several issues: one is the demise of Liberal Protestantism, the other is the decline of the ecumenical movement. Both are interrelated, as both, since Vatican II, sought to overcome division and racial strife in church and society. In the process, however, as Oden states, these movements became detached from their original doctrinal moorings (62); in doing so, they drifted from what made them who they were in the first place.
This is an important point, for while the thrust of the old style ecumenism was to establish a kind of organic unity among the churches, the emphasis of the “new ecumenism” is to return to the core of the church’s confessions, if not to the core of the creeds and scriptures themselves (41). While many in the church may see this move as overly simplistic, the implications are worth pondering: without the substance of the faith in hand the church literally has nothing to hand on (42).
It is also at this point that Oden’s insights, while controversial, bring to the surface issues in ecclesiology. Outside of Roman Catholicism, since the Reformation at least, there has been little, if any, agreement on the nature of the church. Instead, there have been “marks” to identify the church’s mission – e.g., primacy of scripture, sound doctrine, etc. The focus is not so much on a comprehensive ecclesiology as on a vision of what the church is about. Oden’s argument is critical: it makes no sense to work for renewal unless the whole, catholic church is to be renewed. Renewal can only succeed if those committed to it work toward it in their own respective bodies. Such is the logic of renewal.
This is worth considering. Regardless of one’s theological views, Oden raises questions about the church’s identity and about the way it will take care of the treasures that make it unique. His work is a reminder of the ongoing debate about the relationship between tradition and change and about the way this change is to unfold. To be sure, it is a slow and messy process. However, for those who care about the process, much work and prayer await. The struggle to turn around the mainline has only begun.