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Today's Church in America - Part One
Presented by Phyllis Tickle

Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee

January 19, 2003
This talk is also available in audio

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If we view history from that perspective, here’s how it might look. In 70 A.D. “the story” had a serious interruption—the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. What was never supposed to happen did. Once the story [casing] was pulled back, the sleeve of common imagination was exposed, and for the next 200 years the Jews, the Christians, and the Gnostics played with the nature [the strands] of what that new religion was going to be. The same thing happened in 1450 to 1517 to 1600, and the same thing has just finished happening. We may still be in it, but I think we are now through. The work of the Reformation essentially ended about ten years ago, maybe five years ago. What started at Wittenberg was a progression of ideas that reached, or will reach their culmination sometime within your lifetime and mine.

Part of what happened was that “the story” [the cable] suffered serious attacks; this caused the 20th century to be dedicated to the business of spirituality.

Now I want to spend some time looking at the 20th century, but, with your permission, I want to say that the 20th century started in 1902 and ended in 2002 or thereabouts. In 1902, those of you who are in physical sciences will remember, a fellow named Albert Einstein joined the Swiss Post Office so that he could think and eat at the same time. He served as a postal clerk for nine of the most productive years in Western history. During this time he thought mostly, and I am sure probably misregistered some patents and sent some mail to the wrong places. (Since the man never learned to tie his shoes, I don't know why we'd think he'd learn to do anything else.)

Anyway, this is the century of science. It is the century of pure science, but it is also the century of applied science. They call the latter technology. Whatever else you want to say about it, this is the century, first and foremost, underlying everything else, in which we learned to mass communicate with each other. That is a direct result of science.

Science, as it came in and began to understand and explain life to us, also brought us the means for the “democratization of information,” in our case the democratization of theology. In the 20th century, we will see the birth of “cheap.” Radio will come, television will come and the Internet will come. According to Barna Research Institute, by 2010, 50 million of our fellow Americans will get their whole spiritual experience on the Internet. They will never go into a church campus. Fifty million of them will get their whole religious experience and community on the net.

You and I both know that in 2001, for two Sundays and odd days in between following 9/11, there was a sort of spike in church attendance. It never made it to the third Sunday. Every major website of spiritual implication crashed and burned out of sheer overload. Websites were flooded by people who needed to have spiritual community and had failed to find it in bricks and mortar. Others found it by leaving candles on public sidewalks, in the atrium of businesses, and along corridors. We lit candles, and we left teddy bears, and we mourned, and we prayed.

My husband Sam and I go in and out of New York frequently, and I'm always amazed at the number of people who are still lighting candles around Fulton Street, two years later. This experience of mass communication has affected religion more than anything else.

This century, with its mass communication, took away from the clergy the license to be the only God-talkers. Some of us are really pleased about that. I've got a bunch of publishers who are mighty pleased about that. But what it also does is it means there is no informed gatekeeper. There is no informed gatekeeper on the net. That's the danger. Most of the time, you don't have ordained people running websites. Suddenly it's anybody's game—whoever can talk the loudest and most persuasively is going to be heard. (It also helps if you've got megabucks to push your voice.)

Most people in my business—and there are really not a whole lot of us, maybe 25 or 26 of us—want to begin an overview of these hundred years in 1965. Being contrary I don't start there. I usually start in 1937. Being as it's Memphis, I'm going to start in 1906.

1906 matters for two reasons. It first mattered because a fellow named Albert Schweitzer publicly asked the question: What if the Jesus of Nazareth is not the Christ of history? What if the Christ of history is not what Jesus of Nazareth was? You can read in his diaries that these thoughts frightened him so badly that he stayed in Africa the rest of his life, knowing that by giving, he could at least come near to the Jesus of Nazareth because he truly was not sure who the Christ of history was. We call this the pursuit for the historical Jesus.

Dr. Marcus Borg has worked in this field, as has John Dominic Crossan and John Shelby Spong, all three are wonderful, devout, and dedicated men. In many ways I would submit to you that Jack Spong is the last of the Reformation voices. What Martin Luther began, Jack Spong gives closure to. Both are such rationalists, that the mystery can't seep in.

Part of the conflict of the historical Jesus is that somehow in the Christ of history, we lost part of the mystery. We lost part of the mystery. We fell into 500 years of severe rationalism.

Those 500 years were washed away starting with Mr. Einstein who said, "There is something out there so much greater than what we can envision or ever know." Science has been, in many ways, where theology is now. Some of the best theologians I know are in the physical sciences because they recognize the mystery.

Another thing happened in 1906. There is a place called Azusa Street in Los Angeles. In 1906 it had a little stable on it that at one point had been a Methodist church. The Methodist Church had moved out, and the horses had moved in, and then a black man named William Seymour came. His mama was named Phyllis. I always remember that. He came from Jackson, Mississippi. He'd gone west by way of Charles Parnham, and some of the so-called apostolic church people out in Kansas City. He'd gotten a case of passion for God, and he began preaching in Los Angeles on a front porch.

So many people came one Saturday night, the porch fell in, and they had to move to the stable. (I've always loved the fact that it was a stable at Azusa Street.) They cleaned the horses out, and they moved in, and for three years, a fellow named William Seymour preached almost without stop, ten and 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to white, black, Asian (of whom there were very few at that point), to wealthy to poor to anybody who would come. He talked about the baptism of the Spirit and how at Pentecost, the spirit had come, and [people there] had spoken in tongues, and they had filled the world with change, and by God, it could happen again. And it did in 1906. Suddenly, one evening on Azusa Street, the spirit fell, and the place was as filled as on the day of Pentecost with the speaking in tongues, with the fire of the spirit, with every evidence of the charism of the Holy Ghost.

There was, sitting in that audience, a young man who had gone west because he was apostolic and because he heard they were praying for the spirit and because he, too, believed it might happen, and his name was Charles Mason. We call him Bishop Mason. He came from Memphis, Tennessee. It was at Azusa Street that he received the Spirit. Some months after receiving the Spirit and the gift of tongues, he received sanctification. This is a step white culture does not normally recognize, but black culture does. In the business of sanctification you go beyond mere conversion, and you become, indeed, Christ's own.

That young man, Charles Mason, came back to Memphis, Tennessee, and he began to preach, and out of it came the Church of God in Christ. It is the eighth largest Christian church internationally. And it came from this.

Why it's important is that Azusa Street is the beginning of Pentecostalism. There had been a lot of holy rollers, but holy rollers aren't the same thing as Pentecostal. There are eyewitness records of this event in which people--street workers--were speaking German, Spanish, French, Italian and even ancient Greek coherently. We're not talking about gobbly-gook. Some of it would seem like gobbly-gook. The gift of tongues was a substantial mark of the coming of something that has rippled through this whole century and rippled into our lives right now.

One of the things that Pentecostalism gives us is that sure knowledge that prayer works. It happened because these people prayed. It happened because they believed it was going to happen. It's what we've forgotten how to do, especially in the mainline churches. We've lost our zest for doing this kind of frank, outright pouring of emotion and dedication. It's with the fire. You see it now in the Toronto blessing. You see it in the Brownsville laughter. You see it all over the country. When you read those things, those are Pentecostals who are still on fire.

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