What is ‘Big Tent’ Christianity and Why Should it Matter to Us?

Novelist Anne Rice’s decision to “quit Christianity” is curiously reflective of where many Anglicans find themselves: still in love with Jesus, but suspicious of an increasingly remote worldwide church organization that finds itself expending most of its energy on sustaining its own internal strife.

“I remain committed to Christ”, she wrote, “but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group…My faith in Christ is central to my life….Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be.”

Strong words – and to some, a ‘cop-out’. But those words give us, as Anglicans, one more reason to engage consciously in ‘moving back into the neighbourhood’ – in carefully examining our ‘ministry’ as people of God and exploring why we, in our Anglican expression of being Christian, need to embrace what Philp Clayton of the Claremont School of Theology terms “Big Tent” Christianity as an antidote to the weakened Christian institutionalism rejected by Anne Rice. And she is by no means alone.

Let’s face it. The very term “Christian” has been “so torn apart in the battle-to-the-death between liberals and conservatives that there’s no longer any point in using it at all,” says Clayton. Indeed, I’d add that there’s really no place for words like “liberal” and “conservative” in the exercise of effective Christian witness to a fragmented world. We can’t rehabilitate the word ‘Christian’ until we jettison our baggage of institutional dualistic thinking. Adopting these kinds of oppositional stances which stifle dialogue and over-simplify deep human concerns is not only absurd, but essentially unchristian. The inability to live with one another in a ‘big tent’ in spite of our theological and cultural differences is antithetical to the very Gospel we espouse and hobbles the work of the Holy Spirit.

Our Diocesan initiative, “Moving Back Into the Neighbourhood” should be taken up as a prophetic call to each of us. We need to explore together new ways of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ in order to revitalize what our Primate calls “this beloved church of ours”.  As Clayton declares, “it’s high time for a more prophetic, more counter-cultural Christian faith” – one that is welcoming, inclusive, and validates all the gifts that the diversity of human individuals can bring to what are ideally messy, chaotic Christian communities: communities that spill out of themselves to engage our society and culture as followers of Jesus who push the envelope – or as Tim Keel puts it in his book Intuitive Leadership – ’embrace a paradigm of narrative, metaphor and chaos’ – telling our Jesus story and inviting others along for the exciting ride of being salt and light in a broken world.

There is a sad reality, though. Much of the institutional church is going to remain firmly grounded in the comfortable pews of the past and alienate a new generation of spiritual seekers. Some of our outdated institutional paradigms will continue to brand those determined to live out of a real and relevant faith too heretical, finding their questions too troubling. “We’ll ask them to shut up and sing the old hymns”. But nostalgia won’t cut it. And a lot of new Christians have anticipated that. They’re meeting in homes, in office buildings, in pubs, and even in churches prepared to welcome them where there is evidence of openness to new ways of doing things.

All in all, ‘moving back into the neighbourhood’ will mean moving into Big Tent Christianity. Early September saw Clayton’s “Big Tent Christianity” gathering in North Carolina featuring a hots of challenging speakers attempting to interpret the needs, concerns and hopes of the world to the church. We’ll be hearing more about it.  Our own diocese recently hosted an enthusiastic gathering of parishes where all of us were inspired by the stories about the birthing and nurturing of  ‘neighbourhood’ initiatives. The day culminated in some goal setting and proposed action planning that have potential to transform parish life as we, as followers of Jesus,  focus on finding new ways to connect to those around us.

In ministry we find common ground that communicates the reality of the Gospel. We’re getting serious about ‘moving back into the neighbourhood’. Ministry to our communities is our “Big Tent” as parishes and as a diocese. If we make the tent large enough, even the disillusioned and discouraged Anne Rices of the world may be able to find a dwelling place there.

Deacon Steve Bailey works out of St. Laurence, Coquitlam and invites you to join the conversation.

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