Pew Burning and the Perils of Pluralism

Mark your calendars.  May 27th is Pluralism Sunday, so declared by The Center for Progressive Christianity (, an international network comprised of hundreds of affiliated congregations, representing many denominations, both in the USA and in England.

Pluralism Sunday event organizers are encouraging committed Christians to visit congregations other than their own.  The idea here is that faith is not threatened, but indeed can be deepened, by exposure to other expressions of the same core beliefs.  Among students of religious studies this practice is sometimes referred to as “cross training,” pun intended. 

Pluralism Sunday is also being promoted, in part, as an invitation to the unchurched, or to those who have rejected Christianity’s long standing and often “wild” theological claims, to feel welcomed into worship communities and give the faith another go.   Fair enough.
But then come the assertions which make traditionalists and evangelicals uneasy.

One press release from TCPC states:  “one does not need to believe that Jesus is the only way to God in order to be a Christian.”  This statement is used as part of the progressive inducement to visit a modern (or is that post-modern?) Christian church.

It also represents a profound misreading of the basic requirements for, among other things, membership in the World Council and also the National Council of Churches. Both of these theological organizations stipulate that, in order to be a member in good standing, a Christian congregation must recite The Nicene Creed and hold to the statements of faith therein. 

Although there was a movement of those who wanted to work together across denominational divides as far back as the late 19th century, church leaders did not agree to establish a World Council of Churches until 1937.  The actual formation was delayed by World War II.  In August of 1948, representatives from 147 churches assembled in Amsterdam to write the seminal documents defining the WCC which, to this day, exclaims that it has  “built new bridges over ancient chasms separating believers from one another.”  Show of hands.  Does your denomination belong to the WCC? The Center for Progressive Christianity asserts: “There is a big difference between respectful politeness and an open-hearted open minded approach to people of other religious beliefs. There is a profound contradiction in claiming to have faith in a God who is greater than our ability to fully comprehend, and at the same time claiming that traditional Christianity is the only true faith in that God… We are called to worship God, not Christianity. What is divine is our encounter with God, something that is available to Christians and non-Christians alike.”

It would then appear that Progressive Christians, however noble their intentions, are (ipso facto) self-defining as schismatics.  They are ecclesiastical breakaways from the normative established Christian churches. They have used the Internet as the place upon which to nail their Reformational theses (a la Luther) to the virtual church door.

What Pluralism Sunday serves to illustrate is what happens when one champions a theological idea without reference to definitions and faith boundaries and absent thinking through the outcomes of a well-intentioned concept.

For a start, pluralism is to religion what multiculturalism is to society.

Multiculturalism, make no mistake, demands that you affirm the idea that each and every society is to be equally respected in the religious and cultural spheres. A child making his or her first communion is judged the same as the 12-year-old who, as witnessed in the news last week, cuts off the head of an infidel.   Each pre-teen in this equation has done what God requires to show allegiance to a dogma. 

If this concept creates an imbalance in your mind, consider the original ecclesiastical definition of pluralism.  A Pluralist in the Church of England was one who held two or more congregational positions  (known as benefices) at the same time.  Clearly, in today’s terms, pluralism has come to mean holding two contrary opinions in one’s mind at the same time. According to F. Scott Fitzgerald this is also the definition of insanity.

When one floats comfortably down the stream of pluralism, here is what can be encountered along the way.

Muslims practicing polygamy, who apply for residence in England, are not only allowed to bring all their wives with them, but according to government policy ALL of their multiple wives are eligible for government-funded benefits.  It’s one for all and all for one even though bigamy is against the law in the UK.

The Hindu community in England are upset because they are, so far, not allowed to burn their dead on the same kind of open-air funeral pyres customary in India. Not a word, mind you, from the ecology camp on the environmental implications of torching your next of kin on a stack of the local British timber, the air quality be damned.

In Scotland, Muslims have requested that museums and libraries set aside a prayer room for adherents to the faith who regularly pray to Allah five times a day. In the spirit of pluralism, Muslims have, however, invited those of other faiths to use these prayer facilities whenever they please.

Since 2006, all new Church of England schools have been instructed that at least a quarter of their places are to be given to children from non-Christian families.  But, oops, don’t get caught recruiting for Christianity or you’re off the faculty.

A week or so ago, a well known British architect made headlines by calling for all the empty Anglican parish churches in the English countryside to toss their pews on to the village green and setting them alight.  His point was that these vacant places would serve the (assumed to be secular) populace better if they were converted into vibrant community centers, or at least into new post office branches.

The burgeoning Muslim community had a better idea. They are busy buying the old parish churches of England and converting them into mosques — AND — before you get too comfortable in casting aspersions on the Brits, take a look at the excellent work of Diana Eck. Her Pluralism Project, run out of Harvard University, will give you a wake-up call.  On this website, you can look up your own city and state and see how many former venues of the Christian faith have been bought up and converted into worship places for a host of other religions.

What Pluralism means is that there is no need to call for the burning of pews.  The market for Christian pews is falling. Bottoming out, so to speak.   They are simply being tossed aside without having to be reduced to cinders.   Are there demographic reasons for these changes?  Of course.   But does this mean that Pluralism is the future faith banner under which we all must march?  Give it some thought.

Words have meanings. Just as one might read the label on a bottle of medication, or vitamins, or diet pills, it is an equally good idea to practice prescriptive theology.  What’s in the blend of ideas you swallow? Specific to this report — what does it mean to join the ranks of Progressive Christians?


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